The liberal international order is experiencing fundamental challenges. It has witnessed numerous crises since the end of the World War II. The Nazi and Communist movements were both mortal enemies; liberalism triumphed, leading it to its expansion across the globe after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Yet, perhaps the modern challenges the liberal system is facing are the more expansive, as they go much beyond the troubles in bilateral ties between any two Western democracies, and puncture the very foundation of the order. Challenges are both internal and external, which makes their scope staggering. Internally, faith in the liberal system has been shattered in the US and other democracies. Coupled with financial problems following the 2008 crisis, the belief that the liberal system benefits the champions of the system, and most of all wider sections of society, has undergone changes. The social contract has thus been diluted, which also made many in the West re-think the very essence of the liberal idea, its expansion drive, and ultimate goals. Without internal strength in the collective West, liberalism’s fate will be much dependent on how powerful the external threats are.
The challenges are multi-layered, and are much larger in essence than the China-USSR strategic cooperation of the 1950s, and generally of the communist threat seen during the Cold War. Moscow and Beijing threatened the very geopolitical vision of the United States – to have Eurasia as much divided as possible. The communist idea also seemed threatening, especially in 1940s-1950s, when Mao Tse-Tung’s victory in China’s civil war in 1949 further expanded the socialist agenda to much of the supercontinent. But the intensity of the challenge soon abated and remained solely military in nature. The soviet economic and soft power allure proved ineffective, and it quickly became apparent that the liberal order and the advantages it offered (technological and economic superiority) stood unchallenged. The current liberal crisis is also bigger than what France did when it withdrew from NATO’s structures in 1966, or other subsequent disagreements among liberal allies.
The America-led order is a loosely organized hierarchical formation where US domination is felt but not overwhelmingly enough to cause outright opposition, the creation of coalitions etc. The US pushed for hierarchical relations but also agreed upon rules and institutions. This dualism has made the US-led order resilient, appealing, and in many ways based on consent. It is an open system, where all revolves around the US and other major democratic states, but where smaller, less influential or even subordinate states too have a share in the decision-making process through full participation in the inclusive institutions. This is a mixture of both hierarchies, even some sort of imperial influence, and consent on a part of weaker, dependent states.
This loosely organized hierarchy is indeed unique. Yet another distinctive feature of the liberal order is that, unlike any other world system, the benefits of participating in it are not accrued to one or several powers, but are evenly spread among its participants. Even China, which has only partly been a member of the liberal order, has witnessed the system’s benefits firsthand as the participation in America-led multilateral institutions helped develop the Chinese economy and elevate its geopolitical weight.
And this tells a story of how special the liberal world order proved to be. Some argue that it could be seen as a product of exceptional historical processes and not the culmination of a long-drawn-out and logical development. All, however, indicates that without liberalism, the US and most of Europe could have remained inconspicuous places. Indeed, the reason liberalism defeated authoritarianism cannot simply be attributed to exceptional circumstances or luck on battlefield. The advancement of the liberal states has come as a result of the superiority of liberal thinking over the rival ideologies of the 20th century and simply illiberal methods of governing we see today in some parts of the world.
A cornerstone of liberal internationalism is the normative frame within which it operates. It is contingent upon various rules, institutions, partnerships and alliances which fuse into multilateralism. Liberal internationalism is expansive, which means that it seeks to include newer lands and peoples under its fold. But this has always been bound to create tensions with non-liberal powers. In previous centuries, Asia’s weak empires hardly managed to withstand on their own the technologically advanced West. They even failed to cooperate in creating a unified front. As a result, an extraordinary liberal awakening, and its ultimate expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, followed.
The liberal idea was built around and influenced by the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty. But increasingly the modern-day liberal expansion undermined a core Westphalian idea of pluralism of political and ideological systems. Even if the Western leaders were more considerate in their foreign policy actions and less eager to extend liberalism deep into Eurasia, where its tradition was sparse or non-existent, the unipolar moment was still bound to experience troubles. Even the moderate spread of liberalism causes nationalism, questions the very idea of state sovereignty, and the high pace of globalization incurs the loss of countless industry jobs in the West.
Another way of explaining the present troubles within the liberal system might be that the liberal order is in the process of adapting. More than three decades have passed since the end of the Cold War and after the initial euphoria of the “end of history,” there might be an overextension. While previously it was nestled on mostly the western parts of the European continent, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and some other parts of what we nowadays call the Indo-Pacific realm, the liberal order made huge territorial inroads into the heart of Eurasia after the end of the Cold War. Though great Eurasian civilizations historically have not been immune to Western influence of some sort, they always resisted its cultural, political, and economic influence. Thus what nowadays Russia, Turkey, Iran, China, and even partially India do to resist Western multilateralism should come as no surprise.
It is, however, startling to see the power these countries now possess and the level of cooperation they now enjoy. Their strength is rooted in the near uniform spread of technological prowess, i.e. the modernity and economic benefits across the world. In the 21st century, that modernity empowers both the liberal and illiberal camps, and this constitutes a fundamental break with the past when progress and liberalism went hand in hand and were almost exclusively confined to the West. Thus America-led liberal internationalism brought about largest benefits for the world overall, enabling large but poor states to turn into major regional or world players. This also planted seeds for effective resistance to liberal ideas and America’s geopolitical vision.
From a historic perspective, this could be cast as a continuation of the struggle between the sea and land powers. Sea powers, liberal democracies, though unable to outcompete militarily the Eurasian land empires and change their state-building patterns, mostly resort to influencing their rivals’ behavior, constraining their ability to unite or influence Eurasia in its entirety. It is no coincidence that the world’s greatest democracies were the lands hard to reach: The British Isles and the US. Development of democracy took much longer in continental Europe, and failed to take root in Asia because emerging liberal forces were often smashed outright or contained by the neighboring autocratic land empires.
Sea powers possessed technological prowess, but their potential was often checked by continental powers’ far greater human and natural resources. And this is where the critical difference between modern and previous challenges to the West stands. The America-imposed liberal system allowed a more or less even diffusion of economic benefits and technological knowledge. Now powerful continental illiberal states are technologically advanced, coupled with astounding human capital and a natural resource base. They are increasingly tilting toward greater cooperation among themselves to confront the collective West.
There is also a problem of increasing incongruity between the social contract which was a basis of the modern liberal system and the decreasing benefits it currently brings to the order’s leading members. The liberal order has been built through agreements and organizational structures. However, those very fundamentals which ensured the efficacy of multilateralism have lately been thinning out.
Mutual military protection and social advancement have stopped working, as, nowadays, it has become increasingly difficult for Western societies to grasp the traditional inter-connection between liberal internationalism and progress at home. There is also a growing sentiment that the order has been more beneficial to other parts of the world. Some of this thinking is correct. The global financial meltdown of 2008 brought about greater economic inequality, which in turn caused protectionist and populist tendencies across the world to scale back the pace of globalization.
But as much as the crisis is real and markedly different in gravity in comparison with previous challenges, picturing the coming end to the liberal idea could be a hastily reached conclusion. Liberal internationalism is surprisingly resilient. It has been made and remade by various historical painful processes filled with both successes and failures, but it nevertheless points to the idea’s flexibility.
The liberal idea proved especially resilient and progressive in times of grave challenges, such as the Nazi and communist menaces. Even now, liberalism’s elasticity and attractiveness are evidenced by a number of states of various sizes and in different regions becoming part of the order. True, some evolve into imperfect democracies (as in the case of eastern European and the South Caucasus states), but large parts of those countries’ societies nevertheless embrace the liberal idea and strive for improvement in governance. Larger failures happen too. In case of China and Russia, liberal attractiveness has not worked, and even produced radically opposite results as both states are building their institutions increasingly based on anti-liberal ideas. Liberalism, despite its internal contradictions, is nevertheless a more benign formula than any of its alternatives. The idea is also attractive as it aspires and successfully carries out a relatively even spread of economic benefits among its participants.
Indeed, the elasticity of the liberal order was proved when Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The thinking in Moscow was evident: The liberal order is not only weak, but it actually experiences fundamental troubles and it is only a matter of time until it finally breaks down. Perhaps Putin thought he could even nudge it a bit in this direction and thus accelerate the demise of the liberal system.
When Russia invaded Ukraine for the second time in 2022, Moscow also miscalculated on China’s approach. Beijing supported the idea of the indivisibility of European security, arguing that Russia’s security concerns were legitimate, but, overall, China remained impartial. It avoided (at least initially and in the mid-term) siding with Moscow through more concrete measures. Reasons vary, but several of them stand out most for our discussion. Russia’s campaign shattered one of China’s most cherished principles: Non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs. Beijing therefore needs to reconcile this core “Westphalian principle” with its close ties to Russia.
China also saw that Russia’s adventurism strengthened rather than weakened the collective West. With a stronger and more united attitude on Russia, a revived West may also take a more confrontational approach toward China. More crucially, this comes in the wake of China’s falling prestige in Eastern Europe, as well as NATO and the EU openly seeing China as a concrete geopolitical threat.
Ultimately, Moscow’s bullying of Ukraine placed Beijing in an uncomfortable spot. Generally, Beijing does not want Russia to lose because that would boost the collective West and perhaps even reverse the process of an illiberal rise globally. Beijing is also concerned about Russia’s adventurism escalating into a larger global conflict, which China would be unable to avoid due to the possible security and economic consequences. In light of these factors, a long-term standoff between Russia and the West that does not devolve into a “hot war” is most advantageous to China, giving it time to adjust to the new geopolitical realities while the US concentrates on places other than the Indo-Pacific.
But perhaps the biggest failure was the expectation of the West to fail to mount a concerted effort against Russia. Divisions within the trans-Atlantic community were seen as too fundamental, while Hungary and others were less pliable to common European interests. Moreover, the EU was seen by many in Russia as a defunct organization, an attitude seen well before 2022 when the Kremlin openly denigrated Brussels and did not see it fit for grand geopolitical bargains.
The reality proved totally different in the first months after the invasion. The liberal system showed it can sustain itself and mount a definitive counter-attack against the perpetrators. Russia was sanctioned with wide-ranging measures, which, if not immediately then in the longer run, were planned to cripple Russian economy.
Russian politicians and especially the Kremlin-linked analysts were at pains to explain what went wrong when the war deemed “operation” failed and the “decadent West” mustered resources to help Ukraine.
But the collective West should not think that the longevity of the liberal order is guaranteed and that the authoritarian menace will subside. Minding the limits of the liberal order and understanding the level of necessary adjustment, i.e. what world’s major states are ready to sacrifice and contribute to (re)creating the order, is a key variable to picturing the emerging future world order with the liberal component playing an integral part in it.
In a way, it could be argued that now is an opportune time for liberalism to reconsider some of the aspects of its global endeavor. First, the West is still powerful, and reforming would not be as much as forceful imposition upon itself, but rather a timely adaptation by the stronger to unfolding changes. Delay or purposeful unwillingness for the change could bring down the entire edifice of the order and undermine some critical aspects of the liberal idea itself.
Another motivator behind the change/adaptation could be the nature of the external challenge liberalism presently faces. New orders are created and reshaped by dominant actors when a major threat to their position arises externally. The rising illiberal threat could cause a major reshuffling in the liberal idea to better confront the challenge. Related to illiberalism is China, which possesses an all-encompassing power to contest the US and its allies to invite them to re-invent the liberal system. Surely, adjusting solely to China and illiberalism would not solve all troubles, as internal remaking is also necessary because the challenge to the order emanates from internal forces too.
Indeed the challenge in the form of China could serve as a necessary unifier of liberal democracies, a motivation lacking since the end of the Cold War and the global communist movement. Global terrorism was a consolidator behind America’s and its allies’ efforts in the 2000s, but the threat was not as long-lasting and overarching to serve as a necessary glue for the Western alliances. In contrast, the emergence of China could actually be a necessary motivator for the US and its allies to act together in the face of a rising systemic challenge. China could dissipate worries which accompanied the US’ unipolar position. China’s and Russia’s models of governance could make the minds in the West, intent on universalist drive of liberalism, take a sober view, and curtail global ambitions. After a near relentless liberal march in the 1990s–2000s, the illiberal pushback could help the Western powers sit back, solidify their gains, and produce more effective foreign policy.
As the China challenge is increasingly viewed as a primary preoccupation by US policy-makers, the push to readjust or even completely remake the liberal order to again benefit American interests will become increasingly stronger. Perhaps Trump’s presidency was more about laying the groundwork for remaking the existing order. Under future presidents, the efforts to remake will continue. Most likely those measures will become subtler, without causing radical changes, but be extended over a long period of time by reassuring America’s most vital allies on the need to follow Washington’s lead.
Several paths are open for the liberal order to manage internal challenges, the illiberal threat and the growing power of China. What follows cannot be an exhaustive list of possible future world orders and the fate of liberalism, but the below ideas or rather projections are based on historical examples and present geopolitical developments. Perhaps elements from each of the suggestions could be present in the future world order.
The first scenario could be about curtailing the liberal drive to spread across the world. Some think if America could not impose a liberal order on the whole world even during its unipolar moment, when it wielded a far more powerful array of instruments, it would be wise to scale back the liberal push now it is faced with formidable powers, especially as the latter grow increasingly cooperative. There is also a more or less even spread of technologies which makes a military solution much costlier. A world for no sole power to dominate will gradually emerge. This will require fundamental re-invention or the re-imagining of the present world order. Perhaps going back to the old ways, limiting Western universalism and containing it within the boundaries of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, would be a possibility.
Coexistence with rival ideological trends could be entertained, though not without intense competition. The idea of coexistence will pave the way for cooperation on major global issues among big players. But, on the negative side, it could also lead to acknowledging specific states’ geopolitical interests in certain regions. Spheres of influence effectively kill liberal internationalism, limiting the effectiveness of the rules, treaties, and other organizing bargains which underwrite the present world order. Tied to the spheres of influence is the concept of multipolarity so much propagated by Russia and others. In a way, the multipolarity is an evolution of the present world order and might not involve the emergence of a completely hostile and chaotic order, but it would nevertheless allow the emergence of competing security and economic blocs.
In fact, there are already clear signs of emerging “techno-economic blocs” in Eurasia. Extension of control over the digital space increases control over vital users’ information running through various platforms. The blocs, based on competing technological platforms which have been created by major US, Chinese, European, and Russian companies, will be made up of cognitive, computing, data transmission, and encryption technologies and massive platforms such as search engines, instant messengers, social networks, supercomputers are now a part of a geopolitical competition across the Eurasian landmass.
Each techno-economic bloc will strive to have its own distinct development model based on unique technological tools and scientific knowledge. The first such techno-economic bloc is taking shape around the US: Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. In close association with the US bloc is the European techno-economic one and small states dispersed across Eurasia, which tend to trust the Western technology platforms.
Another techno-economic bloc is shaping up around China. Through its BRI, Beijing exports major computing, data transmission, search engines to the countries in Indo-Pacific, South-East Asia, and Central Asia. The Chinese model is more autarkic and helps neighboring states to establish an effective control over the population.
The Russian platform is arguably the smallest and more vulnerable, as the country lags in commercialization of innovation produced by the military-industrial complex and also lacks large population numbers. Russian platforms such as VK.com, Moi Mir, Taxify, Mail.ru, etc., are being transformed into the same tools of geopolitical influence as the existing dichotomy of American and Chinese companies: Facebook and WeChat, Amazon and Alibaba, Cisco and Huawei.
We are only in the early stages of the formation of techno-economic blocs, but the competition will likely accelerate in the coming years. Russia’s and China’s interests will be more aligned as they face different Western technological standards and the resolve (though not always successful) on pushing against the illiberal use of technologies.