By John McCain
As order spins out of control, it leaves chaos in its wake. Around the world and here at home, 2017 has seen the erosion of that order and the institutions that protect it — and we cannot act soon enough to reverse this trajectory.
Globally, the institutions of the post–World War II liberal world order continued their tragic decline. After 70 years of the greatest stability, security, and prosperity the world has ever known, we are letting that order slip through our fingers. If we do, we will find that the chaos left behind will neither protect our interests nor promote our values — and it will surely not secure the peace.
The liberal world order rejected the principles that led to two world wars — ethno-nationalism, spheres of influence, and imperialism — and replaced it with a system based on universal values, human rights, rule of law, and national sovereignty. This order did not occur by accident; it was the result of tireless efforts to build its foundation and advance the values that secured it. We must now fight vigorously to defend that order against the chaos that threatens its very existence.
But as defenders of the liberal order, we have not done our job. We grew complacent and lost touch with those who were experiencing hardship. We let our values be challenged and failed to come to their defense. At times we tried to do too much, and at others we did not do enough. We made mistakes.
As a result, in 2017 we have seen the steady erosion of the world order. As many across the globe turned away from universal values, they found comfort in the old ties of ethnicity, race, and sectarianism. They became increasingly resentful of “the other” they saw in immigrants, refugees, and minority groups. They turned inward and embraced nationalism. Some seem to have given up on the liberal order entirely, preferring chaos to a system that does not seem to have worked for them. We must acknowledge these realities without retreating.
To maintain stability, ensure security, and expand prosperity for this generation and those to come, our only hope is in driving back chaos and recapitalizing the institutions of order. Indispensable to defending against chaos is America’s role in the world. After eight years of “leading from behind” from the previous administration, our allies and partners around the world came to question the reliability of U.S. global leadership. Now, with few exceptions, the current administration offers little reprieve from the chaos of a world without American leadership. Our president sees virtue in his unpredictability and prefers uninformed tweets to intentional strategies. We owe our allies and partners — and the American people — better.
Here at home, our own institutions have also fallen victim to declining order, and as a result have become engulfed in ascending chaos. Most personally to me, I have watched the U.S. Congress become only a shadow of the deliberative body it was intended to be — and the one it was when I was first elected to office 35 years ago.
In Washington, political chaos reigns. Polarization and partisanship have led to gridlock. No matter which party is in power, the majority seems intent on imposing its will, while the minority seems solely interested in preventing any accomplishments. As we stumble from crisis to crisis, we have become incapable of doing our jobs, dealing with big problems, and even fulfilling our most basic legislative duties. Compromise and working across the aisle have become political liabilities, when they were meant to define our legislative process.
In 2017, we saw plenty of examples of the total breakdown of regular order — the set of processes, rules, customs, and protocols by which Congress is supposed to govern itself and do business on behalf of the American people. This has led to a paralysis that has rendered the institution largely incapable of exercising its constitutional responsibilities as a co-equal branch of government. The system our founders built was not intended to function this way. Congress has diminished its own role and, ultimately, created the space for political chaos.
Even as order seems to have yielded to chaos, both in the United States and abroad, no one should make the mistake of betting against America. We remain the greatest democracy in the world, and at our core, we still embody the universal values of the postwar era. If we take up the mantle of reviving the universal liberal values and our national political institutions, we can choose order over chaos.