The security and dominance established by America in the postwar period is at an end. The world stands at a crossroads. The US must seize this opportunity to relaunch the liberal international project, writes John Ikenberry.
2020 will long be remembered as a year of crisis and disaster, of pandemic and recession, and of illiberalism and democratic decline. It is also a moment when the basic foundations of global order threatened to give way.
Not since the 1930s has the world been so bereft of the most rudimentary forms of cooperation. In all the major areas of the global system – trade, finance, arms control, human rights, humanitarianism, the environment –. there is a complete lack of confidence in cooperative solutions to common problems.
The postwar system presided over by the United States has been weakening for years. But future historians might mark its historical low-point in April 2020, when, in the gravest public health and economic catastrophe of the postwar era, the G-7 countries could not agree on a simple communique of common cause.
The world stands at a crossroads. In one direction is a fractured world of power rivalries. The other pathway is a last-chance effort to reclaim the liberal international project.
The world stands at a crossroads. In one direction is a fractured world of power rivalries. This is a future defined by “problems of anarchy”. It is a dangerous world in which the United States, China, Russia, and other rival states compete for security and dominance. Hegemonic struggles, power transitions, security dilemmas and reactionary nationalism would define a post-American and post-liberal world system. This is the pathway along which the outgoing Trump administration began to take the United States under the banner of “American First.” In this world liberal democracies lose their solidarity, and so lose their power to shape global rules. This world is less friendly to the Western values of openness, rule of law, human rights and liberal democracy. America’s influence in the world over the last century has been premised on its great power and on its ability to offer the world a set of ideas and institutional frameworks for mutual gain. This will all be lost, and America will be smaller and weaker as a result.
The other pathway is a last-chance effort to reclaim the liberal international project of the last two centuries. This would mean building an open, multilateral world order, anchored in a coalition of leading liberal democracies. This vision is informed by the “problems of modernity” – the forces of science, technology, and industrialism. As Ernest Gellner wrote, these forces are a “tidal wave” driving modern societies into an increasingly complex and interconnected global system. As liberal internationalists see it, the United States and its partners are threatened less by rival political powers than by emergent, interconnected, transnational dangers. These are climate change, pandemics, financial crises, failed states and nuclear proliferation as well as the effects of automation and global production on the class structure of capitalist societies, the dangers of the AI revolution, and other as yet unimagined upheavals.
The coronavirus is the most recent and terrifying example of these transnational dangers. It does not respect borders. You cannot hide from it or defeat it in war. You are only as safe as the least safe among us. For better or worse, the United States and the rest of the world are in it together.
In the short term, the health pandemic – and its trailing economic and social wreckage – will no doubt accelerate the fragmentation and breakdown of global order, reinforcing the movement toward nationalism, great power rivalry, and strategic decoupling.
Over the longer term, the United States has an opportunity to inspire an internationalist counter-movement. This is what happened in the 1930s and 40s when Franklin D. Roosevelt and a few other leaders began to articulate a sort of hard-headed internationalism. The 1930s collapse of the world economy. The spread of fascism and totalitarianism showed the interconnectedness of modern societies and how vulnerable they were to what Roosevelt called ‘contagion’. In response, Roosevelt and other internationalists conjured a postwar order to rebuild an open system. This included new forms of protection and ways to manage interdependence. The United States could not simply hide within its borders; it had to operate in an open, postwar order. This required a global infrastructure of institutions and partnerships.
Today, the United States should again seize the moment to relaunch the liberal international project. For a start, this means rethinking what it means to be “internationalist”. This time around, internationalism will be a world-weary and pragmatic search for cooperative solutions to global dangers. It is no longer the triumphant march of liberal democracy. It means connecting liberal internationalism to the everyday lives of everyday people. Internationalism is not a project of tearing down borders and globalizing the world; it is about managing the complexities of economic and security interdependence in the pursuit of national well-being.
The postwar liberal order was a profound success. Over its seven decades, it has “lifted more boats” that any other order in world history.
To many, the liberal international order is a failure, a relic of a bygone era. For some, it is identified with the neo-liberal policies that generated financial crisis and rising economic inequality. For others it is implicated in disastrous military interventions and endless wars. In the meantime, the “liberal bet” that China would integrate into an American-led order as a responsible stakeholder is widely seen to have failed. Little wonder that internationalism has lost its appeal in Europe and in the United States.
Stepping back, the postwar liberal order was a profound success. Over its seven decades, it has “lifted more boats” that any other order in world history. It provided a framework for struggling industrial societies to transform themselves into modern social democracies. West Germany and Japan were integrated into a common security community, and went on to fashion distinctive identities as “civilian” great powers. Western Europe was able to subdue its old hatreds and launch a grand project of union. European colonial rule in Africa and Asia was largely brought to an end. A trilateral system of cooperation was established that fostered growth and managed a sequence of trade and financial crises. Beginning in the 1980s, countries across East Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe made political and economic transitions that brought them into an open global order girded by a multilateral system of rules and institutions. America experienced its greatest successes as a world power; countries around the globe wanted more, not less, American leadership. We should not be eager to escort this world order off the stage of history.
States – starting with the liberal democracies – will only be secure if they act together.
To renew the spirit of liberal internationalism, its proponents should return to its core aim. This was the creation of an ordered environment in which liberal democracies cooperate for mutual gain, manage their shared vulnerabilities, and protect their way of life. On this foundation of democratic solidarity, these countries can reach out to China and Russia as well as competing with them over the rules of global order.
This is what the liberal international project is all about. It is built around a set of convictions that are as relevant today as when they emerged in the early 19th century. When properly organized, trade and exchange benefit all parties. Rules and institutions facilitate cooperation. Liberal democracies have a unique capacity to cooperate because their common values reinforce trust and solidarity. Liberal democracies also have an extra reason to work together because rising economic and security interdependence generates both opportunities and dangers. Acting on the opportunities while guarding against the dangers requires collective action. The pandemic has reinforced a central element liberal international vision: States – starting with the liberal democracies – will only be secure if they act together.
This essay draws on Ikenberry, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of World Order (Yale, 2020), and Ikenberry, “The Next Liberal Order,” Foreign Affairs, July-August 2020.
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