After Disruption: Historical Perspectives on the Future of International Order

The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the debate about whether world order is undergoing a fundamental change. Cornerstones of the post-1945 system—economic globalization, democratic governance, and U.S. leadership—face headwinds. At home, some Americans question whether international institutions and the order they underpin still serve the national interest.

In this critical moment, the Project on History and Strategy asked seven leading international historians to offer their insights about the relationship between disorder and order. How is order remade after pandemics, wars, and revolutions? How do different visions of order get resolved? Who contributes to the making of new orders? Can a faltering order be rehabilitated? Does “might” always make order, or can smaller actors shape the game? Does order emerge from ad hoc responses to specific problems, or can a master blueprint become reality? Collectively the historians produced insightful essays spanning four centuries of upheaval. They recapture the interplay of personality, power, and the forgotten contingency at the core of order-building efforts.

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Looking to the future, the essays serve as a potent reminder that the appeal of democracy, free markets, and the broader international architecture designed to extend those ideas across the globe hinge on whether the American people, their government, and their allies prove worthy of emulation and capable of adaptation. If they fail, others will be waiting with the vision and programs to construct a new order in their own likeness.  

17th Century

  • Westphalia: Beyond the Myth by Alexander Bick, Johns Hopkins SAIS

19th Century

  • The Concert of Europe: Inventing an International Order by Glenda Sluga, University of Sydney

  • Disease and the Making of International Order by Andrew Ehrhardt, King's College London

20th Century

  • World War One: Cooperation, Conflict, and International Order by Dan Gorman, University of Waterloo

  • World War Two: Creating a Global Order by Francine McKenzie, University of Western Ontario

  • The 1970s: The Decomposition and Improvisation of International Order by Daniel Sargent, University of California, Berkeley

  • Small States and the Challenges of International Order by Hillary Briffa, King's College London

21st Century

  • Commentary by Iain King CBE

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS.

Seth Center

Emma Bates