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The Next Liberal Order

  • G. John
  • Aug, 2020
  • 128
  • International Affairs

The age of contagion demands more internationalism, not less

When future historians think of the moment that marked the end of the liberal world order, they may point to the spring of 2020-the moment when the United States and its allies, facing the gravest public health threat and economic catastrophe of the postwar era, could not even agree on a simple communiqué of common cause. But the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic engulfing the world these days is only exposing and accelerating what was already happening for years. On public health, trade, human rights, and the environment, governments seem to have lost faith in the value of working together. Not since the 1930s has the world been this bereft of even the most rudimentary forms of cooperation.

The liberal world order is collapsing because its leading patrons, starting with the United States, have given up on it. U.S. President Donald Trump, who declared in 2016 that “we will no longer surrender this country . . . to the false song of globalism,” is actively undermining 75 years of American leadership. Others in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have likewise packed their bags and moved on to the next global era: that of great-power competition. Washington is settling in for a protracted struggle for dominance with China, Russia, and other rival powers. This fractured world, the thinking goes, will offer little space for multilateralism and cooperation. Instead, U.S. grand strategy will be defined by what international relations theorists call “the problems of anarchy”: hegemonic struggles, power transitions, competition for security, spheres of influence, and reactionary nationalism.

But this future is not inevitable, and it is certainly not desirable. The United States may no longer be the world’s sole superpower, but its influence has never been premised on power alone. It also depends on an ability to offer others a set of ideas and institutional frameworks for mutual gain. If the United States abandons that role prematurely, it will be smaller and weaker as a result. A return to great-power competition would destroy what is left of the global institutions that governments rely on for tackling common problems. Liberal democracies would further descend into disunion and thereby lose their ability to shape global rules and norms. The world that would emerge on the other side would be less friendly to such Western values as openness, the rule of law, human rights, and liberal democracy.

A return to great-power competition is neither inevitable nor desirable.

In the short term, the new coronavirus (and the resulting economic and social wreckage) will accelerate the fragmentation and breakdown of global order, hastening the descent into nationalism, great-power rivalry, and strategic decoupling. But the pandemic also offers the United States an opportunity to reverse course and opt for a different path: a last-chance effort to reclaim the two-centuries-old liberal international project of building an order that is open, multilateral, and anchored in a coalition of leading liberal democracies.

For guidance, today’s leaders should look to the example of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. The collapse of the world economy and the rapid spread of fascism and totalitarianism in the 1930s showed that the fates of modern societies were tied to one another and that all were vulnerable to what Roosevelt, using a term that seems eerily prescient today, called “contagion.” The United States, Roosevelt and his contemporaries concluded, could not simply hide within its borders; it would need to build a global infrastructure of institutions and partnerships. The liberal order they went on to build was less about the triumphant march of liberal democracy than about pragmatic, cooperative solutions to the global dangers arising from interdependence. Internationalism was not a project of tearing down borders and globalizing the world; it was about managing the growing complexities of economic and security interdependence in the pursuit of national well-being. Today’s liberal democracies are the bankrupt heirs to this project, but with U.S. leadership, they can still turn it around.

The Problems of Modernity

The rivalry between the United States and China will preoccupy the world for decades, and the problems of anarchy cannot be wished away. But for the United States and its partners, a far greater challenge lies in what might be called “the problems of modernity”: the deep, worldwide transformations unleashed by the forces of science, technology, and industrialism, or what the sociologist Ernest Gellner once described as a “tidal wave” pushing and pulling modern societies into an increasingly complex and interconnected world system. Washington and its partners are threatened less by rival great powers th...

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