Deconstruction of the West? The real challenges to the liberal world order


In both developed and developing states, challenges to the liberal order are converging on a single main competitor, populist nationalism, which is a response to the tension between two central elements of liberal modernity: free markets and mass participation in politics, argues Columbia University Professor Jack Snyder:

Whereas in late developers this contradiction is caused by the mismatch between market economics and clientelist political institutions, in consolidated democracies it is caused by economic deregulation and international capital and labor mobility that disconnect markets from democratic control. The remedy in both cases is to embed markets more firmly in liberal, democratically accountable institutions.

In short, the strength of the global liberal order and the ease of rising powers’ transition to liberal modernity depend on each other. If that strength fails or that transition stalls, a conundrum awaits, he writes for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:

Middle-income rising powers may act opportunistically in ways that undercut the prevailing liberal economic and security order, especially if the will or ability of liberal states to uphold that order is flagging. The resulting decline of global liberal institutions can in turn threaten the economic and political position of those social interests in middle-income great powers that depend on the liberal system’s smooth functioning, enabling authoritarian populist nationalism to grow stronger. Fixing the debilitating mismatch between market governance and political accountability in the developed democracies is needed not just to ensure liberal modernity’s health at its core, but also to stabilize the course of the late-developing powers.

The greatest threat to the liberal international order comes not from Russia, China, or jihadist terror but from the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture, says Andrew A. Michta, the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. At the core of the deepening dysfunction in the West is the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture and, with it, the glue that for two centuries kept Europe and the United States at the center of the international system, he writes for the American Interest:

The nation-state has been arguably the most enduring and successful idea that Western culture has produced. It offers a recipe to achieve security, economic growth, and individual freedom at levels unmatched in human history. This concept of a historically anchored and territorially defined national homeland, having absorbed the principles of liberal democracy, the right to private property and liberty bound by the rule of law, has been the core building block of the West’s global success and of whatever “order” has ever existed in the so-called international order. Since 1945 it has been the most successful Western “export” across the globe, with the surge of decolonization driven by the quintessentially American precept of the right to self-determination of peoples, a testimony to its enduring appeal.

A once-every-two-decades debate is an opportunity to measure American policy against all the ways in which the world is changing—and the ways in which U.S. responses have fallen short. It’s a chance to come to grips with the vulnerabilities of the liberal order, says Steve Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. To do so means thinking about narrow practical questions and broad conceptual ones, he writes for The Atlantic:

Can America’s leaders manage, explain, and defend this order better in the next decade than they did in the last? At a time when the power of the U.S. is, in relative terms at least, slowly declining, will rules that have long depended on that power continue to matter? Americans have never much liked applying the rules to themselves. What will happen when others feel strong enough to evade them too?….Whether they lean Democrat or Republican, or reject both parties, the best experts and analysts take for granted the need to rethink, and to do better. It’s good that they disagree about the big choices America faces—about globalization, terrorism, military spending, foreign assistance, democracy promotion, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, climate change, the rise of China, the future of Iran, Putinism, and much more. 

The new U.S. administration need not threaten the liberal international order in making some adjustments that would create more common ground with adversaries and others that would reassure allies, notes Kori Schake, a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor, with Jim Mattis, of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military.

The Obama administration’s promise was that a more modest U.S. role in the world would lower the risk of terrorism by extracting the United States from places that tend to produce extremism, would strengthen U.S. allies by forcing them to fend for themselves more, and would foster a more self-regulating international order, she writes for Foreign Affairs, in a review of Robert J. Lieber’s Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order and Eliot A. Cohen’s The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force:

But that is not how things turned out, as Lieber and Cohen both make clear. That is because retrenchment and offshore balancing can affect only the external actions of states. Such strategies do little to shape how foreign governments rule—which matters to the United States because in an intensely interconnected world, conflicts within states produce as much instability as conflicts among them. By retreating from the mission of advancing democracy and protecting individual rights elsewhere in the world, Obama made it more likely that misrule in other countries would make the United States less safe.

Anti-intellectualism also poses a threat to democracy, according to Zeev Sternhell, author of The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition. The contentious coexistence of the Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment movements is one of the great invariables of the two centuries between our world and that of the end of the 18th century, he contends:

But this is a point that generally escapes the attention of historians and critics of culture: If the enlightened modernity was that of liberalism which led to democracy, the anti-enlightened modernity—coming down into the street at the turn of the 20th century—took the form of an intellectual and political movement that was revolutionary, nationalistic, communitarian, and a sworn enemy of universal values. Whether it is a matter of ‘‘reactionary modernism’’ or the ‘‘conservative revolution,’’ one is always confronted with the same phenomenon: the content and function of this movement remained the same. Its pet aversions remain Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment—the founders of the principles on which the democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries were founded.

A new biography of Woodrow Wilson – Tony Smith’s Why Wilson Matters: The Origins of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today – tries to resuscitate liberal internationalism, Jordan Michael Smith writes for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:

According to Smith, the “ism” in Wilsonianism is comprised of four interrelated but distinct prescriptive ideas for how America should approach the world: foster cooperation among democratic governments; further economic integration; encourage multilateral institutions that enhance international law, free markets, and mutual defense; and ensure that the United States leads a peaceful community of nations. …. But in its American context at least, Wilsonianism is indistinct from liberal internationalism, though the latter was endorsed by Václav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela.

Who are the New Standard Bearers of the Liberal Idea?

Globalism and liberal democracy, championed through the final decades of the 20th century, are now in question as waves of populist political movements come to the fore around the world, the Wilson Center’s Keenan Institute adds. Russia has supported these movements directly and indirectly. Will new generations in Europe and the U.S. continue to champion the ideals of the liberal order? This panel will analyze recent political events and changes, and discuss the waning strength of the ‘liberal idea.’


Anton Barbashin, George F. Kennan Expert, Kennan Institute; Managing Editor, Intersection Online Magazine.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 10:30am – 11:30am

5th Floor Conference Room

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Wilson Center Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center One Woodrow Wilson Plaza 1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW Washington, D.C. 20004


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