Does The Liberal International Order Still Exist? – OpEd


The world has witnessed dramatic shifts in its geopolitical landscape in the past ten years. The unipolar system that emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse, with the United States as the sole superpower and the leader of the liberal order, is no longer viable. The political and security norms of the world are being challenged by China and Russia, two revisionist powers that seek to reshape the global balance of power.

The economic order is also undergoing a transformation, as the dollar’s dominance is being eroded and the US allies engage in trade and military deals with its adversaries. The Global South does not align with the US stance on the Ukraine crisis and defies the Western sanctions on Russia while offering only verbal condemnation of its aggression. Regional and middle powers are also exploiting the opportunity to pursue their own interests and aspirations and to carve out a bigger role and influence in the new order. These developments signal the end of the American-led liberal order, which the US tried to impose on the international community after the end of the Cold War.

The US has also contributed to its own decline by its misguided policies in the past three decades. Its two-party political system has pursued reckless strategies such as waging unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; adopting irresponsible financial policies that led to the 2008 crisis; or increasing its national debt by 520% since 2000. These actions have undermined the US’s credibility and legitimacy as the leader of the unipolar order. It is no wonder that the Global South does not share the US’s concern over the Ukraine crisis, and continues to trade and cooperate with Russia despite the sanctions imposed by the US and its European allies. The Global South also refuses to condemn Russia for its violation of international norms, considering the dark history of Washington and the West in similar military interventions and adventures. To them, criticizing Russia while ignoring their own hypocrisy and double standards is the height of deceit and dishonesty.

The changing geopolitical landscape of the world has also created new opportunities for other countries that are traditionally regarded as middle powers or swing states. These countries want to challenge the US’s dominance and increase their own influence at the global level. They want to have a say in the decision-making process, rather than being dictated by the unipolar model of the world. Therefore, we are witnessing a growing aspiration of these countries to live in a world without a hegemonic power.

The US will have to face harsh and unpleasant realities in this paradigm. Washington cannot justify its interventions as the sole defender of the rules-based order. The Trump administration violated international law by recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and withdrew unilaterally from the nuclear deal with Iran that was approved by the UN Security Council. The Obama administration intervened in Libya and Syria without UN authorization and support, and George W. Bush invaded Iraq. In these cases, the US followed a double standard of applying the rules only to others, but not to itself. And it acted arbitrarily in deciding which conflicts violated the rules-based order and which did not.

The US also has to accept the fact that its friends and allies will not always follow its lead if their interests diverge from the US’s interests. Saudi Arabia and Iran have resumed diplomatic relations with China’s mediation after a decade of rupture. Many Gulf states, which depend on the US’s security guarantee, are doing business with Russia, ignoring the US’s demands. India, which the US hopes to use as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region, has increased its energy and weapons purchases from Moscow since the Ukraine crisis began. Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and other BRICS countries are actively seeking to trade with each other in non-dollar currencies.

The US has used the dollar as a weapon and imposed extraterritorial sanctions on several countries. This has increased the incentives for violating US laws and finding alternatives to the dollar. For instance, about 40% of the world’s oil reserves are under US sanctions, which has forced many oil sellers and buyers to trade in other currencies. The dollar’s share of the world’s foreign exchange reserves has dropped from 73% in 2001 to 58% in 2023.

The US decline is not limited to de-dollarization. Washington has also undermined its credibility as a reliable partner in bilateral agreements and escalated the tensions with other major powers over the future world order. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on a US Air Force plane provoked China to conduct aggressive naval exercises in the South China Sea. This also cast doubt on the US’s adherence to the Shanghai Declaration and the One China Policy, which have been the foundation of US-China relations since 1972. The US has abandoned the strategy of strategic ambiguity, which aimed to deter both sides from changing the status quo.

The US is facing political and security challenges as well as economic pressures to decouple from China. China is the US’s largest trading partner, and both countries have benefited from engagement with each other for the past five decades. This has led to China’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council and the WTO. However, the US is now reversing its policy and pursuing a zero-sum military competition with China. This has serious consequences for both the US and China, as well as the rest of the world. It could lead to a new era of global polarization and hostility and even a military confrontation with disastrous outcomes.

Washington seems to be ignoring the rest of the world, which is on the brink of a crisis over Ukraine. The World now does not trust the legitimacy and effectiveness of the institutions that the US established after World War II. Instead of accepting the reality of a multipolar world, the US government focuses on outdated threats and tries to maintain its global dominance. The US leaders refuse to share responsibilities with other actors, support new and independent institutions, or give up their role as global police. They are stuck in the past and unwilling to adapt to the changing world.

The liberal international order, which is based on rules and principles such as political and economic liberalism and liberal internationalism, is irreversibly declining. We need to face this reality and try to build a new order that is more inclusive and effective in addressing emerging crises and achieving global peace and security. Clinging to the past solutions and ignoring the changes will only make the world more unsafe than before.

Timothy Hopper

Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.

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