DECEMBER 26, 1991, saw the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This brought an end to the 70-year Soviet experiment with Communism as well as the Cold War between the USSR and the United States (US). Two years prior to these events, with the writing already on the wall for a Soviet collapse, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, asked if we were at the end of history.
For Fukuyama, the collapse of the USSR signalled “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” Of course, this also meant victory for the US and its Western allies which, since the end of the Second World War, had created and defended the liberal international order.
In more recent years, economic and political liberalism have come under greater scrutiny. On the economic front, economic liberalism appears to breed inequality. In this regard, according to Oxfam, the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population; the 22 richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa; and the richest one percent have double the wealth of 6.9 billion people. In much of the developing world in particular, many countries are constrained by poverty, narrow economies, acute vulnerability to exogenous shocks, high debt and other structural problems. For those on the wrong side of inequality, economic liberalism does not feel like a victory.
At the political end of the spectrum, many observers have noted that liberal democracy is on the wane globally. For example, Hungary, once a satellite state of the USSR and which subsequently made the transition to democracy, is now being described as a portrait of an illiberal democracy. Many more countries fit this portrait, and according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Democracy Index, the past year has seen a decline in the overall state of global democracy.
At the Persuasion Magazine, Michael Ignatieff recently penned an article captioned “The Collapse of Liberal Internationalism.” In addition to authoritarians, Ignatieff also blames the “forever war” in Afghanistan that sapped faith in democracy as a force for good.
Elsewhere, as Russia amasses troops near Ukraine’s border, Francis Fukuyama contends that an invasion would be one more blow to liberal democracy and a world order that has sustained it. Fukuyama writes that “If Russia can get away with invading Ukraine and undermining its democracy, global politics will change everywhere and the narrative of American decline will be strongly reinforced.”
As it becomes more economically and militarily powerful, China appears to be on course to remake the international system in its own image. China is a bit of an enigma as it has maintained a system of one-party rule, whilst allowing for liberal economic reforms. Writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Elizabeth Economy argues that we are witnessing “the rise of a China-centric order with its own norms and values.” Through its Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative which provides billions of dollars in infrastructure funding for dozens of countries, often without the conditions of the Western dominated global financial institutions, China is also globalising its development model.
Thirty years on from its “unabashed” triumph over communism, liberal internationalism is now facing a reckoning. While there is unlikely to be a total collapse of the liberal international system akin to the fall of the USSR, it is quite likely that pockets of authoritarianism will take root around the world. Economically, the clamour for greater equality will only grow louder.
In a recent Brookings article, Ted Piccone maps the way forward to save economic and political liberalism. For Piccone, we must build healthy and strong democracies that deliver on the basic needs and promise of human dignity at the national level. This would then allow countries to build a structure for collective action on the global stage and offer the world a compelling alternative to authoritarianism.
The end of history for liberal internationalism is not a foregone conclusion. However, the system needs reforms which not only strengthen democratic rights and freedoms, but which also promote economic equality and inclusivity among and within countries.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.
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