Will the Liberal World Order Survive An Era of Upheaval?

Will the Liberal World Order Survive An Era of Upheaval?

Whether it’s being recognized or not, pressure is clearly building toward a moment of exacting change in world politics.

The same goes for new expansive roles for the UN and NATO. What were once foundations of stability after World War II—keeping peace and ensuring prosperity during the Cold War—became “apotheosis institutions” bent on the fundamental transformation of world politics.

The pushback to each has been unsparing and helped bring about the pivot point we face today with each institution and the world order more broadly under duress.

The UN, for example, began the post-Cold War period on a high note, with a Security Council resolution supporting the U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion in the summer of 1990. But the organization soon found itself stalemated in the 1990s over the bloody civil wars in the Balkans—particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo—as Russia and China began exercising their veto power in the Security Council to prevent any expansive UN action.

Nonetheless, a major move was undertaken in the late 1990s to transform the mission of the UN from managing relations between sovereign states to supporting humanitarian interventions within them. By 2005, the UN unveiled its new responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, based on a strictly Western liberal “post-sovereignty” view of international human rights law. This was something sovereignty-sensitive countries like Russia and China uneasily accepted up until the 2011 UN-authorized no-fly zone in Libya, which quickly turned from a limited humanitarian intervention carried out by NATO members to protect civilians into an expansive regime change operation.

The blowback was swift and unsparing. When a humanitarian crisis erupted later that year in Syria, Russia and China blocked any UN role at all out of fear of “a replay of the Libya scenario.” Syria today remains a killing field, Libya is a failed state, and the UN’s credibility has yet to recover.

NATO is much in the news lately, having discovered newfound unity and purpose following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But let’s not forget that NATO also underwent significant changes after the Cold War, evolving from a military alliance defending Western Europe to a globalized organization involved in out-of-area humanitarian interventions, most notably in Kosovo in 1999 (unauthorized by the UN) and Libya in 2011.

It also expanded from sixteen member states at the end of the Cold War to thirty today, with Sweden and Finland soon to be included. Along with this growth came a new functionality, beginning in the mid-1990s, to serve as “a catalyst” for advancing democracy, market liberalization, and the protection of human rights, including the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. No doubt these are all worthy goals but is it any wonder Russia, China, India, and many other non-Western countries have grown increasingly distrustful of the organization? And this was long before NATO described its new mission in June 2022 as “upholding the rules-based international order”—specifically directing its attention not just to Russia and Ukraine, but to China and Taiwan as well.

None of this is to downplay the need for a strong response to aggressive Chinese actions across the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere, including, if necessary, NATO out-of-area operations. But the more the organization grounds its plans and operations as upholding “universal liberal values,” the more it exposes its true aspiration of becoming a League of Nations-type collective security organization for a world of (it hopes) ever-expanding democracies.

Regarding the WTO, I will not overly criticize the goal of expanding liberal markets and free trade, which both the GATT and WTO have accomplished. However, specifically, as it relates to China, we have seen the ideological underpinnings of the WTO based more on end-of-history certainty, and full faith in liberal peace theory, than the realities of a rising Asian superpower with traditional geostrategic interests and goals.

The historic bet made by the WTO on China’s accession to the organization in 2001 was that as long as China remained true to market economics and integrated into Western institutions, it would inevitably transform into some form of liberal democracy.

Over the past twenty years, China’s growth has exploded thanks to its integration with the West but its political system has gone backward. As the Stanford economist Elizabeth Economy put it, China has become “an illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order.” Ironically, just a few years ago it was widely assumed in the West that China would seamlessly replace the United States as the leader of the global liberal economic system. Now, many of those same voices are clamoring for renewed hawkish American leadership, as tensions continue to escalate between the world’s two largest economic and military superpowers.

Finally, there is little need to rehash all of the troubles confronting the EU in recent years. Suffice it to say, what was once the shining example of “post-sovereignty liberalism” is now almost a how-not-to guide on centralized decision-making by small groupings of governing elites, increasingly out of touch with their often-rowdy democratic underpinnings.

This was most vividly on display during the migration crises in the mid-2010s, which led many to question the bedrock assumptions regarding the status of borders and national sovereignty within Europe, and of the centralized influence of Brussels. The result has been events such as Brexit, the election (and re-election) of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and an overall rise of populist, nationalist, and nativist movements across the continent. And now, along with continued tensions over immigration and economic globalization, the EU’s supposed world-leading “clean energy policies” are also under enormous strain, as the public grapples with the stark energy vulnerabilities exposed by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

It is important to note that—as with China and the WTO—it was once widely assumed that fully integrating Russia into Western European energy markets would all but guarantee a more restrained and peaceful Russia. The reasoning came straight from liberal peace theory: Russia’s costs of severing ties from its bad behavior would outweigh any potential gains.

This belief was so strong that some countries were willing to completely wean themselves off of their own fossil fuels—and in the case of Germany, nuclear power as well—to rely almost entirely on Russian oil and gas as they developed clean energy economies.

All of those assumptions have been dashed after the invasion of Ukraine as Europe scrambles for new energy supplies (including coal) to keep its lights on. Though most European governments still support a 100 percent fossil-free future, the path ahead is rife with challenges, not least of all China’s plan to become Europe’s dominant supplier of renewable goods such as lithium batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, and the rare-earth materials that power them. If Europe is not careful, it may simply trade one hostile supplier of vital energy needs for another.

Reality And Renewal

These are some of the most obvious ways in which the liberal world order—and the core components of it—has overextended itself in recent decades, aiding the rise of serious counter-movements from the outside and increasing dissent from within.

However, all is far from lost with regard to future peace and stability in world politics, and the West’s important role in helping to ensure it.

In fact, Western liberalism has been such a dominant force on the landscape of world politics for centuries—particularly the past century—primarily because it contains the seeds of its own adaptation and renewal. This is the historic advantage liberal democracies have over their non-democratic competitors and adversaries: an ability to fight within and amongst themselves over proper courses of action, experiment with different policies, pull back and try something else, all while being held accountable by voters and the transparency of a free press.

These are strengths, not weaknesses, of the West even if it often looks like fragility to the outside world and critics within. We should never discount the ability of Western leaders to recognize the perils of the moment and alter course accordingly.

History offers such examples. In the 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill forged a liberal democratic alliance during World War II. Following the bleak 1970s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher accomplished something similar, helping foment a peaceful end to the Cold War. Even if Biden and new British prime minister Rishi Sunak do not prove to be historic turnaround artists, at least these two leaders are trying to shake off the cobwebs of what has become all-too-routine Western policymaking.

Sunak is seeking to revitalize a British economy now projected to slip outside of the top ten global economies for the first time in centuries. And Biden has pushed several initiatives to boost U.S. leadership, including the CHIPS and Science Act to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers of sensitive microchips and the Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivizes U.S. ingenuity in renewable energy technologies to compete directly against China in the global marketplace.

These are good starts but Western leaders must do more to address the multi-dimensional threats to the contemporary global order.

First and foremost, they must begin viewing the world through the eyes of others, recognizing that what Westerners consider “universal values,” others see as Western countries advancing their own interests. A new respect for others’ perspectives may not advance “global liberalism” (at least not in the short run) but it could lead to a good deal of peaceful and productive coexistence, including through global institutions of more modest scale and scope.