Liberal International Order: Can it be Saved in Today’s Non-Hegemonic World?
Introduction The past decade has seen an increasing interest in the topic of the so-called Liberal International Order. This interest has been growing steadily, especially in the Western academic community, certainly with its own ebbs and flows. The primary driver behind this overall trend appears to be China’s ineluctable rise and the United States of […]
The past decade has seen an increasing interest in the topic of the so-called Liberal International Order. This interest has been growing steadily, especially in the Western academic community, certainly with its own ebbs and flows. The primary driver behind this overall trend appears to be China’s ineluctable rise and the United States of America’s increasingly evident relative decline. Many pundits argue that China’s ascendance poses a long-term existential threat to the Liberal International Order built after World War II around the values and interests of the United States of America – a dominant power of that time. According to this line of argument, as China becomes a dominant power on the world stage it is destined to replace the liberal order with an international order that better reflects its domestic political and economic system. So, an “Authoritarian” international order is in the making. In light of this, the Western academia has generally been rather pessimistic about the LIO’s future prospects.
The debate on the Liberal Order became particularly poignant in 2016-1017 against the background of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union, the mass migration to Europe from the Middle East, as well as the rising populism and right-wing nationalism in some Western European countries. Very indicative of this trend was an issue of Foreign Affairs for January-February 2017 under the title “Out of Order: The Future of the International System”, which contained a number of very enlightening pieces by acclaimed Western experts.
Moreover, a most interesting intellectual debate on the future of the LIO during that period occurred in April 2017 featuring the two renowned Western political scientists – Niall Ferguson from the United Kingdom and Fareed Zakaria from the United States – who, for nearly two hours, did their best to answer the question “Is the Liberal International Order Over? ” with Ferguson arguing in favor of the posited question and Zakaria against it. The majority of the audience present voted in support of Ferguson’s pessimistic view of the LIO’s future.
The latest interest in the Liberal International Order emerged in the context of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine launched on 24 February 2022. Once again, the debate has featured especially stronger in the Western media. An overall narrative by the West appears to be that Russia’s action in Ukraine has actually dealt a mortal blow to the Liberal International Order that has already been damaged by China’s rise along with the latter’s increasingly assertive foreign policy as well as by some persistent transnational challenges like climate change, public health and many others. According to this line of thought, there is no hope for reviving the Liberal International Order.
Non-Western policymakers and political scientists have also been involved in the debate on the LIO since it emerged around a decade ago, although seemingly to a lesser extent. For example, the Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke clearly his mind on the issue in an interview with the Financial Times in June 2019, arguing that the liberal idea has outlived its purpose and that the Liberal International Order has become obsolete as it had come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people [in the world]. Russia in Global Affairs, which is Russia’s and, actually, one of the leading non-Western foreign policy journals, has been contributing to the debate on a regular basis.
The debate on the LIO has pitted the so-called “democracies” against “autocracies” insofar as the LIO is associated with the former while the threat to it purportedly comes from the latter. One would never find universally agreed definitions for these terms. Nonetheless, we all well understand what they stand for. In broad strokes, under a “democracy” in a state we understand a form of governance in which power is decentralized and shared more or less equally among its various branches, whereas an “autocracy” is a form of governance in which power is centralized and where the role of the executive is rather pronounced. For instance, an “autocrat” in power would never concur with United States President Ronald Reagan’s famous saying that «Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.»  Any “autocrat” would surely vouch for the opposite.
This article constitutes an attempt to make a humble contribution to the debate on the Liberal International Order from the perspective of an “autocratic” state, as Belarus, whose Foreign Minister the author is, has had the “honor” of being assigned to this group by the West. In this attempt the author certainly does not claim to be aspiring to present views of all “autocracies”, but rather his own views based on a longstanding experience of work as a senior public official in an “autocratic” country. Furthermore, the author does not attach any pejorative meaning to the terms of “democracy” and “autocracy”, but just uses them for the sake of convenience as they have been widely used in foreign policy discourse.
Emergence, Substance, Challenges
What is an international order and why is the current order considered to be liberal? An international order may generally be viewed as a dominant pattern of engagement in global politics on the part of its actors. As has been the case throughout history, a key role in establishing an international order has been played by a leading or a hegemonic country in the world. It is this country that invariably tries to establish certain rules of behavior on the international stage that others willingly or unwillingly agree to follow. An international order is rather an informal mechanism, which may be viewed as playing somewhat the role of a world government in the actual absence of such a government.
When did the current Liberal International Order emerge? The conventional wisdom holds that this order began to incrementally come into life after World War II, as the United States supported by other Western countries sponsored a set on institutions, rules, and norms designed to avoid the repetition of mistakes of the 1930s and promote instead peace, prosperity and democracy. So, the Order came eventually to be predicated on such institutions as the United Nations and other international organizations, the international financial institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, security alliances like NATO, informal groupings like G-7, G-20, multiple international treaties and conventions and many other formal and informal arrangements and instruments. Taken together, these structures influence almost every aspect of life in the world.
The Order acquired a liberal character because its proponents shaped it in such a way as to imbed in the newly created global structures those specific elements which they practiced in their domestic politics. Thus, the LIO has come to be based on the following key elements: free trade, free movement of capital, a democratic form of governance predicated on the separation and balance of various branches of power, commitment to human rights, in particular, to individual civil and political rights, and the right of ownership. By the way, those proponents called themselves “democracies” apparently with the view to convincing their own people that the latter had a real opportunity to elect authorities and to govern through its elected representatives.
Therefore, it was naturally challenged by the Soviet Union and its allies. Indeed, the Soviet bloc with its alternative versions of political and economic internal organization represented a kind of a temporary alternative to the Western-led order. However, the collapse of the bloc by the early 1990s and the embrace by its former members of «liberal» values prompted one famous foreign policy analyst to proclaim the «end of history», since, according to his logic, with the victory of liberalism over communism there could no longer be an alternative to the Liberal International Order and, consequently, history as we had always known it, that is, the history of wars, rivalry and confrontation, was at last over.
Another ideological challenge to the LIO, although of a very short duration, came from developing nations in the midst of the Cold War, in the early 1970s. The decolonization of the 1960s brought onto the world stage a large number of new developing nations, which found themselves at a disadvantage in the Liberal International Order, and in particular, in free trade with Western developed states.
So, the developing world came up with a collective challenge. Their initiative, called the New International Economic Order, was formalized in the outcome document of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in 1973, and then was adopted as a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly under the same title in 1974. The program provided for a number of measures aimed at revising existing international economic relations in ways that would be more advantageous to the Third World. However, the implementation of the initiative depended on the goodwill of the West, which rejected it.
Thus, by the 1990s the Liberal International Order has apparently weathered all temporary challenges to it and emerged as strong and resilient as it could be. So, what went wrong that just a few decades later, which is indeed a fleeting moment from the historical perspective, the global discourse about the LIO has turned from bright optimism into sour pessimism? Perhaps, it would make sense to take a closer look at the LIO per se in order to find out whether it contains some inherent flaws that predetermined its inevitable failure.
Hallmark and Overriding Principle
When political scientists say that the Liberal International Order was born after 1945 they are both right and wrong. They are right in identifying that date as the start of practical work on erecting structures associated with the Order. They are wrong, however, in not looking further into the past for events and developments that made possible the emergence of the Order in the mid-XX century.
In his book “World Order” (2014) the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger contends that no truly global “world order” has ever existed and what passes for order in our own time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago. So, according to Kissinger, the Westphalian peace of 1648, which relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each others’ domestic affairs and checking each others’ ambitions through a general equilibrium of power became the hallmark of a new system of international order.
Another crucial insight into the origin of the Liberal International Order was provided by the British critical historian Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal book “The Age of Revolution” (1962), which was the first in a trilogy of his books about the “long XIX century”. Eric Hobsbawm came up with the concept of a “Dual Revolution” by which he means the British Industrial Revolution that occurred at the end of the XVIII century and the French Revolution of 1789.
According to the British historian, the Industrial Revolution took off around 1780 and lasted 20 years, while since 1780 the revolutionary pace of change in economic development became a norm. The French Revolution, in turn, inspired by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, set in motion the spread of such ideas as democracy, nationalism, and liberalism. Liberalism actually became a dominant movement in the post French Revolution period. Liberals believed in freedom of the press, freedom of speech, civil rights, fair elections, freedom of religion and private property. So, Hobsbawm identified the Industrial Revolution as an economic revolution, whereas the French Revolution he called a political revolution. Taken together, they constitute the “Dual Revolution”.
It is not hard to see that the key elements that define today’s Liberal International Order – liberalism, free trade and democracy – have been produced by the Dual Revolution at the turn of the XVIII and XIX centuries. So, if the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was the hallmark of the Liberal International Order, the Dual Revolution can certainly be assigned the honor of being its overriding principle and its precursor.
The Dual Revolution has eventually grown up into the Liberal International Order. But the former’s path towards the latter’s destination has not been even and easy. While the Dual Revolution’s economic part was welcomed by then leading states’ elites, its political part came under assault from the conservatism associated with the Holly Alliance, forged in 1815 by Austria, Prussia and Russia, in order to fight the ideas of liberalism, nationalism and democracy on the European continent.
The Dual Revolution’s political part had a chance to succeed only in the aftermath of World War I, when the United States President Woodrow Wilson tried to realize his promise “to make the world safe for democracy”, which he had made to justify America’s entrance into the war. But the effort miscarried, not least because President Wilson failed to enlist support to his post-war global “democratic” agenda from his own country.
As for the Dual Revolution’s economic part, its track record for much of the time until some decades ago has rather been mixed. On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution has certainly facilitated human progress, as through free trade and an accelerated pace of domestic economic development it helped humanity break out of the so-called “Malthusian trap”. On the other hand, it produced two negative developments. Internationally, it produced a free trade regime that favored industrial nations over backward societies, while domestically it gave rise to great social discontent as the rich tried to take from the poor as much as possible in order to invest into further economic expansion. It is fair to say that the Communist ideology emerged in Europe exactly in response to the latter trend.
Thus, the Dual Revolution has produced the two separate tracks – economic and political – which, by fits and starts, a century and a half later found their reflection in the Liberal International Order. It is puzzling why those pollical commentators scrutinizing the LIO topic overlook this distinct dual nature of the Order, because the problem with the Liberal International Order, as will be demonstrated in the following sections, lies precisely in its dual nature.
As was pointed out earlier, the Liberal International Order has been able to withstand the two ideological challenges to itself in the XX century posed by the Socialist camp and the Third World, respectively. Yet, the LIO did not remain intact. Instead, it has undergone its own evolution. One major development occurred on its economic track and one major development took place in its political domain. Both transformed the Liberal International Order in ways that made it simultaneously more “humane” and more “aggressive”.
The major development that began in the 1970s on the economic front was of a positive nature and it made the Order more “humane”. This development was the so-called outsourcing or movement of production from the West to the developing world. The logic here is obvious: transnational corporations (TNCs) which actually “move” their production abroad thus reduce production costs due to cheaper labor in the developing world and increase their profits, whereas receiving developing countries through foreign direct investment were empowered to build export-oriented economies that enable them to make a leap in their own development.
China stands here as the biggest success story of this process. Indeed, due to its economic openness and embrace of free trade China was able to draw in foreign direct investment and through its export-led growth achieved unprecedented economic development which lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and which made the country the second largest economy in the world. Experts concur in their assessment that very soon China will bring back to itself the title of the world’s largest economy, which it had occupied for centuries before the Industrial Revolution. Many other developing nations, especially in East Asia, follow in China’s footsteps.
This positive development does not mean that the Liberal International Order totally became “humane” in economic terms. It is far from that, because there remains in the world a sizeable “Non-Integrated Gap” – a term coined by some political scientists to describe least developed countries “disconnected” from globalization. This group of countries for various reasons still very much relies on official development assistance and other forms of international aid.
So, how do “autocracies” fare in this changed global economic environment? It can be reasonably argued that “autocracies” generally benefit from the Liberal International Order’s economic arm. Indeed, it is supported by the fact that they all want the West to remove its economic sanctions if such are imposed against “autocracies”, because sanctions limit the opportunities for benefits resulting from free trade and free movement of capital.
Moreover, all «autocracies» benefit from access to consumer markets in the countries of «democracy» and from the transfer of technology from «democracies», which is largely carried out by Western-based TNCs in the process of outsourcing. Furthermore, all «autocracies» seek membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to take full advantage of free trade. So, in general, «autocracies» appear to be very much integrated into these LIO’s economic processes and structures and seek even greater integration.
These facts allow one to conclude that «autocracies» have no serious problems with the Liberal International Order in its economic component — i.e. with free trade and free movement of capital. Therefore, “autocracies” do not appear to be interested at present in changing this “economic” status quo by creating a new economic order, at least, unity on such an initiative among them would be unlikely now.
But «autocracies» have one “reservation” in this economic realm. The existing state of affairs in economics appears to be acceptable for «autocracies» at the international level provided that domestically “autocracies” are free to pursue their own economic policies under a greater governmental control. This phenomenon has been called «state-led capitalism» and successfully practiced in many “autocratic” countries. Indeed, «autocracies» have good reason for adopting such a stance since they well remember that the absence of such controls and subordination to the West-driven «Washington Consensus» led to a very acute financial and economic crisis in Southeast Asia in 1997-1998 and in the Russian Federation in 1998.
Where the “autocracies” do have a problem with the Liberal International Order is with its political component.
Why is this happening? This trend is most convincingly explained by the liberal school of international relations theories through its «Democratic Peace» theory.
The liberal theoretical school proceeds from the premise that it is states’ intentions rather than their capabilities that actually define international relations. In other words, if some countries have good intentions towards other countries, there is no need for them to build their military capabilities and wage wars. But how to achieve a situation in which all countries would have only benign intentions towards each other? Obviously, it can be done by making them all alike. This belief gave rise to the theory of “Democratic Peace” – a view that “democracies” do not wage war against each other, because “democratic” governments, in contrast to other types of governments, are accountable to their populations and, hence, cannot harbor hostile intentions against other fellow democracies.
This concept, in turn, takes its root in the idea of the XVIII century’s German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued in his work “Perpetual Peace” (1797) that states with a republican form of government were more conducive to peace with each other than with other countries. Therefore, the recipe for overcoming the constraints of international anarchy, according to this line of thought, was to make all countries in the system similar in the nature of their domestic structure, that is, to make them all republican. Realizing this objective would make the accumulation of power domestically and balancing internationally irrelevant and unnecessary in a world inhabited by like-minded countries. Thus, perpetual peace in the world would ultimately set in.
At the time of Kant’s writing it was a republican form of government that was associated among leading thinkers of that time with social progress as opposed to “reactionary” and “conservative” monarchies which prevailed in the world and which allegedly held humanity’s progress back. As today a republican form of government became a prevailing pattern in the world and has been embraced both by “liberal” and “autocratic” states alike, the liberals replaced in Kant’s theory the word “republican” with “democratic” and thus came up with a modified guidance for policy action for Western policymakers.
A very crucial point in the “Democratic Peace” theory is that “democracies do not wage war against fellow “democracies”, but they are free to fight “despots”, “tyrants” and “autocrats”. That is exactly how the theory explains, for example, the first major war since it emerged (in Kant’s version) that was waged by a “republican” (“democratic”) country against the “evil” powers of their time, namely, the wars of the revolutionary France against European monarchies in the late XVIII century.
For much of the time since its emergence the “Democratic Peace” was contained by other global forces, for example by European conservatism in the XIX century and by the Soviet Union in the XX century. It had no chance to succeed in becoming a dominant global trend until the 1990s because there was no hegemonic “republican” or “democratic” state in the world that would stand firmly behind it.
The term “hegemony” is used here as the one elaborated by the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci in the 1920-1930s. Hegemony in this Gramscian sense means not the military or economic dominance of one country over others, but rather reflects the fact that all in the system willingly accept someone’s leadership, authority and associated power structures and regard them as established, natural and legitimate.
In the early 1990s the United States of America became a hegemonic power. As such, America could have used its status and power more wisely with the purpose of shaping and strengthening the Liberal International Order in ways that would benefit everyone in the system of international relations, whereby ensuring the Order’s durability and sustainability. The hegemon, however, opted for an egoistic path of a zero-sum game of power politics believing that it was proper time to take advantage of others’ temporary weakness in order to solidify its own standing on the globe. The “Democratic Peace” thus became a key tool in the US foreign policy arsenal.
Indeed, what was the enlargement of NATO driven by the United States if not the proof of the “Democratic Peace” theory’s viability. Indeed, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, there was no point in its continued existence. Yet, despite the absence of any threats, the alliance began to expand under various far-fetched pretexts, incorporating new “democracies” into its ranks and forcibly, in violation of international law, imposing this form of governance on other countries in the world.
What were the so-called “color revolutions” inspired and backed by the West with the view to establishing “democracy” in other countries, primarily in former Soviet republics if not the practical implementation of the “Democratic Peace” theory. Furthermore, the consistent resort by the world’s «democracies» to illegitimate unilateral coercive measures against «autocracies» in order to limit the latter’s benefits from the economic component of the LIO is also part of their efforts to promote the «Democratic Peace» idea.
Naturally, «autocracies» resist attempts at imposing the «Democratic Peace» on them for the simple reason that an internal form of government in a country cannot be imposed from the outside. The internal form of each and every state is a complex «historical construct», whose evolution was influenced by a number of ultimate and proximate factors like, among others, geography, religion, culture, history of mutual relations with neighboring countries. These factors historically determined the nature of either centralization or decentralization of power in each state and the extent to which the executive engages with other branches of power.
«Autocracies», to their great credit, understand this complex historical process and do not seek to impose their centralized and “autocratic” ways of life on Western societies, which, by an evolutionary path of internal development, have come to a decentralized form of government and a system of checks and balances in government.
It is not surprising that the imposition of forms of governance alien to a certain state leads to internal chaos and practically “breaks” this state into pieces while setting in motion an adverse “spill-over effect” throughout the region. Developments of this kind happened in the context of the so-called «Arab Spring» in the Middle East and North Africa.
A New Order?
One cannot but share the general pessimism about the Liberal International Order and its future prospects. Yet, the cause for this pessimism has not been identified correctly in the ongoing global discourse. The problem with the LIO is not that some events like Brexit, Trump’s election or Russia’s military operation in Ukraine “undermine” the Order. These are all transient events, they just come and go.
The problem with the Liberal International Order is rather structural. History shows that world orders (or rather regional orders if viewed in the historical perspective) thrived when they were underpinned by hegemonic states. The modern world has been in its hegemonic phase roughly from “the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the fall of the Lehman Brothers in 2007”, as the American economist Joseph Stiglitz put it.
Indeed, it was an era of US triumphalism, the “Unipolar Moment”. This “Moment” came to an end politically with the United States’ “imperial” overstretch in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, whereas economically it was brought to a halt by the global economic and financial crisis sparked by “market fundamentalism” that reigned supreme in the United States of America.
Today, we are living in a post-hegemonic era. Therefore, we are confronted with the question of what kind of order is best appropriate for this stage of human development. History shows that non-hegemonic periods were dominated by regional and, more rarely, by ideological orders. Is regionalism (or ideology) an option for today’s world? It is surely a very viable option.
First and foremost, it is much easier to achieve effective cooperation at the regional level than at the global one, because regions stand as more coherent political, economic and cultural units than a global polity. There are clearly some hegemons in the Gramscian sense within each region capable of shaping regional orders. Moreover, the political mainstreams in all regions appear to be supportive of such an evolution. By way of example, the Russian President Vladimir Putin came some years ago with the idea of building a “Big Eurasian Partnership” that seeks to bolster ever greater cooperation and integration of this part of the world.
The debate in the West, however, mostly speaks in favour of saving the current Liberal International Order. Very instructive in this respect was a recent piece entitled “Last Best Hope: The West’s Final Chance to Build a Better World Order” that appeared recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Building on the US President Biden’s speech in March 2022, in which he said that “the West now faces a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force”, the authors came up with idea to establish a G-12 group in order to consolidate the West. They argue that a new grouping should not be a loose ad-hoc group like the G-7 but rather an effective mechanism in order “to foil Russian revanchism and compete with China”. They see their idea as the last hope to save the Liberal International Order.
What these authors suggest is not what they actually have in mind. They in fact propose to strengthen a regional Euro-Atlantic or, as it may alternatively be dubbed, an ideological “democratic” order. The remedy they prescribe – more of “democracy” for the world – would surely not succeed in saving the Liberal Order as an international phenomenon, which they put as the objective. On the contrary, if realized, the idea would effectively drive the last nail in the LIO’s coffin, because the West’s consolidation would only force others to accelerate the pace of their own regional or ideological consolidation.
Thus, the existing divide between the “democratic” and the “autocratic” camps would only widen. The regional or ideological orders that would emerge under this scenario would be involved more in rivalry than in cooperation with each other.
The Liberal International Order as a whole phenomenon cannot be saved for the simple reason that it does not reflect the fact of the world’s diversity. “Liberalism” and “democracy” have indeed been long-established governing practices in many countries. Yet, today they are not universally accepted forms of governance everywhere, but just some among others.
Notwithstanding, it is possible to save its useful components and to incorporate them into a new order. As was demonstrated earlier in this article, the economic component of the Liberal International Order, while not perfect, has been broadly advantageous to the vast majority of countries in the world. Its key elements of free trade and free movement of capital still generally benefit most countries that embrace them.
Yet, is it possible to build a new truly global world order at all? Hypothetically, it is possible, practically the outcome cannot be preordained, because such an order would have to be built in the absence of a global hegemon who could “steer” the process. Thus, this effort would require all parties to work in agreement, which is an uphill struggle.
A starting point for reflecting on this possibility could be the words expressed by Henry Kissinger in his “World Order” (2014): “[world] order must be cultivated, it cannot be imposed. This is particularly so in an age of instantaneous communication and revolutionary political flux. Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just, not only by leaders, but also by citizens”.
Indeed, a new world order must be cultivated. Are all countries in the world and their ordinary people ready today to proceed to build a new order by embracing this “cultivative” approach? It is very doubtful. For that to happen, a kind of a revolution should occur in the minds of the West’s political mainstream.
First and foremost, the “democratic” zealots in the West should ask themselves the following question: if the hegemon was not able to fully get its way even during the period of its nearly two-decades long generally accepted global supremacy, how can it hope to succeed in getting its way now when the global “conjuncture” has much worsened for the post-hegemon?
If they answer honestly that it cannot and must not even hope to succeed, the next logical step would be to abandon the practices associated with the “Democratic Peace” theory. Indeed, no single country has ever had the power, leadership, resilience, faith and dynamism to impose its writ enduringly throughout the world. No one ever will, especially in the context of global non-hegemony. The world is a very diverse place, hence an international order must reflect this diversity, if it is to be accepted by everyone.
With this in mind, the author would like to propose one practical step. Specifically, the proposal is to draft in the United Nations a Charter for the World’s Diversity in the XXI Century whereby all Member States in a concerted manner would be able to set out some key principles for governing international life in a non-hegemonic and very diverse world. An embrace of this idea would demonstrate that we all prefer to build a new international order on the basis on the existing realities rather than on wishful thinking.
It is worth concluding this article with the words of Immanuel Kant, so beloved in the West for his intellectual insight that gave rise to the “Democratic Peace” theory as a path towards perpetual peace, in the hope that his admirers in the West will also find inspiring his other truly instructive words: “Perpetual peace will eventually come to the world in one of two ways: by human insight or by conflicts and catastrophes of a magnitude that left humanity no other choice”.