Anti-democratic forces have ‘no alternative to a liberal international order’


Despite the threat posed to democracy by various forms of populism and authoritarianism, “there is simply no grand ideological alternative to a liberal international order,” argues Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry. “China does not have a model that the rest of the world finds appealing. Neither does Russia. These are authoritarian capitalist states. But this type of state does not translate into a broad set of alternative ideas for the organization of world order.”

So the future of liberal internationalism hinges on two questions, he writes for International Affairs, the journal of Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank:

  • First, can the United States and other liberal democracies recapture their progressive political orientation? America’s ‘brand’—as seen in parts of the non-western world—is perceived to be neo-liberal, that is, single-minded in its commitment to capital and markets. It is absolutely essential that the United States shatter this idea. Outside the West—and indeed in most parts of Europe—this is not the core of the liberal democratic vision of modern society. If there is an ideological ‘centre of gravity’ in the wider world of democracies, it is more social democratic and solidarist than neo-liberal.….
  • Second, can the United States and its old allies expand and rebuild a wider coalition of states willing to cooperate within a reformed liberal global order? It is a simple fact that the United States cannot base its leadership on the old coalition of the West and Japan. It needs to actively court and co-opt the wider world of developing democracies. ….

“The alternatives to liberal order are various sorts of closed systems—a world of blocs, spheres and protectionist zones. The best news for liberal internationalism is probably the simple fact that more people will be harmed by the end of some sort of global liberal international order than will gain,” Ikenberry adds.

“This does not mean it will survive, but it does suggest that there are constituencies—even in the old industrial societies of the West—that have reason to support it. Beyond this, the values, interests and mutual vulnerabilities that drove the rise and spread of liberal internationalism are still with us.”

Claiming that the liberal world order is in trouble is just a starting-point; a deeper account needs to show whether, and how, the interrelated elements of this order hang together, according to Constance Duncombe and Tim Dunne.

“It may be, for example, that certain logics of the liberal order are more vulnerable than others. The post-Cold War agenda around democracy promotion seems, intuitively, at greater risk than the WTO regime for managing world trade,” they contend.

The emergence of internationalist ideas and commitments from the early nineteenth century onwards has been compromised by at least three cross-cutting tensions and contradictions, Duncombe and Dunne suggest:

  • First, internationalists have believed it possible to conjoin nationalism with cosmopolitan sensibilities; yet states have seldom been (in Hedley Bull’s words) ‘local agents of a world common good’.
  • A second and related tension is that between norms and power in the global order. The values and purposes in which internationalists believe require an uneven distribution of responsibilities in which Great Powers are required to do the ‘heavy lifting’; it has more frequently been the case that Great Powers have been reluctant to pay the price of the pursuit of cosmopolitan ends unless doing so is in clear alignment with their own national interests.
  • Third, and finally, internationalism continues to be vulnerable to the argument that the mission to ‘govern the world’ ends up reinscribing hierarchical forms of order ‘in which some states are more sovereign than others, and [which] justify deep intrusions into the domestic affairs of others on the grounds that they collectively stand for the principle of “legal order”’.

Current U.S. foreign policy entail a “repudiation of a globalized multilateralism” in favor of a “a cost–benefit bilateralism,” analyst Bruce Stokes contends:

This bilateralism rejects a transformational foreign policy driven by ideals such as human rights or democracy in favour of transactional relationships, and is deeply sceptical about regimes perceived as encumbering or restricting American freedom of action. Rather, it prefers to deal with other powers individually on the basis of cost–benefit calculations as to how each relationship works in America’s perceived economic or political interests.

“[C]riticism of the current order is easy,” Ikenberry, Stokes and Inderjeet Parmar add, “but if we presume that critics wish to maintain the progressive norms, democratic forms of representation and commitment to a rules-based international order, who or what will carry this project forward if not the ‘West’, based on US leadership?”

The prospects of engaging the resurgent revisionists are not promising, noted RAND analyst Michael J. Mazarr:

China and Russia have consistently demonstrated their hostility not only to the “most extreme manifestations of liberal value promotion” – presumably, military-driven form of regime change as in Iraq or Libya – but also in the most modest and benign forms, such as assistance to civil society. To the contrary, as the National Endowment for Democracy, among others, has demonstrated, they have undertaken the offensive in seeking to roll back liberal and democratic norms in a broad range of international institutions and global civil space.

“[T]he rush to claim that the liberal world order is in deep decline overlooks how the institutionalized ideas that underpin the order hang together,” Duncombe and Dunne insist:

Despite the ‘retreat’ from liberal democracy represented by Brexit and the election of President Trump, there are good reasons to believe that the ‘rise of the rest’ will provide the public goods that a liberal order requires—even if the language is shorn of its missionary zeal. There is a parallel here with Winston Churchill’s wry comment that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. China, India, Russia, and other countries and regions that are strangers to liberal values and beliefs, may also agree that the liberal world order is the worst form of global governance—except for all the others.


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