REUTERS / MIKE SEGAR America First: Trump supporters on election night, November 8, 2016.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: What Was the Liberal Order?
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Liberalism in Retreat

The Demise of a Dream

The liberal international order has always depended on the idea of progress. Since 1945, Western policymakers have believed that open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would gradually spread across the entire globe. Today, such hopes seem naive. 

In Asia, the rise of China threatens to challenge U.S. military and economic hegemony, as Beijing seeks to draw American allies such as the Philippines and Thailand into its political orbit. In the Middle East, the United States and its European allies have failed to guide the region toward a more liberal and peaceful future in the wake of the Arab Spring and have proved powerless to halt the conflict in Syria. Russia’s geopolitical influence has reached heights unseen since the Cold War, as the country attempts to roll back liberal advances on its periphery.

But the more important threats to the order are internal. For over 50 years, the European Union has seemed to represent the advance guard of a new liberalism in which nations pool sovereignty and cooperate ever more closely with one another. But today, as it reels from one crisis to the next, the EU has stopped expanding. After the British vote to leave the bloc last June, it will probably shrink for the first time in its history.

Across the ocean, the U.S. commitment to global leadership, which until now has sustained the order through good times and bad, looks weaker than at any point since World War II. The Republican president-elect Donald Trump ran on an explicitly “America First” platform, pledged to renegotiate U.S. trade deals, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and called into question U.S. commitments to NATO. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia has struggled to take off. Beijing has wasted no time in laying out its own vision for a more integrated Eurasia that may exclude the United States and in which China will play the leading role.

Over the past half century, as other political systems have crumbled, liberal international order has risen to face its challenges. Yet so long as the economies of its leading members remain fragile and their political institutions divided, the order that they have championed is unlikely to regain the political momentum that helped democracy spread across the globe. Instead, it will evolve into a less ambitious project: a liberal international economic order that encompasses states with diverse domestic political systems. In the short term, this will allow democracies and their illiberal counterparts to find ways to coexist. In the longer term, providing it can adapt, liberal democracy is likely to regain its supremacy.

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