The Collapse of the Liberal World Order

The world is entering a period where once-robust democracies have grown fragile. Now is the time to figure out where we went wrong.

By Stephen M. Walt

The Collapse of the Liberal World Order

Once upon a time — that is, back in the 1990s — a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history.”

The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the United States. For its part, the United States committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of pesky autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in a benevolent and enduring world order.

As you’ve probably noticed, the heady optimism of the 1990s has given way to a growing sense of pessimism — even alarm — about the existing liberal order. The New York Times’s Roger Cohen, a thoughtful and committed liberal, believes that “the forces of disintegration are on the march” and “the foundations of the postwar world … are trembling.” An April white paper from the World Economic Forum cautions that the liberal world order “is being challenged by a variety of forces — by powerful authoritarian governments and anti-liberal fundamentalist movements.” And in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan warns that the United States itself may be imperiled because it has become “too democratic.”

Such fears are understandable. In Russia, China, India, Turkey, Egypt — and yes, even here in the United States — one sees either resurgent authoritarianism or a yearning for a “strong leader” whose bold actions will sweep away present discontents. According to democracy expert Larry Diamond, “between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries,” while “many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens.”  Great Britain has now voted to leave the EU; Poland, Hungary, and Israel are heading in illiberal directions; and one of America’s two major political parties is about to nominate a presidential candidate who openly disdains the tolerance that is central to a liberal society, repeatedly expresses racist.

We may think our liberal values are universally valid, but sometimes other values will trump them (no pun intended). Such traditional sentiments will loom especially large when social change is rapid and unpredictable, and especially when once-homogeneous societies are forced to incorporate and assimilate people whose backgrounds are different and have to do so within a short span of time. Liberals can talk all they want about the importance of tolerance and the virtues of multiculturalism (and I happen to agree with them), but the reality is that blending cultures within a single polity has never been smooth or simple. The resulting tensions provide ample grist for populist leaders who promise to defend “traditional” values (or “make the country great again”). Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but it can still be a formidable political trope.

Most important of all, liberal societies are in trouble today because they are vulnerable to being hijacked by groups or individuals who take advantage of the very freedoms upon which liberal societies are based. As Donald Trump has been proving all year (and as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Recep Erdogan, Geert Wilders, and other political entrepreneurs have shown in the past), leaders or movements whose commitment to liberal principles is at best skin-deep can take advantage of the principles of open society and use it to rally a popular following. And there is nothing about a democratic order that ensures such efforts will invariably fail.

Deep down, I think this explains why so many people in the United States and in Europe are desperate to keep Uncle Sam fully engaged in Europe. It’s not so much the fear of a declining but assertive Russia; it’s their fear of Europe itself. Liberals want Europe to remain peaceful, tolerant, democratic and embedded within the EU framework, and they’d like to pull countries like Georgia or Ukraine more fully into Europe’s democratic circle eventually. But deep down, they just don’t trust the Europeans to manage this situation, and they fear it will all go south if the “American pacifier” is removed. For all of liberalism’s supposed virtues, at the end of the day its defenders cannot shake the suspicion that its European version is so delicate that it requires indefinite American support. Who knows? Maybe they’re right. But unless you think the United States has infinite resources and a limitless willingness to subsidize other wealthy states’ defenses, then the question is: what other global priorities are liberals prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve what’s left of the European order?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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