Liberal international order ‘mounting a comeback’ to neo-revisionist challenge



21st Forum 2000 Conference

The defenders of what’s called the “liberal international order” have recently suffered setbacks from adversaries inside and outside their home countries. But those who want to see the Western-led post-World War II system survive or even thrive are plotting its resurrection, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin writes:

Some say that liberal democracy simply didn’t address the needs and desires of its populations. Others say the liberal international order was never truly liberal, international or orderly. The mission to defend it must include acknowledging and addressing those shortcomings.

Internationalists share a realization that the order is at grave risk, and along with it the seven decades of relative growth, prosperity and peace it provided. Nationalism and populism are ascendant in the United States and Europe. Authoritarianism led by Russia and China is on the march around the world.

The United States built the order on three foundational propositions: that economic openness and integration lead to greater and more widely shared prosperity; that political openness, democratization, and the protection of human rights lead to stronger, more just societies and more effective international cooperation; and that economic and political openness are mutually reinforcing. All three propositions are now contested, notes Jake Sullivan, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There are new and urgent conversations in Western democracies not just about how to resist pressure from abroad but also about how to address social and economic dislocations at home and the distributional consequences of globalization and automation. Whether this brings about a genuine recovery of strength for liberal democracy over time remains to be seen. But there are promising signs, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

It is tempting to conclude that all hope is lost. That conclusion, however, is not only unproductive; it is also wrong. In every dimension—from technology to security, development to diplomacy, economic dynamism to human capital—the United States’ advantages are still significant. The opportunity remains to reconstitute the old consensus on new terms.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, charges the U.S. with giving up a “position of leadership in developing the rules and arrangements at the heart of any world order,” say Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim), a lecturer in history at Birkbeck, University of London, and Thomas Meaney, a fellow at the American Council on Germany. Acknowledging that Mr. Trump is not retreating to isolation, the critics now advance a subtler case — that he is wrecking what they describe as the America-led “liberal international order,” they write for The New York Times:

Democracy requires experts but it also requires something from them: that they facilitate public debate and respect the ultimate power of the electorate to set the aims of the nation. ….As distributional conflicts surge in domestic politics, they are surging in foreign policy, too — and those who ignore them lose out to those who inflate them. Citizens seeking a better foreign policy ought to be engaged, not ignored. But recent events cast doubt on whether our current crop of experts is up to the job.

The U.S. is “undermining the liberal essence within the liberal international order” by, for example, declining to pressure illiberal governments in Central and Eastern Europe, a move that “risks emboldening these regimes in their movement away from liberal democracy,” according to Erik Brattberg and Michael Kimmage, respectively, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Europe Program, and professor of history at the Catholic University of America [and an advisory board member for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Penn Kemble Forum].

The United States under “has narrowed its concept of international order,” they write for the National Interest:

It has removed one of the two adjectives from the “liberal international order.” The Trump administration will continue to defend—aggressively perhaps—the existing security order against great power competition from China and Russia and threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea. Yet it will not protect or even aspire to perpetuate the liberal international order.

European allies should scrutinize the crucial distinction between the “minimalist” international order and the “maximalist” liberal international order, they note, adding that “to defend and uphold the liberal international order Europe will increasingly need to rely on its own resources, its own ideals and its own initiative.”

The survival and strength of American democracy has always depended on U.S. support for freedom beyond the country’s shores, according to the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal (above). For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works, The Economist notes.

The Kremlin is mounting a neo-revisionist challenge to the liberal international order, but Moscow does not present any alternative vision, argues analyst Tatiana Romanova. Russia complains about the internal contradictions of the liberal order: sovereignty vs. intervention, pluralism vs. universality, US hegemony vs. equality and democracy, although it also exploits these contradictions. In fact Russia demands an adjustment of the liberal order rather than its eradication and should, therefore, be classified as a neo-revisionist power, she writes for the International Spectator.

Russia’s desire to change a liberal international order hangs on the type of liberalism embedded in that order, notes analyst Anne L. Clunan, citing “calls from within for it to create a new, post-liberal order premised on conservative nationalism and geopolitics.”

The German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum kicked off with a call to action, Rogin adds.

“We lost sight of what it took to create this international order and what an act of defiance of history and even defiance of human nature this order has been,” author Robert Kagan told the group. “We have the capacity to push back — we just need to understand the pushback needs to start occurring.”

We can no longer expect that the principles of liberal democracy will expand across the globe. We can no longer assume the United States will carry the bulk of the burden, the Post’s Rogin notes:

Credit: FT

But the system the Atlantic community built has a half-century head start on its challengers. Shoring up its foundations by reforming multilateral institutions, addressing the grievances of those left behind economically, defending the independence and integrity of the free media, and protecting the mechanics of democracies — such as elections — are a good start.

The liberal international order is far from perfect, but it is preferable to the alternative, an international system ruled by naked self-interest and tyranny of the powerful. The new alliance to defend it is mobilizing now. The stakes couldn’t be higher. RTWT

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