At the end of the Second World War the United States established a liberal international order that included an institutional commitment to free trade and freedom of the seas. It also included unprecedented assistance to weak nations incapable of fending for themselves, through the Marshall Plan, NATO and other alliances. However one describes the U.S. role, it did provide a period of equilibrium, notwithstanding challenges from the Soviet Union.
While the U.S. is not likely to be completely displaced from its dominant position in the twenty-first century, this order will undoubtedly be threatened by a diffusion of power and the complexity of world politics. The openness that enabled the U.S. to build networks, maintain institutions and alliances is under siege. Internally, the populist reaction to globalization and trade agreements illustrate antipathy to the post-war arrangements. Externally, a rising Chinese military presence in the South China Sea and Russian assertiveness in Syria and Crimea challenge assumptions of the past.
In Asia, Beijing seeks to draw American allies such as the Philippines and Thailand into its political orbit. In the Middle East, the U.S. has been unable to guide the region toward a more liberal and peaceful future in the wake of the Arab Spring and has proved to be powerless to halt the killing fields in Aleppo. Russia’s geopolitical influence has reached heights unseen since the Cold War as Putin attempts to roll back liberal advances on his geographic periphery.
For 50 years or more, the European Union seemed to represent the advance guard of a new liberalism in which nations “pool” sovereignty for continental cooperation. But today the EU is fractured. The departure of jobs to Asia and the arrival of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have resuscitated nationalistic impulses. Brexit was merely one manifestation of this trend. After that June vote, the only question that remains is which country is next to leave the EU and how much more contraction can the Union tolerate.
Even though Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom party lost the election to a pro-EU party, his strong showing set off alarm bells throughout the EU. Earlier this year, Hofer said that Islam “has no place in Austria” without explaining what that means for Austria’s Muslims.
The Italian referendum also suggested a troubling trend line for the EU. Matteo Renzi’s proposal to extend his powers and ease further reforms was seen as a plebiscite on his premiership. It was soundly rejected and Renzi was obliged to resign. The “winner” of the referendum is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, a movement skeptical of the EU and global liberalism.
Over this past decade, buffeted by financial crises, populist insurgencies and the resurgence of authoritarian powers, the liberal international order has stumbled. In part this process of dissolution is related to the belief that the U.S., as the superpower maintaining global equilibrium, is no longer a fully engaged partner. Where the U.S. has lapsed, Russia has intervened – notwithstanding its own economic weakness.
What the world is experiencing is material reduction brought about through the demand for social services and equity without the ability to generate adequate revenue. Debt is the burden that overwhelms Europe. A cri de coeur heard throughout the continent is a plea for the delivery of returns to society superior to alternative financial arrangements. In the backdrop of unsustainable financing is a Russian system of centralized and opaque political leadership incompatible with Europe’s market and rules based system and a Chinese initiative for global trade managed by a Communist party apparatus that will not tolerate opposition. Russia and China represent a kind of Nietzschean “will to power” applied to a liberal international order weaker than it has been in three generations. Hence, autocratic governments will attempt to establish an alternative political order managed by might rather than rules. The best that can be hoped for, short of conflicts is an awkward coexistence between liberal and illiberal nations. But even this compromise, should it be accepted, is tacit belief the liberal internationalism that kept the world intact for eighty years is over.