In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published his controversial best-seller, “The End of History and the Last Man,” arguing that liberal democracy is the final form of government for all nations. Almost three decades later, G. John Ikenberry, one of the most influential theorists of liberal internationalism today, in “A World Safe for Democracy” suggests that the liberal world order, if reformed and reimagined, remains possibly the best “international space” for democracies to flourish and prosper. After all, reasons Ikenberry, what do its illiberal challengers like China or Russia have to offer?
Apart from outside challengers, the liberal international order’s project is threatened from the inside as well. In fact, both populist parties and technocracies in a variety of forms and shapes represent a growing threat not only to the rule of law, party politics and parliamentary democracy, but to the international order tout court. Ikenberry considers the COVID-19 pandemic as the moment possibly marking the end of the liberal world order, specifically the spring of 2020, “when the United States and its allies, facing the gravest public health threat and economic catastrophe of the postwar era, could not even agree on a simple communiqué of common cause.”
360˚ Context: The 2020 US Election Explained
However, Ikenberry admits that “the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic engulfing the world these days is only exposing and accelerating what was already happening for years.” As the COVID-19 pandemic risks to mark the end of the world liberal order, will the upcoming US election represent the last call for the existing system or what still remains of it?
A Brief History of the Liberal World Order
The liberal world order was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War upon a set of principles governing the international system. Based on the leadership of the United States and exerted through five core institutions — the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and NATO — with all its limits and weaknesses, granted economic development and security to a significant part of the world during the Cold War. Free market societies, supported by strong welfare policies, produced a long-term yet fragile balance between instances of economic competition, social inclusion and cohesion.
The dynamic worked well until the 1980s, when the foresightedness of preserving such a fragile balance gradually vanished. Liberal premises (equality of opportunities) and liberal promises (a more equal, peaceful and wealthy world) have been subverted by neoliberal politics and economic ideological positions, regressive and anti-progressivist in nature.
Today, a neoliberal world order has almost replaced the liberal one, bringing with it the opening of the markets through economic privatization, financialization and deregulation that results in national governments unable to shield citizens from social inequality deriving from unregulated globalization. Neoliberal politics and technocracies, often by taking advantage of emergencies and crises, have produced financial bubbles and rising economic inequality. This has taken place in light of an abstract intellectual orthodoxy, often reduced in opening international markets even if detrimental to social order, as argued, among others, by Joseph Stiglitz.
These days, the majority of the mass media points to radical-right populism and nationalism as the main threat to liberal democracy and its “international space.” In fact, the mainstreaming of the radical right has become an international phenomenon, with radical-right and nationalist parties experiencing growing electoral support among the middle classes globally. Yet Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen & Co are not the only threat: A new balance between state sovereignty and the coordinative action of international institutions is paramount to saving the international liberal order.
If we want liberal democracies to escape a Scylla and Charybdis’ kind of dilemma, such as having to choose between the trivialization of politics proposed by populists or the gray hyper-complexity of technocratic governance, it is key to point out elements of convergence, different from the status quo and envisioning a general interest — not the sum of particular interests — to change non-cooperative behavior.
Everything’s Not Lost
From abandoning the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a global pandemic to the signing of the Abraham Accords and openly flirting with right-wing extremists and white supremacists like the Proud Boys or QAnon adherents, President Donald Trump’s radical and populist rule has given up on multilateralism for a chaotic and opportunistic unilateralism. Trump has galvanized radical and far-right nationalist and populist parties worldwide, while his administration’s lack of interest in multilateral governance, in times of increasingly global nature of the issues policymakers are called to deal with, has implied both the weakening of the international order and the risk of handing it over to authoritarian challengers.
Paradoxically, some of those challengers, particularly China, have now even recognized that international institutions and organizations such as the WHO, with all their shortcomings, do have a comparative advantage in confronting global trends such as pandemics, climate change or large-scale migration.
However, on the other side of the Atlantic, old historic allies, in particular Germany, have not given up on the possibility to resume multilateralism with the US, as recently argued, among others, by Max Bergmann on Social Europe and Peter Wittig in Foreign Affairs. While the Trump administration jeopardized decades of liberal international order, transatlantic relations and multilateralism, Germany kept fighting to keep it alive. Germany’s Zivilmacht — civilian power, to use Hanns Maull’s formulation — even if often expressed internationally in geoeconomic terms, with key business partnerships established with China or Russia, has never allowed business interests to undermine its regional and international commitments.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated leadership in the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s key opposition figure, or when forced to act unilaterally during the 2015 refugee crisis, providing leadership by example to reluctant EU member states despite being heavily criticized at home, or in the case of the €750-billion ($821-billion) EU recovery fund, produced in close partnership with France. These crises made Angela Merkel the most trusted leader worldwide (and, for the time being, without a political heir), holding that spot since 2017, when Trump succeeded Barack Obama as US president, according to PEW research surveys. This trust was even more confirmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Germany’s leadership considered most favorably in relation to the US, France, China, UK and Russia.
As we await the 2020 US presidential election, we should not forget one lesson: In a globalized world, crises can be unique occasions to rediscover the mistreated virtues of multilateralism and collective decision-making. A victory for Donald Trump next week would translate into a coup de grace for the liberal world order, as countries as Germany will not be able to take on America’s role as global leader, in particular if other European Union member states are neither able nor willing to join their efforts.
If Joe Biden enters the Oval Office next January, there is a chance for the liberal system to survive, but it would require both bold vision and reforms, as suggested by Ikenberry. However, if globalization keeps increasing financialization and deregulation, only a simulacrum of the liberal world order will remain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.