The liberal world order is neither inherently universal, nor is it the inevitable path of societies across the globe. Like the ideals of democracy it embodies, the liberal world order — for us, a Western-oriented financial and trade system that emerged following World War II and which prescribes democracy as the sole path for all societies — is a political construct that has evolved and developed in a certain place and at a certain time. Such historicization is not to argue against the liberal world order’s merits nor deny its problems and challenges. As Winston Churchill intoned in 1947, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
But even democracy itself evolved out of a particular strand of Western philosophy, and its application has been far from equal across place and time. But just because a Western-oriented liberal model has driven the trends of globalization, political development and economic growth for nearly the past century — and particularly since the end of the Cold War — that doesn’t mean it will continue in perpetuity. Even a brief look at history emphasizes the frequency and scale of changes that have rocked the world system, so there should be little expectation of linearity moving forward.
At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history” as he predicted the eventual triumph of a liberal world order. But in the quarter-century since — and especially in recent years — the prospects for the ultimate victory of such an order appear dim amid the challenges posed by local circumstances. Ultimately, recognizing geopolitical realities and the fact that the liberal world order is not inevitable for everyone is essential to understanding the world.
Divergent Views on Globalization
In October 2017, I wrote about competing views of globalization from Asia and Europe in the context of travels through several countries in the year since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. In brief, the piece laid bare the very distinct views between Asia and Europe regarding Trump, globalization and the trend of future history. Europe perceived Trump as an an historical figure who was crashing against the inevitable progress of the liberal world order and globalization, as well as the universal integration of economic, political and regulatory norms. In Asia, there was a sense of uncertainty, but not nearly as much surprise at the notion that nations and nationalism retained their currency and that conflict and confrontation remained the norm.
Since that time, I have been back through Europe and Asia, including a visit to the middle ground in Kiev. Regardless of the intended topic of discussions, the question of the liberal world order and its challenges always took center stage. Without doubt, Trump’s words and actions did much to shape these discussions, but thinking back, the questions were, in general, universal. The questions centered on the structure of international relations, trade flows and regulations, and the ability to predict the interests and behavior of others in order to make effective decisions. In all, they were questions about the direction of the future.
The divergent viewpoints, however, did not stem so much from the differences between East and West as they did from the differences between — for lack of a better term — classes. The globe’s larger metropolitan areas, especially the great capitals, as well as coastal and trading cities, share similar beliefs and concerns — to the extent that there is often a greater convergence in views among the denizens of London, New York and even Shanghai than between such urbanites and their compatriots in the suburbs or hinterlands. For evidence, look no further than the voting patterns in the cases of Brexit and the election of Trump, in which the metropoles defended a concept of an international liberal order, while the “rest” reasserted local and national self-interest.
When Ideals Bump Up Against Reality
If I were to list some of the greatest challenges to the liberal world order, I would not necessarily start with individual leaders or their autocratic tendencies. Without question, individuals matter, as they can shape perceptions and policies alike. But more often than not, they are a reflection of pre-existing underlying trends that they proceed to exploit and magnify. I, instead, would begin with an exploration of the deeply ingrained concept that the liberal world order is universal and inevitable.
At its most extreme, the liberal world order, whether represented by EU leaders in Brussels, the World Trade Organization or even the United Nations, denotes the subservience of national and regional self-interest to a rules-based global order that assumes a universality of application and applicability. Commendably, it attempts to relegate conflict and competition to the dustbin of history, but it does so by ignoring certain underlying truths: That place matters, that opportunity is not equally bestowed by nature across the globe and that — for good or bad — societies, morals and norms evolved differently in different places as organized people interacted with their local geographies.
The near religious zeal for a universalist and inevitable principle of world organization is not a new phenomenon, particularly in Western societies. We have seen it before, from the spread of Christianity to the “white man’s burden” of “benign” imperialism, from the enlightenment to the drive for science to eliminate religion and from the idea of civilization always advancing toward perfection to assertions of democracy as the desire of all mankind.
When the ideal is assumed to be the only path, the actions of its proponents often have the reverse effect, as the putative standard bearers of civilization fail to recognize the realities that lie beneath. The challenges to European solidarity have not fostered understanding among EU leaders regarding the different and complex conditions on the Continent but rather convinced them to double down on integration; such action has served to delegitimize — even if unintentionally — the concerns of many in Europe who see their personal experiences in a very different light.
This is the second issue, because the very “success” of globalization, technological development and internationalization of trade has come at a high cost. The belief in abundant opportunity became a core element of the Western myth that spread abroad as the liberal world order took hold, but the so-called “hollowing out” of the middle class reflects the social limits of the current model. At the heart of the issue is the perception of a breakdown in the relatively new idea (in historical terms, at least) that individuals can always improve upon their parents’ economic and social standing.
Sir Halford Mackinder, one of the founders of the discipline of geopolitics, pointed to this very risk when Europe contemplated how to rebuild society and the global order amid the wreckage of World War I. In his 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder cautioned that “as long as you allow a great metropolis to drain most of the best young brains from the local communities,” it will lead to class divisions as village- and town-dwellers lose the opportunity for advancement and young people migrate to large cities.
These new metropoles, however, do not result in a flourishing of diverse ideas but a convergence, as the new elites attend the same schools, enter the same professions and begin espousing the same politics, Mackinder notes. The author goes on to warn that if the divisions between the metropoles and their host countries continue, “it is quite inevitable that the corresponding classes in neighboring nations will get themselves together, and that what has been described as the horizontal cleavage of international society will ensue.” In extremely simplified terms, it points to today’s split between extreme globalism and rising nationalism.
A final challenge to the liberal world order comes from the rise of the rest, particularly China. In 1900, the American geopolitician Alfred Thayer Mahan witnessed the imperial competition over China but predicted that a unified and economically advanced China might eventually emerge. If it did so, he argued, it would be best to ensure it had Western values. “If the advantage to us is great of a China open to commerce, the danger to us and to her is infinitely greater of a China enriched and strengthened by the material advantages we have to offer, but uncontrolled in the use of them by any clear understanding, much less any full acceptance, of the mental and moral forces which have generated and in large measure govern our political and social action.”
While the language reflects a different time — one of empire and the assertion that the West is politically and socially superior to the East — the concept is little different than the assertion today that China needs to play by the West’s rules of global trade and commerce. Global integration and trade has opened the way for China, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even Africa and Latin America to achieve rapid advancements in economic activity, technological development and social mobility. And because of this success, these countries are now asking why the globe’s internal system is underwritten by a narrow set of Western values and why they must adhere to such alien concepts if they wish to participate and compete in the world order.
A Not-So Universal Model
Western philosophy, it turns out, is not universal. The idea of linear growth and a constant advancement toward some ideal may be common in the West, but Asian philosophers, for example, have often perceived a world that moves in cycles rather than toward any conclusion. When economic power, political influence and military and cultural “soft power” begin rippling back across the globe instead of traveling in a single direction, a rethink of the system’s core concepts is in order.
Today, most would look askance at anyone who asserted that there is a clear racial order to the world in which Europe and America must guide and teach the rest. There would be equal opposition to ideas that Western empires must re-establish themselves to rule the global order, control distant populations and better utilize the world’s economic resources and manpower. If we asserted that there is still a white man’s burden, or that there is a single religion that must be imposed on the world — whether Christianity, Islam or Hinduism — we would be swiftly rebuked. Even so, there is surprise when peoples who did not participate in the Western world order during its formative years, or help draft its guiding principles, documents or regulations, challenge the system.
Though the ideals of the liberal world order may be noble, it is important to recognize that the world isn’t united and that different core worldviews have emerged over time as different peoples engaged with their geographies. Religions might assert universal truths, but there is no universally correct way of doing things in the political order. There is no irresistible march of history toward progress or liberal democracy, just as the future history espoused by Marxists proved to be an analysis, not an inevitability. Acknowledging this is key to understanding the world and, accordingly, how efforts to achieve goals such as the liberal world order may occasionally lead to division, separation and chaos.