Does liberal international order have a future?
The International Studies Association’s 59th annual conference was held in San Francisco, April 4-8, 2018. The theme of this year’s event was “Power of Rules and Rule of Power.” About 6,000 international relations scholars from around the world gathered to discuss, debate and develop this important theme and explore the relative and relational influence of power and rules in international politics.
Among the thousands of panels and roundtables, the liberal international order became a hot topic and attracted gurus including Joseph S. Nye, John Mearshermer, John Ikenberry, Jack L. Snyder. Discussion often veered toward questions of whether the liberal international order had ended and what the future world order will be based upon.
According to Ikenberry who first put forward the notion about 20 years ago and then framed the new paradigm in this field, the liberal international order is what the US and its partners built after World War II, organized around economic openness, multilateral institutions, security cooperation and democratic solidarity. Surely he forgot to include another not secondary component: military expansion based on US Unified Combat Command and interference in the affairs of sovereign countries.
In the past few decades, a large group of Western scholars believed history was moving in a progressive and internationalist direction. However, in a recent special issue of International Affairs, John Ikenberry and other scholars debated the crisis of international liberalism in theory and practice, which is also what Ikenberry elaborated on most during his presentation at the conference. In Ikenberry’s argument both in the article as well as the speech, it is only a crisis of authority, not a crisis of the underlying logic and character of the order, and despite its troubles, liberal internationalism still has a future.
Naturally, there are many criticisms of Ikenberry’s optimism. Realists and critical theorists like John Mearshermer point to the failure of liberal regimes, designed to manage order and promote justice. A much broader criticism included US President Donald Trump’s sledgehammer to the world order. Participants argued that by bringing racial and economic anxieties to the fore, President Trump will likely do more harm than good. “America First will make America second rate,” as one participant put it. Even Ikenberry questions the survival of the liberal order during the Trump presidency. From a Democratic Party standpoint, this focus on Trump seems to be a scapegoat. Would another Clinton presidency lessen the relative decline of US international legitimacy?
During the Q&A session, a hot topic thrown at speakers was whether or not China has overturned the liberal international order, replacing it with institutionalism with Chinese characteristics. Most Western observers believed that the painful US decline would empower China to recast the international order to serve its own interests.
During the conferences, there were many panels and roundtables focused on China’s new initiatives in recent years such as the Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which symbolize China’s power to rewrite the rules. An even more critical question emerged: Will there be a war in the process of a power shift, replicating many tragedies from human history? Many people recalled Ikenberry’s masterpiece, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, to prove that China may wage war to transform the current liberal order. This was the main incentive for Ikenberry to revise this book, address the question and publish a second edition later this year after 17 years.
Observed from international intellectuals’ discussions during the big academic banquet, the consensus is that the old international order can no longer be sustained and the new order has not yet been formulated. The transitional period unavoidably stimulates and empowers “a world in disarray,” which is also the same topic addressed at a luncheon by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. During his speech, Haass reiterated the disarray of the US at home, and emphasized this was inextricably linked to disarray in the world.
Since his inauguration last year, Trump has deviated from the traditional US grand strategy, and accelerated transformation of the international order. His isolationist, populist and protectionist foreign policy has ushered in an entirely new US grand strategy: illiberal hegemony. The recent trade conflict initiated by the Trump administration is a direct and typical reflection of his aspiration, ambition and arrogance, which strongly undercut global perceptions of American leadership.
Contrary to Trump’s fraying of the international order, China has shown its willingness and determination to defend the internation- al order. At the annual Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, President Xi Jinping pledged a “new phase of opening-up” which offers an alternative vision of global development to Trump’s more nationalist model. Xi also said: “Openness versus isolation and progress versus retrogression, humanity has a major choice to make.” It is obvious that China’s development trend squares with the core value of the liberal international order. “Regardless of the extent of development, China will not subvert the current international system, nor will it seek to establish spheres of influence,” Xi said.
“China has always been a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and a defender of the international order,” he stressed.
We could say that China is ready, as a matter of fact, to contribute to reforming the system without subverting it.
To put it in an even broader picture, China’s rise is part of a bigger trend of the rise of Asia, shifting the world’s economic and geopolitical centers of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic world to Asia – and potentially Eurasia – which presages the end of the West’s five centuries of global dominance. In international politics, no international order lasts forever, and the transformation of order usually occurs synchronously with a power transition.
In this sense, the future international order will no longer be based on US leadership or Western values. The crisis of the liberal international order and weak global governance requires that non-Western states – including China – raise their voice and assert their authority, offering new ideas about how the global order should be organized or run.