Re-Envisioning the Liberal International Order

MUNICH – While the world’s powers may not agree on much these days, most recognize that the world is at a critical juncture. US President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy calls this the “decisive decade” in the contest for the future of the international order. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the world is entering “the most dangerous, unpredictable, and at the same time most important decade since the end of World War II.” For German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the Russian invasion marks a Zeitenwende (watershed), which means “that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.”

But despite the widely shared perception that the international order is at a turning point, no one yet knows what it is turning toward, or which fault lines and strategic visions will most decisively shape it in the future.

Among liberal democracies, Russia’s brutal war against its democratic neighbor (and China’s tacit support for Russia’s aggression) has reinforced the impression that autocratic revisionists represent the most serious threat to the rules-based international order. Democracies in the Indo-Pacific region fear that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has put it. Autocrats are not only trying to establish new spheres of influence; they are also posing new challenges to international rules and norms concerning human rights, global infrastructure and development, energy security, and nuclear stability.

But the dynamics within and between each of these domains are far more complex than a simple democratic-autocratic dichotomy would suggest. Many developing countries harbor deep grievances against what they see as an economic order that has failed to serve their interests. Open trade (and the infrastructure that facilitates it) has come under pressure from many directions as major powers weaponize trade links and resort to protectionism. Even on human rights – an issue intimately tied to the liberal rules-based international order – democracies do not always see eye to eye, and have often failed to vote together on United Nations resolutions.

These complexities are further reflected in new data from the Munich Security Index 2023, developed by the Munich Security Conference and Kekst CNC, which is based on public-opinion surveys from across the G7, Brazil, India, China, South Africa (the BRICS except Russia), and Ukraine. When asked about the main fault line in global politics today, the greatest share of respondents (23-46%) do indeed point to the divide between democracies and dictatorships. But other geopolitical cleavages also feature prominently, including those between rich and poor countries and between states that support a rules-based international order and those that do not.

Autocrats are not alone in feeling deep dissatisfaction with existing international norms and institutions. Many people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America associate the Western-led order with post-colonial domination, double standards, and neglect for developing countries’ concerns, rather than with liberal principles and multilateralism. Still, notwithstanding many states’ alienation from the existing international order and its de facto guardians, these societies do not necessarily view the world through the lens of “the West against the rest.”

While revisionist autocrats have portrayed contemporary geopolitical struggles in these terms, many respondents in Brazil, India, and South Africa do not. Nor does alienation with the global order necessarily translate into support for autocratic revisionism. When asked to rate the attractiveness of rules shaped mostly by Russia and China, as opposed to the United States and Europe, respondents in India, Brazil, and South Africa show a clear preference for the latter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, many countries seem to see the liberal, rules-based international order as the worst type – except for all the others.

With such a diversity of concerns and cleavages, simply defending the status quo is not an option for those who want liberal-democratic rules and principles to prevail. Liberal democracies urgently must refine their own vision of the international order.

To make the liberal order more attractive to a broader global constituency, its advocates must look beyond the narrow lens of systemic competition. Though the contest between democracies and autocracies is one defining feature of global politics today, the many other divides that are shaping public opinion must not be overlooked. Only by accounting for them can liberal democracies clarify how their revised international rulebook would address people’s legitimate concerns.

The Munich Security Report points to some of the key questions. How can the world trade system be reformed both to foster mutual prosperity and mitigate the vulnerabilities that come with global interdependencies? How can human-rights norms and enforcement mechanisms better square the protection of individual freedoms with more collective notions of well-being? And, most important, how could the liberal international order better represent the many countries that have hitherto been consigned to the status of rule-takers?

As the atrocities and costs stemming from Russia’s war show, the international order certainly does not need revisionism. But it does urgently need a “re-envisioning” of key institutions, processes, and frameworks, so that it can better uphold the principles upon which it was founded.

Tobias Bunde, Director of Research and Policy at the Munich Security Conference, is a researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security and co-editor (with Benedikt Franke) of The Art of Diplomacy: 75 Views Behind the Scenes of World Politics (Ullstein, 2022). Sophie Eisentraut is Head of Research and Publications at the Munich Security Conference.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.


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