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An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First Century Order

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An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First Century Order by Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper. Yale University Press, 2020, 202 pp. 

In An Open World, Professor Rebecca Lissner of the US Naval War College and Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Council on Foreign Relations respond to a yawning gap in the debate on American Grand Strategy.

After the 2020 presidential election and inauguration of Joe Biden, Rapp-Hooper advised the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, raising the chances that ideas in Open World will survive long enough outside the Ivory Tower to influence US policy in the 2020s. Whether those subsequent decisions serve the national interest and improve the US position in the world may depend critically on a national resource that nevertheless receives scant attention in Open World. That resource is America’s reputation for strategic competence, especially after more than a decade of dueling US administrations tearing one another to pieces.

Competence will be at a premium because our authors advocate a pragmatic recipe that leaves much to the professional judgment of those in charge. To achieve an open world, policy makers must carefully select the best ingredients from two very different strategic outlooks. The retrenchment camp, coming out of international realism, sees the United States after the post-9/11 Global War on Terror overcommitted in the Middle East and somnolent regarding developments in Europe: specifically, several US allies have increased capacity to provide for their own defense.  In addition, the United States is burdened by debt too heavy to match China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific, ship-for-ship or missile-for-missile. Several prominent Realists counsel a strategy akin to Britain’s nineteenth-century off-shore balancing, limiting US expense to prudent, calibrated interventions, themselves designed to prevent those concentrations of power abroad that would threaten US survival as a vibrant democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

In contrast to retrenchment, engagement demands a wider scope for economic investment and military risk to expand liberal international order. The future of this order depends on the free exchange of goods and capital. As the global economy becomes more efficient and more productive, the pressure increases for free movement of other factors such as labor and lower transaction costs as might be achieved with a common currency or compatible fiscal policies.

At some point, liberal grand strategy challenges the tradition of state sovereignty, appending obligations to universal human rights so that diverse states worldwide become enmeshed in international organization, orchestrated if not sponsored by the United States. Principled engagement thus leads toward costly economic and military involvement, despite American anti-imperialist heritage and rhetoric, in the internal affairs of geographically remote states stubbornly operating far from the liberal-democratic ideal.

Lissner and Rapp-Hooper fairly warn that public debate between retrenchment and engagement has gone sterile. The drawbacks of both positions emerged so clearly since the end of the Cold War that neither strategy is likely any longer to earn enduring support from the American people or their representatives in Congress. To avoid what Johns Hopkins University dean Eliot Cohen called strategic nihilism, that is, no strategy at all, our authors offer their pragmatic compromise. An “open world” strategy, like the collective security of the 1930s, draws a clear distinction at the sovereign boundary.

The United States, unlike its isolationism between the world wars, must protect global lines of transport and communication. It must dedicate a significant share of its resources, shoring up international agreements to regulate the external behavior of other states so they remain responsible stakeholders in global exchange. The Lissner/Rapp-Hooper compromise strategy fails if rival powers manage to close off spheres of influence, snatching them out of reach from US leadership. Still, it may be sustainable if vast, resource-rich areas of the world remain open for liberal capitalism and cultural convergence at the level of global civil society, that is, without necessitating endless military intervention to rearrange the domestic affairs of troubled states.

The compromise, then, grasps at the best aspects of retrenchment and engagement. When it succeeds, it avoids the worst pitfalls—either a world shut off from American commerce and liberal human security values or the American people saddled with enormous losses of blood and treasure in endless twilight wars. Yet, the prescription of Open World may not have much potency, for there are at least two well-known limitations to this blend of realism and international liberalism that made similar trials in the past difficult to navigate.

Especially for the United States, without an orthodox empire or a colonial service, the character of internal regimes influences perceptions of external behavior from economic and security partners. Secondly, the strategies to expand openness are not neutral to target states so engaged. The great power or hegemon that writes the rules wields institutional power and indirectly controls the distribution of benefits in an open system.

On the first issue, it is hard to name a significant case of the hard sovereign boundary from last century’s rise to globalism—spanning the expansion of US influence in Latin America, postwar engagement with Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and the management of unipolarity after the Cold War. This is because when the United States pried open a part of the world, it routinely became involved, economically, politically, socially, and in many cases militarily, shaping domestic regimes.

Our authors highlight that rebuilding the domestic politics of Afghanistan and Iraq as thriving democracies has not succeeded, but there may be no easy way forward. It may not be possible to draw China, Russia, and Iran into open global cooperation—even with club benefits at international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council or the World Trade Organization—without reforms that would soften up their domestic regimes for American interference. In fact, all three authoritarian regional rivals express acute sensitivity to this very possibility. Though occupying lower power positions globally, all three have punctuated their annoyance by attempting to turn the tables on the United States, manipulate foreign public opinion, and destabilize American democracy.

Open World also underestimates the difficulty of liberalizing international exchange for goods, services, and ideals without entangling the United States in exhausting contests over the distribution of benefits. During the 1980s, policy debates questioned whether American-sponsored institutions could support economic cooperation and free trade in the West after Vietnam and the decline of US influence. UCLA’s Arthur Stein and others argued persuasively that openness was not a neutral feature of efficient system governance but an intentional bug, a thinly veiled instrument of hegemonic power.

A leading economic and military power like Great Britain in the nineteenth century or the United States in the twentieth set the rules under which open exchange occurred according to its preferences. Free trade, for example, when no other country could compete with British industry, expanded the market for dominant British manufacturing and finance; relative economic gains from an open world favored Britain.

Alternatively, after World War II, the United States could fortify Japan as a bulwark against communism in East Asia by bringing its economy into the Western capitalist world while facilitating technology transfer and allowing Japan to protect its infant industries. Relative economic gains of openness, in this instance, favored Japan. But concerning the closed Soviet sphere and bipolar competition in Asia, the political consequences of the open-world strategy compensated the United States and reinforced American hegemony.

Should the United States further reduce foreign military commitments after its withdrawal from Afghanistan and pursue grand strategic principles laid out in Open World, potential partners and competitors alike will not help but note the distributional consequences from openness. Nor will they ignore how American resources grant the US government certain influence over who, down to particular political parties, benefits most from an open world.

American diplomats entice cooperation from other countries, even emerging rivals, by demonstrating how a rising tide lifts all boats. Still, an open-world strategy can hardly function without the United States burnishing its reputation for competence and social responsibility before the international community. In theory, a brilliant grand strategy still must fit national culture and outlook to mobilize the energy of a free people and work as advertised. 

Unfortunately, Americans are turning their back on scientific discipline and public-spirited professions, including engineering, medicine, law, and diplomacy. Instead of supporting visionary national strategy in these times, public opinion regularly vilifies its experts, especially those in a position to shape policy, as fools and knaves. The pursuit of an open world might someday untie the knot and cure America’s strategic paralysis between retrenchment and engagement. Before Open World has a chance of succeeding, though, American democracy will need to restore trust in institutions and faith in its scientific enterprise.

Damon Coletta

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."