Entering the Global Multilogue – A Replique to the German ZEIT Manifesto

24 October 2017, 2247 EDT

This is a guest post, written by Antje Wiener, Professor of Political Science, especially Global Governance, University of Hamburg (Germany) and By-Fellow, Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge (United Kingdom); Sassan Gholiagha, postdoctoral research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center (Germany); Jan Wilkens, Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Chair of Political Science, especially Global Governance, University of Hamburg (Germany); and Amitav Acharya UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, D.C (United States of America).

On 11 October 2017, the New York Times  quoted from a manifesto, titled “In Spite of It All, America”  written by a group of ‘German foreign policy experts’ saying that the ‘liberal world order’ is “in danger” from the Trump administration because of its “America First” credo. It aims to preserve its assumed foundation in multilateralism, global norms and values, open societies and markets.’ As the group’s manifesto claims, it “is exactly this order on which Germany’s freedom and prosperity depends.” Hence the call for prolonged transatlantic relations.

While we do not see any reason to doubt the role of strong transatlantic relations, we do take issue with the “German Manifesto”. We believe that the current crisis calls for a more drastic rethinking of the liberal order and developing an inclusive approach to global challenges. Interventions from scholars around the globe have criticized the perception of a ‘liberal community’ and the performance of the “liberal world order” that firmly stands on common fundamental values long before President Trump moved into the White House.

The “liberal world order” and the idea of a “liberal community” that underpins it built around its elements such as free trade, liberal democracy, and US-built and dominated global institutions, was really never a truly global order, but functioned more as a selective transatlantic club built and managed by the US with West European countries playing a supporting role. Major nations of the world such as China and India, but also many developing countries, were marginal to its creation and functioning. They remained outliers, not allowed to reform its core institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank to make their voices heard. Hence the emerging powers have turned to developing their own regional and international institutions, such as ASEAN, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS; New Development Bank. Moreover, the liberal order was selective in promoting human rights and democracy, as well as regional integration in the developing world. When it did, especially the EU, it often sought to impose its own “model” and values at the expense of locally-prevalent institutions and practices. In the meantime, the liberal order accentuated global inequality and remained fundamentally coercive in its approach to the world’s conflicts.

The so-called “German Manifesto”’s efforts to reclaim the ‘liberal world order’ failed to take into account the above forces, especially the long-term structural shifts in power and ideas that has undermined the very basis of the liberal community. The “Manifesto” also ignores that fact that the current crisis and decline of the liberal order long predate Trump. It was fraying seriously even at the height of the Obama-Hillary era, due to widespread domestic disquiet in the US and many European countries against the costs of unequal benefits of globalization. Trump was able to exploit these shortcomings to win the 2016 US presidential election. Trump is thus as much a consequence as the cause of the crisis and erosion of the liberal order. Whereas before Trump the challenge to the liberal order was thought to be from outside, e.g. from rising powers like China and India, Brexit and Trump showed that the challenges is also from within the Western societies. In short, the liberal order is imploding and the liberal community idea has proven to have been a myth.

These and structural and long-term challenges to the liberal order caused by the rise of non-Western nations actors and social movements mean that Trump’s “America first” policy, if carried out, will not only not “make American great again” (whatever that means) but also further push the old liberal order over the edge. Instead, the manifesto, going against critical voices – both in Germany and around the world – effectively perpetuates the myth of the “liberal community and the “liberal world order”. To that end, the group suggests that the German “government should concentrate on the fundamentals of the trans-Atlantic relationship with the United States, like security, and avoid more contentious issues like trade and migration.” We fail to see how avoiding issues such as economic interdependence and migration can help to strengthen world order, even the liberal order.

There is no question that Trump presents multiple challenges to the liberal order. He is undermined trade agreements such as TPP and NAFTA, cut back US contributions to the UN, withdrawn from UNESCO and the Paris Climate Agreement, supported authoritarian rules in Thailand, Philippines, Turkey, and Egypt. His victory has stoked populism in Europe and elsewhere. His political rhetoric before the election and policies since then has given democracy a bad name and undermined America’s soft power.

Against this backdrop, should we be thinking of reserving and reviving the liberal order by kowtowing to Trump? First such a rebuilding will fail given Trump’s own distaste for liberal values. Second, if anything, Trump’s excesses provide an opportunity for seriously rethinking the liberal world order and moving beyond it. We should take note of the fundamental shift occurring in the world, including the rise of non-state actors (both good and bad), emergence of new ideas and norms (not many of which are liberal nor are they purely destructive), the expansion of global economic and functional interdependence, a new form of globalization hat is likely to be led more by countries like China and India than the West, and fragmented global governance, leading to new forms and partnerships involving government, NGOs, private sector, foundations, the people themselves.

Instead of denials and pining for the return of old liberal order, one should acknowledge that the old liberal order dominated by the US and Europe would have to negotiate with and adjust to new realities of world politics. One should seek to build a new one with important liberal features but avoiding its exclusiveness or club-like quality and hubris. The future of world lies in developing a more universal community and an order that accept diversity and pluralism in its norms, modes of interaction, and leadership.

Hence, we consider this “German Manifesto” proposal dangerously misleading from the normative crises that need to be jointly addressed by pluralist voices from all parts of the globe. Instead of reviving the myth based on past Western leadership claims, the world would benefit from listening to multiple voices representing the pluralist world society. The narrow focus on a liberal world order ignores that this perspective has for too long ignored the diversity of voices in global politics. We should avoid, as authors also argue, a retreat to the individual states and nationalism. However, we should also avoid returning to past concepts of transatlantic order which would merely perpetuate the exclusion and distrust in global politics. This does not mean that German foreign policy should move closer to Russia or China, as the manifestos authors’ fear. It means to engage in a multilogue with all actors, instead of a dialogue with a selected few, may they be located in the “West” or in the “East”.