The recent issue of the Bonn Power Shift Monitor Update is dedicated to the transforming liberal world order.
After the political annus horribilis that was 2016, it is becoming increasingly clear that the liberal world order is facing serious challenges. From the persistent instability in the Middle East, the pressure on Europe’s internal order and the crisis of the EU as the 20th century’s big peace project to Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory and China’s increasingly unrelenting stance in the South China Sea, the current global order is threatened from all sides. In the intensifying geopolitical competition between the United States and China, there is no sign that either side is likely to back down in the case of an immediate confrontation. Simultaneously, the U.S. is increasingly backtracking from its role as a global leader; as a reaction to the new U.S. administration’s isolationist and unpredictable foreign policy, allies from Europe, Asia and Australia have been starting to shift their foreign policy away from Washington.
As a result, most political observers agree that the current global is facing substantial upheavals – though this appears to be the point where the agreement ends. Robert Kagan, for instance, expects that the clash of the two major trend lines – the West’s declining determination to uphold the liberal order and its dominant position within it versus the increasing ambition of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China – will cause the existing world order to collapse and lead to a the fourth global “phase of brutal anarchy” since 1800. Russia’s top diplomat Sergej Lavrov recently spoke of the beginning of a "post-West era" in global politics, while Ian Brenner considers Trump’s “America First” Policy to conclude Washington’s break with its post-war role as a value and stability-promoting superpower, initiating a transition to a leaderless, fragmented world. Other observers argue that, while the West’s relative power is declining, Beijing and other emerging powers will not seek to shatter the rule-based international order but rather aim to advance within the existing system with power shifting from the North and West to the East and South. Dmitri Trenin considers it to be most likely that China will seek to construct an independent Eurasian regional order based on new guiding principles with Russia as Beijing’s major partner, projecting a new “triangular diplomacy” between China, Russia, and India. According to the GCSP, the central question will be whether Beijing is prepared to bear the extensive expenses that come with such a role as a global leader. Apart from that, predictions are made difficult by the contradiction resulting from Washington’s apparant willingness to abandon its leadership in the international system on the one hand while nevertheless formally insisting on its status as the sole great power.
Without the multilateralism of the current order, the world may face a new kind of globalization where the enmities of the past meet the technologies of the future. Clearly, the prospects for complex trade agreements, international institutions and multilateral cooperation have suffered. Joseph Nye, however, considers a reversion to early twentieth century-scale protectionism along with the geopolitical anarchy that resulted from it to be unlikely due to the multitude of national and international safety mechanisms – at least as long as the world’s nations can agree on what they want the international liberal order to look like in the long term and whether they are willing to assume responsibility when it comes to maintaining it.
Prof. Dr. Xuewu Gu
Center for Global Studies, University of Bonn