The “liberal international order” is under severe strain. Although its supporters welcomed the defeat of former U.S. President Donald Trump, the order still faces major challenges from both within and without. Populist politicians across the globe call for major changes in the norms and values of world politics. They attack liberal order as a so-called globalist project that serves the interests of sinister elites while trampling national sovereignty, traditional values, and local culture. Some with this view currently lead countries that belong to pillars of liberal order, such as NATO and the European Union. Others, including in the United States, are only an election away from taking the reins of foreign policy. Meanwhile, emboldened illiberal powers seek to make the world safe for authoritarianism, in the process undermining key elements of liberal order. China and Russia, in particular, have exercised diplomatic, economic, and even military power to put forward alternative visions.

But if the current liberal international order is in trouble, what kind of illiberal order might emerge in its wake? Does an illiberal order necessarily mean competition for naked power among increasingly nationalist great powers, rampant protectionism, and a world hostile to democratic governance?

Current trends suggest less a complete collapse of liberal order than important changes in the mix of illiberal and liberal elements that characterize world politics. Multilateral cooperation and global governance remain strong, but they display increasingly autocratic and illiberal characteristics. The growing strength of reactionary populism and assertiveness of autocratic powers are eroding the international order’s ability to support human, political, and civil rights. Similar developments point toward a future where liberal economic arrangements are used for oligarchic and kleptocratic purposes.

These processes are already in motion. They stem not only from recent developments but also from forces that have been transforming international order since the start of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it would be naive to think that the liberal order can be frozen in any particular form. There are inherent tensions and tradeoffs that generate pressures for change. It may be impossible to completely reverse current trends in the evolution of international order. Democratic states should instead focus their efforts on shaping the changing order to better protect their values and systems of government.

Liberal and Illiberal International Orders

What makes an order illiberal? The vast majority of international orders—which were exclusively regional affairs before the nineteenth century—were illiberal. They came in many shapes and sizes, and other than being not liberal they did not share much in common. Attitudes toward warfare, economic exchange, and the conduct of diplomacy varied widely. Many past international orders­ took for granted the fundamental inequality of human beings, but they involved very different understandings of social stratification. Some were organized around universal empires that claimed, in theory, to exercise suzerainty over the entire world. Colonial empires were founded upon understandings of racial hierarchy and civilizing missions. Others were composed of city-states or anchored by large nomadic confederacies. In early modern Europe, dynastic composite states, formed through aristocratic marriage and inheritance, competed for territory and influence.

If we want to make sense of the evolution of contemporary international order, then, we are better off starting with a discussion of liberalism. Although liberalism itself comes in different flavors—sometimes combining liberal and illiberal features—it generally involves three major domains:

Political liberalism concerns domestic political systems. In its weakest form, it holds that governments must respect some basic human and civil rights. The strongest forms contend that all states should be liberal democracies. This means that precursors of liberal order can exist in otherwise illiberal systems, including limited religious toleration in Europe after 1648 or broader norms of toleration in the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

Economic liberalism entails a commitment to market economies. What this means in practice can vary a great deal. New Deal liberalism associated with the post–World War II Bretton Woods system envisioned mixed economies with capital controls and robust welfare states. In contrast, the neoliberal order that achieved dominance in the 1990s prefers self-regulating markets, capital mobility, and the privatization of government functions.

Liberal intergovernmentalism concerns the means or form of international order. Strong forms of liberal intergovernmentalism favor multilateral treaties and agreements; international organizations; and institutions that make rules, resolve disputes, and provide for international goods. In general, liberal intergovernmentalism also involves bilateral agreements that reflect principles of sovereign equality—even between states that are significantly unequal. In contrast, illiberal forms of international governance range from the assertion of privileged spheres of influence to formal imperialism.

If the current liberal international order is in trouble, what kind of illiberal order might emerge in its wake?

International order—and regional orders in places such as Europe, southern Africa, or East Asia—combines these domains in different ways. After the Cold War, however, U.S. policymakers convinced themselves that Washington could establish international liberal order as a relatively stable equilibrium—even as they carved out exemptions, such as from the International Criminal Court. U.S. leaders assumed that the world would converge around ordering principles of democratization, expanding markets, and institutionalizing multilateralism in global governance. They also believed that these principles would come to reinforce one another.

It was a plausible assumption. It did not take long for liberal institutions to enter the vacuum left by the Soviet order’s demise. The Warsaw Pact’s collapse in 1991 gave rise to the expansion of NATO. Within a few years, the European Union embarked on an ambitious effort to incorporate postcommunist European states. The triumph of democracy seemed inevitable. Autocratic holdouts—such as Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia—often faced military and economic punishment by Western powers or at the hands of broad domestic coalitions. Western-controlled international financial organizations and development agencies oversaw transitions to market economies supported by Western advisers and consultants. Principles such as private property, unrestricted foreign investment, open capital flows, and free trade were embedded in domestic law. The new so-called Washington Consensus dominated international economic governance, while multilateralism and intergovernmentalism became the standard mode for global economic cooperation through new institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Nonetheless, these different domains need not coexist. They can even work at cross-purposes. Empires, for example, have promoted open markets and free trade, but no one would describe their other behavior as consistent with liberal intergovernmentalism. Neoconservatives have long stressed how sovereignty norms at multilateral institutions such as the UN can shield autocratic regimes from liberalization. Just consider the authoritarian states that sit on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or how Hungary and Poland have shielded each other from EU sanctions. Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund have faced accusations of overriding democratic principles by pushing structural adjustment programs on economically vulnerable states that disproportionately affect the poor, and the democratic deficit in the EU rightfully generates significant controversy.

The inevitable tension between these aspects of liberalism can become a source of transformation in international order. Such mutations may push international orders in uniformly illiberal directions or in ways that make one dimension more liberal and another less so. Consider the emergence and evolution of “responsibility to protect” principles that justify international intervention to prevent genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These pitted sovereignty norms and restrictions on the use of force against human rights norms. These dynamics ensure that the international liberal order mutates over time, producing different combinations of liberal and illiberal characteristics.

Shifting Intergovernmentalism

To trace these mutations in international order, it is helpful to first understand how liberal intergovernmentalism has changed since its inception. Liberal intergovernmental practices date at least as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. The International Telecommunication Union (then the International Telegraph Union), for instance, was established in 1865. A major milestone was the formation of the League of Nations in 1920. But the decisive shift toward liberal intergovernmentalism occurred after World War II. Since then, multilateral institutions and forums have increasingly become central sites for cooperation and diplomacy. The end of the Cold War only solidified this trend. It thus made sense for observers to conclude that emerging powers, most notably China, would have an incentive to uphold multilateral governance and to play by the rules that contributed to their rapid economic rise.

This does not mean that one should idealize the post–Cold War period. The United States regularly exercised its hegemonic position to exempt itself from international rules and norms. Washington bestowed favorable treatment on certain states for geopolitical reasons. The United States invaded Iraq on, to quote former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a “trumped up pretext.” But acting hypocritically and practicing double standards are an inevitable part of how dominant states reconcile coercive power with countervailing norms.

Still, liberal intergovernmentalism remains a crucial element of contemporary international order. The last 20 years have seen a striking increase in the number of regional organizations, although not in the way that liberal triumphalists envisioned. These organizations and forums do not generally involve advanced industrialized democracies. Led by China and Russia, they mimic the form of Western counterparts but embody illiberal and autocratic norms and promote their authoritarian founders’ regional agendas. In some cases, such as the BRICS (founded in 2009 by Brazil, Russia, India, and China—with South Africa joining in 2010), new organizations explicitly claim to represent important powers once excluded from the existing system of global governance. Moscow’s push to establish the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2002 and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014 aimed to demarcate a Russian sphere of influence in the Eurasian region. It did so within a framework based on Western counterparts such as NATO and the EU. Similarly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and four Central Asian states—explicitly defined itself as countering U.S. hegemonic influence by helping to “democratize” international relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, June 2018
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, June 2018
Jason Lee / Reuters

Other new international organizations challenge the existing multilateral system by governing similar issues or creating new geographic groupings that cut against the authority of liberal institutions. Many of these new groups are actively recognizing and networking with one another, in the process altering the balance between liberal and more illiberal international bodies. In short, the global intergovernmental fabric in 2021 looks increasingly multipolar and politically illiberal compared with the one that existed two decades before.

Powers such as China and Russia also make ample use of bilateral initiatives to influence the attitudes and voting behavior of other states within more venerable multilateral forums. All great powers leverage bilateral relations or provide side payments to achieve their policy preferences. The United States has long done so, as did the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But what’s striking is how such efforts are now altering the central institutions of the liberal order itself. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners appear increasingly sensitive to Beijing’s concerns on issues such as its Xinjiang policy or broader human rights record. For example, in June 2017, Greece—a Chinese BRI partner—blocked an EU statement at the UNHRC that would have criticized China’s human rights practices. A Greek foreign ministry official called the statement “unconstructive criticism.” This was the first time that the EU had failed to make a statement at the UN body. In 2019, following a letter by 22 UNHRC members criticizing China for its reeducation camps in Xinjiang, Beijing countermobilized a statement of support by 37 countries—reaching over 50 by the fall—that praised Beijing for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” 

In December 2019, the Trump administration announced a new special envoy to counter Chinese influence in the UN—realizing, perhaps, that by withdrawing from UN bodies and treaties, Washington had needlessly abandoned important terrain to Beijing. But in July 2020, it notified Congress that it had withdrawn from the World Health Organization (WHO). In the previous months, Russia and China effectively overturned the Washington-backed Budapest convention on cyber-norms and Internet freedoms by passing a new resolution at the UN that embedded state-backed Internet censorship and regulation in international law. The bill, which passed 88 to 58 (with 34 abstentions), demonstrates that intergovernmentalism can just as easily serve illiberal purposes as liberal ones.

President Joe Biden has halted the United States’ withdrawal from the WHO and pledged greater U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions, but these trends in liberal intergovernmentalism are part of a broader decline of political liberalism in international order. Forms of international governance persist, but with a diminishing commitment to democratic values and liberal rights.

Political Liberalism in Decline

Perhaps no dimension of international order is currently threatened more than political liberalism. Liberal democratic principles deeply informed the post–World War II order, which emphasized promoting and protecting individual rights and holding individuals accountable for their participation in crimes or corruption. Since the 1940s, of course, the application and enforcement of human rights, political liberties, antigenocide norms, and other dimensions of the order have remained patchy at best. But the importance of such liberal rights and principles is obvious when compared with the norms and practices of prior international orders.

Still, although sweeping generalizations about the decline of democracy require caution, it is clear that its advocates are on the defensive. The early 2000s were an important inflection point. In 2006, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the nongovernmental organization Freedom House observed that the number of states with declining democracy scores outnumbered those with improved country scores (33 versus 18). This trend has continued every year since.

Why has political liberalism come under such sustained challenge? In retrospect, analysts should not underestimate the role of systemic backlash to the “color revolutions” in Eurasia, which occurred in the middle years of the first decade of this century and the Arab Spring movements in the early years of the second decade. During the color revolutions, street protests in a number of post-Soviet countries swept away regimes with close ties to Moscow and replaced them with more Western-oriented successors. In Georgia in 2003, Mikheil Saakashvili came to power pushing an agenda aimed at rapidly joining the West and NATO. In doing so, he effectively created a U.S. client state in the post-Soviet Caucasus. The following year, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution overturned the electoral victory of Moscow’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Moscow, along with other autocratic regimes in the region, started to see democratic movements and their backers not as political nuisances but as urgent and potentially destabilizing security threats. Russia and countries across the post-Soviet region cracked down heavily on street protests, banned or restricted civil society organizations, and rebranded democratic activists as foreign-funded fifth columnists.

Democratic states should focus on shaping the changing international order to better protect their values.

These revolutions, along with the Iraq war, helped recast the United States as a hegemonic power determined to overthrow authoritarian regimes. The Arab Spring further confirmed this image. Washington offered encouragement to protests across North Africa and the Middle East, greenlighted NATO intervention in Libya, and even leveraged its deep security ties with Egypt to force the ouster of the country’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, the (often overplayed) role of social media in the Arab Spring convinced authoritarian regimes of the need to develop effective countermeasures. Autocratic and insecure governments across multiple regions also increasingly portrayed their domestic political opposition and independent media as somehow aligned with intrusive Western forces or with Washington’s geopolitical agenda. Moscow’s conspiratorial proclamations about U.S. meddling resonated across other authoritarian regimes.

Emerging powers also sought to promote new norms to counter the appeal of political liberalism. One of these, “civilizational diversity,” frequently informs China’s bilateral relations and engagement with international and regional organizations. The concept’s emphasis on cultural relativism, sovereign noninterference, and respect for civilizational differences aims to undercut political liberalism. A different set of “counternorms,” most often championed by Russia, emphasizes “traditional values.” These update the venerable tradition of associating liberalism with decadence and decline. The Russian government has promoted, with support from some Middle Eastern states, the idea that state-organized religion should play a more prominent role in political life, “traditional” heterosexual family values, and restrictions on migration to safeguard national identities.

Indeed, in the 1990s, so-called transnational advocacy networks ­were overwhelmingly associated with liberal causes such as human rights, gender equality, and environmental protections. Now, illiberal regimes utilize transnational actors for their own ends. Consider, for instance, the success of the World Congress of Families, a network that ties right-wing Christian organizations in the United States together with pro-family groups, religious representatives, and Russian oligarch patrons. The WCF has held annual meetings to promote the “traditional values” agenda and connect governments and social actors pushing reactionary cultural programs. Several of these annual conferences have been hosted by countries with self-styled illiberal rulers, including Moldova, Hungary, and, most recently, Verona, Italy, home to Lega head and then Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who delivered celebratory remarks at the meeting. Although the WCF may or may not expand in influence, it showcases how transnational advocacy has become a far more contested arena than it was in the 1990s, with illiberal actors and movements often on the offensive.

No dimension of international order is currently threatened more than political liberalism.

The United States itself bears responsibility for promoting one of political liberalism’s most potent counternorms: the need to restrict civil liberties and human rights to combat terrorism. The U.S.-led global “war on terror” included a diplomatic effort aimed at eradicating and blacklisting terrorist and extremist movements worldwide. Taking advantage of this sudden normative shift, governments designated political opponents and groups as “terrorists” and “extremists.” As a result, regimes during the first decade of the 2000s used counterterrorism as an excuse to consolidate executive power, expand surveillance, reduce civil liberties, and increase informal cooperation among their security services.

Framing democracy as a threat to regime security also helped new regional organizations incorporate illiberal principles into their institutional platforms. The SCO, for example, adopted the so-called Shanghai Spirit, which advocates norms of noninterference, as well as mutual civilizational respect and understanding. The SCO also institutionalized blacklisting organizations and individuals regarded as terrorists, extremists, and separatists—with no clear criteria for those designations. It committed to extraterritorial procedures that allowed listed individuals, including political opponents, to be extradited from one another’s territories without any international legal protections. The Gulf Cooperation Council followed suit with a similar set of provisions in 2012. New regional organizations in Latin America—notably the Venezuelan- and Cuban-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the more recent Union of South American Nations and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—emphasized regional solidarity and anti-imperialism, while omitting safeguards for democratic norms and human rights. The new Chinese-led dialogue forums with Latin America, Africa, and Europe similarly leave out any references to support for political rights and, instead, invoke governing principles of noninterference and shared prosperity. International institutions and regional organizations now increasingly serve to shield their members from liberalizing pressures.

The mid-2000s also saw the co-optation of mechanisms once associated with political liberalism. Consider international election observation. During the 1990s, election monitoring was a relatively modest but specialized endeavor, confined to committed practitioners from the Carter Center or, internationally, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By the mid- to late 2000s, however, many of these new regional organizations got into the business of election monitoring to stem the tide of international criticism. Unsurprisingly, their assessments invariably support obviously flawed elections by incumbent autocrats. In turn, the presence of these regime-friendly international observers muddies the waters and reduces the chance that rigged elections will become focal points for antigovernment mobilization. Authoritarian governments have repurposed international norms and practices designed to promote liberal values to strengthen the sovereign authority of autocrats.

Reconfiguring Economic Liberalism

Discussions of the end of economic liberalism tend to focus on deglobalization: the return of protectionist policies designed to benefit specific sectors, the decoupling of economies to facilitate great-power competition, and related efforts to mitigate security threats posed by trade and financial interdependence. For instance, the Trump administration’s strategy to confront Chinese market distortion­—including government subsidies to Chinese state-operated companies and infringement of intellectual property rights—relied almost exclusively on imposing tariffs. At the same time, Trump jettisoned liberal strategies such as contesting Chinese practices at the WTO and negotiating, as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an alternative zone of trade, commerce, and protection. Deglobalization and enduring trade wars remain a real possibility. Despite a more supportive overall disposition toward trade, Biden administration negotiators haven’t challenged Trump’s expansive invocation of “national security” to justify tariffs on products such as steel.

A more probable outcome, however, involves appropriating liberal economic arrangements for illiberal purposes. The most likely option is one that tracks with the trends identified in liberal intergovernmentalism and political liberalism: an order characterized by the elements of economic liberalism that autocratic leaders and populist politicians find most convivial and those that provide great and regional powers with tools to pursue international influence. These intersect with an increasingly kleptocratic and oligarchic international economy, one that further undermines political liberalism and democracy.

To understand why this is a likely future, consider a number of recent scandals, including the conviction of Paul Manafort and the impeachment of Donald Trump, that involve how ruling elites and despots take advantage of the legal institutions and hidden service providers of the global economic system.

Western accountants, shell companies, lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, and luxury real estate developers have all helped kleptocrats and crooked officials launder wealth pillaged from their home countries. The release of the Panama Papers in 2016, a leak of over 11 million documents from one of the world’s largest providers of offshore companies, offered a particularly vivid picture of the liberal economic order’s dark side.  It showed how rulers, elites, and democratically elected officials around the world used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to purchase complex assets designed to conceal the origins of their embezzled wealth.

The United States has done much to make economic liberalism friendly to corruption. In its 2020 Financial Secrecy Index, the anticorruption watchdog Tax Justice Network ranked the United States as the second “most complicit” country in the world, right behind the Cayman Islands, when it came to enabling money laundering by criminals and wealthy individuals. Combined with the rise of unregulated and opaque dark money flooding into the U.S. political system after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, shell companies have become the primary vehicle through which corporations and wealthy individuals avoid taxation and directly influence the political system and campaigns.

Anticorruption protests in Valletta, Malta, April 2016
Anticorruption protests in Valletta, Malta, April 2016
Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

The combination of extreme capital mobility and secrecy is just one of the features of the contemporary economic order that illiberal leaders find useful for extracting rents. Rentier states, many of which are authoritarian, depend on international trade to sell commodities such as oil, gas, and precious metals. Foreign direct investment can provide additional opportunities for corruption by incentivizing investors to secure contracts through kickbacks.

Development assistance, a key part of the postwar liberal order, can also help illiberal leaders entrench their regimes. Like favorable trade and investment arrangements, development programs help governments generate legitimacy by providing material benefits to their citizens. For corrupt rulers, moreover, they create opportunities for rent seeking, both by enriching themselves and by greasing their domestic patronage networks. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban famously depends on EU subsidies to reward his supporters for their loyalty. A previously embargoed World Bank study estimates that up to 7.5 percent of official development assistance sent to the poorest developing countries is siphoned off into offshore assets and secret jurisdictions.

Chinese assistance plays a central role in this process. Indeed, after the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing emerged—especially outside of Europe—as a de facto source of international goods. It provided loans and investment to countries unwilling or unable to access Western emergency lenders. Some studies estimate that between 2000 and 2014, Chinese lending approached the amount provided by Western institutions such as the World Bank. The announcement of China’s BRI in 2013 and the establishment of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank the next year marked China’s formal arrival as a heavyweight provider of investment and infrastructure financing. Despite initial claims that the BRI would provide “apolitical” infrastructure improvements and that it would complement existing sources of development assistance, Chinese economic actors involved in the BRI have interfered in numerous countries’ domestic politics, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Cambodia. The global network of BRI projects focused on digital infrastructure and telecommunications will also allow Beijing to set global standards for technological and security protocols.

Here, the interests of illiberal leaders converge with those of great powers in seeking tools of economic influence. China’s disinterest in enforcing liberal conditions (such as transparency requirements or environmental safeguards), along with its willingness to exploit corruption to lock down deals and political influence, has played a major role in pushing the liberal economic order in a more kleptocratic and oligarchic direction. But it is far from the only actor doing this.

If current trends continue, the emerging international order will likely still contain liberal characteristics.

Indeed, many of the forces driving these mutations in the liberal order are coming from inside the house—and not merely from right-wing populists. Policymakers who consider themselves champions of liberal economic order frequently pursue capital mobility, financial deregulation, and the excessive privatization of public services. Meanwhile, advanced industrial democracies often support corrupt foreign officials out of economic or geopolitical interest. The presence of competitors such as China that care even less for economic liberalism will further pressure liberal states to look the other way.

The initial economic collapse and political uncertainty that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic will likely fuel many illiberal trends in the global economy. In the midst of global economic contraction, economic trade and investment have slowed and national borders are increasingly important. The WTO noted a strong rebound in the fourth quarter of 2020 but warns that this recovery is “unlikely to be sustained” in the first half of 2021. In the meantime, trade in global services remains depressed and international travel is down by 68 percent. China has publicly positioned itself as a provider of emergency medical supplies and vaccines, and the crisis has put renewed pressure on BRI debtors to service their loans. This raises the prospect of impending debt write-offs or other forms of loan restructuring that could enhance Beijing’s political influence in highly indebted countries. Skeptics of arguments about U.S. decline point to Washington’s enduring financial hegemony and the global demand for dollars, especially in a time of crisis. In March 2020, the U.S. Federal Reserve announced new temporary dollar liquidity swap lines (through which foreign countries can exchange their home currency for dollars at prevailing exchange rates), which brought its total for these arrangements up to 13 countries, in addition to an agreement with the European Central Bank. But although the Federal Reserve continues to function as a global backstop, the People’s Bank of China now maintains around 26 similar bilateral agreements. Three countries (Brazil, Singapore, and South Korea) in the U.S. orbit also maintain lines with China.

Emergency spending in the midst of the pandemic is exacerbating these trends, as elites and kleptocrats worldwide use crisis-induced borrowing to reward political allies. In the United States itself, watered-down oversight provisions in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act fueled concern that the emergency package would lead the U.S. Treasury to ignore fraud and reward political supporters. One preliminary investigation into the recipients of the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed companies and small businesses with 500 or fewer employees to apply for $10 million in forgivable loans, found that 100 companies owned and controlled by Trump political contributors were among the first to receive relief. Another analysis revealed that Trump’s family and associates received $21 million in funding. The Treasury Department provided no details about recipients of loans below $150,000, which accounted for about 80 percent of the nearly five million recipients of the $659 billion program. In early 2021, the international corruption watchdog Transparency International said that weak oversight “raised serious concerns” and found, overall, that levels of corruption in the United States were the highest in nine years.

The Shape of Illiberal Order

If current trends continue, the emerging international order will likely still contain liberal characteristics. Liberal intergovernmentalism—in the form of multilateral organizations and interstate relations—will remain a major force in world politics. But this will be, to adapt a cliché, intergovernmentalism with autocratic characteristics. Authoritarian states will continue to chip away at political liberalism in older international institutions while constructing illiberal alternatives. Transnational civil society will likely remain a site of continuing ideological contention, with a variety of reactionary, populist, and pro-autocratic actors competing with liberal groups and one another. Such a world will more closely resemble that of the 1920s than the Cold War. Even a “return” to what the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy called “great power competition” is just as likely to spur on illiberal tendencies—including animus directed at ethnic Chinese and pressure to expand domestic surveillance—as it is to reenergize liberal advocates, institutions, and networks.

Barring unexpected changes in the distribution of power or regime change within rising authoritarian states, defenders of international political liberalism should not expect more than intermittent success in holding the line. One important step, though, would be a coordinated effort by major democracies to engage with new regional organizations on common issues and norms and values—that is, concerns that usually get bracketed in the name of political pragmatism. Comprehensive engagement should become the standard way for liberal states to interact with groups such as the SCO, the CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Most of all, democratic powers need to show up and push for their values. Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization illustrates the risks of doing otherwise. After the Trump administration withheld its funding to protest Beijing’s alleged undue influence, China announced that it would step in to bridge the subsequent funding gap. Rather than confront China’s revisionism, such withdrawals concede new areas of global governance to Beijing and its illiberal clients. Here, the Biden administration’s declared intention to embrace multilateralism is a welcome development.

The status of economic liberalism in such a future, however, is much more uncertain. The United States has already weaponized interdependence by leveraging its hold over global financial and technological networks to compel other countries to reject the spread of China’s 5G technology. The more the United States trades away its influence in international organizations, deliberately undermines its diplomatic capital, and damages its vaunted soft power, the more it will depend on military instruments and economic coercion to get its way in world politics. Such a cycle would make it extremely difficult for Washington to become a force for international liberalism.

Discussions of the end of economic liberalism tend to focus on deglobalization.

Although a major rollback of interdependence remains possible, the most likely outcome will not reflect either isolationism or hypercapitalist authoritarianism. Instead, it will be a world in which transnational flows are increasingly oriented toward the needs of domestic kleptocrats and patronage networks. Proponents of liberal order should therefore focus on anticorruption efforts. The United States, United Kingdom, and EU should continue to develop new anticorruption measures with extraterritorial reach, such as extending the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and enforcing the United Kingdom’s new Unexplained Wealth Orders. The U.S. Corporate Transparency Act of 2021—which ends the anonymity of many shell corporations by 2022—is a major step in the right direction. But Washington, London, and Brussels should do much more to harmonize their efforts, including creating common and public registries of beneficial owners of companies and enacting coordinated sanctions on kleptocrats.

The good news is that there are few effective pro-corruption norms. Kleptocrats prefer to convince their citizens that everyone is equally corrupt and weaponize anticorruption measures against political opponents. Thus, opposition to corruption remains politically relevant in illiberal powers such as Russia and China, even as these countries increasingly use corruption strategically to buy off and capture elites, bureaucrats, and regulators overseas.

The success of efforts to develop an illiberal order does not mean that liberal powers lack opportunities to shape norms and institutions. No international order is homogeneous. There is nothing unusual about variations in arrangements and values across different regions or policy domains. Some aspects of contemporary liberal order, however, particularly in the economic domain, require reform lest they continue to undermine the viability of domestic liberal democratic institutions.

Indeed, policymakers interested in resisting challenges to liberalism need to prioritize its political dimensions, both at home and in intergovernmental settings. This means defending political liberalism in word and deed. It also means affirming, rather than undermining, its current normative foundation. Projects, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to redefine human rights, that require attacking those foundations will only backfire—making the task of authoritarian powers that much easier.

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.
  • DANIEL H. NEXON is a Professor in the Department of Government and at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
  • This essay emerged from the Lloyd George Study Group on World Order.
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