In face of revisionist challenge, liberal world order ‘officially dead’?


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The 21st Forum 2000 conference with the motto Strengthening Democracy in Uncertain Times, with more than a hundred speakers from various countries, opened Sunday night, according to reports:

This year, the three-day conference programme is to focus on the latest developments in the world and their impact on democratic governance. ….The addresses delivered by Czech researcher Ivan Havel and Chinese activist Xiao Qiang remembered late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo whom the authorities released only shortly before his death in July. Liu Xiaobo was in prison from 2009 for alleged conspiring against the country’s regime.

For roughly 25 years after the Cold War, one of the dominant themes of U.S. policy was the effort to globalize the liberal international order by integrating the system’s potential challengers — namely Russia and China — so deeply into it that they would no longer have any desire to disrupt it, notes analyst Hal Brands. This was a heady ambition, based on the idea that Russia and China were heading irreversibly down the path of political and economic liberalization, and that they could eventually be induced to define their interests in a way compatible with America’s own.

This strategy, what Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called the “responsible stakeholder” model, reflected an aspiration to leave behind the intense geopolitical and ideological competition of the 20th century. Yet that approach was based on two assumptions that have not withstood the test of reality, he writes:

  • The first was that China and Russia were indeed moving inexorably toward Western-style economic and political liberalism. …..
  • The second assumption was that these powers could be induced to define their own interests the way the U.S. wanted them to. The trouble here was that Russia and China were never willing fully to embrace the U.S.-led liberal order, which emphasized liberal ideas that were bound to seem threatening to dictatorial regimes…

“What this does mean, however, is that the U.S. needs to become both tougher and less ambitious in its approach to great-power relations and the international system,” Brands suggests. “Less ambitious in the sense that it needs to set aside the notion that the liberal order will become truly global or encompass all the major powers anytime soon. And tougher in the sense of understanding that more strenuous efforts will be required to defend the existing order against the challenges that revisionist powers represent.”

The outstanding international trend since 1945 has been the rise, first within the West and then more generally, of a collection of states and associated non-state actors that form what can be called a guiding coalition of the international system, argues Michael J. Mazarr, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he directs the Building a Sustainable International Order project.

The emergence of the coalition is the product of three trends in particular: international development under the dominant neoliberal socioeconomic model; the growth of liberal democratic systems; and the recognition of shared interests in dealing with common threats and opportunities in an integrated global system, he writes for The Washington Quarterly.

“Democratic systems are empirically linked to a range of behaviors that shape the international system: less war-making against one another, appreciation for the rule of law, and cooperative resolution of disputes,” Mazarr adds. “Democracies also tend to produce thriving civil societies which spread beyond their borders, intensifying the process of non-state integration begun by modernization.”

But there is a tension between sustaining the international order and advancing democracy, he suggests.

“Sustaining the guiding coalition will demand backing off the most extreme manifestations of liberal value promotion,” Mazarr argues. “It is not only Russia and China that are concerned with armed liberal interventionism, whether stabilization operations or slow-motion regime change,” he adds:

Card-carrying liberal members of the coalition such as Brazil, India, and South Africa all take a more restrained view of the best way to promote the values of democracy and human rights. Moreover, in a more multipolar era, the United States will have little choice but to be more patient when dealing with some coalition states that are less than full democracies but otherwise supportive of its objectives and norms.

In his latest book, uber-realist Henry Kissinger acclaims the rise of an “inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing common economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance,” Mazarr adds. These are exactly the norms of the coalition, in more or less priority order. The question then becomes whether even a loose assembly of such states, as formalized and coordinated through an institutional order, can shape the preferences and behavior of the system. The importance of a guiding coalition and its associated institutional order points to several policy directions:

  • The first is that the priority for U.S. diplomacy and military relationships is to sustain and where possible deepen the coherence of the guiding coalition. This means U.S. reaffirmation of its commitment to core alliances as well as partnerships with the value-sharing democracies that represent the coalition’s most dynamic members.
  • Second, even as it seeks to strengthen the coalition, the United States should develop concepts for a more complex, multi-layered and shared international order…
  • Third, given its foundational role in justifying both the guiding coalition and the order, the United States should prioritize efforts to stabilize the institutions of a globally integrated economy……
  • Fourth, sustaining the guiding coalition will demand backing off the most extreme manifestations of liberal value promotion. ……..In fact, the skeptics have a point: While the United States can and should speak to the long-term prospects for liberal values, Washington cannot head a sustainable, shared order built on the principle that some of its leading members are actively trying to subvert the governing systems of others. A quite energetic agenda of liberal value promotion is available that would fulfill U.S. national values without creating unnecessary tensions with others.
  • Fifth, the United States should recognize and invest in the role of non-state actors in strengthening the coalition and its associated order. It is easy to dismiss the significance of U.S. support for international NGOs, conferences, dialogues among scholars and officials, corporate exchanges, and other forms of non-state interactions. But given the growing role of non-state components of a multi-tier guiding coalition, their importance should not be underestimated…..
  • Sixth and finally, the United States should use the coalition and order as the foundation for its approach to two major potential outliers—Russia and China. …..RTWT

But the prospects of engaging the resurgent revisionists are not promising. 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.

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