Is the Liberal World Order Seriously Threatened?

In the opinion of a number of experts and liberal politicians, the rise of nationalistic populism in the United States, as represented by the administration of Donald Trump, may threaten the liberal world order, which has already been under pressure from increasingly autocratic leaders in Russia and Turkey. However, if such warnings are to be taken seriously, perhaps we need look first at the forces that have created what we call the liberal world order.

First and foremost, we need to answer the question of whether the liberal world order has been created primarily by political action or primarily by globalization—which, in turn, is primarily driven by modern technologies, science, and capital.

Politics undeniably played an important role in the creation of the liberal world order. In looking back, it is easy to identify some important political events, such as adoption of the Washington Consensus in 1989 and later the signing of a number of international free-trade agreements, for example NAFTA, while at the same time the role of the World Trade Organization kept growing.

Most States Transferred Their Functions on to Supranational Organizations

In some regions of the world, this process has been accompanied by the efforts of states to integrate or cooperate ever more closely politically. These projects, for example the European Union, have not necessarily achieved what they set out to do in some of their agreements, but they have still reached significant levels of political integration, in which their member states transferred parts of their sovereignty on to transnational institutions.

The most pertinent feature in the development of the international order in the last 27 years has been the steady removal of various trade and political barriers, accompanied by an increasing willingness of developed and developing nations to cooperate not only on a bilateral level but through a multitude of international organizations.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed out in her book The New World Order, in the last few decades most nation states have gone through the process of “disaggregation,” in which they voluntarily transferred a variety of their functions on to supranational organizations, many of which then started generating regulatory frameworks, in which the nation states need to operate.

This process, of course, affects more than the others those states that voluntarily engaged in the projects of economic and political integration, such as the European Union, but is not limited only to them. Hundreds of international organizations and institutions with responsibilities for specific fields (from health to ecology) that now function globally have created a dense network. It is not easy for any given state—regardless of its size and power—to operate entirely outside this network anymore.

In other words: the world does not have one common government, but in a number of important areas it already follows common sets of rules, which have been put in place gradually through the work of international organizations. This multilevel intertwining of interests and voluntary sharing of many standards and rules distinguishes the current international order significantly from what existed before the World War II.

A Single State Could Not Destroy the Liberal World

So, one answer to the question of who will salvage the liberal world order and how that will be done is the liberal world order itself, as it has developed in the last quarter of a century. It is not easy to destroy with the political action of a single state (or even several states).

One of the reasons why this order cannot be easily destroyed or bypassed is that underlying forces are tied to the process of globalization, and globalization itself has been driven much more by new technologies and science than by political decisions.

This new world order is based predominantly on truly global financial markets, globally functioning supranational corporations, and an intertwined world of communications. All of these new phenomena transcend national borders, and they will continue functioning in this way
regardless of how many international trade agreements Donald Trump manages to extricate the US from.

In other words, the liberal world order is very closely tied to globalization that increasingly connects the world on many different levels. When the United States voluntarily, as a consequence of a misguided political decision, abandoned the Transpacific Trade Partnership, it has created a situation that will ultimately cause damage primarily to its own economy. The remaining nations will find a way to cooperate, because it is more advantageous for them to do so than to pursue the old system of bilateral agreements.

The same is true about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Many American corporations will simply use the EU-Canada
Trade Agreement as a proxy by registering in Canada. In other words, if the US prefers to retreat from these projects, its place and leadership will be partly taken over by nations such as Japan (or even China) in the Pacific region and by Canada in transatlantic trade relations.

There are, of course, other threats to the liberal world order than just “economic nationalism,” as Trump’s strategic adviser Steve Bannon likes to call the American attempt to leave the globalized economy. We can see illiberal tendencies in a number of liberal democracies, or even outright attempts to transform democratic systems into autocracies. And what keeps the liberal world order afloat is, after all, the critical mass of liberal democracies in the world.

However, just like with the liberal world order, we should note that in those countries where liberal democracies have existed for a relatively long time, they now have institutions and practices that make it difficult to subvert the liberal order. While on the procedural side of things there is a lot of confusion related to the fact that traditional political parties are weak and new populist formations (many of them with the agenda of undermining the liberal world order and retreating behind their state’s national borders) are on the rise, on the side of liberal constitutionalism most Western liberal democracies are quite healthy.

The Safeguards of Liberal Democracies Have Not Been Significantly Weakened Anywhere

The system of “liberal constitutionalism” represented by courts therefore sprang into action when the British government tried to bypass the parliament in its effort to initiate Brexit, and American courts blocked an immigration order issued by Donald Trump. These constitutional safeguards of liberal democracies have not been significantly weakened anywhere, and even if a strong illiberal party managed to win in a Western country, it would find it difficult to bypass them.

That is, unfortunately, much easier to do in emerging democracies, with their weak civil societies and post-authoritarian political cultures. In countries such as Hungary or Poland the attack of illiberal populist parties against the very pillars of liberal constitutionalism has been much more successful than it could ever be in the West.

Nevertheless, even weak, emerging democracies—such as those in Eastern Europe—benefit in the end from their membership in the organizations that form the backbone of the liberal world order, especially the EU. If they were left on their own, their democratic systems would probably collapse. But due to their membership in the EU and other organizations, the best their illiberal leaders can do at this point is to toy with autocratic tendencies.

To sum up, the world liberal order is under pressure but not mortally threatened. For that to happen, the forces of globalization and an intricate web of international institutions that have developed in the last decades would have to collapse first. And this does not seem to be very likely given the fact that the forces of globalization, driving the creation of “a planetary civilization,” are ultimately much stronger than policies of a few would-be autocrats.

Jiří Pehe

Director of New York University’s center in Prague.

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