A Menacing Era for the Liberal International Order

The post-WWII liberal international order is under assault. Present in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Britain, and the United States, among others, the forces of illiberalism, authoritarianism, and cynical transactional power politics are prevailing.

These forces are on the march in much of Europe and will test their strength next year in elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Disregard for human rights and the dignity of ethnically diverse refugees is apparent in the watery grave that has become of the Mediterranean Sea for countless North African migrants; and it is perniciously present in Australia’s refugee relocation operation in the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea. Yet, the global disintegration of the rules-based order is not confined to the West, as revealed by the blood-soaked streets of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where populist strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s security and vigilante squads have recently presided over the extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands of alleged drug traffickers and users.

The modern state- and sovereignty-based system emerged after a series of treaties signed in 1648 known as the Peace of Westphalia. Similarly, the basis for the current liberal international order also emerged through the creation of several international institutions and regimes in fairly rapid succession. These came nearly three centuries later: the Atlantic Charter in 1941; the Bretton Woods system in 1944; and the United Nations in 1945.

These international regimes would set the precedent for further international cooperation among states in various forms, including collective security (NATO, 1949) and Soviet communism (Warsaw Pact, 1955). In 1945, after two World Wars and the failure of the League of Nations during the interwar years, the United States, enjoying a preponderance of power, acted in concert with its allies and imposed upon its defeated rivals the current liberal international order. For a brief moment in time, this system seemed poised to realize former President Woodrow Wilson’s discarded dream of “making the world safe for democracy.”

“It logically follows that if this system were to degrade further or even disappear, anarchy and chaos would ensue or order would be established via the following precept: might makes right.”

According to Princeton Professor G. John Ikenberry, such an order consists of “openness and rule-based relations enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism.” Moreover, it values “faith in democratization, open trade, and confidence in free markets.” Professor Esther Brimmer, at The George Washington University, adds that the liberal international order “rests on promoting and maintaining five pillars: peace and security; the market economy, especially international trade and investment; human rights and humanitarian action; sustainable development; and global spaces.”

It logically follows that if this system were to degrade further or even disappear, anarchy and chaos would ensue or order would be established via the following precept: might makes right. Thomas Hobbes famously described man’s existence in a state of nature, which presumes the endurance of disorder, to be “nasty, brutish, and short.” If, on the other hand, a state of affairs arises in which nominal power trumps established rules, norms, and protections for the unfortunate masses who do not hold any power, then uncertainty and terror become routine for the masses.

An illustration of this phenomenon is Poland in the years prior to WWII when it found itself the coveted prize of both Germany and Russia. Lodged between Imperial Prussia and Czarist Russia, Poland was divided and ceased to exist for all of the 19th century. Ultimately, after recuperating its independence after WWI, Poland was gobbled up and decimated by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia during WWII. If the world were to revert to its pre-WWII state of affairs, and the collective security shield of NATO were to disintegrate, the same fate could befall the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

So, what should the current geopolitical power players integrated into the rules-based system do about a possible slide back into anarchy? If a firm believer in the liberal international order were the leader of the free world, he or she would likely advance a policy of illiberal containment.

The father of the original containment theory, George F. Kennan, wrote that the potential of Soviet expansion during the Cold War “warranted the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” Moreover, he wrote that “In the light of the above, it will be clearly seen that the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” The same rings true for illiberalism today.

“The West should reward with capitalist riches and military protection those nations that integrate into the rules-based order. Nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and much of Eastern Europe have benefited from this system for the past quarter-century.”

The West should reward with capitalist riches and military protection those nations that integrate into the rules-based order. Nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and much of Eastern Europe have benefited from this system for the past quarter-century. The West should also punish those who transgress the rules. Such punishments could take the form of economic sanctions (as in the case of Iran and Russia), shaming in international forums, or the threat of military force, which can be directly or indirectly applied by arming opposition groups that menace the transgressors. In the last few years, such groups would have been the moderate rebels in Syria in 2011 or the Western-oriented Ukrainian government under Petro Poroshenko in 2014 and 2015. Whether or not military force is actually applied in any instance, the threat of it must be credible.

Alas, with the forces of illiberalism gaining the upper hand in Central and Eastern Europe, it seems increasingly improbable that such a policy of containment will come to pass. Though considering the manner by which the unlikely events of the past year have caught so many off guard, it may be prudent to refrain from predictions until forecasters gain a greater footing. During these tumultuous times, eloquent words of the past come to mind.

In 1968, a year more violent and unnerving than 2016, speaking to a mixed-race audience on the night of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy reflected on the hope and the light temporarily extinguished that night. After pleading for more hope he concluded by reciting from memory a poem by Aeschylus, the ancient Greek “father of tragedy.” It read:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Image: The United Nations flag with bullet holes. (RafaeldeBono, Deviant Art)

Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.

One comment

  • Ikenberry was my faculty adviser at Princeton. He’s a liberal and I’m a realist when it comes to IR, however, he knows his stuff and I reluctantly agree with some of his points here. Excellent article!


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