After the annus horribilis that was 2016, most political observers believe that the liberal world order is in serious trouble. But that is where the agreement ends. At the recent Munich Security Conference, debate on the subject among leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Vice President Mike Pence, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demonstrated a lack of consensus even on what the liberal order is. That makes it hard to say what will happen to it.
When the West, and especially the United States, dominated the world, the liberal order was pretty much whatever they said it was. Other countries complained and expounded alternate approaches, but basically went along with the Western-defined rules.
But as global power has shifted from the West to the “rest,” the liberal world order has become an increasingly contested idea, with rising powers like Russia, China, and India increasingly challenging Western perspectives. And, indeed, Merkel’s criticism in Munich of Russia for invading Crimea and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was met with Lavrov’s assertions that the West ignored the sovereignty norm in international law by invading Iraq and recognising Kosovo’s independence.
This is not to say that the liberal world order is an entirely obscure concept. The original iteration—call it “Liberal Order 1.0”—arose from the ashes of World War II to uphold peace and support global prosperity. It was underpinned by institutions like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which later became the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional security arrangements, such as NATO. It emphasized multilateralism, including through the United Nations, and promoted free trade.
But Liberal Order 1.0 had its limits—namely, sovereign borders. Given the ongoing geopolitical struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, it could not even quite be called a “world order.” What countries did at home was basically their business, as long as it didn’t affect the superpower rivalry.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, a triumphant West expanded the concept of the liberal world order substantially. The result—Liberal Order 2.0—penetrated countries’ borders to consider the rights of those who lived there.
Rather than upholding national sovereignty at all costs, the expanded order sought to pool sovereignty and to establish shared rules to which national governments must adhere. In many ways, Liberal Order 2.0—underpinned by institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as new norms like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)—sought to shape the world in the West’s image.
But, before too long, sovereignty-obsessed powers like Russia and China halted its implementation. Calamitous mistakes for which Western policymakers were responsible—namely, the protracted war in Iraq and the global economic crisis—cemented the reversal of Liberal Order 2.0.
But now the West itself is rejecting the order that it created, often using the very same logic of sovereignty that the rising powers used. And it is not just more recent additions like the ICC and R2P that are at risk. With the United Kingdom having rejected the European Union and US President Donald Trump condemning free-trade deals and the Paris climate agreement, the more fundamental Liberal Order 1.0 seems to be under threat.
Some claim that the West overreached in creating Liberal Order 2.0. But even Trump’s America still needs Liberal Order 1.0—and the multilateralism that underpins it. Otherwise, it may face a new kind of globalization that combines the technologies of the future with the enmities of the past.
In such a scenario, military interventions will continue, but not in the postmodern form aimed at upholding order (exemplified by Western powers’ opposition to genocide in Kosovo and Sierra Leone). Instead, modern and pre-modern forms will prevail: support for government repression, like Russia has provided in Syria, or ethno-religious proxy wars, like those that Saudi Arabia and Iran have waged across the Middle East.
The internet, migration, trade, and the enforcement of international law will be turned into weapons in new conflicts, rather than governed effectively by global rules. International conflict will be driven primarily by a domestic politics increasingly defined by status anxiety, distrust of institutions, and narrow-minded nationalism.
European countries are unsure how to respond to this new global disorder. Three potential coping strategies have emerged.
The first would require a country like Germany, which considers itself a responsible stakeholder and has some international heft, to take over as a main custodian of the liberal world order. In this scenario, Germany would work to uphold Liberal Order 1.0 globally and to preserve Liberal Order 2.0 within Europe.
A second strategy, exemplified today by Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could be called profit maximization. Turkey isn’t trying to overturn the existing order, but it doesn’t feel responsible for its upkeep, either. Instead, Turkey seeks to extract as much as possible from Western-led institutions like the EU and NATO, while fostering mutually beneficial relationships with countries, such as Russia, Iran, and China, that often seek to undermine those institutions.
The third strategy is simple hypocrisy: Europe would talk like a responsible stakeholder, but act like a profit maximizer. This is the path British Prime Minister Theresa May took when she met with Trump in Washington, DC. She said all the right things about NATO, the EU, and free trade, but pleaded for a special deal with the US outside of those frameworks.
In the months ahead, many leaders will need to make a bet on whether the liberal order will survive—and on whether they should invest resources in bringing about that outcome. The West collectively has the power to uphold Liberal Order 1.0. But if the Western powers can’t agree on what they want from that order, or what their responsibilities are to maintain it, they are unlikely even to try.