For the past 70 years the US has sought to lead and expand an open, democratic international order. During the cold war it promoted multilateralism in the west and waged a long struggle against the Soviet Union. Since 1991 it encouraged expansion of globalisation and democracy, although in very different ways under President Bill Clinton and the two presidents Bush.

This era of expansion is drawing to a close. China shows no signs of democratising as it grows wealthier. The financial crisis has undermined the lure of open markets. And difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans sceptical of nation building and promoting democracy.

The pre-eminent question now for US policymakers is how to preserve the American-led international order amid a series of dramatic geopolitical changes. Can emerging powers, especially China, be accommodated without rendering useless the core tenets of the international order? Should the US be preparing to do more or less abroad as its relative power declines?

The Obama administration at first thought the best approach was to co-opt China into the order, since it was believed to share core US interests. To their surprise, the overtures may have served as a catalyst to bring about the very outcome they were intended to prevent. Sensing that the financial crisis had accelerated its own rise, Beijing adopted a more assertive and unilateral foreign policy.

China’s move clarified the administration’s thinking. Its Asia policy, driven by the State Department’s bureau of east asian and pacific affairs, adapted first. In 2010 the US deepened ties to other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea. It is also no longer reluctant to clash with Beijing to protect its interests and values.

This has manifested itself most dramatically on the oceans. In 2009 China began to expand its claim to the South China Sea, a claim hotly contested by its neighbours. In March 2010, Chinese officials referred to it as a “core interest”, language hitherto preserved for its claims to Tibet and Taiwan. Military exercises followed. The US, with the support of other nations in the region, responded with a dramatic diplomatic initiative rallying a regional coalition against China’s position, and in favour of a multilateral solution and a show of naval strength.

The spat at sea is part of a much larger issue. The perception of America’s relative decline is likely to increase, rather than decrease, the demands on US power. Rising powers will revisit issues that have long been considered settled. Allies will increasingly call upon the US for assistance as they warily eye ascendant neighbours. Middle-tier powers may make a play for greater influence in their regions, with unknown consequences.

President Barack Obama’s actions to maintain the current Pacific order are a step in the right direction, but he still lacks a strategic “roadmap”. His 2010 National Security Strategy, the last major statement of policy, looks out of date after the change of course in Asia. It assumes that emerging powers want to become responsible stakeholders and offers no plan to deal with them if they don’t. The result is incoherence in US strategic thought which will ultimately create a dysfunctional foreign policy.

The Obama administration should continue to engage emerging powers, but it now needs a new strategy of preservation to ensure the current international order can withstand external pressures and function effectively, even if a major power, such as China, decides to undermine it. To do this the US needs to build new geopolitical partnerships and alliances; Indonesia and India are good candidates. It must seek European support for core principles of openness, including freedom of the seas, space and cyberspace, to be upheld even if China and others encroach upon them. It should give more influence to nations willing to take on greater responsibilities in tackling shared problems – including South Korea, and on certain issues Vietnam and Turkey – and pressure those who do not.

Given fiscal difficulties, it also needs to rely on a better strategy, rather than simply spending more. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in his novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The author is executive director of studies at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

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