The American-led international order is in crisis. Over the past six decades, globe-spanning transformations of states and peoples have overrun long-standing governance arrangements, leading many to wonder what is next.
In the decades after World War II, initially in the shadow of the Cold War, the United States and other liberal democratic states built a distinctive type of order – I call it a “liberal hegemonic order.” It was organized around big ideas and big institutions: open trade, multilateralism, alliances, partnerships, democratic solidarity, human rights and American leadership were all enshrined ideas. To an extraordinary degree, the American-led world order was built around institutions, including the old dinosaurs that still exist today: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization) and the World Bank. A wide variety of regional institutions and far-flung security alliances were also established.
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Over the past 60 years, the international landscape has shifted dramatically: the Cold War came and went; American unipolar power has risen and declined; and today, non-Western developing states are gaining in power and influence. Yet, across these decades, the global system of institutions, alliances and partnerships remains. Indeed, institutionalized cooperation among states – Western and non-Western – has deepened in the past two decades. In the decades since the end of the Cold War a small library of books has been written about the “end of the American world order,” yet the most striking features of the current global order still reflect liberal hegemony at their core.
If this is true, what is in “crisis?” There is a crisis of authority, perhaps, but not of deep principles. Liberal international order is built around open and at least loosely rule-based relations. Openness refers to the ability of states to have access to each other’s societies; the ability to engage in exchange and trade of goods, capital and ideas. Rule-based relations refers to relationships between states that are ordered according to general principles and arrangements, as opposed to those built around regional blocs, spheres of influence or imperial zones.
Looked at this way, the “crisis” of the American-led world order is a crisis of success. Over the past 60 years, this order has facilitated positive transformation. The world economy was opened up and golden years of growth and development were ushered in. The project of European Union was launched. Germany and Japan were brought into the liberal democratic world, becoming leading partners in managing the world economy. Countries in Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America and East Asia made democratic transitions and joined the global trading system. More recently, countries such as Brazil, India and China have experienced their most successful decades of economic growth and social advancement.
Today’s struggle is about voice. It is about who sits at the table, how to reorganize the platforms of authority and what should be the new political hierarchy of states. The struggle is playing out within regions and in global institutions. China and other rising non-Western states are seeking a greater voice in existing multilateral institutions while simultaneously working to establish new development-oriented ones. The various old and new institutions are in contest, but the struggle is not about rival models of modernity or even revising the ideologies of order.
There are a number of reasons to say the liberal international order still has a future. First, it is much more formidable than those of the past; it is easier to join and harder to overturn. It is no longer just an “American order,” but a broader system of relations, built on deeply rooted organizing principles and political foundations, including an array of institutions that manifest shared forms of leadership. China, India and other rising states have reaped massive economic gains from their participation within this system, showing that the order is able to accommodate a variety of ideologies. Together these features give the modern international system unusual capacities for adaptation, expansion, integration and evolution.
Second, liberal internationalism is not a Western idea, but rather one with global appeal. Rising nations in the global South and East are as advantaged by an open and loosely rule-based system as older Western states. Openness creates opportunities for trade, capital and technology exchange, and knowledge transfer. Multilateral rules create tools for states to operate on more equal footing at the global level and provide protections for rising states as much as they do for declining Western powers.
These struggles and trade-offs do not fundamentally divide the East and the West. And meanwhile, a multitude of states — including what might be called the great “middle class” — Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, Brazil and others — are rising up and seeking a role in this evolving system. These nations are pursuing the role of stakeholder: pushing for more multilateralism, influencing world politics through agenda-setting, bridge-building and coalition diplomacy. Liberal internationalism is still a way of organizing the world. It is not a cultural, civilizational or hegemonic artifact.
When looking at the current “crisis” of the American-led liberal international order, it is important to take the long view. While great problems beset the global system, liberal internationalism remains the only game in town. There are no grand ideological alternatives to liberal international order. Neither China nor Russia has a model that the rest of the world finds appealing, and they are in fact deeply entangled in the global order, reliant on an open world economy and permanent seats at the U.N. Security Council.
The ongoing global power transition and cascade of new transnational problems — global warming, pandemics, WMD proliferation, failed states — are putting pressure on existing global rules and institutions. But the “solution” to these issues will require more rather than less liberal internationalism. If the world is going to muddle through, it will need to muddle through together.
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