After the events of World War II, the democratic countries of Europe together with the United States set out to create a liberal international order that respected the rule of law, state’s sovereignty rights, and territorial integrity. This eventually resulted in the formation of international organizations that sought to promote peace (the UN), economic development (World Bank), and trade and investment, particularly in crisis situations (IMF). Although many institutions were involved, much of it was backed by the economic and military power of the United States.
However, this order has been challenged in the past few years like never before. Populism is growing, mainstream centrist parties are losing ground to the political extremes, Brexit happened, and Trump is constantly undermining and targeting the international organizations for which the United States fought so hard to establish. There has also been a rise in authoritarian powers like Russia and China that threaten the safety of the West and the liberal democracy, while the situation has not been improved in the Middle East and what’s even worse is that it’s been stagnant for years (Syria, Yemen, they are still facing humanitarian concerns, and there is also Venezuela in South America which is emerging as a country in crisis).
Why have those things occurred? To take for example populism, it is attributed to the stagnating income, the loss of jobs and disappearance of the middle class, which is attributed to immigrants in many places (Hungary important example), but also to technological development. And globalization seems to have failed the developing countries while making the rich richer. Such arguments allowed for nationalist leaders to emerge and criticize the establishment and express discontent for how the West works while also becoming more popular.
This is exactly what President Trump is doing; he is constantly criticizing international organizations and treaties (INF, TPP, G-7, UN) for infringing on US sovereignty and restricting its freedom of action. He also criticized the fact that members of NATO have not been paying their dues and have been profiting off of the United States’ generosity.
While some of those criticisms might be true, it’s a mistake to withdraw or to constantly bash on these institutions. The problem is that without the United States’ support, the international order is weaker, less prosperous, less successful, and more prone to being defeated by non-democratic forces.
In one of his essays that later became part of his book The Great Delusion, American political scientist John Mearsheimer outlined 6 flaws that could be fatal to the liberal international order:
- It functions on an idea that there could be an ideology that is more or less universally accepted, and that he thinks is impossible
- The liberal “crusade” that the West led indubitable led to a war with smaller powers that felt threatened by this imposition on their culture and values
- This crusader mentality also leads to a conflict between the unipole and the other major powers that have not accepted a liberal belief system, and the best examples in this case are China and Russia
- Maybe we’ve even undermined the power nationalism can have in those Western countries, which stands contrary to many assumptions that come with liberalism. We thus see the rise of people like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and others, who have managed to garner an extremely wide and powerful support base due to their nationalist policies
- While hyper-globalization sounded good at the level of ideas, in practice it has created huge inequality. It resulted in global inequality, the inability of people from the working class to move up the economic ladder, automation which also exacerbates the middle class especially by taking up its jobs and leaving people jobless, etc. Also, international economic organizations such as the IMF often responded to crises inappropriately, trying to implement liberal ideas when they weren’t necessary and donating aid that comes with certain conditions, which is what happened during the Asian financial crisis from 1997.
- Including China into the liberal international order has been a mistake, as it allowed it to grow and develop into an economic powerhouse with a strong military, which is now allowing it to destabilize the liberal order
The question is whether the things listed above will lead to the fall of the liberal order. It may just be so if things don’t change. But there are also arguments made that argue that the resilience of liberalism will endure through this challenging situation and emerge victorious. The condition is to maintain these organizations for which interdependence is crucial. Liberals argue that liberal democratic capitalist states are more peaceful, prosperous, and respectful of human rights and the rule of law.
These ideas are maintained through a well-built coalition of states that work together on solving common issues, and the more global these issues are (like climate change, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, poverty), the better and more applicable the solutions will be. Thus, states don’t work together because they are optimistic and they think this is what is right, but because it has proven to be the better thing to do. Despite the American decision to withdraw from the international sphere into isolationism, it is admirable that there have been players that stepped up to continue the tradition established in the middle of the 20th century.
For example, after the US pulled out of the TPP, the remaining members implemented their own version of the pact, and after Trump did the same thing with the Paris climate agreement, that hasn’t stopped all the other countries from working together on coming up with plans to save the planet from destruction. This gives a sense of optimism that the liberal order is stronger than some may have thought and will continue to perform its duties regardless of the instability caused by some members.