As many analysts have observed, the Pax Americana of recent decades is on life support. After the first 150 days of Donald Trump’s “America First” – or, more accurately, “America Alone” – presidency, it seems that America’s traditional stabilizing role can no longer be viewed as a given. As the primacy of the US in the international arena – and, thus, America’s status as the world’s “indispensable nation” – erodes, other states and even non-state actors are gaining prominence. What does this mean for the so-called liberal international order?
Burgeoning multipolarity does not have to be at odds with an inclusive and mutually beneficial global system. Rising powers like China are equipped to act as responsible stakeholders. And the European Union, which seems to be regaining its confidence, can still be counted on to play a constructive role.
In international relations theory, “liberal internationalism” is characterized by the promotion of openness and order, and is enshrined in multilateral organizations. At the end of World War II, these principles provided the ideological foundation for treaties such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which would later develop into the World Trade Organization.
The Cold War greatly damaged the globalizing ambition of liberal internationalism, a creed closely associated with the geopolitical West, and especially with the US and the UK. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 resulted in a period of indisputable hegemony for the US, and paved the way for the spread of governing structures promoted by the West. But that diffusion didn’t occur as fast, or as widely, as anticipated.
Today, the world remains fragmented. The September 11, 2001, attacks in the US led many countries to close ranks around America. But the attacks also revealed a deeper trend toward disruption by unexpected actors – a trend that would only grow stronger over the subsequent 15 years.
The divergence among countries was economic as well. Not even the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 was as global as conventional wisdom in the developed countries suggests. In 2009, when global GDP contracted, the economies of the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, grew at rates above 8%.
The countries that are unraveling the liberal order today are those that invested the most political capital in creating it. Brexit in the UK and Trump’s election in the US reflect growing frustration with some economic and social effects of globalization, such as offshoring. This frustration has revitalized a form of nationalism based on exclusion. A renewed emphasis on Westphalian sovereignty is spreading, leading some to predict that great-power rivalries will again be the order of the day. Proponents of this school of thought often point to the US-China relationship as the most likely source of friction.
But this is an excessively alarmist view. While China’s dizzying rise generates great mistrust in Western capitals, China may not be as revisionist a power as some think. Recently, the Chinese government distanced itself from the Trump administration, as it reaffirmed its support for the Paris climate agreement, from which the US intends to withdraw. In his symbolic speech at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January, President Xi Jinping established himself as a firm defender of globalization. According to Xi, countries should “refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.”
The Chinese authorities are well aware of how much their country has benefited from becoming deeply integrated into the global economy. And they are not prepared to risk the basis of their domestic legitimacy: economic growth. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly called One Belt, One Road) – which Xi has baptized “the project of the century” – is a true reflection of China’s strategic choice to strengthen commercial links with the rest of Eurasia and Africa, taking advantage of the opportunity to accumulate “soft power.”
In doing so, however, China is not openly calling into question the foundations of the liberal order. The remarkable communiqué from world leaders participating in the BRI Forum in Beijing last month committed more than 30 countries and international organizations to the promotion of “peace, justice, social cohesion, inclusiveness, democracy, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality,” and the empowerment of women.
It would be a mistake to interpret this communiqué literally, or to ignore China’s neo-mercantilist tendencies and illiberal domestic regulations. But neither would it be correct to view China as a monolith, with values that are entirely incompatible with those attributed to the West. Such an oversimplification is no more accurate for China than it would be for the US, where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Trump, or the UK, where those who wanted to remain in the EU lost the Brexit referendum by the slimmest of margins.
At this time of uncertainty and disharmony, the EU is in a position to assume a leading role. Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election should encourage defenders of a liberal order, which, despite its deficiencies, still represents the most attractive and flexible paradigm for international relations.
A united EU can also help catalyze reforms that might reinvigorate ailing multilateral institutions, injecting them with new momentum. If we reach out to emerging countries, it is not too late to construct a truly global order. Unlike after 1989, however, this time we must not leave the job unfinished.