The liberal world order, a system based on open borders and open societies, is increasingly under attack. In the past, it was mainly left-wing anti-capitalists and right-wing nationalists who fulminated against globalization, while the mainstream consensus was solidly behind it. Not anymore.
In the United States, the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has declared, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” Trump blames globalization and immigration for the decline of the American working class. On the other side of the Atlantic, Britain voted to leave the European Union, with calls to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country featuring strongly in the debate. In France, the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has a real chance at becoming the French president in 2017. While her party is notorious for its anti-immigration stance, Le Pen has also promised to hold a referendum on French membership in the European Union. In Hungary meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán muses about the values of “illiberal democracy”, a populist simulacrum that in various degrees does away with the rule of law and protections for individual liberty that have been the hallmarks of constitutionally ordered societies that have emerged in the West since the end of the 18th century.
The New Populist Challenge
The new populists have a set of common characteristics: they blame open borders and open societies for the decline of the economy, for insecurity and for moral decline. They promise a much more homogenous society and much tighter control by the government over the territory and its borders. In other words, they turn against globalization.
Donald Trump’s promise to build a high wall on the border with Mexico signals the end of an era that started with the fall of another wall in Berlin. After 1989, in the post-Cold War era, the liberal order that had been built in the West since 1945 became a global norm. Countries that didn’t fully measure up strained to reform, and even cynical authoritarians were at least forced to pay lip service to Western values. Globalization, a concept that became fashionable in the 1990s, at its core is the expansion of the West’s liberal organizing principles from a regional to a global scope. Liberal democracy and market economy on the state level, complemented by close cooperation of governments and the build-up of a transnational space in which people, goods, capital, and information could flow largely unhindered: This was the political vision of a new, liberal world order emerging after the end of the Cold War.
In the new era we’re about to enter, this vision is contested. It is contested, however, not in the name of another universalism, but in the name of particularism: nation, state, borders.
A win for the new populists would entail several things. States would become more authoritarian, ruled by anti-establishment demagogues appealing to direct democracy, and often relying on referenda. The checks and balances painstakingly developed in mature Western democratic institutions would take a hit, and consequently the rights of minorities would as well. Conflict in the West’s already diverse societies would likely increase, with regular outbreaks of violence and potentially more terrorism in the offing. With the return of borders as major impediment for the flow of people, goods, capital and information, economies in the West would suffer and decline, adding fuel for conflict.
Above the nation-state, conflict would likely return as well. With much less international cooperation, increased distrust between states would make a come-back. Power would be much less restricted by the long-term investment of states into a rules-based international order. Instead of moving closer towards Kant’s “perpetual peace” we would move towards Darwin’s “survival of the fittest: or Hobbes’ “war of all against all”. It would become much easier for populists to exploit conflicts with neighbors to gain power, which would in turn intensify those conflicts.
What would such an illiberal order look like? Think Europe in the 1930s, when the U.S. was on an isolationist course, when the League of Nations failed to keep the peace in Europe, when nationalism, chauvinism and fascism were on the rise, when economic crisis was hitting hard, and when nations increasingly turned against each other.
Rise and Triumph of the Liberal Order
It was precisely the aim to prevent a return to the situation of the 1930s that drove the American architects to put up the scaffolding of the liberal order built in the West after the Second World War. They recognized that U.S. withdrawal from the world after the First World War had been a mistake, and were determined to build something lasting. The United Nations would provide the ground rules of the international order, and America would take the lead in drafting, implementing and guaranteeing it. Without U.S. power underwriting everything, the system would not work.
Under American leadership, what we think of as the West became an alliance system grounded in shared liberal ideas and principles. Former enemies became close partners, and economic exchange and cooperation took the place of competition and conflict. Borders became increasingly irrelevant between liberal democracies. The flows of people, capital, goods and information were steadily increasing. The long, disastrous Western European crisis between 1914 and 1945 was overcome, thanks to American leadership. Prosperity and freedom were flourishing like never before in Western societies.
The stark contrast between Western prosperity on the one hand, and the poverty, lack of freedom, and backwardness endemic in Eastern European countries led to the collapse of Socialism and Communism as organizing ideologies, and the ultimate breakup of the Soviet Union. Most Eastern societies were eager to join the West. Central and Eastern European countries worked hard to be admitted into the institutions that had made the West so successful: Nato and the EU, and the Bretton Woods institutions.
Russia, too, appeared to be on a transition path to liberal democracy. China’s ruling class embraced economic modernization but put a sanitary wall between economic and political modernization. Overall, in the post-Cold war era, the West’s liberal order became the global liberal order, with the U.S. in the lead again.
In the 1990s, the world looked increasingly “flat”: a “global village” in which distances were shrinking at a rapid pace and borders were losing relevance, thanks to sinking costs for transportation and to the emergence of the internet. It’s easy to snicker at the catchphrases of the time as being overoptimistic and simplistic, but they reflected a real achievement: the commercial logic of win-win relationships had triumphed, with a remarkable rise in living standards for many participating countries. Globalization had trumped geopolitics, or so it seemed.
There have been set-backs, of course: the civil wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, growing assertiveness of authoritarian elites in Russia and China, wars in the Middle East that polarized public opinion in the West, Islamist terrorism and the financial crisis starting 2008. But these were seen as crises inside the liberal order, and were to be tackled through its various multilateral institutions.
Though multilateralism alone, without American leadership, was rarely a silver bullet, the solution to crises always involved doubling down on the institutional arrangements that had thus far brought the West prosperity. There was no retreating from international engagement. On the contrary, efforts were made to increase international cooperation and to strengthen global and regional institutions. More, not less, globalization was the response to the challenges of the post-Cold War era.
That may be changing now.
Globalization is not happening on autopilot. It is driven by states. Lowering barriers to trade and loosening border restrictions requires treaties between states. The build-up of international institutions and the persistence of liberal norms need to be backed-up by both soft and hard power. What too few observers appreciate is that the globalized liberal order of the last few decades is an overwhelmingly American order, with the U.S. setting and driving the agenda to a large extent. Today, however, it is unclear whether Americans still want to play that role
According to a poll from earlier this year, 57 percent Americans say it would be better if the U.S. just dealt with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs as best they can. Barack Obama and Donald Trump both speak of allies dismissively as “free-riders”, unwilling to take their share of the burden. Where Obama talked about “nation-building at home”, Trump talks about “America first”. Both want to focus more on the United States and less on the world.
It would be a mistake to see this as a temporary blip in support for internationalism in America; deeper, structural trends appear to be at work. Americans are less and less willing to continue the oversized international role the country had played during the Cold War and in the post-Cold War era. Europe is largely “whole and free” for many years now, and for decades no major competitor has challenged America’s physical security. Neither terrorism nor China have replaced the Soviet Union as a permanent, existential threat. In the eyes of most Americans, the country’s sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a waste of lives and money.
If America indeed chooses to redefine its international interests much more narrowly, and perhaps to think in a more short-term way, the globalized liberal world order will lose its chief underwriter. The consequences of such a shift should not be underestimated. Can the liberal world order survive without the United States’ massive commitment? Is this order self-sustaining, or does it depend on U.S. leadership and readiness to act as a hegemon in critical situations where this is order is seriously challenged, such as in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the South China Sea? Will U.S. allies step in where the U.S. retreats, or will autocratic countries such as Russia and China, and the atavistic forces of chaos and destruction such as ISIS, fill the empty space?
President Obama has, in his two terms, been torn between the desire to respond to domestic pressure to “do less”, especially militarily, and the pressure from the U.S. foreign policy elites and U.S. allies and partners to “do more”. He has been trying to square the circle: to reduce U.S. global presence and involvement without disrupting order, led in part by the belief that a new, durable equilibrium will impose itself as the United States steps back.
Obama record has been mixed at best.
Syria where the United States has pursued a zig-zag course, has been a major failure. The rebellion against Assad drew early courage from President Obama’s rhetoric. But when the White House failed to follow up with substantial action and meaningful support, the result was a devastated country, a wave of miserable refugees, an emboldened Russia, and the emergence of the Islamic State as one of the most successful modern terrorist organizations, now in control over substantial territory. Turkey’s stability has been impacted by the war in Syria, while the EU has been swamped by refugees, and has experienced a significant number of ISIS-inspired terror attacks.
Ukraine by contrast, while far from being a success, can serve as an example for how U.S. allies, with proper backing, can play a much more effective role. Germany has taken a lead on sanctions against Russia, and on diplomacy. The U.S. has stepped in at crucial moments, and has taken the the lead in reassuring NATO allies rattled by Russian aggressiveness. There has been a division of labor between Berlin and Washington that has all the hallmarks of a “partnership in leadership” that George H. W. Bush had in mind when he coined the phrase in a speech in Germany in May 1989.
In Asia and the Pacific, China has become more assertive under Obama’s watch, moving from a status quo policy in its territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas towards more assertively challenging the rights of its smaller neighbors, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The situation has become only more tense and more difficult as the United States has struggled to remain true to its commitments to allies and to uphold principles such as the freedom of navigation in international waters that China has increasingly claimed for itself.
Rise of the Autocrats
Both Moscow and Beijing hold different concepts of international order. The leadership in both countries wants more influence abroad, doesn’t like the international system in its current guise, and is ready to invest substantial resources in suborning it. Russia and China are acting as classic revisionist powers.
That doesn’t mean that they seek to overthrow the system in its entirety. Chinese and Russian elites benefit immensely from the U.S.-led order in economic terms: they know that the prosperity it has fostered in their societies is a key for them remaining in power. Millions have been lifted out of poverty, and middle classes have emerged in both countries. But the elites also understand that the liberal system itself, if left unchallenged, will lead to their ultimate demise. The liberal order is is ultimately premised on the concept of political freedom and free markets. For autocratic elites, there is not much more threatening than democracy. Their rule is based on lack of accountability and the lack of political and economic competition. Keeping democracy at bay for them is a vital, critical interest.
And both China and Russia would like to see the authoritarian system they have build at home mirrored in international relations: an internationalized “power vertical”, to borrow a Putinist concept, in which strong countries command and the weak obey. Small countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines have to accept that China demands primacy in the South China Sea; Russia’s neighbors such as Ukraine have to accept orders from Moscow. The idea of international order they have in mind is multipolar, not multilateral: instead of a system built on the the idea of equality of states, they want a hierarchical order dominated by a few major states. The liberal order, based on the consensus between largely sovereign, equal states, is standing in the way of their designs.
Just because both China and Russia are acting as revisionists does not mean that meaningful cooperation between them is all that likely. Both compete over influence in Central Asia, for one. And while Beijing clearly does not see Moscow as a peer, Russia cannot accept becoming China’s junior partner.
But lack of an ability to explicitly coordinate does not mean they pose less of a serious challenge. For both countries, American strength and weakness are key variables, determining what they consider possible and impossible in terms of international behavior. Conflicts are means for them to test the West. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, keeping Assad in power after the U.S. has said that he “must go” would be a major victory in his crusade against what he perceives as an American policy of regime-change in the post-Soviet space and in the Middle East. And for Chinese President Xi Jinping, getting Chinese claims in the South China Sea broadly accepted in the international community, even against the ruling of the Hague arbitration court, would demonstrate that Beijing is now defining the rules of international order in its neighborhood.
A Dangerous Spiral
The current crisis of the liberal order is taking place on two levels. Pressure is coming from inside liberal democracies, where populist politicians are pushing back against open borders and open societies. But it is also coming from the outside, where powerful autocratic regimes are doing their best to reset the rules of the game in their favor.
Both trends are mutually reinforcing.
The perceived or real weakness of the West is encouraging autocratic challengers to advance their own international agenda, and to test the West’s readiness to defend liberal principles. In Europe in particular, the resultant clashes are having spill-over effects. Russian aggression in Ukraine, its military maneuvers and its aggressive rhetoric (including the threat to use nuclear weapons) have provoked sharp disagreements among NATO members. And waves of refugees, mainly from Syria, have led to serious debates in the EU, turning Germany and its eastern neighbors against each other. ISIS-inspired terrorism has added to the siege mentality besetting Europe’s leadership.
For its part, Russia is accentuating these cleavages within Western countries using propaganda and intelligence instruments redolent of the Cold War to further undermine the West’s ability to stand up against Moscow’s designs. Anti-establishment parties and movements, funded and abetted by the Kremlin, find Russia to be ideologically attractive as a conservative counter-model to Western cosmopolitanism, which they have come to resent. And in Central and Eastern Europe, Moscow has been building on the residual influence it has retained from the Soviet period.
China is much less obviously present in European countries. Its strategy is to economically woo individual Western countries, with the goal of turning them into champions of Chinese interests. The EU’s difficulties in agreeing on a rather mildly-worded statement on the South China Sea ruling by the Hague court on July 12 demonstrates that Beijing has already quietly achieved the ability to wield what amounts to a veto in European decision-making.
A Confused Establishment
The final element fueling the crisis of the liberal order is the lack of a coherent and forceful response from those who are in the position of power: Western political and intellectual elites. Far too often, the political establishment is busy playing tactical games rather than seeing the bigger picture. Hillary Clinton has conceded her muscular pro-free trade position as she campaigned to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. The Republicans, for their part, have officially nominated Donald Trump, who has loudly challenged most of the pillars of the Western-backed order. David Cameron spectacularly failed to speak up forcefully in favor of Britain staying in the EU ahead of the Brexit vote. And Nicholas Sarkozy has turned against immigration in order to bring back National Front voters to the traditional French right.
What Western leaders rarely do is to push back strongly against populists by coherently making the case for what they stand for: globalization, open borders, open societies, liberal democracy and a cooperative, fair international order. The whole set of ideas and institutions that has made the world a much better place in the last few decades lacks powerful advocates and strong arguments.
The relative peace and prosperity of the postwar (and post-Cold War) period has been taken for granted, as if the liberal order that birthed it was some kind of default existing in the state of nature. There appears to be little appreciation for how painstakingly it was built, and how fragile it remains. Liberal order is a civilizational achievement that can be reversed at any time. The world can easily regress to a war of all against all in which the stronger and meaner prevail. Barbarism is just a step away.
How to Respond?
It is the political elites in the West—policymakers, experts, opinion-makers—who need to reconfigure and rebuild. If a principled stance against violations of sovereignty in Ukraine and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are not forthcoming, and Brexiteers, Sandernistas and Trumpkins win the intellectual contest easily, then the whole system—the liberal order—is under existential threat.
Making the case does not entail a rejection of all criticisms. Quite the opposite. A key strength of liberalism is that it is open to criticism, and that the debate leads to better policies. Opening up borders, for example, does not mean that a state must completely abandon its ability to control who is on its sovereign territory. And it is clear that the institutions of international and global governance are in many cases not up to the task. But dealing with the problem should be done in the spirit of “achieving our country,.” as Richard Rorty put it. The goal must be to improve the liberal order, not to disrupt or destroy it.
In the new era we are about to enter, Western mainstream elites need to become more assertive and confrontational. Liberal order can only survive if there are enough dedicated, “armed liberals”—thoughtful and well articulated advocates of liberal order. When opponents of open societies and open borders attack, the establishment must fight back. Sitting on the fence on major issues is only strengthening the hand of the anti-liberal forces. When populists work with fear and hatred, liberals forces should respond with optimism and confidence. When populists call for exclusion, liberal forces must make the case for an inclusive, open society. Liberal forces cannot let populists define the issues; they must go out to the marketplace of ideas and make their case.
The year 1989 was a watershed moment for the realization of an optimistic vision that had been incubating since the end of World War II, the expansion of a system that would take the civilizational gains made by liberal democracy on the level of the nation state in the West to a global level. The glimmering promise was mesmerizing: more individual freedom and political participation, more economic opportunities unimpeded by special privilege, and more security through cooperation between states open to positive-sum thinking. Since 1989, the world has made significant progress on that road, but this progress is now seriously in question. It is high time for those who truly care about the liberal order to stand up and be counted.