Liberal International Order: Can It Be Saved in Today’s Non-Hegemonic World? Vladimir V. Makei (Late)

Vladimir V. Makei /1958 –  2022
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus from  August 2012 to November 2022
It is commonly known that the Liberal International Order (LIO) emerged after World War II and reached its pinnacle in the 1990s when its key proponent―the United States―enjoyed a hegemonic position on the global scene. However, the LIO’s true roots should be traced to much earlier times, to the late 18th century, when two distinct tracks, economic and political, emerged in European politics. Observers tend to overlook the LIO’s dual nature formed by these two tracks, thereby missing its key inherent problem. While the LIO’s economic track may be acceptable to all, its political track, embodied in the Democratic Peace concept, serves only to polarize the world. Importantly, the current discourse on the LIO is taking place at a post-hegemonic time. So, those who keep insisting on the possibility of saving the LIO, which was relevant for a short liberal hegemonic era, miss the point that the current diverse world requires a new kind of international order.
For citation, please use:
Makei, V.V., 2023. Liberal International Order: Can It Be Saved in Today’s Non-Hegemonic World? Russia in Global Affairs, 21(1), pp. 114-130. DOI: 10.31278/1810-6374-2023-21-1-114-130
The past decade has seen a gradually increasing interest in the topic of the so-called Liberal International Order, especially in the Western academic community. The primary driver behind this general trend appears to be China’s ineluctable rise and the United States’ increasingly evident decline. Many pundits argue that China’s ascendance poses a long-term existential threat to the LIO, which was built after World War II on the values and interests of the United States―the dominant power of that time. According to this line of argument, as China becomes a dominant power on the world stage it is destined to replace the liberal order with an international order that would better fit its domestic political and economic system. So, an “authoritarian” international order is in the making. Consequently, the Western academia has generally been rather pessimistic about the LIO’s prospects.
The debate on the LIO became particularly poignant in 2016-1017 against the background of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, Britain’s Brexit from the European Union, the mass migration to Europe from the Middle East, and the rising populism and right-wing nationalism in some Western European countries. Very indicative of this trend was the title of the January-February 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs―“Out of Order: The Future of the International System,” which contained very enlightening pieces by acclaimed Western experts.
Also, a most interesting intellectual debate on the LIO’s future took place between two renowned Western political pundits―Niall Ferguson of Britain and Fareed Zakaria of the United States (The Bridgehead, 2017). For nearly two hours, they contested in a TV program, trying to answer the question: “Is the Liberal International Order Over?”, with Ferguson arguing in favor of its close end and Zakaria against it. Most of the audience voted in support of Ferguson’s pessimistic view about the LIO’s future.
The latest interest in the LIO emerged in the context of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine launched on February 24, 2022. Once again, the debate appeared to be stronger in the Western media. The general narrative by the West is that Russia’s action in Ukraine has actually dealt a mortal blow to the LIO that has already been damaged by China’s economic rise and its increasingly assertive foreign policy, as well as by some persistent transnational challenges, such as climate change, public health, and many others. According to this line of thought, there is no hope for reviving the LIO.
Non-Western policymakers and political scientists have also been involved in the debate on the LIO for nearly a decade now, although seemingly on a smaller scale. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke his mind on the issue in an interview with The Financial Times in June 2019, arguing that the liberal idea had outlived its purpose, and that the LIO had become obsolete as it had come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of people [in the world] (Financial Times, 2019). Also, Russia in Global Affairs has contributed to the debate on a regular basis.
The debate on the LIO has pitted the so-called “democracies” against “autocracies” insofar as the LIO is associated with the former while the threat to it purportedly comes from the latter. One would never find universally agreed definitions for these terms. Nonetheless, we all well understand what they stand for. In broad strokes, under ‘democracy’ we understand a form of governance in which power is decentralized and shared more or less equally among its various branches, whereas ‘autocracy’ is a form of governance in which power is centralized and where the role of the executive is rather pronounced. For instance, an autocrat in power would never concur with United States President Ronald Reagan’s famous saying, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” (Reagan, 1981). Any “autocrat” would surely vouch for the opposite.
This article is an attempt to make a humble contribution to the debate on the LIO from the perspective of an “autocratic” state―Belarus, as it has been assigned to this category by the West and as the author of this article happens to be Belarusian Foreign Minister. In this attempt I certainly do not claim to present the view of all “autocracies”; rather I offer my own vision based on the long experience of service as a senior public official in an “autocratic” country. Importantly, I do not attach any pejorative meaning to the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘autocracy’; they are used in this paper for convenience, simply to follow their wide use in foreign policy discourse.


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