The contest comes to be viewed as having a final, apocalyptic quality. If we lose, all is lost; life will no longer be worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. If we win, then everything will be possible; all our problems will become soluble; the one great source of evil — our enemy — will have been crushed; the forces of good will then sweep forward unimpeded; all worthy aspirations will be satisfied.
After two world wars and two great depressions and , the aim was to tame the forces of nationalism and laissez-faire capitalism while at the same time avoiding the totalitarian state corporatism of the communist, fascist and national-socialist regimes. The s and early s had seen a lethal mix of depression, tyranny, war, and genocide. After , the world witnessed the creation of a US-led liberal order that consisted in a rules-based system in which cooperation between like-minded countries supplanted inter-state competition, multilateralism replaced the imperial balance of power and commitment to universal values overrode the sole pursuit of national interests.
As one of two super-powers, the USA provided not just global public goods such as free trade and freedom of the seas but also an economic and security umbrella for old friends and former foes: loans to the UK, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of open-ended alliances with Western Europe and Japan. However, as Joseph Nye reminds us, the post-war system of embedded liberalism was limited in scope and success. First the former Soviet bloc abandoned totalitarian communism in favour of democratic capitalism while China and India replaced central planning with the bureaucratic free market.
Then Latin America was joined by much of Asia in embracing structural reforms and a gradual integration into the world economy. Bipolarity gave way to unipolarity with the USA as the sole superpower now in charge of upholding the new world order and spreading open markets, democracy, the rule of law, individual human rights and elected governments.
Underpinning this order was the belief that open and transparent markets with minimal government intervention — combined with democratic rule — would generate prosperity, peace, and partnership. For some time, this belief seemed to be borne out by evidence Niblett , Moreover, liberal values also spread as the order expanded, including the notion that foreign military intervention is legitimate in cases where governments oppress their own populations or destabilise neighbouring countries. Thus the liberal world order sought to combine the Westphalian principle of sovereignty with supposedly universal standards of human rights.
Today, America continues to provide key global public goods based on its economic and military might. The US Navy patrols worldwide waters to police the law of the seas and defend the freedom of navigation, while the US Army and the Air Force can be deployed from around bases around the globe. In addition, the NSA has built a global network of surveillance via complex satellite infrastructure.
In short, the liberal world order unwritten by the US has set the rules for the entire international community — an interlocking web of values, institutions, and relations that makes up the international system and encompasses maritime law, non-proliferation mechanisms, trade deals, and financial arrangements. Yet Brexit and Trump raise fundamental questions about the continuity and resilience of this order in the face of unprecedented opposition from outside and inside the Western world — including the extra-civilisational challenges of Islamic terrorism and the authoritarian rollback of democracy, and the intra-civilisational challenges of the financial crisis and the lack of public trust in the institutions of liberal democracy Diamond , ; Foa and Mounk , These two challenges threaten the foundations of Western liberal democracy both in terms of the shock to the liberal system and the struggle of liberalism to provide a robust response.
The defenders of the liberal world order contend that the current crisis is but a temporary setback in an otherwise broadly linear history of progress. Their argument is that liberalism and democracy are resilient and can cope with headwinds because liberal institutions adapt to popular concerns and can renew themselves. Democratic alternance between rival parties and candidates as well as a stable transfer of power are in fact the most effective way of restoring the legitimacy of the political system.
Similarly, developed economies regain momentum thanks to models of growth and distribution of wealth that are consumption- and innovation-driven rather than being as dependent on export and investment as emerging markets or developing countries tend to be. Crucially, the advocates of liberalism claim that the world order endures even at a time when US leadership is weakening and Western authority is in crisis. Multipolarity has failed to materialise as the BRICS Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa have all adopted capitalist models that depend on access to world markets for growth and development.
Neither they nor any other countries have created blocs, exclusive spheres of influence, or closed geopolitical systems that could rival — never mind replace — the open, rules-based system organised around national state sovereignty and transnational cooperation Ikenberry , Although the Chinese leadership is flexing its muscles in relation to the South and East China Sea, it will not be able to push the USA out of the western Pacific, never mind exercise global military hegemony.
But more fundamentally, the claim is that China has embraced the liberal order precisely because it benefits from it, and further integration with the global economy will sustain the modernising strategy of the governing Communist Party. China seems committed to a version of globalisation and state capitalism that is compatible with economic liberalism, even if Beijing continues to be opposed to political liberalism. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength […].
His commitment to increase defence spending and boost the capabilities of the US Navy suggests that he is not about to surrender the western Pacific to China.
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However, the liberal claim that the world order has not fundamentally changed ignores the sheer extent of the current crisis. After the Brexit vote, a full or partial disintegration of the European Union is more plausible than at any point since the signing of the Rome Treaties sixty years ago. Across the EU, member-states face either break-up the UK, Belgium, Spain or anti-establishment insurgencies that threaten the existence of the Euro and the functioning of the Union as a whole.
Neither national nor Community institutions have prevented the establishment of illiberal regimes in member-states such as Hungary and Poland — including an assault on the freedom and independence of courts, NGOs and the media, combined with growing ideological polarisation and a political witch-hunt of the official opposition. A slide into the extremism of the far left and the radical right is no longer unthinkable. The election of Donald Trump is so far the single greatest blow against the liberal world order.
His political outlook seems to combine nationalist-libertarian ideas with a preference for populist-authoritarian leadership at home and abroad. The red thread that runs through his rhetoric over the past thirty years is an anti-liberal assault on the implicit bipartisan consensus at the heart of American politics: free trade, immigration and the US promotion of Western forms of democracy and human rights.
While the retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership might extend an olive branch to Beijing, the threat of protectionism could yet trigger a trade war with China. His comments on the obsolete character of NATO also raise the prospect of weakening the transatlantic alliance in favour of more transactional bilateral relations.
Undermined by bad trade deals, short-changed by free-riding allies and dragged into endless military campaigns, the US under Trump could refuse to expend blood and treasure propping up an international system that he reckons will continue to weaken America. Indeed, both on the campaign trail and in the early stages of his term in office, Trump has claimed that trade deals such as NAFTA and the now-cancelled TPP destroy American jobs and move employment to lower-wage countries that manipulate their currency.
While the US spends billions of dollars of taxes paid by ordinary Americans in order to finance its worldwide security umbrella, free riders in Europe and Asia get rich by shirking their responsibilities for burden-sharing. Seen in this light, it is no surprise that Trump and his team reject the raw deal they think America gets and that they want to create a new international order — more of a balance-of-powers order based on national interest rather than a liberal order based on supposedly universal values.
None of this is particularly new in US politics. In Pat Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination promising a mix of mercantilism and greater geopolitical restraint. His anti-communism did not stop him from opposing containment and the creation NATO because it would over-commit America. What drives the Trump administration is anger about the bad deal the country supposedly gets from the liberal international order upheld by US hegemony since and especially after Anti-liberalism on economic, social, and geopolitical issues seems to be the common ground with Vladimir Putin.
Both believe that their countries have not benefitted from the liberal model of globalisation, which is why Trump wants to roll back free trade and immigration while Putin is trying to opt out in favour of parallel structures — starting with greater protection from global forces for the national economies of neighbouring countries that join the Eurasian Economic Union Sakwa Will it be more global anarchy and a slide into direct confrontation between the USA and China?
Either way, the tectonic plates have already shifted and the unfolding earthquake is only just beginning to engulf the West and the rest. Up to a point, the defenders of liberal world order recognise the tension between the US role in the international system as Liberal Leviathan John Ikenberry that upholds the rules-based structure and provides public goods, on the one hand, and the forces of reactionary nationalism in America that undermine the liberal order and threaten to consume the global public goods, on the other hand However, one can go further than that to suggest that liberalism is so hubristic that it ends up cutting off the branch on which it sits.
First there was liberal hubris after the end of the Cold War. For the advocates of the liberal order, the post world was one in which borders would formally endure even while losing much of their real relevance. There will no longer be national economies. So when the Soviet bloc imploded and free-market capitalism replaced bureaucratic state capitalism, the embedded liberal model morphed into a new global order that promoted globalisation, mass migration, and military intervention in the name of supposedly universal liberal values.
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The events of and were not primarily an hour of triumphal victory of one ideology and system over its rival but rather an epoch of crisis and trauma as a result of the implosion of the Soviet system. Contrary to the borderless utopia of liberal progressivism, critical voices like Hoffmann and Jowitt envisioned the redrawing of borders, the reshaping of national identities, an escalation of previously frozen conflicts, and paralysing uncertainty rather than post-ideological clarity.
With the weakening of national states by globalisation Cooper , movements of contestation and rage sprung up across the world — from the new social movements and Al-Qaeda in the late s via Occupy Wall Street after to the Arab Spring and ISIS since It is perhaps unsurprising that the advocates of the liberal world order have therefore been in denial about their own role in the crisis of the international system which has been in place since What started off as a rules-based system organised around cooperation between sovereign states and the embedding of markets in institutions morphed after into a US-led world order, which promotes free-market globalisation, mass migration, and military intervention in the name of supposedly universal but in reality Western liberal values.
At every point liberals gave in to the siren calls of hubris. For the first time since the Second World War, Brexit and Trump have given the economic losers a political victory over the economic winners and ejected liberals from power. Gone with it is the post promise of progress for every generation. Contemporary liberalism is even more corrosive than that. Liberal economics reinforced social liberalism with its celebration of diversity and emancipation through ever-greater freedom of choice.
Instead, liberals privileged individual happiness over social solidarity while entrenching power and wealth for the fortunate few Rothkopf ; Mount ; Freeland For all the important advancement in terms of equality and non-discrimination, progressive liberalism alienated more socially conservative voters who are predominantly indigenous but also include many ethnic minorities.
Far from being an endangered species, these voters represent a majority as most people choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change. Liberal ideas have not suddenly gone from triumphalist to extinct, and many liberal institutions will endure.
Neither are we facing the terminal crisis of an entire system that is about to implode. Linking together the different strands of the liberal tradition is the premise that individual rights and freedoms are more fundamental than mutual obligations or the common good. Liberals look to the central state together with the free market as the ultimate arbiters to protect individuals from one another. But this conceals from view the collusion of state and market against society and the intermediary institutions that compose it.
It is precisely the impersonal forces of market-states that those left behind by cosmopolitan globalisation are now rejecting. The seeds of liberal hubris were sown not in but after the end of the First World War in While the imperial powers France and Britain were greatly weakened by four years of unprecedented bloodshed and destruction, the other old empires of Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, and Germany collapsed altogether.
Newly independent countries across Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans and the Middle East retained ties to Paris and London but found a new champion in the United States of America, which became the leading economic and geopolitical power.
Paradoxically the liberal order — which had begun as an anti-colonial project in and as a republican alternative to imperial monarchy especially after and — morphed into a novel kind of imperialism led by America. In the process, the US elevated the Westphalian principle of national self-determination into the overriding criterion of the international system and. Yet the principle of nationalism was an artificial construct, almost an anthropomorphic fantasy.
Consider some of its cognate terms — national consciousness, national will, self-determination: in each case the nation is treated as analogous to an individual human being. This conception rests on liberal norms of individualism and voluntarism that are deeply rooted in American political life and have been exported by successive administrations, which promote national ends by imperial means Northcott ; Pfaff From Wilson to the neo-conservative vision for a New American Century, the United States replaced the balance of power and national interests the settlement established by the Congress of Vienna with a hegemony of fantasised universal values and global interests — a conception according to which American values and interests are synonymous with those of the rest of the world.
Curiously, the United States has always denied that it is in the business of building an empire — arguing, instead, that independent America came into existence precisely to throw off the shackles of British colonial rule and to fight imperialism everywhere. Whether apocryphal or not, this statement encapsulates the peculiar liberal fusion of realism with idealism and the refashioning of the world in the image of liberalism. It is an empire in denial, and US denial of this poses a real danger to the world.
Part of the liberal appeal was the promise of progress, but liberalism unleashed the forces of science and technology while divorcing modernisation from the pursuit of substantive shared ends. A few prophetic voices warned against such voluntarism and the subversion of virtues. And they also saw that this apparently shocking minority is, in reality, symptomatic of a wider terroristic tendency.