The World Around Us
March 18, 2022
Is this the end of the Liberal International Order?

IN INTERNATIONAL relations, the liberal international order, alternatively referenced as the rules-based or the United States (US)-led international order, refers to a set of global, rule-based, structured relationships centered on political and economic liberalism and liberal internationalism.

It came into being in the late 1940s at the end of the Second World War.

In general, liberal internationalists advocate diplomacy and multilateral cooperation as the most appropriate strategies for states to pursue and tend to champion supranational political structures (such as the European Union), and international organizations (such as the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund). Many credit the liberal international order with much of the security, economic, social and technological progress which have been made over the past 75-plus years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being viewed in some corners as the death knell of the liberal international order as well as America’s place in it at the top. For many decades, academics and policy makers around the world have been debating the decline, both in absolute and relative terms, of America’s power and influence. The rise of China, a resurgent Russia, growing populism and autocracy, US misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as political polarization in America, are all seen as factors which have contributed to US hegemonic decline.

At the start of the 21st century, US power was both overwhelming and uncontested. Similarly, the international liberal order which it underwrote was unrivaled. Fast forward two decades and both the system and its guarantor appear to be on shaky ground.

In an article appearing in The Atlantic on 6th March, Shadi Hamid writes about America’s low opinion of its own capacity for good — and the resulting desire to retreat or disengage — something which extends across the country’s political divide.

Hamid sees this as America’s own crisis of confidence, something which did not escape even its charismatic and otherwise confident President, Barack Obama, whose mantra was “Don’t do stupid sh*t.” On the other side of the pond, Hamid argues that European powers remained content to bask under their US security umbrella under a fantasy of perpetual peace on the European continent.

The narrative of a weak and divided West gained momentum for years.

Russia’s military incursion into Georgia in 2008 was met with little more than mere expressions of concern from the West. At the height of the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration set as a red line the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. The US intelligence community formally determined that the Assad regime had in fact used chemical weapons in April 2013. On August 21, 2013, news also broke of a catastrophic chemical-weapons attack in Syria, with the intelligence community later confirming they had a “high confidence assessment” that a sarin gas attack by the Syrian government had killed more than a thousand people. America’s response to a breach of its red line was less than robust.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran intervened in Syria to ensure the survival of the Assad regime.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Again, apart from a few largely ineffective sanctions, the US and its Western allies appeared reluctant to challenge Russian aggression.

The thinking behind Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine seems to be consistent with the narrative of a weak and divided West with little capacity or even appetite to respond to aggression. However, Russia might be wrong and may have overplayed its hand in Ukraine.

Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, in a March 14, 2022 article in Foreign Affairs, suggest that while the US and its allies have failed to prevent Russia from brutalizing Ukraine, they can still win the larger struggle to save the international order. Putin may have actually awakened US and Western resolve to get over their lethargy and crisis of confidence to fortify both their alliance and the international order itself.