The Inevitable, Weird World

25 september 2016

Prospects for the Liberal World Order

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. He is also the president of the Information Scholarship Education Center (ISE) and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute.

Resume: The claim about an irreversible crisis of the liberal world order is a very convenient position for those who would like to simplify not only the overall picture, but also the challenges to the Russian foreign policy. Russia should learn to see not only problems in globalization, but also new opportunities for itself.

“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Stephen Colbert

Any serious discussion of the Russian foreign policy inevitably begins with a question about developments and trends in the world as a whole. These days, virtually every work on Russia’s foreign policy is predicated on the notion that there is a systemic crisis of the liberal world order. For some, this crisis is a tragedy of historical scale; for others, it is a long-awaited confirmation of old prophecies; and for still others, an unexpected gift. Whatever diagnostic methods used, the principal symptoms of the crisis are as follows.

Firstly, it is closely associated with the relative decline of U.S. global hegemony. This has been manifested in the decrease of its share in the world GDP, multiple problems of the American economy and financial system, Washington’s unsuccessful interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria), the growth of anti-American sentiment across the world, and the rise of isolationism in the U.S. itself. The conclusion is made that the time of Pax Americana is over, and the liberal world order, as a concomitant of U.S. hegemony, is also in the past.

Secondly, mention is often made of the crisis of liberalism as a political ideology. The expectant “fourth wave of democratization” failed to establish the dominance of liberal values in East Asia and, particularly, in the Middle East. Russia and other post-Soviet states never turned into “mature” Western-type liberal democracies; on the contrary, in their political evolution they are moving further away from this model.

Thirdly, a major symptom of the crisis is the decreasing governability of the world. The decline of international institutions (the UN, WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the G7), the erosion of the fundamental principles of international law, the increasing number of armed conflicts, and the global community’s inability to handle those conflicts are all signs of major problems in today’s world system. They are unlikely to be solved within the dominant liberal paradigm.

Fourthly, the liberal world order is linked to globalization. Today, globalization is strongly criticized by political populists and highbrow intellectuals in developed and developing countries alike. Protectionist, nationalist, and anti-globalist sentiments are on the rise everywhere. Brexit results in the UK, Donald Trump’s unexpected success in the U.S., the apparent strengthening of right-wing radicals in continental Europe are all links in the same chain. The wave of globalization is definitely petering out, so it is logical to presume that the liberal world order does not have much time left either.

The above factors lead to a fairly predictable conclusion about Russia’s foreign policy. Amid growing instability Russia should prepare itself for the “war of all against all” and become one of the main architects of a post-liberal world order. Let us look at whether these ideas reflect the reality of today’s world.

Basic Principles of the Liberal World Order

What exactly is a liberal world order? There are many definitions of this fairly loose notion that highlight its various aspects. The liberal world order is generally associated with the role of international institutions, multilateralism, human rights, the increasing role of “soft power” in world politics, non-use of force for resolving international problems, etc. I suggest there are at least three principal tenets of the liberal world order.

First, the liberal view of world politics is based on rationality. This means that in the liberal world foreign policy is not determined by some religious, autocratic or national “mission” generated by some obscure “political elite.” Foreign policy is the common denominator of multiple and multidirectional group interests; political, economic, social, and regional interests ultimately shape a country’s national interests. In this sense, liberalism is essentially different from both holistic revolutionary ideologies and from its own relative, political realism. The latter shares with liberalism its rationalistic basis, but is indifferent to mechanisms of shaping and implementing a state’s foreign policy. In other words, when we speak about rationalism of the liberal worldview, we mean the rationalism of John Locke, not the rationalism of Thomas Hobbes and certainly not the rationalism of Niccolò Machiavelli.

The second fundamental principle of the liberal world order is its normativity. The ideal of the liberal world order is a set of rules and standards of behavior observed by all players. The rules and norms may be mandatory or voluntary, stipulated in treaties or based on precedents; they can be implemented through international institutions, multilateral regimes or directly within states’ relations with each other. There is nothing worse for the liberal world order than a “no-rules” game or different sets of rules for different actors.

Finally, the third principle of the liberal world order is openness. By definition, liberalism in global politics is opposed to isolationism, protectionism, closed “spheres of influence,” and to any other restrictions imposed on international interaction. The liberal world order relies on the premise that some form of global governability is not only desirable, but also practicable, and increasing the world’s governability is in the interests of all responsible parties.

Collapsed Trajectory or Growing Pains?

If we proceed from such a definition of the liberal world order, some of the arguments put forward by its opponents can be dismissed right away. The American hegemony is linked with this world order only indirectly. Of course, the role of the U.S. in today’s system of international relations is hard to overestimate, but the foundations of the system had been laid long before the U.S. became the leading power—at the time of the European Enlightenment. Furthermore, Washington’s foreign policy behavior has been rather tricky as regards the liberal world order: from construction of its own exclusive “Near Abroad” with the Monroe Doctrine of the early 19th century, to the isolationist strategy in the 1920s and 1930s, and to the creation of a large system of unequal military-political alliances in the second half of the 20th century.

The U.S. made maximum use of the opportunities arising from its hegemony in the liberal world space after World War II, but when the need arose, it easily brushed aside rationality, normativity, and openness to achieve specific foreign policy goals. Today, U.S. foreign policy behavior demonstrates frequent deviations from the principles of the liberal world order, although American presidents invariably swear allegiance to its basic principles. Paradoxically, the current relative decline of the U.S. hegemony might make Washington more consistent in defending the fundamentals of the liberal world order (the Barak Obama foreign policy might serve as an example of this trend).

The relationship between the liberal world order and the liberal ideology is also not entirely unequivocal. Historically speaking, the foundations of this world order were largely laid by Western democracies, but subsequently it acquired а universal nature and ceased to be a purely Western phenomenon. Its principles were absorbed by non-liberal regimes: from Pinochet’s Chile to Deng Xiaoping’s China. The overwhelming majority of non-Western countries (India and Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria) make every effort to fit into the liberal world order, on an assumption that it can provide the most favorable conditions for their social and economic development.

The liberal world order turned out to be broader, more attractive and more “global” than liberalism as a political ideology for the simple reason that it is not so much an ideological platform as a technical tool for organizing the global economic, financial and—to some extent—political and social space. As a tool, the liberal world order is acceptable, mutatis mutandis, not only in the liberal Anglo-Saxon world, but also in the social-democratic world of continental Europe, in East Asia’s authoritarian and neo-communist regimes, and even in theocratic Arab monarchies of the Gulf. All these actors have their reservations and concerns about some dimensions of the liberal world order; for instance, authoritarian regimes find it hard to absorb the idea of political openness. However, specific adjustments and exceptions practiced by most of the newcomers do not constitute a systemic challenge to the liberal order at large.

Of course, the new participants call for large-scale intersystem reforms: ensuring access to key decision-making, restructuring the existing institutions, altering certain priorities, etc. Nevertheless, in most cases, the goal is to modernize the system, not to replace it with a new one. A typical example is the gradual transfer of the global economic agenda from the G7/G8 to the G20: the set of participants is different, but the principles of work are largely the same. Consequently, the crisis of political liberalism does not necessarily entail a parallel crisis of the liberal world order.

In the same way, it would be hardly correct to claim that instability, violence, and anarchy are steadily on the rise in today’s world. The trends of today’s global development are contradictory at the very least. For instance, instead of picking up pace, nuclear proliferation has slowed down in the recent decades. Since the beginning of the century, the number of wars waged simultaneously in the world (including civil wars) has decreased, although the intensity of conflicts has increased. In any case, the second decade of the 21st century does not look fundamentally more dangerous or conflict-prone than many preceding decades in world history.

The critics of the liberal world order often make disintegration trends in the world look more dramatic and underestimate the opposing integration trends. For instance, it is often said that the EU’s current problems, including Brexit, are indicators of a consistent, steady, and fatal degradation of the EU. Of course, both the migration crisis and Brexit are very serious trials for Brussels. However, two or three years ago many analysts were just as certain in predicting the inevitable collapse of the eurozone and the European Union due to the tremendous financial crisis. Yet “Van Rompuy’s reforms” have allowed the institution to create new mechanisms for preventing and correcting macroeconomic imbalances, enhance internal budget discipline, form the financial monitoring system, etc. So, one should not underestimate the flexibility and adaptability of EU institutions.

Similarly, we should not miscalculate the stability of the modern international law system. True, some of its norms are occasionally breached, but the fact that some drivers sometimes break traffic rules does not mean that these rules do not exist or can be disregarded with impunity. The system of international legal regulation of world politics, economy, and finance is more efficient now than it was twenty years ago. Today international law regulates many spheres that were exclusively under domestic jurisdiction, or were even outside of any legal regulation.

Are There Alternatives To The Liberal World Order?

Today’s critics of the liberal world order point to the dehumanizing nature of globalization, irresponsible national and international bureaucracy, the greed and egotism of transnational corporations. They call for the destruction of the current global political and economic system (which of course is far from being perfect). Yet in doing so they resemble the Luddites in that they cannot suggest any solid alternative.

There is currently no consistent, comprehensive and fully detailed alternative to the liberal world order. There are a huge number of political manifestos, journalistic pamphlets, hastily sketched outlines with very weak expert assessment and with no serious testing by political practice.

One alternative to the liberal world order would be a return to the world of rigidly constructed hierarchic empires, closed regional trade alliances and military-political blocs, something akin to George Orwell’s “Oceania,” “Eurasia,” or “Eastasia” adjusted to the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. However, in today’s conditions of total interdependence, global manufacturing chains and finances, transcontinental migration, globalized education, science and technology, such an archaic multipolar world is hardly possible: the relations between countries and peoples are increasingly defined by an endless number of specific arrangements, private agreements, common technical standards, and coordinated regulation practices. That is why neither the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, nor China’s non-participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will have the disastrous economic consequences predicted by those who love geopolitical horror stories.

The second theoretical alternative would be a world organized around a single system of values. What system could that be? If the ideology of liberalism is in crisis, and a systemic communist alternative failed to survive into the 21st century, only political Islam can claim the role of a universal integrator today. Apparently, even the most ardent critics of the liberal world order would not prefer the joy of living in a “global caliphate.”

The third alternative is the collapse of the world’s hierarchies, international institutions and regimes, the fragmentation of the global political system into chaotic and non-systemic interaction between individual sovereign states, an endless struggle of “all against all.” However, if individual states not only struggle, but also somehow cooperate with each other, they will inevitably face the need for some kind of normative base, regulatory mechanisms, coordinated interaction procedures. In the conditions of global interdependence, political actors will inevitably make use of the liberal toolkit, regardless of the name they assign to it.

Critics of the liberal world order claim that it enshrines the “golden billion’s” privileged position with regard to the rest of mankind. However, the history of the recent decades shows that it is precisely the fundamental assets of this world order (rationality, normativity and openness) that ensure global “social lifts” and opportunities for millions of people in Asia, Latin America and Africa to move into the middle class. It is the liberal world order that allowed dozens of countries to increase their status in the world system. Discarding the established mechanisms of the international circulation of commodities, capital, technologies and social practices will not level out the socioeconomic conditions of the “golden billion” and the “rest.”

Thus, if the current international system is facing a choice, it is not a choice between the liberal world order and its full-fledged alternatives, but a choice between the liberal world order and various versions of global disorder, chronic instability, and chaos.


One of the typical ploys used by opponents of the liberal world order is borrowing the most radical representations of this world order from works written at the beginning of the 21st century or even earlier, schematizing them to primitive caricatures, and subjecting these caricatures to ruthless, yet seemingly fair and justified criticism.

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005) have become such convenient targets. However, firstly, these works were conceived by their authors as an intellectual provocation of sorts and, secondly, they belong to a past era. Criticizing Fukuyama and Friedman is easy, but it would be far more productive to analyze objectively the nature and scale of the problems that barred the reform of the liberal world order in the second half of the 20th century.

Perhaps the most fundamental of these problems is the desire of Western countries (and particularly the U.S.) to retain their privileged positions in the emerging world at the expense of “non-Western” states. Barack Obama’s statement that it is the U.S. and its allies, but not countries like China that should determine the rules of global trade in the 21st century is an illustrative example. It has become typical of Washington’s foreign policy, pursued by American presidents as divergent as George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike, to choose at will spheres for multilateral regulation while keeping its hands free in other spheres. Washington’s numerous “disarmament initiatives” well-matched by uncontested leadership in weapons trade and its enormous, long-term programs for enhancing U.S. military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal, is a graphic example.

On the other hand, the “non-Western” countries are not always eager to assume responsibility for the future system of international relations. Criticism of the existing “Western” world order by “non-Western” countries is more often than not declarative, if not demagogic. Just like half a century ago, a lot is being said about the rights of the new players, but a lot less is being said about their obligations and responsibility.

The bureaucratic inertia of international institutions poses yet another significant obstacle. The IMF and the World Bank stubbornly insist on keeping their established traditions, procedures, and decision-making mechanisms, thus forcing “non-Western” countries to create their own institutions and work in circumvention of the non-reformed “Western” institutions. However, parallel institutions, for instance, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, are actually established on the same liberal principles as their Western predecessors.

Finally, populist movements actively exploiting the omnipresent fears of the mysterious, incomprehensible, unpredictable and, apparently, hostile and extremely dangerous world remain a serious threat to the liberal world order. Of the three principles of the liberal world order, the principle of openness is the most frightening, but the struggle against openness eventually turns into a struggle against rationality and normativity.

3D Chess Game

The 21st century world order, if it does indeed emerge, will have little in common with the liberal theories of the last century and with its foreign policy practices. Figuratively speaking, if one compares the 20th-century world politics with playing checkers on a standard 2D board, this century’s politics is more like playing 3D chess. Unlike a flat board, the 3D “cube” is not static: its facets keep expanding, thereby expanding the game space and increasing the number of possible moves for an ever greater number of players.

Let me outline the rules of this new game in a most general way, on the basis of the main principles of the liberal world order (rationality, normativity, openness).

Will this system be rational? If rationality is understood as a balanced representation of various and multidirectional group interests in the international sphere, the new system will be more rational than the current one. Not because the future rulers of the world’s leading countries will be more democratic, wise, or insightful, but because the numerous group interests will find more opportunities for immediate realization, bypassing the bottleneck of the state’s foreign policy apparatus. This trend is apparent even today in the activities of big businesses, professional organizations, transnational institutions of civic society, etc. Moreover, states will increasingly often have to form coalitions (public-private partnerships) with non-state actors, since without such partnerships a state’s foreign policy will rapidly lose efficiency.

Will the system be normative? This is a tougher question. State leaders face more difficulties today in securing approval and endorsement of legally binding agreements. Legislative authorities are reluctant to assume new obligations, ratification of agreements is drawn out, populist appeals to the public intensify, and referendums frequently bring results that break the organizers’ expectations (like the Brexit vote or the 2016 Netherlands referendum on the agreement between the EU and Ukraine).
Presumably, further development of the system of rules and regulations will be accompanied by an increase in the number of formally non-binding obligations and self-restrictions voluntarily assumed by states and non-state actors alike. For instance, the U.S. adheres to the provision of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, without being a party to the Convention. The G20’s decisions are not legally binding for the member countries; implementation of these decisions is monitored through a “mutual assessment” procedure, which is purely advisory. In the emerging world order a state’s “political reputation,” “responsibility” and “credit history” will play a much greater role, and any breaches even of voluntarily assumed obligations will inevitably entail negative consequences.

Finally, will the new world system be more open? Yes, but it will rest on multiple hierarchies built around specific international problems or cooperation areas. For instance, although the U.S. is unmatched in power and influence, in the Arctic Council it is Canada (along with Russia) and not the U.S. that behaves as a superpower. Similarly, despite the incomparable sizes and potentials of Russia and South Korea, Seoul tops Moscow in the global trade hierarchy, since South Korea’s foreign trade volume is currently twice as large as Russia’s. The existence of multiple hierarchies increases the chances for different states to improve their status within the system, and makes this system more democratic, stable, and universal.

The Emerging World Order and Russia

The world order of the 21st century will be shaped in a hard struggle between the old and the new, in a confrontation between the rising and declining states, between the traditional and the newly founded international institutions, between globalization’s winners and losers. However, if globalization continues in some form and interdependence between states and individual institutions increases, then the need for global governance will increase as well. The principal efficiency criterion of the new world order will be its ability/inability to distribute democratically the new opportunities offered by globalization and to minimize the general system expenses and inherent specific risks for various groups of players.

The claim about a profound and irreversible crisis of the liberal world order is a very convenient position for those who would like to simplify not only the overall picture of the 21st century, but also the challenges to Russia’s foreign policy. If the survival of a handful of sovereign states, not prosperity for all nations, is the principal content of politics; if security, not development, becomes national priority in the “no-rules” game; if stability and not capacity for change becomes the principal value, then modern Russia is indeed better prepared for this new situation than many other countries or unions. It only needs to continue on the chosen path and reinforce the points that have marked its foreign policy practice in recent years.

And if not? What if, after having survived through another crisis, the liberal world order is reborn in a new, more modern and universal form? Apparently, in such a renewed liberal world, traditional assets of Russia’s foreign policy will be quickly devalued. This applies to Russia’s military power, privileged position in leading international organizations (above all, in the UN Security Council), and resource and energy potential.

If the current economic and technological disproportions between Russia and the West are to remain (and they are likely to be exacerbated), maintaining a strategic balance will become more and more difficult and costly with each passing decade. The role of the UN Security Council will hardly become more important given the chronic inability of its permanent members to come to an agreement on crucial issues. The fourth industrial revolution will apparently devalue the traditional assets of resource-oriented economies, including Russia’s.

And if this is the case, then Moscow has to focus on expanding and renewing Russia’s foreign policy’s arsenal. It should look for ways to increase the efficiency of its “soft power” and public diplomacy. It has to bring together international interests of the state, private business, and civil society. It must fight xenophobic sentiments, intolerance and isolationism that recently have become pervasive. Russia should learn to see not only problems and challenges in globalization, but also new opportunities for itself. In a word, it should prepare society for the global environment where our children and grandchildren will most likely have to live.

This article is an abridged version of the paper contributed by the author to RIAC For full copy see:

} Page 1 of 5