Whenever we talk about the liberal international order, we actually also talk about globalization. The former promoted international trade and financial liberalization , the spread of democracies, and the growth of global governance. These, in turn, promoted interdependence. Markers of global economic interdependence — such as global trade flows and global financial direct investment — increased. In integrating regions, and especially among advanced industrial democracies, boundaries lost political and cultural salience.
Over the course of the 1990s, Europe took on new significance as an imagined community. Russia and NATO became “partners for peace.” As recently as 2005, the World Summit Outcome vowed to build political community at multiple levels of human experience. Process of globalization, in turn, appeared to reinforce the strength of liberal order.
But what will become of liberal order as “deglobalizing” pressures continue to mount? And what happens to globalization as liberal order comes under increasing pressure? Indicators of economic interdependence show signs of plateauing. Even as NATO and Russia square off against one another, the alliance faces significant internal challenges. From decreasing global direct investment to Brexit, it looks like the trends of the 1990s are reversing.
We recently edited a special issue of International Affairs — “De-globalization? The Future of the Liberal International Order” — that addresses these questions in depth. Its contributors examine the domestic politics of great and middle powers, non-state actors and transnational networks. They disaggregate liberalism and international order into their constituent elements, which allows them to focus on trends in specific sub-orders – such as inter-state and human security, global finance and trade, education and knowledge production, global health, and migration.
Taken together, their contributions focus on five major themes.
First, globalization has unleashed forces that undermine, rather than reinforce, liberal order. So-called “globalized” states have experienced growing economic inequality. This has fueled the rise of populist movements that reject key aspects of liberal order. One of the most successful of these movements captured the U.S. government and continues to dominate one of its two major powers.
Second, new patterns of global political communication often foster illiberal forces. As late as during the so-called Arab Spring, conventional opinion still saw digital social media as a democratizing force. Authoritarian governments, however, have adapted faster than civil society; in open societies, transnational radical and extremist movements have proved more than capable of using social media to expand their political power.
Third, there is a severe mismatch between globalizing forces and national responses. This mismatch extends across multiple policy fields, ranging from trade to arms control, But it is perhaps no more pronounced than in global health. The spread of diseases like SARS-CoV-2 is one of the most predictable consequences of globalization; pathogens do not require visas to enter a country. Faced with a major crisis, institutions designed to prevent and curb epidemics faltered while national (and nationalist) policies took center stage.
Fourth, the special issue addresses the opportunities for and challenges to ‘reglobalization’. Visionary leaders have to reinvent economic interdependence, international institutions, and democracy while learning how to coexist with (often quite powerful) authoritarian regimes. The contributors agree that prosperity and freedom will depend on reorienting and reviving liberal order.
Fifth, reglobalization requires co-managing global crises. States cannot handle today’s major crises — no matter whether they are about security, economics, health, migration, or the environment — on their own. To tackle many of the most pressing concerns, state and non-state actors will need to work together. Given that states and other actors will continue to contest key aspects of international order, the question becomes how to steer that contention so that it doesn’t prevent collective approaches to common problems.