Liberal World

The Resilient Order

A girl surrounded by European Union flags during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the founding Treaty of Rome at the Brussels' Atomium, March 24, 2007. Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Decades after they were supposedly banished from the West, the dark forces of world politics—illiberalism, autocracy, nationalism, protectionism, spheres of influence, territorial revisionism—have reasserted themselves. China and Russia have dashed all hopes that they would quickly transition to democracy and support the liberal world order. To the contrary, they have strengthened their authoritarian systems at home and flouted norms abroad. Even more stunning, with the United Kingdom having voted for Brexit and the United States having elected Donald Trump as president, the leading patrons of the liberal world order have chosen to undermine their own system. Across the world, a new nationalist mindset has emerged, one that views international institutions and globalization as threats to national sovereignty and identity rather than opportunities.

The recent rise of illiberal forces and leaders is certainly worrisome. Yet it is too soon to write the obituary of liberalism as a theory of international relations, liberal democracy as a system of government, or the liberal order as the overarching framework for global politics. The liberal vision of nation-states cooperating to achieve security and prosperity remains as vital today as at any time in the modern age. In the long course of history, liberal democracy has hit been hard times before, only to rebound and gain ground. It has done so thanks to the appeal of its basic values and its unique capacities to effectively grapple with the problems of modernity and globalization.

For the first time in history, global institutions are now necessary to realize basic human interests; intense forms of interdependence that were once present only on a smaller scale are now present on a global scale.

The order will endure, too. Even though the United States’ relative power is waning, the international system that the country has sustained for seven decades is remarkably durable. As long as interdependence—economic, security-related, and environmental—continues to grow, peoples and governments everywhere will be compelled to work together to solve problems or suffer grievous harm.

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