An Oceanic Order for the Twenty-First Century

A global alignment of key maritime powers could help restore balance to an unstable world.

The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman.
The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman. Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

There is no universal definition of an international order. At a base level, it is the absence of large-scale violent conflict between nations. Western conceptions of order, at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, involve some degree of exchange and peaceful interaction between independent nation-states.

Order is not a naturally occurring phenomenon in international affairs. While it can be shaped by slow, unseen forces, such as technological, social, or environmental change, it is primarily the product of conscious decisions, planning, and negotiation between leaders and diplomats. It normally involves agreed principles, norms, rules, or laws that help regulate and condition behaviour between societies.

A common misconception is that international or regional order is a unified or tangible structure, one whose pillars and bindings are easily identifiable. Rather, it is best seen as a convergence of overlaying, competing, or complementary systems — economic, military, political, legal, and so on — which give rise to certain norms or rules that consciously or unconsciously govern the behaviour of governments.

A further misconception is that order is permanent or stable, when it is far more fluid than is often acknowledged. Ordering systems, like the forces which they seek to manage, are in a constant state of change and adaptation. This means it can be shaped by ideas and action, even from middle powers, and especially groups of middle powers.

When scholars speak about world order, they often point to grand ‘ordering moments’, in particular the peace settlements of 1815, 1919, and 1945. While these were periods when regional and international orders were established, it is essential to note these events took place in the aftermath of highly destructive wars, in which regional and international orders were dissolved entirely. That is not the reality today, and the way to think about the formation of order is fundamentally different. While the contemporary formation of order aims at the same historical objectives — to maintain peace and prosperity between nations through agreed rules, norms, and principles — it requires fundamentally different methods.

To this end, order in the twenty-first century will be established by groups of states acting in concert to establish common principles and norms of behaviour. A lasting order will begin with a small nucleus of states, as opposed to all the countries of the world, coming to agreement. An important caveat, particularly for Western allies such as the United Kingdom, is that governments with innovative ideas can exercise an outsized influence on the nature and shape of ordering systems.

Order will expand if an established system proves attractive and welcoming to others. If a set of laws or principles established by a small nucleus of countries — for example a trade agreement, or an edict to regulate artificial intelligence — is attractive, more governments are likely to join. Importantly, order in this century will be maintained by the members of a given order (be it an economic, political, or military system) continuing to see the system as inclusive, legitimate, and beneficial to their national interests.

Recently, a perception has arisen of a stale and weakened international order, under threat from explicitly revisionist powers such as China and Russia, as well as powerful but secondary actors, such as India and Brazil, who hope to gain influence if the current global order is destroyed and built up again. On the other side, a kind of siege mentality exists for countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Japan — the last defenders of the garrison racing to build reinforcements before the structure collapses.

Viewing it in this way – that is, seeing a decaying international order that must be salvaged before it is too late –  is not helpful for high-level policymaking, where it is imperative to direct, as opposed to react to, events. Instead, it is necessary to consider order as a phenomenon continually in need of adaptation and creation.

The ultimate aim — the overarching objective of American and British foreign policy — is a new arrangement of international order, one adjusted to current realities. This does not mean tearing down the old and constructing anew, but rather developing structures that can eventually become the seed of modified ordering institutions, while buttressing the older systems (especially those from which the United States, the United Kingdom, and their key partners benefit).

The establishment and maintenance of regional and international orders is an established tradition of Anglo-American foreign policy. As opposed to ‘realist’ notions that champion narrow national interests, the United States and the United Kingdom have long benefitted from designing national strategies that harmonise with the material interests of other nations. As such, larger economic and political ordering systems — especially those based on constitutional frameworks such as the United Nations Charter — have been central to American and British statecraft for over 200 years.

But future approaches to order building in Washington and London may need to be based less on ideological considerations — such as democratic governance and human rights — and more on functional needs and material interests. A range of countries, from India and South Africa to Saudi Arabia and Brazil, have made it clear that pressure to conform to liberal political values are not a favoured method of diplomacy. An approach emphasising shared security and prosperity may have a better chance of success in a multipolar world.

Older and larger international institutions, namely the United Nations, have become the targets of criticism and cynicism. An erosion of relations between leading governments within the organisation, coupled with the sheer number of member countries, has led to a widespread feeling that the institution is no longer efficient. As two of the founding members of the United Nations – a body which continues to provide a valuable constitutional basis for international relations – the United States and the United Kingdom should support the continuance of the organisation, including efforts to reform the structure, functioning, and powers of the Security Council and Assembly.

Given the fractured state of international affairs, reform of the global order and its institutions by consent is impossible. This does not mean, however, that those structures should be left to rot or, worse, abolished in one fell swoop. Instead, those powers which value a rules-based order and the organisations and institutions that underpin it must look to develop groupings which can ultimately underpin a wider order.

NATO will remain a cornerstone for both Anglo-American and European security. Both the United States and the United Kingdom will continue to benefit from groupings such as the G7 and G20. Each are exclusive groups of powerful governments which, working with one another, can shape agendas, resolve common challenges, and help maintain international order. As Adam Tooze wrote in November 2022, the G20, at its Bali summit, proved it was the ‘world’s government’. There is much truth in this claim.

Recently, the United States and United Kingdom have been proactive in developing new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the trilateral security pact AUKUS, and the British, Italian, and Japanese agreement to develop fighter jets are examples of this trend. While these are important steps, the number of agreements can have an inflationary effect. In other words, as the number of such limited partnerships increase, there arises a degree of uncertainty as to which, if any, has priority. One way of overcoming this is to construct a larger, more encompassing arrangement that can incorporate these targeted agreements.

Only the most visionary of idealists sees an international order as resting on the goodwill of independent states. At the same time, only the most short-sighted of realists see international institutions and the order they provide as wasteful or superfluous. There is a more useful way of viewing international order: specifically, to see stark considerations of power and larger international institutions as mutually reinforcing. In other words, regional or global balances of power can serve as the foundation of regional or global ordering institutions; and these latter organisations can help to shape the dynamics of economic and military power throughout the world.

If the primary objective of American and British foreign policy is to develop stable regional and international orders, the first step is to begin shoring up the two key balances of power that will underpin it. Assuming the European Union remains an economic and political bloc, the regional order on the Continent will be defined primarily by the military balance of power between Russia and the NATO alliance. While a larger political, economic, and security framework will need to be negotiated between Moscow and European governments, the priority is to stall Russian expansion westward.

Similarly, in what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific region, there is manoeuvring by China on the one hand, and Japan, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam on the other, each side seeking to exert control over the East and South China seas. As in Europe, a new political, economic, and security framework will need to be negotiated between Beijing and the other governments concerned, which will take time. The priority for these countries as it stands is to shore up their collective power and resilience in order to deter Chinese encroachments.

Moving to the wider international order, the consensus for some years has been that it is in transition. Regardless of when this began, if we look to the future, the international order will depend, first and foremost, on a global balance of power. Such a balance can take many forms, but the central point here is that, in the future, this may be roughly conceived as a continental versus oceanic arrangement. With Russia, China, and Iran moving closer together, a combined Eurasian alignment is developing, one that will seek to exert dominance on the Eurasian continent. Some analysts have noted how the increasing alignment of Moscow and Beijing resembles what Halford Mackinder referred to as ‘the Pivot region of the world’s politics’.

While key areas of this landmass — namely Europe and India — are likely to remain open to working with the United States and the United Kingdom, it is in the interests of both governments to begin aiming for an oceanic order. This has a dual purpose: to create one side of a balance of power framework; and in so doing, to sow the seed of a wider international order based on open and inclusive economic and political principles.

The key aims here, in addition to maintaining territorial sovereignty and facilitating economic cooperation, are the maintenance of open sea lanes, protection of sea cables, and a general adherence to (or explicit support for) the UN Charter and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. As opposed to a hard and fast alliance, an oceanic order would represent a more general alignment based on respect for territorial sovereignty and economic cooperation. It recognises certain central facts of the modern world — namely, that around ninety per cent of global trade is over maritime routes, and an estimated ninety-seven per cent of global communication is carried through 1.2 million kilometres of submarine cables. As the scholar Alessio Patalano has pointed out, ‘We live in a maritime century.’

The key members of this oceanic order might be the United Kingdom, the European NATO allies, Canada, the United States, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan. The grouping would require a collective dominance of naval capabilities, based on innovative, effective, and efficient national navies. Key to ensuring this success is that these members — each with specific capabilities, based on geopolitical circumstances — work in tandem to confront mutual threats and challenges to territory and trade.

To predict what shape a future international system might take is a near impossible task. There are too many variables, too many changing circumstances, and too many contingencies to make such an investigation anything more than an academic endeavour. It is necessary instead for policymakers and analysts to develop ideas that can be acted upon.

The proverb ‘who pays the piper calls the tune’ comes to mind, but as opposed to thinking only in terms of material power, we might say that future order is shaped by those with the intellectual spirit to imagine it. The argument here is an attempt to offer one idea, hopefully one among many, that could be considered in future discussions between the United States and its allies about the broad structures of a future international system.

An oceanic order as outlined above is based on certain fundamental assumptions. First, that ordering in the forthcoming decades will best be achieved by like-minded powers working in tandem to develop political, economic, or military alignments that adhere to certain organising norms and principles of behaviour. Second, that narrow readings of national interest have no place in modern statecraft. International affairs, as they have been in previous centuries, are shaped by states seeing it as in their interest to develop larger systems, whether regional or international, which can facilitate healthy relationships between them. A final assumption is that existing international institutions — which should be adapted, reformed or created anew — be based on stark considerations of power. Global institutions, particularly in an era of competing great powers, rely on a functioning balance of power.

An oceanic order is just one idea for how to attain this global balance, one adjusted to contemporary realities and which links two of the most consequential regions – Europe and the Indo-Pacific – together. At the same time, an oceanic arrangement of allies and partners can sow the seeds for a larger international order based on principles of territorial sovereignty and economic cooperation. Most importantly for the United States, the United Kingdom, and their core allies, it can provide a visionary concept to which more specific strategies can be fastened.


Andrew Ehrhardt