Challenges to the Contemporary World Order

13 December 2017, 1724 EST

A guest post by Thomas Pepinsky, is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University and Stefanie Walter,  Full Professor for International Relations and Political Economy at the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich.

Many observers of contemporary global politics conclude that the present moment represents one of the most unsettled times in global politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shock events such as the Brexit vote, the continued success of radical right populists in continental Europe, the continuing Eurozone crisis, and the unprecedented foreign relations of the Trump presidency all point to a global liberal order under stress. Scholars of comparative and international politics and political economy are now asking questions that would have seemed far-fetched only years ago: how durable is liberal internationalism and the North Atlantic alliance? Will mercantilism replace neoliberalism? Can central bank and supranational economic institutions perform the functions required of them? 

Ten leading political scientists who specialize in international and comparative political economy have written answers to these questions in essays (linked in the text below and available on the workshop blog site) that address the changing political and economic landscape in the contemporary era and its implications for political science and international relations. Taken together, they identify three broad themes regarding the challenges that face both our political world, and political scientists seeking to understand these challenges to the contemporary global order.

A first theme is that we are living in a world characterized by what we term a “new complex interdependence.” As a result, to understand domestic and often even local politics requires a greater appreciation of the interactions between local, national, and systemic forces. That such interdependence across scales and political units exists is an old theme in international and comparative political economy, but we need to renew our focus on the specific mechanisms that take politics across national borders, and the new forms of interdependence that have emerged in recent years. This is particularly important because rising interdependence on the one hand and domestic politicization of international cooperation on the other has put governments between a rock and a hard place.
Frank Schimmelfennig argues that these dilemmas are particularly pronounced in Europe, where integration has achieved unprecedented levels and where governments face calls to both integrate further and to reallocate EU competencies to the member states. New complex interdependence also means that increasingly, national political acts such as elections and referendums, can have serious repercussions abroad. Stefanie Walter argues that this poses serious challenges for democracy, national sovereignty, and international cooperation, that cannot easily be resolved. Paradoxically, however, people often underestimate the degree of interdependence, especially when their country is doing well economically. Catherine de Vries shows this increases people’s willingness to risk “going it alone.” That said, in some cases, the international realm may in fact impose less constraints on national policymakers than previously thought. For example, Layna Mosley demonstrates that the post-crisis experience suggests that “market-friendly” policies are much less a consequence of international financial market pressure than consequences of domestic support for such policies. How, when, and for whom the new complex interdependence constrains and enables policymaking in the modern era is thus an area that deserves more attention.


Second, the debate between interests and identities as the core drivers of politics and economics remains vigorous, but a new synthesis will take us further than we can go when we insist that the two are strict alternatives. Several essays offer ideas for how this might be done, and what might happen when we allow identity-based motivations to guide voters’ and elites’ decisions about national and international politics. Tom Pepinsky argues, for example, that the “embedded liberalism” compromise is threatening to fall apart when populist politicians increasingly mobilize along identity-lines and contest the core policy foundations of liberal internationalism. Because the local context shapes our everyday experiences, Kate McNamara calls for more attention to how spatial variation in economic conditions and culture affects individual identities. Focusing on home ownership and local housing markets, Ben Ansell equally emphasizes how specific local contexts and specific aspects of the economy can play important roles in shaping interests and identities, as well as preferences, and political behavior. These discussions show that ideas and ideology, material factors, and identity claims jointly explain the behavior of individuals and policymakers. The challenge is to understand how these three sets of explanatory factors interact, influence each other, and jointly affect political outcomes.


A third theme is that there are important differences between “shock events” in the United Kingdom and the United States (the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump) and the rise of right-wing and populist parties in continental Europe, but that there is also considerable continuity across these cases. The questions of how common these phenomena are, exactly how they are related, and how national differences may provide institutional checks on certain kinds of political and economic outcomes, remain unsettled. For example, Mark Copelovitch notes that many of the current problems were rooted in economic mismanagement and the focus on austerity politics since the Great Recession. Likewise, Peter Rosendorff argues that the growing support for anti-liberal policies and candidates such as Brexit or Trump were related to the negative economic effects of globalization. Yet others point out that these dynamics are much less evident in the rest of Europe, where Euroskepticism tends to be lower in those countries that are economically worse off. As such, the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, experience may be rather unique and generalizations on the basis of these cases is problematic. In fact, James Morrison reminds us that the current US approach to international politics could be characterized as “unexceptional Americanism” and merely constituted a return to America’s long tradition of isolationism. To the extent that US involvement is a cornerstone of the current world order, this is not a reassuring thought.


We hope that by sharing these essays, we will begin to stimulate more conversation about how international and comparative political economy can offer insights into contemporary global challenges. Ideally, these conversations will also touch on those areas that these essays have missed—immigration and the refugee crisis, defense and security policy, China, and other world regions. We also hope that this conversation will lead political economists to confront the limits of current theoretical and disciplinary paradigms. And we anticipate that this will not mark the end of our collective effort to understand these and other contemporary challenges to the global order.


The essays were first written for a workshop entitled Challenges to the Contemporary World Order, which was generously supported by the Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University and the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich. You can find the essays by clicking the links in the text and by accessing our workshop blog site, where they are all freely available for download and sharing.