It’s not just Trump. Challenges to the liberal international order, according to John Ikenberry

May 25, 2017
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What’s the health status of the liberal international order? The answer comes, in a seminar organized by the Luiss School of Government, from John Ikenberry, one of the top thinkers in the field of international relations. The scholar’s answer is articulated and can only be grounded – the professor of Politics and International Affairs at the University of Princeton observed – on the re-reading of the theorists of this subject, like the American Hans Morgenthau (1904–1980) or the British-born Edward Hallett Carr (1892–1982). After disruptions that were unexpected, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States – to focus on some 2016 watersheds alone – Ikenberry recommended to himself and his colleagues a dose of “humility”. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in the next few years, but it’s fair to ask: “Is the Anglo-American project of a liberal international order – a project that is about two centuries old – going to end?”. Only twenty years ago “triumphalism” dominated over the advance of democracy, over the prosperity created by globalization, over those expanding international organizations such as NATO and the World Trade Organization. Now triumphalism is dying out, due to some timely episodes listed by Ikenberry: the 2008 financial crisis; The resurgence of Russia and China’s governments – not just on the domestic front; The new authoritarian trend uniting different realities like Hungary and Venezuela; Europe’s crisis (which the scholar defines as the “silent bastion” of internationalism); And, finally, Trump’s arrival to office bringing “the implosion of the United States, international order’s leading country” closer and closer. The Princeton professor made it clear: “Trump is at the same time a consequence and cause” of the current crisis.

What we really know about liberal democracy

Is the crisis of the liberal international order, born during WWII, temporary, or is it due to a problem born in the United States, or again does it go even deeper because liberalism – for a whole range of reasons – has planted the seeds of its own defeat? According to Ikenberry, “liberal democracy still has a future”, first of all for its “ability to learn and self-correct”, but also because “there is no viable alternative to the liberal international order”, as we’re facing problems that are too big and interconnected to be managed by small nation-states. The Princeton scholar has focused on what we know for sure about liberal democracy and its natural continuity in international relations.

  1. The development of democracy is a slow and laborious process.
  2. Democracies that have flourished more than others are liberal democracies, that is those with a system of checks and balances and with some rights guaranteed even in the face of possible excesses on the part of the majorities (freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of worship …).
  3. We do not know why some countries turn into democracies, but we do know, for example, that a democracy with a fairly high middle income level hardly goes back to being an autocracy, as the studies by Adam Przeworski show, although they are likely to be partially contradicted by cases such as the one of contemporary Turkey.
  4. Democracies need an international order that is best suited to make them flourish to their fullest capacity.
  5. In recent history, liberal democracies have had a unique ability to build an equally liberal international order.

The reasons behind the crisis of the liberal international order

So why did the international liberal order run out of steam? There is a possible “economic” explanation: increased inequality and stagnation of middle class incomes have created a desire of shutting off the outside world, a mistrust in the elites, and high grounds of suspicion towards what is known about internationalism.

Furthermore, there is a possible “political” explanation: the crisis arises from the eroding public confidence in political elites and the media, in the decline of political parties, and in the loss of idealism regarding the virtues and values of democracy.

Finally, an “international” explanation. On the one hand, over the last two decades, we have witnessed a “transition” of global power towards new emerging powers, a radical change compared to a liberal international order that was born in the Western countries in the 1940s. On the other hand, we are faced with extremely complex interdependence issues (from nuclear proliferation to pandemics, from migration to finance). Up to a certain historical moment, the international liberal order has been “associated with the progress of the Western world,” and from a certain point onwards it has been seen by most populations “as a platform reserved to the globetrotters of capitalism.” This is also because – Ikenberry has concluded – “neoliberalism” has ridden and taken over the liberal international order, watering down its “social democratic” nature and interrupting a cycle of “progressive politics” that through alternating phases had lasted for two centuries and did not fail to link economic, civil and political progresses on the domestic front to similar steps forward in the international arena.

Trump and the Future of the Liberal World Order