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Liberalism In Peril: A Theory Of Conflict In World Politics – OpEd


Rise of liberalism

The US and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history”. The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the US. For its part, the US committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in benevolent and enduring world order (Walt, 2016). On the other side, the fruit of liberal financial systems and market economy led by free trade and international financial rules is being harvested which gave some states incentives to raise and stand for their geopolitical interests by ignoring American unilateralism.


The democratization, pacification and economic resuscitation of Germany and Japan, along with the introduction of American power permanently into the previously conflicted regions of Europe and East Asia, transformed the dynamics of international relations. Within the confines of the new order, normal geopolitical competition all but ceased until the time when new actors and new states on the global stage appeared to defend their geopolitical interests (Kagan, 2016).

Liberal order and the eventual cracking

The liberal world has been destined for nations’ economic wellbeing, freedom, democracy and human rights. Under this rubric, many nations around the globe joined the liberal world club and enrolled on its financial institutions, created by the American legacy. The whole idea was based on “American values”; democracy, free market, collective security, self-determination etc.…

Since the liberal idea was based on an idealistic conception of the US and the West, the principles of this concept might not be shared by the rest of the world as a whole. The metaphysics of liberalism is a mind-devised utopian world order. Though this conception of world order became a reality to some degree, the stability of such an order was in peril as many states devised their own identity based on their distinctive cultures and nationalism which vindicated the geopolitical discourse. As Kissinger (2014) said, there are no universally accepted rules. There is the Chinese view, the Islamic view, the Western view and, to some extent, the Russian view. And they really are not always compatible.

Many countries gained their share and increased their fortunes while others invigorated their economies to an extent that they can defy American hegemony, and choose their own narrative in their relationship vis-à-vis with other regional nations and, like China and Turkey.

The US expected to exercise its diplomacy and military prowess generated by its robust economy to coerce other countries to commit themselves to the US interests seeing those countries as in the sphere of influence since they are well rooted in the US-led world order. But as their economies started to grow and consequently defied the US interests in their regions, the US started to eviscerate and debilitate those countries of its rising economy and leadership role in the region.  More directly the US has betrayed a system established by itself.


Recently a bevy of US political scientists from the progressive left to the libertarian right has launched attacks on the very idea of the liberal order, as well as on the conduct of the US foreign policy over the past seven decades. These critics argue that the liberal order was a “myth,” a cover for the US hegemony and “imperialism.” To the degree there was an order, it was characterized by “coercion, violence, and instability,” and also by hypocrisy (Kagan, 2016).

It was when rising states’ interests converged and collided with the US interests, that The US chose to avoid liberal rules and resorted to its “soft power” of economic and diplomatic coercion, leaving behind the long-standing liberal affairs.

From another perspective, the current world order is being challenged by the rising states who did not have a say when the order was created in the first place. These states seek to overhaul the order in order to establish a favourable atmosphere where their geopolitical interests are best served. 

The US has refuted the legitimacy of the international criminal court, an institution established under the US-led liber world order after the US revoked ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s visa as a response to her request to investigate possible crimes committed by the US forces in Afghanistan.

It can be said that China is the second nation after the US which exploited the US-led free-market economic system by establishing a massive flow of Chinese goods into world markets and establishing the “belt and road initiative”, from which the US and some of its allies cannot take their gaze off for its massiveness and economic potentials.

US President Donald Trump complained about China’s trading practices since before he took office in 2016. It imposed tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese products last year, and Beijing retaliated in kind. So far, the US has imposed three rounds of tariffs on more than $250bn worth of Chinese goods. Tariffs imposed on Chinese goods, in theory, make US-made products cheaper than imported ones and encourage consumers to buy American.

In theory, what we expect among states is cooperation and what we expect among businesses is competition. But for the US, this time the narrative has changed, the narrative or old saying of the liberal free-market economic system.

To some extent, the US achieved its liberal democratic world, without any other symmetric superpower. Clashes eventually resulted as rising countries started to defend their interests which collided with the US interests.

The world is no longer purely unipolar, rising states are demanding more share and pushing their narratives into global platforms. It is time for the US to change its unilateral, realist-driven foreign policy and get back on the track of liberal values, most importantly multilateral decision-making in world affairs.


Kissinger, H. (2014). Interview by E. F. &. J. von Mittelstaedt. Retrieved from

Walt, S. M. (2016, June 26). The collapse of the liberal world order. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from Foreign Policy website:

Kagan, R. (2018, September 28). The world America made — and Trump wants to unmake. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from POLITICO website:

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