In late February, as Russian forces moved into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin declared that his offensive was aimed not just at bringing Russia’s neighbor to heel but also at repudiating the U.S.-led liberal international order. “Where the West comes to establish its own order,” the Russian president railed, “the result is bloody, unhealed wounds, ulcers of international terrorism and extremism.” Moscow would now seek to roll back the expanding order as “a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a people.” Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine is only the most recent act in a years-long effort to overturn the existing status quo, one that has featured cyberattacks, assassinations, a war against Georgia, meddling in U.S. elections, military involvement in Syria, and the annexation of Crimea.
As Putin’s troops neared Kyiv, many observers kept an eye on China, the other authoritarian power busy rejecting the U.S.-led order. Over the last decade, Beijing has contested territorial norms in the South China Sea and built new international economic institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to compete with Western-dominated ones, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Beijing and Moscow seem to have joined forces in their effort to undermine the order. Just weeks before Russia’s invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin promised to place “no limits” on the two countries’ cooperation as they seek to redefine norms of democracy, push back against universal definitions of human rights, and secure their “core interests.”
It was not supposed to be like this. After the Cold War, the United States relied on a strategy of luring into the order would-be revisionist powers—that is, countries that have both the means and the motivation to challenge the status quo. U.S. leaders argued that by cooperating with China and Russia and incorporating them into international institutions, they could curb those countries’ ambitions and perhaps even push them onto a path of progressive liberalization. Both countries joined economic institutions, such as the World Trade Organization; security institutions, such as the nuclear nonproliferation regime; and even human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 2000 National Security Strategy argued, although the United States must be “mindful of threats to peace,” it should seize “on the desire of both countries to participate in the global economy and global institutions, insisting that both accept the obligations as well as the benefits of integration.”
What went wrong? Some blame poor U.S. leadership. After four years of the Trump administration, the argument runs, liberal institutions were left rudderless, providing an opening for revisionist powers. The Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan confirmed that the United States was weakened and in retreat. Others, by contrast, contend that the strategy was futile from the start. According to this view, it was hopelessly optimistic to expect that China and Russia would embrace liberal values and accept the idea that the United States should maintain its position at the top of the international order.
Both of these views are problematic. There is very little Washington could have done to stave off challenges to the liberal order. Historically, integration into international institutions has not restrained countries hoping to challenge the status quo. To the contrary, it has enhanced their ability to mobilize allies, secure leverage over their trading partners, and gain legitimacy for their normative visions. It is not simply that international institutions were unlikely to check China’s and Russia’s revisionism; their membership in fact assisted their efforts to transform world politics.
On the other hand, it is a mistake to dismiss institutional integration as a complete failure. If judged by the high ambitions set by U.S. policymakers, who thought that incorporating expansionist powers into international institutions would temper their ambitions, then it has not lived up to its promise. But judged by a more reasonable standard, it has succeeded: although institutional integration can’t prevent revisionism, it can shape the strategies revisionists use. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that countries bent on expansionism will charge ahead regardless, on the whole, international institutions can channel this aggression so that it doesn’t devolve into bloodshed. Rather than giving up on institutions, then, Western policymakers should adopt a realistic approach to them. While they may not lead to completely harmonious relations, they can be a potent tool for preventing war.
A strategy of institutional realpolitik would also recognize that for all their coordination, China and Russia are very different types of revisionists. China’s assaults have been less violent but in many ways more consequential; where Moscow has relied on strategies of disruption and violence, Beijing has preferred to exert influence through growing networks and its position within international institutions. That is why the one-size-fits-all strategy of the past fell short—and why a new approach is called for. To that end, the United States needs to see international institutions not as a way to transform the fundamental nature of its rivals but as places that can become better forums for communicating preferences, resolving disputes, and establishing clear redlines. That, not lofty plans to change China and Russia or a wholesale abandonment of institutions, should help keep the revisionists in check.
In the 1990s, Western leaders dealt with countries that seemed eager to upend the status quo by ushering them into multilateral institutions. This was a rational extension of post–World War II policy: the United States, after all, had poured considerable resources into multilateral organizations devoted to security and economic development. By the mid-1990s, it was clear that NATO was going to not only persist but expand. The United States, moreover, was working to transform the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT—a collection of informal processes for managing international trade that emerged in the postwar era—into the far more expansive and powerful World Trade Organization (WTO).
Even then, potential revisionists lurked on the horizon. By the mid-1990s, China had emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. In a 1999 speech, Clinton outlined the challenge of a rising China for American foreign policy, noting that “if it chooses to do so, China could . . . pour much more of its wealth into military might and into traditional great-power geopolitics.” In contrast to China, post-Soviet Russia was a declining power, so there was little concern that the country would emerge as a global competitor to the United States. Still, Russia had the potential to become a serious revisionist. Many feared the rise of a Russian nationalist right, one that would reestablish authoritarian government at home and attempt to reassert Russian imperial dominance over the former Soviet states.
U.S. officials turned to multilateral institutions to deal with these incipient threats. These policymakers believed that membership in liberal institutions would make China and Russia more liberal themselves and thus less inclined to buck the existing international order. Clinton’s top goal was to help Russia become a consolidated democracy, one firmly embedded in Western institutions. As for China, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained the United States’ position in 1997: “It is our hope that the trend toward greater economic and social integration of China will have a liberalizing effect on political and human rights practices”—although she also acknowledged that “given the nature of China’s government, that progress will be gradual, at best, and is by no means inevitable.”
The speed and extent of China’s entry into international institutions is astonishing.
Although recent critics of institutional integration have focused on the failure of international institutions to liberalize China and Russia, this wasn’t the only—or even the primary—way integration was supposed to prevent revisionism. Even if the two countries remained illiberal at home, admitting them into existing institutions was supposed to encourage good behavior abroad. Free trade and foreign direct investment would make them rich. Participation in international institutions would grant them status and prestige. And if such carrots were not enough to make China and Russia play by the rules, institutional membership would also provide the United States and its allies with sticks they could use to increase the costs of revisionism. The more Beijing and Moscow came to depend on international institutions for their wealth, power, and influence, the easier it would be to punish them if they decided to break the rules. Integrating them into global financial markets, for example, would not only help unlock economic growth; it could also make the two countries more vulnerable to sanctions.
Finally, institutions were supposed to bind China and Russia more closely to the status quo. When countries join international institutions, their wealth and power become tied to these organizations in ways that are hard to change down the road. This was the logic behind incorporating Germany into Western security institutions, such as NATO, after World War II. And it was the premise of France’s decision to rope Germany into the French economy through the European Coal and Steel Community: in doing so, France ensured that it would retain a voice in German affairs and that any attempt by Germany to increase its power would be channeled through institutional pathways.
At first, integration seemed to work. The speed and extent of China’s entry into international institutions, especially economic ones, during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations were nothing short of astonishing. Throughout the Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s rule, the country remained isolated from international institutions, even after joining the UN, where it had inherited Taiwan’s seat in 1971. After its opening in 1979, China was still slow to join international organizations. But by 2000, it had become a member of over 50 of them. It signed both the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In 2001, China entered the WTO with the Clinton administration’s enthusiastic support, and despite vocal protest from American protectionists on both the left and the right.
Russia faced a rockier road to integration. Urged on by U.S. economists, Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched a 13-month plan of “shock therapy,” designed to rapidly privatize the Russian economy. Instead of economic growth, Russia’s economy saw its GDP fall by almost half, and poverty increased from two percent to 40 percent of the population. Former Soviet elites took advantage of their position to monopolize ownership over newly privatized petroleum and gas resources. Talks of bringing Russia into the European security order stalled in 1994, when the United States abandoned its plans for the so-called Partnership for Peace, which would have brought eastern European states and Russia into a security umbrella framework, and chose instead to expand the NATO alliance into eastern Europe.
By the end of the decade, however, Russia seemed to be turning a corner. The country’s new president, Vladimir Putin, was no democrat, but he appeared to be introducing legal and economic reforms that could liberalize the country in the long run. To support economic privatization, the United States persuaded the G-7 countries to pledge $28 billion of collective aid for Russia. In 1998, Russia joined the newly created G-8. In 2012, Russia’s accession to the WTO concluded after 18 years of negotiations. The 9/11 attacks brought the United States and Russia closer, and the two cooperated on counterterrorism and arms control initiatives.
It is tempting to dismiss Washington’s embrace of institutional integration as futile and naive.
At first, the optimism of those who favored institutional integration seemed warranted. At the turn of the millennium, both China and Russia appeared eager to act as “responsible stakeholders,” as Robert Zoellick put it in 2005, when he served as U.S. deputy secretary of state. Soon, however, concerning signs emerged. By 2009, some political scientists began pointing to China’s “artificial-island-building spree” and saber rattling in the South China Sea as harbingers of territorial expansion. In 2013, China launched both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive program investing in infrastructure projects in the developing world. China’s leaders claimed that these initiatives complemented existing institutions and filled gaps in the current economic order. Many in Washington, however, suspected that China was seeking to construct an alternative economic order devoid of liberal values.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Russia launched its first violent attempt to redraw the borders of the post–Cold War world when its troops invaded two breakaway territories in Georgia. It went further in 2014, invading eastern Ukraine and annexing the Crimean Peninsula. In 2015, against vocal Western opposition, the Russian military intervened in the Syrian civil war to buttress President Bashar al-Assad’s fragile regime, providing critical—and often indiscriminate—air support for Syrian government forces, which with this assistance began to retake contested territory.
At the time, advocates of institutional integration dismissed these revisionist moves as insignificant and unsustainable. The political scientist G. John Ikenberry, for example, insisted in these pages in 2014 that despite these transgressions, “Russia and, especially, China are deeply integrated into the world economy and its governing institutions.” At most they were “spoilers,” he concluded: “They do not have the interests—let alone the ideas, capacities, or allies—to lead them to upend existing global rules and institutions.” Policymakers in Washington echoed these confident assessments. In a 2014 speech at West Point, President Barack Obama recognized that “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors.” But he expressed optimism that international institutions would continue to “reduce the need for unilateral American action and increase restraint among other nations.”
In hindsight, it is easy to see that this confidence was misplaced. A better understanding of the intersection of international institutions and great-power revisionism might have tempered such expectations. Historically, the constraining effects of international institutions on revisionism have been inconsistent at best. Even when revisionist states were brought into the institutional order, they were still able to pursue their aims. When Prussia launched a war in 1864 that would set the stage for German unification, it was considered a core member of the Concert of Europe, the order established after the Napoleonic Wars to help keep the peace. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, it was a member in good standing of the League of Nations and the so-called Washington system, which maintained limits on great-power shipbuilding. Both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were members of the League of Nations when they began their efforts to conquer Europe. In short, history gave the lie to the theory that institutional integration alone could restrain revisionism.
Given the mixed record of institutional integration, it is tempting to dismiss Washington’s embrace of this approach as not only futile but also naive. Indeed, this is precisely what the harshest critics of U.S. grand strategy are saying. Bringing China into international institutions, the political scientist John Mearsheimer wrote in these pages in 2021, “may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor.”
But such criticism overlooks the fact that international institutions change how revisionists choose to disrupt the international order. Institutions may not have eliminated revisionist ambitions, but they have shaped the way China and Russia have pursued their aims. Even with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its past military action in Crimea and Chechnya, the country has embraced force much less than similar states in history; current events are so shocking in part because they have become so rare, a testament at least to some extent to the effects of integration.
Witness how, in the past, a common way to change the status quo was to mount an aggressive attack. Napoleon’s France conquered wide swaths of Europe as it sought to obliterate the last vestiges of the eighteenth-century dynastic order. When imperial Japanese leaders decided to break clean of the League of Nations and the Washington system, they relied on brute force to expand their influence and wrest economic resources, first in China and then in Southeast Asia.
Ultimately, both France’s and Japan’s revisionist campaigns brought nothing but disaster for their leaders. With this historical antecedent, it is easy to see why institutionalists of the 1990s believed revisionism was unlikely. Regardless of their ambitions, countries will often decide to content themselves with the existing international order. The costs of major-power wars were staggering in previous centuries; they would be catastrophic in the present day.
When revisionist countries unleash military attacks, it is often a last resort.
But revisionists do not always need to use force to upend the status quo. In fact, the most transformative revisionists engage in rules-based revolutions. These revisionists start out looking like reformers, working within existing institutions to achieve their aims. Over time, however, their “salami slicing” of existing rules and norms can create significant weaknesses in international institutions that undermine the broader institutional order. When Russia sought to expand its influence in the Ottoman Empire after the Greek Revolution of 1821, it used the forums established by the Concert of Europe to push its allies to recognize Russian rights in Ottoman territories. By using available diplomatic resources, Russia slowly fragmented the boundaries of the existing territorial order until it shattered them in the Crimean War, in the mid-nineteenth century.
Prussia provides another example of this approach, with even more transformative results. From 1864 to 1871, it unified the German states under its rule at little cost and with limited use of force. German unification not only upended European boundaries; it also laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution in Germany, which would vault the country into the top tier of great powers by the end of the century. Ideologically, Prussia mobilized new forces of German nationalism, ripping apart the conservative foundations of European institutions. Yet Prussia achieved this revolution without sacrificing its position as a core member of European security and economic institutions. In this way, the country undermined the foundations of the European order from both within and without.
To challenge existing institutions, other revisionists created alternative institutional systems to establish their own spheres of influence and attract new supporters to their cause. In the years following World War II, especially after the United States launched the Marshall Plan in 1948, the Soviet Union withdrew from various Western institutions. Joseph Stalin hoped to increase Soviet power not by overtly challenging Western alliances but through political purges in eastern European states. When Moscow would challenge institutions, it would do so either covertly or in areas geographically outside the core of the dominant order.
Looking at the varied historical record of revisionism, three things stand out. First, it is not simply that international institutions fail to restrain revisionists. In fact, membership in international institutions can give countries resources with which to challenge the status quo. Second, how a revisionist decides to challenge those institutions depends on how it is positioned within them. Only revisionists that are members in good standing can use the strategy of working within institutions to advance their ambitions. Finally, contrary to the conventional wisdom, violent revisionism is not the norm in international politics. Indeed, when revisionists unleash military attacks, it is often a last resort. Only when imperial Japan failed to achieve its expansionist aims within existing institutions did it turn to military force. Military aggression is a sign not of strength but of weakness.
Russia, of course, has taken the path of military aggression in its war against Ukraine. That brutal attack against democratization and liberalism has demonstrated how—despite their recent declaration of unity—China and Russia are in very different institutional positions and are therefore pursuing distinct revisionist strategies. Putin’s Russia may be disruptive in the short term, but it is ultimately too weak to build an alternative institutional order. Although Russia has sought access to liberal international institutions, the country was always a bit player within them. As a result, it could not rely on the existing order to negotiate its demands. Nor does Russia have many resources outside the U.S.-led institutions that make up the dominant liberal order that would allow it to exit the system. For all the talk about Russia building its own sphere of influence, the country has been outflanked by NATO and the European Union in eastern Europe, and China is competing with it for influence in Central Asia.
Lacking the resources to effectively challenge the existing order or build its own, Russia has resorted to disruption and violence. It launches violent military actions against its neighbors and uses political interference, propaganda, and economic coercion—for example, funding right-wing populist parties in Austria and France, banning agricultural imports from the EU, and threatening gas cutoffs—to sow division in Western polities and drive wedges between NATO allies. Far from signaling some grand scheme, Russia’s violence is best viewed as a strategy of last resort.
China is different. The good news is that Beijing has little need to use violence, because its participation in the international order has strengthened its ability to challenge the status quo without resorting to force. The resources provided by membership in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the WTO, and the UN Security Council have allowed China to expand its global footprint, even though they also constrain Beijing’s ambitions. For supporters of the liberal order, however, the bad news is that China has membership in institutions both inside and outside that order, and it is precisely this type of position that allows states to pursue transformative revisionism.
The growing alarm about China’s and Russia’s revisionism has amplified calls for the United States to abandon its institutionalist strategy and instead embrace traditional realpolitik. The goal is no longer integration; it is deterrence: the United States must ensure that its military and alliances are strong enough to dissuade China and Russia from using force to achieve their aims. This was the stated approach of the Trump administration. Its 2017 National Security Strategy argued that while the United States would still “seek areas of cooperation with competitors,” its primary aim would be to “deter and if necessary, defeat aggression against U.S. interests and increase the likelihood of managing competitions without violent conflict.”
The United States needs to embrace a strategy of institutional realpolitik.
But turning away from institutional engagement with revisionist powers would be a mistake. Although military instruments remain important, the United States already holds a sizable advantage in military power over all its rivals, and any increased investment would matter only on the margins. And given that no major power today wants to engage in a large-scale conventional or nuclear war, it is doubtful that military power would be the weapon of choice in direct international political rivalries. Revisionists will continue to use force, but only in places where they believe the United States and its allies are unlikely to directly counter their violence. Washington was unable to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it remains improbable that Putin will directly attack a NATO member. Even in Taiwan, Beijing is not liable to turn to force if it can avoid it. There is no reason to risk escalation with the United States and its Asian allies if economic and diplomatic instruments are just as likely to secure Chinese aims.
Instead of abandoning institutional integration in favor of saber rattling, Washington needs to make better use of institutions to exert its influence and limit that of its rivals. Even the most hardened proponents of realpolitik concede that institutional cooperation is necessary to deal with existential threats such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic disease. Ensuring that all the great powers remain firmly integrated in institutions that address these collective dangers—such as the Paris climate accord and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—should be the goal.
Beyond this, the United States needs to embrace a strategy of institutional realpolitik. To begin with, it should abandon the idea that the purpose of international institutions is to eliminate revisionism or expand liberal global governance. Rather, international institutions are a tool to manage power politics. The most straightforward and significant aim should be to channel revisionist ambitions toward institutional forums and away from more violent and destructive behavior. International institutions could be designed not to stop competition through power politics but to direct it and make it more predictable by providing channels of communication, forums for negotiation, and clear rules about what counts as appropriate behavior.
In Ukraine, this may seem like too little, too late. But at some point, the war will be over, and it is important to consider what will come next. This is not to advocate another “reset” or a substantive partnership with Russia, which must not be permitted to subjugate its neighbors. The goal, instead, should be to redirect a hostile relationship back into more predictable forums—of the kind that stabilized U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Some might decry this as tantamount to appeasement. To be clear, the United States and its allies should make such cooperation contingent on Russian acceptance of existing territorial boundaries, including those of Ukraine. The United States should support similar institutions to modify China’s actions in the South China Sea. At a minimum, Washington should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to give it more legitimacy in pushing back against illegal Chinese behavior.
The United States should also try to outflank its rivals by thinking strategically about where revisionists could mobilize support for an alternative and more illiberal international order in the future. This is particularly important in the coming long contest with China, in which Washington, so far, seems to be largely on the defensive. AUKUS, the trilateral security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom; the G-7; and the Five Eyes partnership with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are all designed to shore up the United States’ security relationships. But Washington remains strangely reluctant to engage in offensive institution building. Biden has yet to reverse his predecessor’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose successor institution, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, established a free-trade zone stretching from Vietnam to Australia and encompassing around 40 percent of global GDP. The United States is also excluded from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a regional free-trade pact that is likely to build stronger ties between China and Southeast Asian countries. Finding a way to interact with these new institutions is critical if Washington wishes to bind itself to its allies and partners in meaningful, credible, and durable ways.
Moreover, China has significantly expanded its footprint in areas that the United States has treated as peripheral. Although originally Chinese officials portrayed the infrastructure projects of the BRI as a complement to the liberal economic order, Beijing has since begun to frame them as steps in building an alternative order, or a “community of common destiny.” Reforming international economic institutions to make them more attentive to the needs of aid-recipient countries could help outflank the BRI, which has experienced its own difficulties. For example, the United States could use its own existing institutions—the Millennium Challenge Corporation or the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation—to invest in infrastructure that would buttress the efforts of the new African Continental Free Trade Area and stymie China’s influence.
Such reforms would not represent a return to the order building of the 1990s. The United States has neither the power nor the will to go back to that approach. Indeed, institutional realpolitik should involve selective retrenchment. Washington should be willing to identify places where it overextended at the height of U.S. primacy. It may make sense to pull back from the globally oriented, hyper-legalized institutional structure of the WTO, which has benefited countries that are not playing by its rules, such as China. Washington should also be willing to let its regional allies and partners take the lead in institution building. Strong regional institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the EU, are critical to halting revisionist projects, even if they sometimes act against the United States’ interests.
The next era of great-power competition is already here, but this is not the time to be ramping up military confrontations and shutting down or pulling away from international institutions. U.S. policymakers should reject the false dichotomy that suggests that Washington must choose between realpolitik and institution building. Seeking to reinvigorate international alliances and institutions is not evidence of a lack of imagination or a naive faith in multilateralism. Rather, it is a tried-and-true way to play the game of great-power politics.