With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the West suddenly woke up with an acute anxiety about the fate of the US-led liberal international order. Until then, the liberal establishment in the United States had assumed that Hillary Clinton would succeed Barack Obama as president and ensure continuity in the liberal order. They ignored or dismissed warnings about the order’s crisis and decline. The belief in the resilience of the liberal order changed dramatically on November 6, 2016.
What is the liberal order? It is an international system created and managed by the United States after World War II to promote capitalism and democracy through building alliances and multilateral institutions. Its supporters portray the liberal order as an open, rules-based and multilateral system that operates through consent rather than coercion.
This is a fundamentally self-serving and distorted view. In reality, the liberal order is a club of the West. To other countries, its benefits—such as market access, aid and investment and the provision of a security umbrella—were offered selectively and conditionally. The leading nations of the developing world, including China and India, were either outside of the system or connected at the margins. Some developing countries were summarily excluded. The order often operated more through coercion than consent. It was hardly ‘orderly’ for the Third World, where local conflicts were magnified by capricious great power intervention, including by the United States and its Western allies.
Trump’s rise proves that the challenge to the liberal order is as much from within the United States as from outside. Trump is not the cause of the crisis of the liberal order but rather its consequence. The liberal order had begun to fray and fragment well before the Trump presidency due to irreversible structural changes in the global economy, especially the rise of China and other non-Western powers. Growth in world trade had slowed and the World Trade Organisation had been moribund for some time. A sizable section of the US electorate was already disillusioned with free markets and free trade. While Trump was able to stoke and exploit these sentiments, their origins predate his political rise.
Trump’s policies are pushing the liberal order closer to the precipice. He is severely weakening the US commitment to free trade and multilateralism and his elevation to the US presidency is encouraging populist and authoritarian rulers around the world. Trump shows more interest in engaging Putin and Kim than Merkel and May. Asia was a grey zone of the liberal order for much of the post-World War II period. Some countries of the region, especially the so-called ‘East Asian tigers’, benefited from export-led growth strategies and access to the US market that the liberal order facilitated. But East Asian capitalism was mediated by the strong hand of the state. Democracy in the region was scarce and illiberal, marked by one-party rule, sham elections and scant provision of civil liberties. The United States discouraged the development of regional multilateral institutions in Asia in favour of a hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances. ASEAN—the most successful regional multilateral institution in Asia—was established with no help from the US. It came about despite the liberal order, rather than because of it.
Trump’s effect on the liberal order might not be known for some time. At this point, we do not know how long his presidency might last, whether he will face impeachment or seek re-election—and if he does, whether he would win a second term. His approach to foreign policy is so inconsistent (such as his reversals on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), that one must exercise extreme caution in making any predictions about how his presidency might eventually affect the world order.
The vagaries of the Trump presidency notwithstanding, the liberal order is facing an existential challenge. Elements of the liberal order will survive but it will not enjoy the dominance it once claimed for itself. The era of liberal hegemony is past. The rise of the rest is real.
Asia has come a long way since the Cold War. China and India, the region’s leading powers, have embraced economic openness. There is now a range of multilateral institutions in the region, centred around ASEAN. But the great powers of Asia will not be the saviours of the liberal order, as some hope.
While China has pledged to support the liberal order, this is likely only in reference to some of its economic and institutional aspects, especially the flow of trade and investment. China will not support the political foundations of the liberal order, such as democracy and human rights. Even in the economic arena, China’s policies—such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative—will alter global trade, investment and development patterns even if they are only partially successful. In the longer term, they will create a Chinese-led international order over Eurasia and beyond.
Instead of helping the West to resurrect the liberal order, Asia will lead the transition to a different type of world order.
The remnants of the liberal order will have to come to terms with a Chinese-led order and other regional orders around the world in what I call a decentred and post-hegemonic ‘multiplex world’.
Such a world will not be free of conflict. But conflict will be tempered by both older and newer forms of interdependence and institutions across regional orders, including those responding to shared transnational challenges such as climate change, pandemics and terrorism. This outlook is more plausible than the doomsday scenarios of disarray and collapse that many liberal pundits in the West have imagined as a result of the end of the US-led order. They were wrong before and are likely to be wrong again.
(Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, DC. This article is based on ideas from his book, The End of American World Order, 2nd edition, Polity Press, 2018)