Liberal order faces a stress test
The World Around Us
May 27, 2022
Liberal order faces a stress test

THE World Economic Forum (WEF) started its annual maeeting on 23 May, 2022 in Davos, a small ski town high in the Swiss alps. The WEF espouses values such as globalization, liberalism, free market capitalism and representative democracy. It brings together numerous business, government and civil society leaders to consider the major global issues of the day and to brainstorm on solutions to address them.

This year, the WEF is meeting against the backdrop of global chaos in almost every sphere.

Rampant inflation, war in Ukraine, countries facing the prospect of economic collapse, supply chain bottlenecks and the return of Cold War styles geopolitics are the order of the day. Put simply, the liberal international order is facing a major stress test.

Forum organisers themselves have acknowledged that this year’s meeting has been convened “at the most consequential geopolitical and geo-economic moment of the past three decades and against the backdrop of a once-ina- century pandemic.” In the fifty years since the founding of the WEF, it’s founder, the American billionaire Charles Schwab, has championed the virtues of an interconnected world. In such a world, the free movement of capital, goods, services, people and ideas would lead to shared prosperity and peace. Schwab’s idea of the world remained steadfast notwithstanding global developments which arose to challenge his core assumptions.

The free, prosperous and peaceful world perceived by Schwab and many others lay in ruins.

The world is once again seemingly splitting into major factions. On the one hand, what seems to be emerging are various American spheres of influence.

Hal Brands, Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, identifies an American-led three-tiered free world coalition. Tier one constitutes America’s democratic treaty allies those liberal democracies that comprise the Anglosphere, the transatlantic community and American allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Tier two features countries with some amount of skepticism about America’s global leadership, but which would prefer its leadership over that of a non-democratic global hegemon. A country such as India falls into the second tier.

The third tier involves what Brands classifies as “benign autocracies,” such as Vietnam and Singapore. Though non-democratic, they are seen as preferring a liberal order with a democratic leader at the helm. On the other hand, Russia and China also appear to be establishing their own special relationship, one which the leaders of both countries have described as a relationship with “no limits.” Where this leads will be disclosed in the fullness of time.

The current global environment certainly runs counter to the idealistic vision of Schwab and the faithful who journey to Davos every year. However, for every problem, there is a solution. What we need is a more inclusive world which is more appreciative of diversity in economic and political systems. We also need a more just and inclusive world which delivers on prosperity for all, not just the few.

Many of the problems we face now between and within countries revolve around dissatisfaction with the status quo. A child born in Kingstown or Soweto should not start life at a disadvantage compared to one born in Helsinki or San Francisco simply because of place of birth. This points to structural inequities in the world which need to be fixed if we are to realise the vision of a free, prosperous and peaceful world.

In a fragmented world, many of the things which we currently take as given, such as ease of access to goods and services from across the world, might become less accessible. In such a world, we all lose. The smaller and seemingly least consequential stand to lose even more.

Time well sure tell whether the liberal order passes its current stress test.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.Email: