Is the liberal international order already a thing of the past? If so, what is it replaced by?

It is argued that the international world structure has been radically altered within the last ten years. As a result of such changes, the liberal international order is already a thing of the past. The following essay will explore why it is and will present two possible replacements for it. The first replacement is populism and its rejection of the liberal international consensus. This will explore the rise of populism after the collapse of liberal internationalism as argued by Diamond and Goodwin. The second replacement comes in the form of societal collapse brought by the nature of complexity and the law of diminishing returns argued by Tainter and Toynbee.

The liberal international order has declined since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the rise of global populism as a consequence. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, western nations believed that liberalism had dominated and ‘won’ the international order. This ‘end of history’ (in the Hellenic sense) had arrived and the ‘triumph of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism over the alternative social model provided by communist totalitarianism’ (Benson 2020) as the leading global world structure.

Fukuyama argued this from the viewpoint of the ‘Age of Finance’ that represented the 1990s and the rise of neoliberalism as advocated by Friedman and Hayek. Fukuyama would ultimately move away from this view in his book Identity, where he argued that identity groups will form the nexus of global politics because of the liberal international order decaying since the GFC. This counters Ikenberry’s view ‘that there are growing pressures and incentives for reform and reorganization’ (Ikenberry 2009) which a “Liberal International Order 3.0” (Ikenberry 2009) could then place itself in.

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Such decay has stemmed from globalisation, which has alienated most people (specifically in western nations) and produced two major factors: managerialism and neoliberalism. The former is significant, as ‘the rise of managerialism has gone hand in hand with that of reactionary programmers of market oriented reforms such as Thatcherism’ (Klikauer 2013). As such, both factors have contributed to the increased tensions present within liberal institutions, leading to it being replaced.

In contrast, one other possible replacement to the liberal international order will be populism and the reassertion of the nation state. The globalisation created by neoliberalism has resulted in the alienation of ordinary citizens within nations. Like Marx’s theory of alienation believing that capitalism would alienate workers from their ability to become self-realized beings, globalisation has alienated people from their own national identity. ‘Populism is something that kicks in when our democracies become too remote and detached from the people’ argues Goodwin (2020), resulting in populist movements to reassert themselves within the nation and around identity groups. For right-wing populists, this comes in the form of racial Identitarianism (white separatism) or, for left-wing populists, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement.

This will increase whilst liberal institutions fail as they become more aloof and bureaucratic in nature. According to Diamond (2019), this managerial class cannot adequately manage periods of great social and political upheaval. This is because they lack ‘honest self-appraisal’ and ‘acknowledgement that one is in crisis’, which explains how such liberal institutions become inadequate and fail in the first place. Diamond goes onto explain that nations that fail in their ability to deal with upheaval will nearly always be replaced by populism in some form, an example being Indonesia in the 1965.

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As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues, the liberal international order will face further scrutiny by the population, generating a ‘deep cynicism and resentment of existing authorities, whether big business, big banks, multinational corporations, media pundits, elected politicians and government officials, intellectual elites’ (Inglehart and Norris 2016). The strain from this and the fact that a structural ‘shift from globalism to nationalism has taken place over the past 15 years’ (Antin 2020) will lead to the collapse of the liberal international order and then be replaced by populism.

A second replacement to the liberal international order could be partial or full societal collapse. This comes as liberal capitalism will essentially exhaust itself, as liberalism via capitalism relies on infinite growth from finite resources. This means that capitalism could be an example of a bad policy that can be a good policy, but fails due to it existing for too long.

As such, Tainter argues that as societies have advanced, they have grown in complexity, especially as liberalism relies on growth being a ‘necessary good’. According to him, ‘societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns’ (Kemp 2019). Capitalism invests into complexity, with nations adding further layers of complexity in order to maintain itself. Such actions generate diminishing returns for said complexity, as the maintenance becomes greater than the returning investment. An example is avocados grown in Mexico. Objects like it require major complexity in order to maintain such structures while using massive amounts of resources to grow, transport and maintain these international structures, all of which is reliant on continuous capital growth.

Neoliberalism and the liberal international order has permitted such forces to make the world more globalised and entrenched in complexity. Tainter believes that collapsed societies effectively exhausted themselves of producing new designs, making them inadequate in adapting to a natural sense of diminishing returns for our mode of survival. Tainter’s argument closely follows Toynbee’s theory of decay, this being that ‘civilisations are often responsible for their own decline’ (Kemp, 2019). Toynbee continues this with the view that history is ultimately cyclical in nature and doomed to fail. Spengler supported this view, arguing that nations face a ‘winter’ period when they experience decay in their aptitude for abstract thinking. Both Toynbee and Spengler would argue that as the liberal international order has spread, it will eventually decline and be replaced by societal collapse. This means the more the liberal international order grows along with its complexity, it will ‘also become more fragile and brittle, less resilient and adaptable’ overall (Davies 2020).

In conclusion, I would argue that the liberal international order is already a thing of the past. This is because liberal institutions and international structures have failed in their ability to adequately deal with upheaval. As such, the two possible replacements for this liberal international order is that of a world built on populism (conflict between nationalism and globalism) or societal collapse due to complexity.

Featured Image Credit: “United Nations in Geneva” by cometstarmoon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Bibliography

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Benson, P. (2020) Francis Fukuyama & The Perils Of Identity | Issue 136 | Philosophy Now. [online] Philosophynow.org. Available at: https://philosophynow.org/issues/136/Francis_Fukuyama_and_the_Perils_of_Identity [Accessed: 24 November 2020].

Diamond, J. (2019) Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis And Change, 1st ed. London: Penguin House.

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Ikenberry, G. (2009) Liberal Internationalism 3.0: America and the Dilemmas of Liberal World Order. Perspectives on Politics, 7 (1), pp.71-87.

Inglehart, R, and Norris, P. (2016) “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash.” [online] HKS Working Paper No. RWP16-026. Available at: https://ssrn-com.ezproxy-s1.stir.ac.uk/abstract=2818659 [Google Scholar] [Accessed: 23 November 2020].

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Klikauer, T., 2013. What Is Managerialism?. Critical Sociology, [online] 41(7-8), pp.1103-1119. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920513501351 [Accessed 23 November 2020].