Threats to international liberal order and democratic nations, both external and internal, shape new forms of globalization.
By Amitav Acharya*
The liberal order is imploding. The ascent of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is the consequence, not the cause, of the crisis in the liberal international order led by the United States. That crisis and decline has been forewarned for some time, including this author’s 2014 book, The End of American World Order, and in the pages of YaleGlobal, although many of the liberal order’s proponents were slow to acknowledge it.
Until now, it was generally assumed that the main challenge to liberal order or what may be called liberal globalism would come from external factors, especially from the rising powers led by China. Trump’s victory and Brexit suggest that the challenge to the liberal international order is from both within and without.
Exit polls show that the states Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was expected to carry – such as Wisconsin, which had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, as well as Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had not done so since 1988, as well as Ohio and North Carolina – voted for Trump because of sentiments against economic globalization underpinning the liberal order. Trump’s electoral platform on trade carried such elements as: “Negotiate fair trade deals that create American jobs, increase American wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit.” Point 1 of his “7 Point Plan to Rebuild the American Economy by Fighting for Free Trade” is to “Withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has not yet been ratified,” a threat he has lost no time in affirming. Point 6 is to “Instruct the U.S. Trade Representative to bring trade cases against China, both in this country and at the WTO. China’s unfair subsidy behavior is prohibited by the terms of its entrance to the WTO.” The Trump team has indicated that it will place greater stress on bilateral deals based on a strict and direct reciprocity rather than multilateralism.
Although alliances should be viewed as instruments of power politics, American liberal internationalists have viewed them as key instruments of the liberal order and for the US ability to dominate the world. Trump is not the first American leader to call for allies to do more for their own defense. But his approach is much more than the usual “burden-sharing” talk of past presidents such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Trump seems to betray a fundamental lack of faith in the strategic and normative utility of alliances. He is also the first US president who has explicitly warned about the withdrawal of US protection should the allies not comply with his demand. Trump’s sympathy for Russia means his stance on alliances cannot be easily brushed off as another attempt at burden-sharing, but motivated by a fundamentally different geopolitical calculus.
A major question about the future of the liberal order is whether Trump’s victory might encourage authoritarianism around the world. As many commentators have pointed out, Trump’s victory is encouraging to anti-democratic leaders not only outside the West such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, but also far-right movements in the West, such as those led by the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Italy’s Salvini, Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen.
Such an authoritarian wave may not materialize or last long. But there is little question that Trump’s victory has given democracy’s foes a reason to pounce. “Democracy is the loser in U.S. Vote,” declared China Daily while criticizing the level of personal attacks and “nasty aspects” of American-style democracy during the long and brutal presidential campaign. And as argued by Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, Trump’s election has raised questions about the maturity of American democracy.
Trump’s victory has already eroded the country’s claim to leadership in projecting liberal values, a key element of American primacy and the US-led liberal order. Volker Perthes, the director of the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, says that Trump’s victory “represents a hard knock for the West’s normative bedrock of liberalism.” It has also dented America’s soft power, which rests largely on the attractiveness of its domestic politics, culture and institutions. People around the world are unlikely to forget Trump’s attack on the Hispanic judge in California, which fellow Republican and House Speaker Paul Ryan described as a “textbook case of racism,” or his attack on Mexican immigrants and the parents of a Muslim US soldier who died from a car bomb in Iraq after ordering subordinates to stand back while he inspected the vehicle. Few elected leaders of a major liberal power could express such distinctly illiberal views on race and women as Trump did during the campaign.
The emerging powers can only wait. Some analysts argue that emerging powers, Russia and China in particular, may profit from the political crisis. But when it comes to the liberal order, Russia and China have different interests. Putin, who tried to help put Trump in the White House, according to US intelligence agencies, stands to gain if Trump carries out his stance on alliances and reduces global engagement. Unlike China, Russia has been a loser in the post–Cold War shift in power and wealth. Russia has little interest in preserving the liberal order and stands to gain geopolitically if Trump and Brexit weaken NATO and the European Union.
But China is another case and, as the main beneficiary of the liberal order, has much to lose from its collapse. The country will protest a precipitate collapse of the liberal order, but also gains wider leeway to shape and lead a new kind of globalization. This is the message of President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented presence at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos. Unlike many others, this author does not think that globalism or globalization is over. Instead, we may see a different form of globalization. The new globalization will be led more by the East, especially China and India, and other emerging countries than by the West. Globalization may be based more on South-South than North-South linkages. Moreover, the new globalization may see greater emphasis on development, such as infrastructure development, than trade liberalization. Due to the prominence of China and other emerging powers, globalization will be more respectful of sovereignty, more economic, and less political or ideological.
All these trends will affect the global governance architecture. The election of Trump casts a shadow over the future of global governance. Many of his stated policy platforms suggest a nationalist, inward-looking US foreign policy. While his demand for US allies to pay more for their own defense need not affect global governance, the policies on trade, environment and security will influence global institutions, such as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations as well as global climate change negotiations.
At the same time, Initiatives such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank may be joined by new ones led by emerging and regional powers. Regional arrangements will continue to proliferate. Civil society actors may organize against populist regimes in the West to create new avenues for protest and offer alternative pathways to global governance. While demand for global governance will remain, the architecture will continue to fragment and decenter, confirming the onset of what this author has called a multiplex world.
*Amitav Acharya is the Boeing Chair in International Relations at Tsinghua University and author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014, Chinese translation by Shanghai People’s Press, 2016). Read an excerpt.