Pitfalls of the Liberal International Order

By Suhail Ahmad Khan

WHEN the Soviet Union was on the brink of disintegration, political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history and victory of liberalism.  In his famous essay, The End of History?, he argued, “ what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold war or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” It was an expansive claim to make as the interwar period (1919-1939) had already revealed the shortcomings of liberal internationalism. During that period, liberal internationalism had led to the rise of Germany and subsequently to the Second World War. Three decades have passed since Fukuyama declared the victory of liberalism, and it is safe to say that he was wrong. Today, the liberal international order is in retreat due to the results it has produced.

Several core liberal values inform the liberal international order, and prominent among them are (1) individual rights, (2) free trade, and (3) institutionalism. These three values are contingent on each other since individual rights are essential for free trade, and institutions or rules are necessary to safeguard both individual rights and liberal markets. Under the liberal international order, it is expected that more and more countries will comply with standard international rules, and in the long run, will adopt twin political concepts of liberalism and democracy. Thus, the aim is to increase the number of liberal democracies in the international sphere. Liberal democracy, according to American journalist Fareed Zakaria is “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.” For decades, many have considered the US the leading liberal democracy and the protector and promulgator of the liberal international order, but this may not be entirely true.

The US, it is argued, renewed the liberal international order after the end of the Second World War. Liberal theorist of international relations, John Ikenberry, in his essay The End of liberal international order? argues that “ for seven decades the world has been dominated by a western liberal order.” It suggests that liberal values informed the US-led order during the bipolarity of the Cold war (Ikenberry uses Atlantic Liberal order for the same). However, if the international order led by the US had liberal undertones then it is difficult to explain why the US fostered good ties with Communist China during that era, toppled several democratically elected governments, improved relations with dictatorial regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, and armed the so-called fundamentalist groups like the Taliban. In essence, only under a realist framework can these acts be explained. In his essay Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of Liberal International Order, John Mearsheimer—a realist scholar of international relations, argues that the order led by the US during the Cold war was “neither international nor liberal. It was a bounded order that was limited to the West and was a realist in its all-key dimensions.” Essentially, it means that via this bounded order, the US and its allies wanted to pursue their ends by any means possible, liberal or illiberal alike. Moreover, it underscores that the liberal international order cannot emerge under a bipolar or multipolar political system, as under such circumstances, strategic competition undermines almost every liberal value. Thus, as realist scholars of IR argue, the liberal international order can only sprawl when the political system is unipolar, and the hegemonic power is a liberal democracy.

Indeed, when the international system was unipolar, and the hegemonic power was a liberal democracy (the US), the liberal international order sprawled. The years between the disintegration of the USSR and the global financial crisis of 2008 were the “golden years” of the liberal international order. The US, both passively and aggressively, spread liberal values, the liberal ethic attracted large masses around the world, and liberal economics progressed. As Ikenberry writes, “at the end of the Twentieth century, liberal democracies dominated the world—commanding 80% of the global GNP.” However, this “golden period” also led to the rise of China, and Russia regained its geopolitical status. With this, the US lost its hegemonic position, the international system became multipolar, and eventually, the liberal international order faced a crisis. As such, the current challenges to the order is due to the results it has produced.

During the golden years of the liberal international order, one of the ideas that emerged among the liberal circles was liberal interventionism. By virtue of liberal interventionism, liberal states would intervene in the internal affairs of other nation-states to promote liberal principles. Liberal interventionism was put to effect by the US and its allies in the Iraq war. On the pretext of ensuring world peace, the US invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. The US invasion also gave birth to terrorist factions, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which have caused much destruction to Iraq. Not only has ISIL left Iraq devastated, but the group which was a result of the US’s actions has led to anti-Muslim bigotry in the West. Other than Iraq, the US also intervened in Libya to promote democracy, which resulted in a decade long crisis in the country. Undoubtedly, the results that liberal interventionism has produced has led many people to adopt anti-liberal views and staunch support for their own cultural/national values. However, the adoption of specific national values is also a result of another liberal phenomenon, interconnectedness.

The interconnectedness between different nation-states is essential to ensure free trade, and the phenomenon operates through the flow of capital and people between these states. For many years, almost every individual enjoyed equal rights in most liberal states. However, more recently, the clash of values among different groups has led to a sudden surge of right-wing groups in liberal states, which has further led to xenophobia and the undermining of liberal values.   France provides the best example of this phenomenon as there is an evident clash of values between French Muslims and French Secularists. The French government has adopted several measures to force the former to comply with French ideals and principles. Thus, national values have been given precedence over liberal ones. Conclusively, interconnectedness has fueled parochial nationalism and disregard for individual rights.

The clash of values has also proved detrimental to the growth of liberal democracies in non-western societies. Non-western societies view liberal values as a European product and the result of its certain socio-historical realities. According to Hamza Tzortzis, a Muslim researcher, “ the claim by some liberal ideologues is that Liberalism is universal; however, there are some philosophical issues with this line of thought. Firstly it is a logical fallacy to take something specific and make it general.” As such, there is a  rejection of western liberal values in many non-western societies. And any superimposition of liberal values backfires as people tend to adopt more anti-liberal attitudes. With rising illiberal attitudes, the liberal international order cannot survive for long.

The liberal international order underpinned by liberal principles is not as extraordinary as the West often puts it. The order's quest to remake the world with the help of liberal democracies may bear desirable outcomes for a short period, but in the long run, it produces self-defeating results. The assumption made by many liberal proponents that liberal values will hold centre stage in most societies has fallen flat during the current crisis. In essence, liberal political ideology is as strong as any other ideology. Only during a crisis can any ideology's weak theoretical and philosophical underpinnings be identified, and nowadays, liberalism is revealing its own weaknesses.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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