LONDON – After the annus horribilis that was 2016, most political observers believe that the liberal world order is in serious trouble. But that is where the agreement ends. At the recent Munich Security Conference, debate on the subject among leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Vice President Mike Pence, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demonstrated a lack of consensus even on what the liberal order is. That makes it hard to say what will happen to it.
When the West, and especially the United States, dominated the world, the liberal order was pretty much whatever they said it was. Other countries complained and expounded alternate approaches, but basically went along with the Western-defined rules.
But as global power has shifted from the West to the “rest,” the liberal world order has become an increasingly contested idea, with rising powers like Russia, China, and India increasingly challenging Western perspectives. And, indeed, Merkel’s criticism in Munich of Russia for invading Crimea and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was met with Lavrov’s assertions that the West ignored the sovereignty norm in international law by invading Iraq and recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
This is not to say that the liberal world order is an entirely obscure concept. The original iteration – call it “Liberal Order 1.0” – arose from the ashes of World War II to uphold peace and support global prosperity. It was underpinned by institutions like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which later became the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional security arrangements, such as NATO. It emphasized multilateralism, including through the United Nations, and promoted free trade.