Does lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der have a fu­ture?

Global Times US Edition - - FORUM - By Ren Yuanzhe The au­thor is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, de­part­ment of diplo­macy and foreign af­fairs man­age­ment, China Foreign Af­fairs Univer­sity and re­search fel­low at the Col­lab­o­ra­tive In­no­va­tion Cen­ter for Ter­ri­to­rial Sovereignty and Mar­itime Rights. opini

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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