The stability of the liberal-democratic (or Western) world order is currently held together by a complex set of international organisations. Broadly speaking all these bodies promote, or at least aim to promote, free market economics, international cooperation, representative democracy and conflict avoidance. But these international organisations are rapidly losing influence and popular support. As a result there are signs that an older system of international relations is re-emerging, one based more around naked national self-interest and great power rivalry. Considering the destructive power that humanity currently possesses, and the history of conflict associated with great power rivalries, this is at best a dangerous development. At worst, it could be cataclysmic.
The organisations which uphold the current world order include, but are not limited to, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), NATO, the European Union (EU) and (to a limited extent) the United Nations (UN). The IMF, WTO and World Bank promote market economics, free trade and fiscal prudence. NATO and similar alliances, such as the ANZUS alliance (between Australia, New Zealand and the United States), provide security for the liberal-democratic world, primarily by committing the United States to protect its other members. The EU has promoted both market economics and liberal-democracy in Europe, particularly the South and East of the continent, whilst the UN acts as a forum to resolve international disputes, though as several authoritarian countries have veto power its influence is quite limited.
Some of the organisations listed above work better than others. Several of them are deeply flawed. But what they all have in common is that they’re losing influence in the face of a nationalist backlash. This backlash may be partly justified. You don’t have to be a hard-line nationalist to be uncomfortable about the wealth and influence of the ‘Davos elite’, nor to be concerned about the failure of mainstream Western politicians to address concerns relating to identity, immigration and national security. When I look at the behaviour of the EU over the last few years it’s hard not to conclude that some of its leaders are closet UKIP supporters.
As a result it’s perhaps unsurprising that the current liberal-democratic world order is starting to come apart at the seams. Most significantly the United States, which underwrites and protects much of this order, has just elected a President who doesn’t believe in liberal-democratic values in any meaningful sense of the term. He violated several basic democratic norms, by suggesting that he might not accept the election result if he lost, vowing to imprison his opponent and launching unusually aggressive attacks on the media. He also made it clear that he has little respect for the international bodies which support and protect liberal-democratic values. During the election campaign he said that as President he might not protect NATO members who hadn’t ‘fulfilled their obligations to us’, attacked free trade deals (and by association international capitalism) as impoverishing American workers and associated himself with a number of authoritarian leaders. His primary foreign policy pledge was to put ‘America First’, rather than to promote liberal-democratic values. Under Trump America is likely to surrender her role as chief defender of the liberal-democratic world order, and pursue an increasingly nationalistic policy instead.
Other pillars of the international order are also in trouble. The EU is virtually paralysed. Britain has voted to leave, the populist right is gaining support across the continent, the Eurozone continues to struggle with several of its members stagnating and Governments in Eastern Europe resist many of its dictates. Meanwhile the international financial order has yet to recover from the hit its credibility took during the 2008 recession, whilst the UN remains as impotent as ever. Given the decline of these institutions, and the rise of nationalism across the planet, it’s not difficult to imagine a different world order emerging. This would be characterised by the interactions between self-interested nation states. This would hardly be new, on the contrary it’s the way human societies have behaved for most of recorded history. But it has never before been so dangerous.
To put it bluntly a global order based on competing nation states is almost certainly going to trigger significant wars. We know this both because of our history, and because it logically makes sense. The current period of peace and stability in the liberal-democratic world is almost unprecedented in terms of its longevity. Comparable periods of regional stability have tended to be imposed from above by empires. If the current world order collapses, and is replaced by one of self-interested nation states, then it’s inevitable that the interests of these states will at times conflict. Sometimes it will clearly be in the interest of one power to pursue a military solution, if it believes the odds are in its favour. Other times the push of tribal nationalism, and fear of losing face, may lead authoritarian leaders to gamble on wars they know they could lose.
What makes this scenario so dangerous, rather than just a repeat of past history, is that human destructive power is so much greater than ever before. Nine countries are at present nuclear armed, and this number is likely to rise if the current world order disintegrates. With the present level of human technology nuclear weapons are relatively easy to deliver, extremely destructive, and very difficult to stop. The threat of mutually assured destruction makes wars between major powers less likely than in the past, but in my view far from impossible. In short if there is a dramatic increase in the level of inter-state conflict, as seems likely if a world order based on great power politics is reconstructed, then it’s likely that at some point nuclear weapons will be used.
Since 1945 the liberal-democratic world, originally concentrated in North America and Western Europe, has developed a complex set of institutions designed to avert war, promote liberal-democratic government and advance market economics. Over time the influence of these institutions spread along with the liberal-democratic form of Government, especially with the end of the Cold War, so that by 2010 they covered new areas such as Eastern Europe and much of the Asia-Pacific region. However nationalism is currently on the rise. With Trump in America, Modi in India, Xi Jinping in China and Putin in Russia we have leaders who would be comfortable with a return to great power politics. They could plausibly be joined in the next year by France’s Marine le Pen, in which case Britain would be the only permanent member of the UN Security Council not to be ruled by an authoritarian nationalist.
As the institutions and norms which have underwritten the liberal-democratic world since after WWII start to weaken, it’s worth considering the alternative. A world order based on great power politics. Combined with the destructive power of modern weaponry this is a frightening prospect. It cannot reasonably be compared with previous eras of conflict, which never threatened the survival of humanity itself. Thus, whilst they may be ugly and imperfect, it is worth protecting the institutions which underwrite the current liberal-democratic world order.
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