Is the Liberal World Order Threatened?

In the opinion of a
number of experts and liberal politicians, the rise of nationalistic populism
in the United States, as represented by the administration of Donald Trump, may
threaten the liberal world order, which has already been under pressure from
increasingly autocratic leaders in Russia and Turkey. However, if such warnings
are to be taken seriously, perhaps we need look first at the forces that have
created what we call the liberal world order.

First and foremost, we
need to answer the question of whether the liberal world order has been created
primarily by political action or
primarily by globalization–which, in
turn, is primarily driven by modern technologies, science and capital.

Politics undeniably
played an important role in the creation of the liberal world order. In looking
back, it is easy to identify some important political events, such as adoption
of the Washington Consensus in 1989 and later the signing of a number of international
free-trade agreements, for example NAFTA, while the same time the role of the World
Trade Organization kept growing.

In some regions of the
world, this process has been accompanied by efforts of states to integrate or
cooperate ever more closely politically. These projects, for example the
European Union, have not necessarily achieved what they set out to do in some
of their agreements, but they have still reached significant levels of
political integration, in which their member states transferred parts of their
sovereignty on to transnational institutions.

The most pertinent
feature in the development of the international order in the last 27 years has
been the steady removal of various trade and political barriers, accompanied by
an increasing willingness of developed and developing nations to cooperate not
only on a bilateral level but through a multitude of international

As Anne-Marie Slaughter
pointed out in her book The New World
, in the last few decades most nation states have gone through the
process of  “disaggregation”, in which
they voluntarily transferred a variety of their functions on to supranational
organizations, many of which then started generating regulatory frameworks, in
which the nation states need to operate.

This process, of
course, affects more than the others those states that voluntarily engaged in
the projects of economic and political integration, such as the European Union,
but is not limited only to them. Hundreds of international organizations and
institutions with responsibilities for specific fields (from health to ecology)
that now function globally have created a dense network. It is not easy for any
given state—regardless of its size and power—to operate entirely outside this network

In other words: the
world does not have one common government, but in a number of important areas
it already follows common sets of rules, which have been put in place gradually
through the work of international organizations. This multilevel intertwining
of interests and voluntary sharing of many standards and rules distinguishes
the current international order significantly from what existed before World
War II.

So, one answer to the
question of who will salvage the liberal world order and how that will be done is
the liberal world order itself, as it
has developed in the last quarter a century. It is not easy to destroy with the
political action of a single state or even several states.

One of the reasons why
this order cannot be easily destroyed or bypassed is that underlying forces are tied to the process of globalization. And
globalization itself has been driven much more by new technologies and science
than by political decisions.

This new world order is
based predominantly on truly global financial markets, globally functioning
supranational corporations, and an intertwined world of communications. All of
these new phenomena transcend national borders, and they will continue
functioning in this way regardless of how many international trade agreements
Donald Trump manages to extricate the US from.

In other words, the
liberal world order is very closely tied to globalization that increasingly
connects the world on many different levels. When the United States
voluntarily, as a consequence of a misguided political decision, abandoned the
Transpacific Trade Partnership, it has created a situation that will ultimately
cause damage primarily to its own economy. The remaining nations will find a
way to cooperate because it is more advantageous for them to do so than to pursue
the old system of bilateral agreements.

The same is true about
the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Many American corporations
will simply use the EU-Canada Trade Agreement as a proxy by registering in
Canada. In other words, if the US prefers to retreat from these projects, its
place and leadership will be partly taken over by nations such as Japan (or even
China) in the Pacific region and by Canada in transatlantic trade relations.

There are, of course,
other threats to the liberal world order than just “economic nationalism”, as
Trump’s strategic adviser Steve Bannon likes to call the American attempt to
leave the globalized economy. We can see illiberal tendencies in a number of
liberal democracies, or even outright attempts to transform democratic systems
into autocracies. And what keeps the liberal world order afloat is, after all,
the critical mass of liberal democracies in the world.

But just like with the
liberal world order, we should note that in those countries where liberal
democracies have existed for a relatively long time, they now have institutions
and practices that make it difficult to subvert the liberal order. While on the
procedural side of things there is a lot of confusion related to the fact that
traditional political parties are weak and new populist formations (many of
them with the agenda of undermining the liberal world order and retreating
behind their state’s national borders) are on the rise, on the side of liberal
constitutionalism most Western liberal democracies are quite healthy.

The system of  “liberal constitutionalism” represented by
courts, therefore, sprang into action when the British government tried to
bypass parliament in its effort to initiate brexit, and American courts blocked
an immigration order issued by Donald Trump. These constitutional safeguards of
liberal democracies have not been significantly weakened anywhere, and even if
a strong illiberal party managed to win in a Western country, it would find it
difficult to bypass them.

That is, unfortunately,
much easier to do in emerging democracies, with their weak civil societies and
post-authoritarian political cultures. In countries such a s Hungary or Poland
the attack of illiberal populist parties against the very pillars of liberal
constitutionalism has been much more successful than it could ever be in the

However, even weak
emerging democracies, such as those in Eastern Europe, in the end benefit from
their membership in the organizations that form the backbone of the world
liberal order, especially the EU. If they were left on their own their
democratic systems would probably collapse. But due to their membership in the
EU and other organizations, the best their illiberal leaders can do at this
point is to toy with autocratic tendencies.

To sum up, the world
liberal order is under pressure but not
mortally threatened.
For that to happen, the forces of globalization and an
intricate web of international institutions that have developed in the last
decades would have to collapse first. And this does not seem to be very likely
given the fact that the forces of globalization, which are driving the creation
of “a planetary civilization”, are ultimately much stronger than policies of a
few would-be autocrats. 




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