Liberalism in Retreat


The liberal international order has always depended on the idea of progress. Since 1945, Western policymakers have believed that open markets, democracy and individual human rights would gradually spread across the entire globe. Today, such hopes seem naïve.

In Asia, the rise of China threatens to challenge US military and economic hegemony. In the Middle East, the United States and its European allies have failed to guide the region toward a more liberal and peaceful future in the wake of the Arab Spring. And Russia’s geopolitical influence has reached heights unseen since the Cold War, as it attempts to roll back liberal advances around its periphery.

But the more important threats to the order are internal. For the past half-century, the European Union has seemed to represent the advance guard of a new liberalism in which nations pool sovereignty and cooperate ever more closely with one another. Today, as it reels from one crisis to the next, the EU has stopped expanding.

Other countries will probably not follow the United Kingdom out of the EU. But few European leaders appear willing to continue relinquishing sovereignty, whether to manage flows of refugees or to ensure the long-term viability of the single currency. Many European politicians are demanding more national sovereign control over their destinies rather than more integration.

Across the Atlantic, the US commitment to global leadership, which until now has sustained the liberal international order through good times and bad, looks weaker than at any point since the Second World War. After the costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the chaos that followed the intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama consistently encouraged allies in Europe and the Middle East to take greater responsibility for their own security. In his presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump twisted this argument into an explicitly transactional bargain: America would become a mercenary superpower, protecting only those countries that paid, so that it could focus on making itself great again at home. In so doing, he ignored the hard-won lesson that investing in the security of its allies is the best way of protecting America’s own security and economic interests.

Meanwhile, America’s rebalance to Asia is in jeopardy. With Trump promising to roll back the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Beijing has wasted no time in laying out its own vision for a more integrated Eurasia that may exclude America and in which China will play the leading role. We may be on the brink of a Eurasian century, rather than a Pacific century.

Sustaining an international liberal economic order

In the past, as other political systems have crumbled, the liberal international order has risen to face its challenges. Yet so long as the economies of its leading members remain fragile and their political institutions divided, the order they have championed is unlikely to regain the political momentum that helped democracy spread across the globe. Instead, it will evolve into a less ambitious project: an international liberal economic order that encompasses states with diverse domestic political systems.

This need not be bad news if it allows democracies and their illiberal counterparts to find ways to coexist. Non-Western rising powers, China chief among them, will remain committed to sustaining the international economic order of open markets and free flows of investment. After all, only through continued integration into the global supply chains of goods, services, people and knowledge can emerging markets meet the aspirations of their growing middle classes.

It is in the West’s interests that China’s economic development continues smoothly. US and European markets for goods, services and infrastructure should remain open to Chinese trade and foreign direct investment, as long as Chinese companies abide by their WTO commitments and by US and European rules on security and transparency and the protection of intellectual property. European countries should take the same approach toward Russia, on the condition that Russian companies abide by EU rules. A mutual commitment to the international liberal economic order would help Western governments and their illiberal counterparts keep open other avenues for cooperation on shared challenges, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, European governments and businesses should take part in the Chinese-led strategy to connect northeast Asia with Europe across the Eurasian continent, a component of a series of regional infrastructure investments known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Today, the world is experiencing a structural decline in growth rates of trade, as emerging markets like China make more of their own products and developed countries bring some production back on-shore. Against this backdrop, ramping up investment in infrastructure that can connect the thriving coastal areas of Asia to their underdeveloped hinterlands and then to Europe could create new opportunities for economic growth in both the liberal and the illiberal worlds.

Similar cooperation will be harder to build with Russia. Russia’s system of centralized, opaque political and economic governance makes deeper integration incompatible with the EU’s market and rules-based system. And NATO members have begun a much-needed upgrading of their military readiness in the face of recent Russian provocations. EU and NATO tensions with Russia will likely persist. However, the initiative to build new Eurasian economic inter-connections could provide an alternative way for the United States and Europe to engage Russia in the future.

A period of awkward coexistence

The countries that built the liberal international order are weaker today than they have been for three generations. But liberal policymakers would be wrong to hunker down or resort to containment. An extended stand-off with those who contest a liberal international order may accidentally lead to outright conflict. A better approach would be for liberal countries to prepare themselves for a period of awkward coexistence with illiberal ones, cooperating on some occasions and competing on others. Time will then tell whose form of government is more resilient. If history is any guide, liberal democracy remains the best bet.

An extended version of this article appears in Foreign Affairs.

Dr. Robin Niblett became the director of Chatham House in January 2007.

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