By Rajesh Rajagopalan
At the recently concluded World Economic Forum at Davos, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decried the international fracture in both politics and commerce. This followed last year’s address by China’s leader Xi Jinping, who had a similar message but also explicitly sought to position China as the new leader of the liberal international order. Both followed what is generally presumed to be Washington’s increasing turn inward following the election of Donald Trump as the President in 2016. Across much of the Western political spectrum, there is increasing worry that America’s global withdrawal – Richard Haas recently called it ‘abdication’ – would put at risk the liberal international order that Washington has nurtured since the end of the Second World War.
President Trump did attend the WEF and put in a surprisingly mellow and even traditionalist speech that sought to smoothen some of his earlier rhetoric about ‘America First’, claiming now that it did not mean ‘America Alone’. He has gone so far as to say that the US may join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) if the US could get a “substantially better” deal. The TPP is set to move forward despite President Trump pulling the US out of it last year, with the remaining members set to sign the trade deal in March. Though it is unclear if the US is really reconsidering the TPP – President Trump’s words in a press interview are not a sufficiently reliable indicator, unfortunately – there does appear to be some success in the effort by some of the senior US administration officials to convince the President that the US has a lot more to gain from its leadership position and international cooperation than he himself appears to believe.
Irrespective of where this effort goes, the debate about the centrality of the US’s role in maintaining the liberal international order is growing. In a recent essay in Global Times, historian Niall Ferguson argued that the idea of a liberal international order was ‘a myth’. It was not ‘liberal’, Ferguson writes, because it was devised by (among others) economist John Maynard Keynes who was no free-trader; and it was not ‘truly’ international because the world was divided by the Cold War. Ferguson suggests that it became a truly liberal international order only in the late 1990s, well after the Soviet collapse. Most controversially, he argues it will stay as such only with the cooperation of the great powers, especially the US and China.
This has not gone down well. Aaron Friedberg responded in Foreign Policy that Ferguson was simply parroting China’s view (The essay was originally titled “Niall Ferguson Isn’t a Contrarian. He’s a China Apologist”, though the title has now been changed) because Ferguson suggests that the alternative to such cooperation is the Thucydides Trap, a point that China is also interested in pushing. Friedberg also rejects Ferguson’s claim that the liberal international order that the US built was an American “empire”.
Still, it is difficult to take the difference between the two very seriously. Ferguson has rejected the idea that he is pushing China’s case, pointing to the many times that he has written to the contrary. But the argument provides an opportunity to explore the origins of the current but seemingly declining “liberal” international order and what might possibly replace it.
For starters, however, little Liberal international relations scholars might want to acknowledge it, the fact is that the current international order was underwritten by American power. Indeed, much of the current debate is about the “liberal” international order, but this is limiting because this broadly considers only the US role in generating a freer global trading order, and possibly, on promoting values such as democracy and individual rights. But American power also underlined at least a partial security order, specifically on nuclear non-proliferation. In each of these cases, there were alternatives to the normative order that Washington wanted to promote but they rarely succeeded, even when they were backed by significant majorities of the world’s countries.
Think of the various third world proposals for the New International Economic Order (NIEO) or others such as the New International Information Order (NIIO). These were supported by a significant majority of the world’s countries. And in some cases, such as the NIEO, the demands may even have had some justification, such as the declining terms of trade for third world commodity exporters. But numbers meant little: American power and the economic clout that it was based upon ensured that these ideas and proposals had little traction outside the rhetoric in UN conference halls. In contrast, it was the ideas promoted by the US such as liberal trade that won the normative and policy battles, and this happened even before the end of the Cold War. Though Ferguson is correct to suggest that it became global only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to see what other normative alternative might have competed more effectively. Ultimately it was neither the aesthetic of the ideas nor the majorities that supported it that mattered but the material power behind these ideas, and there was little question of how this was arrayed. Such rule-making, as Michael Mastanduno has pointed out, came with immense benefits to the US.
This was true even when we consider how the international community handled the problem of nuclear weapons. Between abolition and controlling its spread, there is little doubt that the former was at least as much of an option as the latter. But the global norm that was established was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons rather than eliminate it. Once again, it was the US that led the way, though in this case it counted on the support of not only the Soviet Union but also the other nuclear weapon powers.
Will this world order survive without American power to back it? This partly depends on whether the US is simply abdicating its responsibilities or whether it is no longer capable of backing this order. If it is the former, as Haas contends, it is quite likely that a change in American disposition may be sufficient, though Haas does appear not to take the question of American (in)capacity too seriously. Indeed, abdication itself suggests a choice, and thus implicitly, of capacity. But if the US is no longer capable because of its relative decline, then the global disarray will be unavoidable. Another power such as China can step into the breech, of course, but to do so they would need to develop something akin to the kind of global power assets that the US has had in the years since 1945, and that is a very high benchmark indeed.
It is also unlikely that a number of powers could come together to pool their capacities and generate a cooperatively built global order, as Ferguson appears to suggest. And the reason is not just because of Friedberg’s arguments about China’s self-interest, even if it is conceded that this self-interest is much narrower in conception than Washington’s. But it hints at the problem: not narrow self-interest, but simply the managerial problems associated with such cooperation are so great that it will be unviable.