Only five years ago, the world still looked like a liberal internationalist’s dream. Although jihadist terror periodically tested the resilience of governments and societies across the globe, open borders and free trade were widely touted as the way forward. In the context of post-Cold War unipolarity, many in academia, think tanks, and the media wanted to believe that the “first universal nation” could shape world politics in its image, and that a Kantian democratic peace hovered just over the horizon. China’s modernization would pave the way for systemic change in Beijing, helping it take its rightful place as a prominent stakeholder in the emerging liberal global order. The opening of Western markets to Chinese exports, coupled with the export of U.S. technology and industrial know-how, was supposed to accomplish this transition, the assumption being that a modernized China with a newly empowered middle class would want to liberalize its domestic system and join, rather than contest, what would become the global status quo.
Europe was declared to be “whole, free, and at peace,” for in the 1990s Boris Yeltsin’s Russia had been all but written off as a geostrategic competitor. Even with the arrival of Vladimir Putin, the delusion that the new liberal world order would serve as a panacea for geostrategic competition persisted past the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. The aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the follow-on war in eastern Ukraine also failed to bring home to many in academia and the commentariat the fact that the largely unquestioned support for globalism and the belief in the coming of a liberal world order were but byproducts of the post-Cold War denouement and the attendant temporary attenuation of great-power competition.
For close to three decades now, reams of books and scholarly articles, conferences, and media panels have heralded a future in which institutions would ultimately triumph over old cultural constraints. The Realist notion of hard power as directly related to industrial economic strength, geography, natural resources, and population was discounted, if not rejected out of hand, as obsolete, and with it the idea of the strong nation-state as the core building block of a people’s national security and prosperity. It was assumed that such passé ideas as nations situated within defensible borders would over time give way to states that would willingly cede part of their sovereignty to transnational and supranational organizations.
In 1994 NAFTA symbolized the arrival of this new global economy in North America; critics concerned about the consequences for the middle class of the fusing of low- and high-wage labor markets were dismissed as economic nationalists ill-suited to the new liberal free trade era. In Europe, leaders yielded to the temptation to transform the European Community—at its core a treaty-based organization—into a proto-United States of Europe. After the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, Europe’s elites renamed their project the European Union, adopted the euro as its common currency in 1999, and, after the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, began to selectively claim the attributes of a federal state through Brussels’ ever-greater regulatory powers and the Union’s addition of a quasi-President and Foreign Minister. On occasion, scholars even argued that Europe offered a way forward for the United States, betokening a future where social market economies would eventually rule. Likewise, a generation of graduate students in political science was encouraged to focus on the now all-pervasive category of “soft power” as a key variable of global politics. The digital revolution accelerated the inward-looking focus across Western democracies, many of whose societies became increasingly preoccupied with rights over responsibilities.
When wars did erupt, as in the Balkans in the 1990s or in Georgia in 2008, they were often framed as the last gasp of a dying nationalist-imperialist era. Even the brief shock of 9/11 failed to bring about a reality check that the world “out there” was still a perilous place, filled with dangerous actors. Few in the West truly believed that ragtag bands of jihadis could bring down the Western states through terrorist violence. These episodes were alleged to be akin to the common cold—the sort of occasional flare-up one must endure if one is to preserve the interconnected liberal world order.
Most importantly, the West’s victory in the Cold War served as a soothing tonic of ideological certitude, seemingly reaffirming the notion that history was indeed on the side of the globalists. As a 2017 Pew report shows, notwithstanding recent concerns over democratic decline, six in ten countries are democracies—a postwar high, though few would hazard a guess as to the extent to which many nascent democracies are in fact consolidated or even stable. The domestic political upheavals that have rocked the West’s oldest democracies in Europe as well as the United States over the past decade have failed to awaken many leaders to the fact that continued mass immigration and the balkanization of Western nations have undermined national resilience by fragmenting and often paralyzing political processes. For almost three decades, theories about “nation-building” abroad abounded in the United States, while America was simultaneously being deconstructed from within by identity politics coupled with rapid deindustrialization. At the same time, two great powers, China and Russia—one rising, the other faltering—continued to define the world in terms of hard power balancing and zero-sum strategies. For decades, China has pursued aggressive mercantilism, manipulated its currency, and forced U.S. and European companies to yield intellectual property as a precondition for entering its market. Russia in turn has quickly recovered from the Yeltsin-era “time of troubles” by first de facto re-nationalizing its energy sector and then using its abundance of oil and gas as a strategic resource to be weaponized for political gain.
Today the world bears little resemblance to the sanguine picture of the liberal international order to which we grew so accustomed in the decades following the Cold War. A wealthier and more geostrategically assertive China is staking ever-bolder claims to a sphere of influence in Asia and is leveraging its growing wealth to gain influence in Australia, Africa, South America, and, increasingly of late, Europe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea effectively shattered the foundations on which the European Union’s rules-based security system was to be built. Erdogan’s Turkey is running away from the Atatürk legacy. The Middle East is on fire, with Iran increasingly determined to pursue a course of regional hegemony. Europe is struggling to cope with mass immigration from the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, and to preserve what is left of a rapidly shrinking political middle ground, while the European Union talks of a “two-tiered” organization as the only possible path forward. In the Western Balkans political instability is growing.
The world looks very different than it appeared to many only five years ago. Yet to believe that something abrupt and unexpected has happened is to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid of post-Cold War liberal internationalist certitude. In fact, hard power calculation, geostrategic competition, and mercantilism never went away; rather, they merely remained in the background as power distribution morphed amidst America’s “unipolar moment.” This moment has passed. Hard power considerations, including military imbalances, are again at the center of global politics. It is high time for democracies across the globe to take stock of their positions, and for their governments to speak frankly about what brought them there.
The first step is to stop substituting symptoms for causes. The present era is an inflection point not because of a surge of “illiberalism” in democratic politics, the re-nationalization of European politics, Brexit, or Donald Trump—all of which have been proffered as explanations for the seemingly sudden crumbling of the rules-based international system. Rather, what has driven the ongoing global systemic shift is the first impending genuine reordering of economic power distribution across the globe since 1945, especially to Asia, coupled with the attendant geostrategic assertiveness of China as well as a fundamental disconnect between what drives political discourse in Western democracies today and the power considerations that remain central to international relations. The Huntingtonian civilizational fault lines, in short, are being imbued with the accoutrements of hard power, and that in turn provides a recipe for the major global upheaval now looming over the horizon. The next two decades are likely to witness the first genuine challenge posed by a growing global power, China, to the U.S. dominant position worldwide. It remains an open question whether the United States will in fact be able to avoid the “Thucydides Trap,” whereby the displacement of one great power by another leads to war. State-on-state competition, driven by the shifting balance of economic and military power, has dramatically increased the likelihood of a major confrontation between the United States and China. Such a confrontation, if not contained, will likely draw in other major players, including Russia, and force key states in Europe to act at a time when the continent is unready to contemplate such hard choices.
It is time to admit that at the base of the current Western predicament lies a series of fundamentally misguided assumptions about what matters most in the international system. The so-called liberal international order was never the result of some inevitable process leading to enlightened statecraft; rather, the liberal democratic ascendency was a byproduct of the emergence of the United States as the most powerful nation on earth after the Second World War. America’s status as the world’s greatest democracy for the past 70 years enabled it to imbue the global rulebook with its values and institutions. Notwithstanding talk of “soft power” and rules-based systems, national security and hard power are no less vital today than they were at the moment of that system’s creation.
It is an old Realist paradigm that power, rather than rules and norms, is what nations most aspire to gain, and that the ability to influence the behavior of others rests on the foundations of economic and military strength. The notion that international norms without a dominant enforcer willing and able to demand their implementation have much staying power is a byproduct of decades of U.S. willingness to provide the political, economic, and military glue of the current international system. If the United States is displaced from the center of global power, then—not unlike in past eras of British, French, or Spanish domination – the values of the new hegemon will shape the world we all live in. And it will not be a world in which our liberal democratic assumptions will thrive.
Today’s shifting sands of world politics, especially the progressive fragmentation of the institutional framework that has bound the collective West for close to 70 years, is often portrayed by policy analysts as but a temporary glitch, after which the new normal of a rules-based international order will resume. The reality is quite different. The changing power distribution worldwide and the challenge posed to the dominant position of the United States by the rising economic and military power of China and the geostrategic assertiveness of a Russia intent on reclaiming its great power status are returning the world to the fundamentals of great power politics driven by state-on-state competition. The era of global liberalism is over. It was a great ride while it lasted, but it is time to wake up. Time will tell whether the United States and its allies can adapt quickly enough to this new reality for deterrence to hold.