The pursuit of something called “world order” has been an almost ever-present feature of Western – more specifically, American and British — statecraft for at least 100 years. It is embedded in a discourse about international affairs that can be traced back to the late 19th century, when Britain became increasingly conscious of the fragility of its empire, and the United States began to recognize the full extent of its potential power. Notions of regional or international order date further back than that and have long had a central place in conceptions of European statecraft, since the Treaty of Westphalia at least. But, the pursuit of world order speaks to a higher objective than the pursuit of the national interest or the mere preservation of stability and security in one’s neighborhood.
All versions of world order are, to some extent, aspirational and visionary. They express a wish to guide the international future towards a more desirable destination. This is obviously true of more idealized versions of world order, some of which have gone so far as to envisage a future utopia in which humanity is unified under one law, war is abolished and reason prevails in the governance of man (seen in the work of H.G. Wells, for example). But, it also applies to more avowedly “realist” thinking on world order, which seeks “co-evolution” among nation states or great civilizational blocs as a better means to preserve international harmony, while eschewing “universalism” (in the alternative vision of Henry Kissinger).4 Either way, the historical record suggests that one’s view of world order is inseparable from one’s worldview. It reveals the beholder’s hope for how the world should or could be, rather than simply how it is.
The pursuit of world order has taken many forms in the last 100 years of Anglo-American statecraft, and its terms have been bitterly contested. It has been used as shorthand for a vast range of potential scenarios: from a unified “world state,” governed by a single supranational institution, to a balance of power in which the strongest prevail. Somewhere between these two poles sits the idea of “liberal international order” — the precise terms of which are much contested today. This essay does not seek to establish a typology between these various definitions, or to place them on an idealist-realist spectrum. The fluidity of the foreign policy debate, and the changing positions of those engaged in it, belies any such attempt. Instead, the essay seeks to identify a number of key inflection points in the evolution and metastization of different Anglo-American ideas of “world order” over the last century.
The method adopted is that used by scholars of intellectual history, which has increasingly been applied to the study of international relations in recent years. In the first instance, this stresses the context-specific meaning of key political ideas (such as world order), while also opening up an inquiry into their genesis and lineage.5 This inquiry begins with an analysis of a particular moment in November 1969, when the fundamental assumptions of American foreign policy were being re-examined, and it expands from there. Simply speaking, it demonstrates the enduring power of ideas.
Specifically, the idea that a better world was achievable — through a combination of vision and human ingenuity — has provided a higher cause and unifying philosophy in Anglo-American statecraft. While conceptual purity has been elusive, the commitment to this endeavor has transcended different historical eras. When viewed over the longue durée, the yearning for equilibrium, structure, and order in international affairs provides an explanatory spine to the story of American and British foreign policy over the course of the last century. It also becomes clear that contending ideas of world order have been entwined with existential questions, such as the meaning of history, the survival of Western civilization, and the very future of mankind.
For a fleeting moment, America’s entry into the Great War and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points re-energized the idea that such a Western-led world order could be built.61 While some of the supporters of the Anglo-American alliance in Britain were imperial survivalists, there were also genuine internationalists in the mould of Wells. The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations in 1920 was a bitter disappointment to the advocates of this new world order. At the same time, quite justifiably, some of the most forthright advocates of American internationalism believed that the project had been corrupted in inception by the failure of the European powers — Britain foremost among them — to abandon their imperial ambitions.62
No sooner, then, had the concept of “world order” been transferred from theorists to statesmen that it became associated with failure. ...
Yet, to return to the fundamental point of this essay, the definition of world order matters much less than the sense in which it has been held out as the ultimate goal of Western statecraft.
As H.G. Wells wrote in 1940, what was really important was not the identity of the people who pursued world order, the timeline on which it was to be achieved or the nature of the utopia they envisaged. He explained:
No man, no group of men, will ever be singled out as its father or founder. For its maker will be not this man nor that man nor any man but Man, that being who is in some measure in every one of us.Instead, world order would be like most great civilizational achievements, “a social product” and “collective achievement” of many lives. What really mattered was that people in a century scourged by human destruction were now engaged in this collective effort:
A growing miscellany of people are saying — it is getting about — that “World Pax is possible,” a World Pax in which men will be both united and free and creative. It is of no importance at all that nearly every man of fifty and over receives the idea with a pitying smile. Its chief dangers are the dogmatist and the would-be “leader” who will try to suppress every collateral line of work which does not minister to his supremacy. This movement must be, and it must remain, many-headed. … The new order will be incessant; things will never stop happening. …91The pursuit of world order may indeed be a many-headed monster or the vaguest of aspirations. It is a work of abstract art never complete. ...
Not just a work of abstract art, you could say, but a vision of a total work of art which has as its subject humanity itself; it's not that difficult to consider the possibility that European avant garde thought and various elements within the traditions of Western liberalism have ultimately had as its goal building a tower in the plains of Shinar, while attempting to obfuscate to itself how obviously this has been the case.