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Foreign Policy Matters: The World in Transition

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The Foreign Policy Matters series is a new initiative by the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) to highlight areas of challenge in the practice of foreign policy and place them in historical context. Each paper in the series is intended as a conversation starter highlighting a single issue of importance today. We will provide some basic knowledge, context, and thoughts in each paper. We will also highlight ongoing and recent work on the issues by scholars at FPI and the SAIS community. For those readers seeking to dig deeper into the issues, we will provide recommended readings.


Since the end of the Cold War, the nations of the world have conducted their foreign policies within the framework of a liberal world order. This order, underpinned by American power, is now straining under increasing structural and ideological pressure. It is unclear whether the still dominant United States will be willing, or able, to shoulder the burdens of systemic leadership indefinitely. New popular pressures not only in the U.S., but also among American allies in the European Union, are manifesting as isolationist tendencies in foreign policy. In combination with shifts in the underlying distribution of power, these pressures may accelerate changes in the polarity of the international system. Such transformations have occurred in the past, and have not always been peaceful, with major wars often associated with systemic change. We potentially stand now stand at a moment of critical and dangerous transition, where close attention to trends, and careful policy, will be of supreme importance.

Oscillations Throughout History

With the development of complex states, patterns of relations between independent polities have constituted an “international system.” The morphology of this system has oscillated between phases of what may be described as unipolarity and multipolarity. During periods of unipolarity, single great powers dominated or exercised hegemony over great expanses of the world; in periods of multipolarity, several powers competed and at times cooperated in pursuit of their interests. Throughout, worldviews and guiding principles in the conduct of foreign policy have affected and reflected the polarities. Unipolarity, or attempts to achieve it, manifested hand in hand with universalist worldviews and dominating foreign policies, whereas stable periods of multipolarity were associated with acquiescence to an international give and take, with cooperation and competition in external affairs.

A multipolar system of relatively large sovereign states has predominated since 1500, despite attempts to create or extend unipolarity that were often accompanied by war. The universal vision of the Habsburg empire, buttressed by the “universal” Catholic faith, shattered under pressure from Protestant states, and Catholic France, during the Thirty Years’ War. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia in 1648 codified sovereignty as a central tenet of international relations, with its preservation a key objective of the foreign policy of states. Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt at universal empire was defeated, if narrowly, by an alliance of great powers in 1815. And in East Asia, the irruption of well-armed "Western barbarians" in the mid-nineteenth century led to the breakdown of the imperial tributary system over which China had long prevailed and forced its entry into the so-called Westphalian system of competing sovereign states.

Within this Westphalian system, component states adopted foreign policies that largely respected the sovereignty of other powerful states in the system. The Concert of Europe, established after 1815, sought to preserve state sovereignty and a multipolar order by managing disputes between the great powers. The Concert was successful in preventing a general war in Europe through the rest of the 19th century. However, the Concert, and the Westphalian system as whole, was dealt a mortal blow in the cataclysm of the First World War. Although the world remained multipolar after the Versailles Peace Conference, which reestablished international order after the war, a new set of universalist ideas arose to challenge the principle of national sovereignty and the structure of multipolarity.

The 20th Century Ideologies

Emerging from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union sought to export its “anti-imperialist,” Marxist-Leninist ideology across the world. At the Peace Conference in Versailles, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson promoted a different vision, a new idealism, seeking to make the world “safe for democracy.” While maintaining a system of otherwise independent states, Wilsonian liberal idealism called for political democracy, self-determination, and collective security. This worldview gained general acceptance among the victors and led to the establishment of international institutions such as the League of Nations. In the decades that immediately followed, social tensions and the Great Depression left states vulnerable to a third ideology, fascism, which sought to bring the world under the imperial control of a single national group.

Marxist-Leninist and liberal idealist states allied against fascism during the Second World War, yet victory in this most terrible of human conflicts did not resolve the inherent contradictions between their two ideologies. After the war, America led in the establishment of global liberal institutions, including the Bretton Woods system and the United Nations, which sought to foster stability and the smooth conduct of international relations in the post-war world. Yet persistent differences set the stage for an ideological and potentially violent clash between the two new superpowers. During the Cold War, each side sought hegemony for its own universal vision, and a bipolar structure, a simplified version of the multipolar systems of the past, emerged.

At times, the superpowers debated whether to continue pressing their own ideologies onto the world, or whether relations between the two sides should be conducted on the basis of internal sovereignty and external equality. Tensions between the two camps rose and fell. By the 1980's the Soviet Union, struggling with economic and technical underperformance, was compelled to adopt political and economic reforms that, in turn, led to the collapse of the old order and an unexpectedly peaceful end to the Cold War.

New Struggles

The Western liberal camp's triumph over Marxism-Leninism seemed to confirm the victor's particular universalist vision. Western norms and practices gained new legitimacy and extended across the globe. Yet, challenges to this new world order emerged almost immediately. Weak state structures and political breakdown across the former communist world generated significant instability. Globalization led to industrialization in the East, deindustrialization in the West, increased international trade, and greater, sometimes destabilizing, transnational financial flows. Globalization eventually prompted resistance within Western states and other areas of the world, such as the Middle East, where some saw it as corrosive to traditional values.

Asymmetric growth patterns across the world have driven changes in the underlying distribution of power. China's rapid rise as an economic superpower has been accompanied by an increasing regional assertiveness and bids to create new international institutions rivaling those established at Bretton Woods. Growth in different regions of the developing world has led to increasing “south-south” patterns of international trade, and for much of the world, the U.S. and the West are no longer at the center of political, economic, and social development. Further, an inability to promote stability in the Middle East and a failure to address persistent global economic inequalities have led to migratory and refugee pressures that, amid ongoing economic strains in much of the world, have challenged liberal norms. These challenges have opened spaces for new political movements based on re-assertions of national identity in countries around the world.

The Future

The peaceful transition from bipolarity in 1989, which seemed to herald a future of democratic peace, was partly tarnished by the troubled unipolarity of the post-Cold War era. It is unclear whether this unipolarity, and the liberal order it sustains, will long endure. Three scenarios seem possible in the near future:

  • Pressures on the current system and its leader, the United States, may result in a return to multipolarity and narrowly defined national sovereignty as the basis for relations between states.

  • Or, these pressures may prompt reaction in the United States and a re-assertion of its role as leader of a liberal world order.

  • Or, they may lead to universalist hegemony by a new global leader, with China cited frequently as a contender.

Foreign policy elites in the United States have called for some continuation of American leadership, or, at least, an effort to fix the contours of a future order along liberal lines. This, however, may prove impossible. If a disruption of the status quo is coming, it may well occur peacefully, as with the end of the Cold War, or may occur violently, as has been more often the case in international history. Indeed, the last wars associated with changes in, or attempts to change, structure and worldview in the international system were catastrophic. However the current challenge to international order might play out, understanding the historical context may help us face this period of profound uncertainty, and potential conflict, with greater clarity.

Further Reading by our Fellows:

Francis Fukuyama - The End of History (1992)

Zbigniew Brzezinski - The Cold War and its Aftermath (1992)

David Matthews & Randa Slim - The New World Disorder (1992)

Antony Blinken - Winning the War of Ideas (2002)

Francis Fukuyama - The Future of History (2012)

Zbigniew Brzezinski - After America (2012)

Afshin Molavi & Mishaal Al Gergawi - The 85 World (2016)

Dominic Tierney - Does America Need an Enemy? (2016)


Carlos A. Salazar is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Institute. This piece was written in substantial collaboration with Research Associate Matthew Sindelar, Research Assistant Ashley Patton, and Executive Director Carla P. Freeman.

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