Last week’s referendum in which a small majority of British voters elected to end the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union has invited eulogies of a much grander scale. Stephen Walt speaks of the “collapse of the liberal international order.” Sebastian Mallaby writes that “Brexit” may be remembered as the event when the “idea of the West ceases to be plausible.” Matt O’Brien calls it “the end of the end of history.”
In a way, these dramatic assessments are understandable. The ascent of non-Western and/or illiberal states such as China, India, Russia and Brazil challenges Western dominated international institutions. On top of that, populism’s growing strength within the West could undermine the bedrock foundations of liberal international institutions. Fareed Zakaria writes that the main divide within the West is now open vs. closed rather than left vs. right.
If we take a step back, however, the conflict is more about what kind of liberal international order is going to prevail than whether the whole thing will fall apart.
The idea of a “Western” or “Liberal” international order has always masked substantial conflict about just exactly what these things mean. At its core, it seems to be about promoting democracy and capitalism.
Yet people have always had rather different ideas about how to put these things together. The United States is a liberal capitalist democracy. So is Sweden. But their economic and political institutions work quite differently. Moreover, the rules, norms and principles that organize these societies are constantly being contested from within by political actors with divergent ideas and interests.
So it is at the international level. International institutions are not just vehicles to create shared norms, improve efficiency and make everyone better off, as the main international relations theories would have it. They are also the structural means by which political winners pursue their own interests, often at the great expense of political losers.
Analysts have called Brexit the “revolt of globalization’s losers.” This isn’t just sour grapes. There is a good bit of evidence that liberal international institutions have indeed hurt the economic interests of large groups of people. Economic theory tells us that the winners of globalization should compensate the losers. But that hasn’t always happened.
On top of that, there is a great deal of ideological contestation over proper protections from the forces of globalization, the role of the environment, how exactly to interpret human rights, nationalism and identity and so on. It would be foolish to look at the history of international relations as a slow but steady path toward ever more integration driven by the functional need to cooperate. This stuff has always been politically contested, both in the West and outside of it. Indeed, the E.U. has never fared well in referendums. Until now, however, political and economic elites have usually managed to limit the implications of these populist revolts.
Even now, the Brexit referendum reinforces just how difficult it would be to withdraw from the liberal project altogether. The punishment by financial markets was immediate and severe. Even pro-Brexit elites like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were quick to say that they wanted to keep Britain’s traditional liberal internationalist orientation alive. But they meant different things with it.
Many of the pro-Brexit elites, like Boris Johnson, want to stay within the European single market but without the free movement of people and without contributing to the E.U. budget. They probably can’t have this, as these are part of the price of admission to the single market.
We can’t really tell what the exact deal will look like or even if a Brexit will truly happen. But this is properly about renegotiating the terms of the liberal order as they apply to the U.K., not about leaving it. No one is challenging the ideas of free movement of goods, capital and services. Nor is anyone suggesting that Britain should stop being a democracy or stop cooperating with other democracies.
The U.K. may well withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights. But that wouldn’t stop its commitment to its version of liberal values. There is a strong skeleton within which countries seek to find their place.
I have made the case earlier that new institutions created by China and others should be interpreted in a similar way. They are not creating a World without the West. China’s entire growth strategy is deeply tied to the World Trade Organization and access to other international institutions. Yet what is going on is an attempt to renegotiate some of the norms, principles and rules that underlie the liberal order. That’s not nothing — but it also isn’t quite as dramatic as some make it out to be.
In Brussels, people often refer to the bicycle theory of integration: The project must keep moving forward or else it will fall over. But that’s not a good analogy for a set of contested international political institutions. Countries have long been cycling at their own pace and even in slightly different directions. That may be a nuisance but it’s not a disaster, as long as they’re not trying to push each other off the bikes.