The Liberal World Order in Peril: A Story of Winners and Losers

By Benjamin Rasmussen

Over the past year, populism has become one of the media’s hottest buzzwords. With the rise of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right, Marine Le Pen and the National Front, and Brexit, it certainly seems the world is fast approaching the end of the liberal order that has governed international affairs for decades. However, populism is but one symptom of a much more serious disease; the tensions inherent in the liberal system that guarantee its proclivity towards collapse. Following this disparaging trend, it is clear that supporters of the liberal agenda have reason to be very concerned.

When we speak of the liberal world order, we are speaking of the system of international laws and norms, alliances and stability, and free economic markets that emerged after World War II and has been evolving ever since. As Ulrich Speck argues in the American Interest, the liberal world order is characterized by “liberal democracy and market economy on the state level, complemented by close cooperation of governments and the build-up of a transnational space in which people, goods, capital, and information could flow unhindered.” Through these features, the liberal system creates more stability in an increasingly interconnected world.

However, the system is not without fault; it creates winners and losers at the macro and micro levels, naturally producing tension. Starting with the macro level, it is intuitive to see that some powers stand to benefit more from the liberal order than others. For instance, while western European nations praise the stability of the liberal system, revisionists in Moscow likely decry how the deterrence backing this stability prevents Russia from achieving its revanchist aims in the post-Soviet space.

The liberal order pushes the losing states to operate outside of the system and adopt Machiavellian grand strategies backed by force instead of international law, as this is the easiest way for such powers to improve their position. Cunning strongmen are best equipped to implement these subversive strategies, making the emergence of such figures in losing states normal and expected under the liberal order.

This winner-loser dichotomy of the liberal order extends to the micro-level within nations as well by creating jobless, dissatisfied masses. The main mechanism at play is globalization and its liberal economic foundations, which shift low-skill jobs from the West to the Global South, leaving westerners jobless and dissatisfied. This widespread frustration is only augmented by the billions of tax dollars spent on foreign aid, which places other nations “first” from the perspective of those globalization has left behind. From here all it takes is a charismatic leader to ignite the populist powder keg, placing the liberal order under attack from within the Western nations that stand to benefit the most from it.

Therefore, the system is doomed to be attacked by both the internal and external losers it creates. And while the liberal order’s survival has never been preordained, it is all the more imperiled today because of the emergence of subjective truth and craftier strongmen.

First, the death of fact has caused both sides of the liberal order debate to talk past one another and fail to reach meaningful conclusions, edging the system closer to demise. Misinformation campaigns and slander are not new, but with the rise of populism we have seen the emergence of a distinct era that redefines the meaning of truth. Accusations of fake news from both sides of the aisle have reached a fever pitch in recent months, leaving many Americans questioning what sources and stories they can trust while creating an environment where opposing arguments can be written off as false. Therefore, rational debates on the merits of the liberal agenda and any chance of consensus have become all but impossible.

Second, today’s strongmen are better equipped to undermine the liberal system than those of the past. For instance, when used skillfully, new methods of hybrid and electronic warfare play on the micro-level fractures and populist dissatisfaction already present in the liberal system, manipulating these weaknesses to the strongman’s benefit. President Putin’s support of Le Pen in France and Russia’s hacking of the 2016 U.S. election are just a few examples of how the Kremlin’s strongman is cheaply projecting his influence and undermining the liberal order’s institutions more efficiently than ever before.

In conclusion, the liberal world order is under attack and the elites should be concerned; the classic threats to the system have become stronger and new challenges have emerged. Yet these developments should not come as a surprise; they are an inevitable feature of the winners and losers inherently created by the order itself. The liberal agenda may still be salvageable, but those who stand to defend it need to act fast, for if they do not and the adversaries of liberalism prevail, a violent, bleak, and unstable future awaits.

Benjamin Rasmussen is a senior at Yale University, majoring in Global Affairs with a concentration in International Security. Benjamin's academic interests include the evolution of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, transatlantic security cooperation, and U.S. grand strategy. Upon completion of his undergraduate degree, he hopes to pursue a career in international relations.