By Ian Palmer
There was a point in time in which the West could not contain its excitement for the liberal world order it was creating. The alliances forged after World War II that endured the Cold War were prophesied to one day encompass the globe. Today, it seems that dream is fading. The presidential election and subsequent actions of Donald Trump coupled with Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union have raised questions about the strength and permanence of the EU, NATO, the UN, and various other international alliances and trade agreements. The United States, which created and championed world order, is backing away from its creation, leaving for an uncertain and fearful Europe. In May of 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over,” signifying an existential threat and a new change in leadership for the Free World. Neo-Realist Stephen Walt has gone so far as to pronounce Donald Trump’s election the collapse of the Liberal Order. Some are in favor of its demise, and some are vehemently not.
This paper will focus on two aspects of order’s decline: what went wrong, and what should happen next. In “The Collapse of the Liberal World Order,” published in Foreign Policy, Walt makes several claims to the former point, stating that the US oversold democracy to the world, rushed its spread, and ultimately threatened the liberal world order. This paper supports all of these claims, but continues to address the solution. The order will not end as we know it, if anything, the liberal world order will only adjust and grow with time. The West will recognize once again the Westphalian Principles that it has separated itself from and realize that losing authority in the world order threatens its consistent security.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton released a national security strategy focusing on the enlargement of America’s influence. It read:
“Our military might is unparalleled. We now have a truly global economy linked by an instantaneous communications network, which offers growing scope for American jobs and American investment. The community of democratic nations is growing, enhancing the prospects for political stability, peaceful conflict resolution and greater dignity and hope for the people of the world. The international community is beginning to act together to address pressing global environmental needs.”
The United States, through the gaze of its hegemony, recognized that its national interest—and the interest of other nations as well—was the spread of democratic society. Approximately twenty-years later, President George W. Bush promoted a nearly identical plan in his invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The attempt to “promote democracy abroad,” created an unparalleled wave of resistance to liberalism. Dictators and other leaders of states, that were directly threatened by the West’s crusade, fought vigorously by the nature of self-preservation. The Bush Doctrine failed to peacefully implement a liberal system in Iraq or Afghanistan, but increased local disdain for the US ideological manifest destiny. Shortly after, President Obama attempted a similar plan in Libya, only to find the same results.
As Walt points out, liberals made a critical mistake. In order to create a liberal society, one has to implement more than just the institutions of democracy. We found failure and growing resentment in the countries because we tried to promote peace through drones and special forces. In order to embrace a liberal order, the people, or at least its leaders, have to embrace the key values of human rights, power of the people, majority-rule, and free elections without imposition. The prematurity of spreading democracy led to its total rejection. Democracy scholar Larry Diamond observed that “between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries.” The growth of illiberal states has not helped the liberal order either. China, Brazil, and India, which abide by different cultural and political experiences than the mainstream West, clearly reject President Clinton’s claim that American values equate to success.
Foreign rejection of liberalism provides some insight into the West’s loss of liberal furor. As mentioned previously, a liberal order requires a consistent liberal set of beliefs. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations (UN), and multinational trade agreements were premised on advancing away from primitive local identities, race, and local politics. Unified, international organizations claim human rights and the advancement for all, irrespective of national identity. Power of the people began to mean power to all people.
However, it seems all people have not moved past those primitive identities. The fan-fare and hallelujahs for liberalism and democracy are bringing about its current decline. The system that paved the way for America’s great power and standing on the global stage, also blocked it. In a rebuke to Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Ghia Nodia argues that nationalism arises from democracy. Dismantling the notion that they were separate, he writes, “the idea of nationalism is impossible—indeed unthinkable—without the idea of democracy, and that democracy never exists without nationalism.” The same seed which grew the liberal order, also grew its antithesis. Democracy emphasizes unitary traits; identities its citizens can claim. Communities rally around ethnicity, local culture, and shared history, and politicians use these traits to relate to their constituents. Thus arises a clash. Liberalism is supposed to extend beyond local identities, on the foundation of local identity. So at its nature, liberal democracy is a fragile balance, a marriage between “We the People” (of this identity) and tolerance for all others.
The fragility of the liberal-democratic tandem is thus rife with vulnerability for a nationalist-populist movement. A principle of free speech that ultimately defends intolerance allows individuals to create popular platforms. The threat of populist uprising from democracy has existed and been contemplated since the beginning of political philosophy itself. Plato, the “footnote” of all Western Philosophy, feared democracy. He theorized that as the influence of the political elite would dissipate, establishment norms would deteriorate to popular norms. Jump forward 2,500 years and one will find ample case studies for support in Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, and Recep Erdogan. Andrew Sullivan continues Plato’s fear by saying that while in a democracy, “Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.” This blending of identities creates the environment for the rise of a tyrant to transform the anger of the people. Sullivan describes the tyrant’s role and claim to legitimacy:
Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess— “too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” —and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.
So as democracy has released the demons of populism unto the liberal order, the question arises: what’s next? Liberals everywhere have raised their concerns over the future of the once impenetrable world order. Some have gone so far as to foretell its total decline. General Richard Shirreff, author of War with Russia, claimed that NATO would not survive five years under President Trump. While acting as the largest contributor and insinuating that the US would not come to the aid of an attacked ally, President Trump has continuously undermined America’s international commitments and alliances. Donald Trump’s comments, however, are indicative of the growing sentiment to look inward. In 2013, a Pew Research poll found that eighty-percent of Americans thought that the US should not “think so much in international terms.” The public opinion—paralleled by Brexit as well—is that America is focusing on everyone else, and not Americans. Donald Trump’s election, the “of the people” strong man who will Make America Great Again, is a cry for sovereignty.
President Trump made the importance of sovereignty clear when he made his announcement to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords. “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said. Rejecting climate change and assuming the same rationale for attacking NATO and leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Donald Trump claims that America is putting in more work for the benefits it receives. The same actions plaguing a weak and unstable Europe. Immigration, the refugee crisis, and ever-growing bureaucracy is testing the liberal values of European Union. The election of Emmanuel Macron alongside the continued leadership Angela Merkel maintains the pro-EU foundation of Europe’s central powers for the moment. However, if they would like to keep their union alive, they will have to usher in new changes and a new generation for the European Union.
The same goes for all of the liberal global order. The rise in populism signifies a complete retreat from overreaching of the liberal movement. In order to survive, international organizations will have to adapt and accept a return to national sovereignty. The liberal order will not end, and America will never leave it, simply by the nature that presence on the global stage is now crucial to self-preservation. Between 2014 and 2016, UN contracts with US companies totaled $1.5 billion spanning 118 companies and twenty-five states. Hosting the United Nations in New York City brought in $3.68 billion in 2016, while city spending totaled only $54 million. Treaties with more than thirty countries brings the benefits of having military bases all throughout the world to balance against China and Russia. While stating that the US may not defend its allies in Europe if they were to be attacked, perhaps President Trump overlooked the almost $700 billion the US benefits in trade as well as intelligence gathering in exchange for protection. The liberal global order also opened trade with China and allows for trade with China’s rivals to counterbalance the growing power. On the other end of spectrum, one year after making the decision to leave the EU, Britain’s economy has fluctuated. Leaning more on the negative side, with the value of the pound lower continuously falling compared to the Euro and the Dollar and overall economic growth slowing compared to previous years and the rest of the EU.
The benefits of a strong liberal order and the greater benefits of being an influential leader are obvious. Nonetheless, the political reality makes it that domestic politics hinders national interest. If the global order wishes to continue, for the benefit of all, it will have to change for all. G. John Ikenberry writes about a balance between the Westphalian Principles and the construction of the liberal order. The former emphasizes the role of national sovereignty. The latter emphasizes a global coalition—a universal society of rules and collective growth. However, similar to our pursuits in Iraq, the West forced the liberal order to grow more quickly than it should have. To ensure participation, states will need to reclaim some of their Westphalian rights, and reinvigorate the global stage.
Based on the notions of sovereignty and pursuing national interest, the Westphalian Project established the consensus of a state’s right to rule itself. As international relations became a more compelling facet for pursuing self-interests, more and more nations found themselves entwined with treaties and trades. Neo-realist and neo-liberal theories acknowledge the benefits of international relations, albeit differently. Neo-realists focus on the benefits of security and counterbalancing, such as the cases of Vienna in 1815 or Versailles in 1919. Neo-liberals understand the principle Westphalian problem as market failures, trade, and economic security. Despite what the focus is, both schools of thought can find consolation in the international order.
The states that abided by the contracts and treaties did so to put in place rules and constraints for all, that would ultimately serve the interests of all. Allowing states to participate in multilateral trade while requiring low tariffs and workers’ rights, benefits nations’ economy and global reputations. A white paper by the World Economic Forum states, “Free, fair and open rules-based trading systems are the cornerstone of the liberal economic order.” Neo-liberals would be happy to find that in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes twelve countries and 40% of the global GDP, allowed for more than $1 trillion in trade for the US and Europe. The TTP and the WTO have increased trade efficiency and the absolute quantity of how much the US trades, providing a sound argument for reinforcing national interests.
That narrative, especially in the conservative-populist movement, has changed. Ikenberry suggests that hesitations began with the growing influence of the UN in the 1990’s. The United Nations and the new global order championed the Westphalian Project. Roosevelt’s vision of Bretton Woods Institutions boosted political and economic cooperation throughout the West. The UN, led by America and a Western ideologue, heaped the benefits onto America and the West without having to abdicate its sovereignty. However, The United States, as the unequivocal global hegemon, continued to inject American ideals into the UN, ultimately degrading it. The powers began distancing themselves from the Westphalian Project with the incorporation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More attacks on national sovereignty came as more conventions were signed and more treaties ratified. Community laws were set in place and a notion of a right to intervene was enshrined as a core principle of the UN.
The right to intervene, coupled with America’s unparalleled spending in the UN and NATO, creates a contest of responsibilities and rights of nations and leaders in the liberal world order. The conservative-populist movement, created by the democratic system sans liberalism, has called for an isolationist, “Us first,” response. The populist movement would love to see nothing more than a retreat from the liberal world order. Donald Trump has already left the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, as mentioned before, allowed the US to partake and affect the trade of goods all throughout the world. Leaving the international order harms the US, and benefits other growing powers such as China and Brazil. President Trump may have an understanding of this, however. International-law scholar William Burke-White explained the politically-charged speech but ultimate fruitlessness of several of Donald Trump’s actions on the international stage. With regards to both the Paris Climate Accords, Donald Trump has announced America’s departure in a way that had no legal effect, either domestically or internationally. The same is true for the Iran Nuclear Deal, President Trump legally upheld America’s side of the deal for months despite scorning it throughout his campaign. Nearly immediately after withdrawing, the president publicly insisted on renegotiating it entirely.
If the legally non-binding actions of the President come from the behest of advisers warning of the national interests at stake, as Professor Burke-White suggests, then the solution the world order must enact becomes clear. The cornerstone of conservative-populism—reclaimed identity, community culture, and ethnicity—is a formidable force against the fragile liberal-democracy. If the UN and NATO wishes to maintain power and legitimacy and the EU wants to survive Brexit and rising populist movements, then these international organizations will have to loosen their liberal beliefs.
The postwar order has been under attack by the nations it is trying to counterbalance. Russia, China, India, and Turkey have all called for reformation of the US-led UN doctrine which enforces strict behavior and threatens their systems with the spread of democracy. External pressures coupled with rising populism account for the attacks from the outside, and uncertainty inside. The balance of Westphalian Principles and the liberal order was outweighed to the former. To counterbalance, the UN, NATO, and the EU should return to the perceptions that the US-led coalition created. Other nations should be easily allowed to enter UN and America will have to become more tolerant of diversity of political systems. If the EU wants to survive, it will have to reduce the sacrifice to sovereignty of nations to join. The ills of the euro are largely due to a lack of integration and lack of a common debt instrument. The economic benefits of increased integration are needed in the Bretton Woods Institution as well. The World Economic Forum recommends adjustments to the IMF and increased participation with the New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The world’s powers are no longer inherent to allied democratic states. It is eminently important that growing powers have a seat at the table, for the sake every nation’s prosperity.
Ikenberry suggests a shift from a collective “of liberal democratic states” to an “international mutual-aid society.” All states have an interest in a constrained, but open system. States benefit from trade under the premise of accountability. China owes most of its astounding growth to the liberal order, as much as it has opposed it. Donald Trump can also fulfill some of his language by incorporating China, India, and Brazil to the postwar order. These nations will have to become more accountable if they wish to stay in the system, and now they will have to pay for mutual defense and emergency aid, just as the US does. If America continues its leadership while inviting other large powers into the array, it will strive to be more competitive, while surrendering some portion of the responsibilities to maintain sovereignty—a win-win for populism. Liberals also benefit from the changes. Their world order survives, but with the possibility of spreading liberalism naturally to illiberal states. If Beijing wants to make the yuan a global currency, it will have to through the liberal order. It will only happen if China loosens its currency controls and strengthens its financial institutions. A more inclusive Security Council and G-20 can open a dialogue for protection against territorial aggression, terrorism, and climate change. Less intervention and blunt democracy-spreading could lead to the rise of legitimate and accepted liberal ideas throughout the globe.
With the modern-day economic and security threats of the world, national interests lie in the world order, not outside of it. The final point is that there is no alternative to the liberal world order. Countries are richer now than ever before, and the West is safer now than ever before. There have been some critical missteps that have led to the attack on the system, but the solution exists, not through avoidance but through an embrace of change. Some scholars have speculated a tiered system for both the EU or a reconsideration of Evans’ and Sahoun’s “The Responsibility to Protect.” I agree that both are sound and critical to the continued existence of the liberal world order. International institutions will have to reduce its controls and regulations to let in the new generation of powers, from which—I hope—America will recognize and grow.
Ian Palmer is a junior at Swarthmore College, where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Religion.
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A World Economic Forum White Paper
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A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement” pg. 2
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Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/11/merkel-macron-g7-photos-social-media-trump