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Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

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Renewing the Centre

The Future of the Liberal International Order

Western democracies face economic stagnation, political upheaval, and a loss of faith in the cooperative institutions – from the European Union to NATO – that bound them ever closer for seventy years. After the era of mutually reinforcing democratic transition, EU enlargement, and NATO expansion over the 1990s and early 2000s, both Union and Alliance have been shaken by crises. While Europe’s Southern and Southeastern periphery has become more violent and unstable, some European countries have slid backwards too. Much of Europe face new, virulent strands of intolerance and extremism from Islamist and far-right movements. There have even been direct challenges to the basic features of liberal democracy, from the integrity of elections to the reliability of news and information.

More broadly, the rules of the international order are becoming more contested than before. Europe has seen the first post-war annexation of territory by force since the Second World War, the Middle East has endured the deadliest use of chemical weapons in a quarter-century, and Asia’s maritime disputes continue to grow more militarised. As the world grows more multipolar – with economic and military power spread more widely, particularly towards Asia – it becomes harder for any single country, or small group of countries, to solve international problems. While most emerging powers welcome changes to the international order that make it more equitable, they differ on how it should evolve or what might replace it. Some major powers seek an order based on spheres of influence, one that would curb the freedom and autonomy of smaller countries.

US leadership has been integral to the liberal international order, despite missteps. It has underwritten strong alliances in Europe and Asia, an open trading system, and efforts to curb challenges such as nuclear proliferation and international terrorism. As US economic and military pre-eminence diminished, this leadership was becoming more difficult to exercise. But it is now in open crisis, following American abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, the undermining of NATO’s Article V commitment to collective security, and political instability in Washington. The turn to nationalism, protectionism, and transactional policymaking poses serious challenges to US allies and partners.

Populist, nationalist, and authoritarian forces have also set back the cause of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report, 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The Arab revolutions have mostly failed to produce resilient democracies, illiberal forces have filled the vacuum, and authoritarian states enjoy a greater range of options for outside support. America’s decision to downgrade the promotion of human rights and democracy is likely to reinforce this hostile environment for liberal values.

If an international order does not evolve, it faces irrelevance and collapse. But an order than merely bends to power politics produces a false stability. Liberal democracies in Europe, North America, and the West face changed circumstances, diminished resources, and new challenges. But they have reason to value and uphold the pillars – strong alliances, open trade, and defence of human rights – that served them well for so long. There are reasons for confidence. European defence spending is rising, as NATO reinforces its eastern borders. A US-led coalition is on the cusp of stripping Islamic State of its territory. The Paris climate accord has been reaffirmed globally. And global trade continues to expand. The Future of the Liberal International Order project will consider how to adapt these pillars for a world in which power is more widely dispersed, transatlantic ties are more uncertain, and Europe is in flux.

Shashank Joshi Senior Policy Fellow for International Affairs

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