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A False Dawn for Liberalism? Why the War in Ukraine May Not Revive the West

Authors: Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon 

Affiliation: Barnard College-Columbia University, and Georgetown University

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: March 29, 2022/New York, USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 2917



Keywords: Liberalism Crisis, Cartel of Liberal Democracies, the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Illiberal International Tide, the Unravelling of the Liberal International Order




Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it seemed to many observers and scholars that the US-led liberal democracies were unwilling or unable to stem the “illiberal tide” that has been sweeping the international order during the last two decades led by Russia and China, in a way that deepens the crisis of the liberal international order. However, liberal democracies’ massive, united, and resolved response to the Russian invasion has led some of those scholars to believe that Putin has given the United States and its allies “a historic opportunity” to “rebuild an international order that just recently looked to be headed for collapse” as Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argued in an article before. In this article, Cooley and Nexon argue that it is too early to know whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine will reinvigorate the liberal project, and that a misreading of the moment by policymakers or their hasty belief that it is the end of the liberal order crisis and the restoration of Western global hegemony could spell trouble because the erosion of the liberal international order is “only one manifestation of a much broader crisis” of “liberalism itself.”


The article is divided into four parts. In the first part, the authors elaborate on the level of cohesion and strength of the liberal international order since the early 1990s when it was at its peak, as well as explain the reason for its strength and the limits of the American leading role in it. Also, they warn against the danger of Western hubris and persistence in the delusion of power and cohesion of the liberal international order at present after the strict and intensive action of liberal democracies towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From the beginning, the liberal international order has been more like a loose cartel of states and international institutions or an informal confederation than a traditional great-power concert. This cartel was centered on the United States (which was never a giant on its own even at the height of its post-Cold War power), the EU, the IMF, the WB, the G7, NATO, and a series of bilateral alliances and strategic partnerships. The economic and military dominance of the cartel was never lasting. The G7’s share of global economic output was declining by the mid-1990s, and the hegemony of liberal democracies depended on the acquiescence of authoritarian states and illiberal great powers. However, this acquiescence began to fade with the rapid Chinese rise and the resurgence of Russian power. The cohesion of this cartel began to erode, especially with the relative decline of the United States and some of its major policy mistakes after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Bush preemption doctrine. Despite the good performance of liberal democracies in their tough and intense response to the Russian invasion, as well as the relatively positive results achieved by the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the authors warn that these Western shows of strength can create their own problems. Liberal democratic governments may mistakenly conclude that they can restore the global primacy that they had two decades ago. This primacy has been lost since the late nineties, so talking about it today is mere hubris, especially since China’s transformation into a great power is about to complete and the world recognizes that Russia is not a mere “gas station masquerading as a country.” Moreover, the authors warn that the success of the collective action of liberal democracies in the face of Russian aggression could feed the “America First” hubris of reactionary populists within the United States, and may give more credence to the restraint approach in US foreign policy that has been advocated by realists like Stephen Walt, arguing that Europe can take greater responsibility for its own security. According to the authors, reducing the transatlantic political and security interdependence and letting Europe go its own way would greatly weaken, if not completely destroy, the liberal democratic cartel at a time when it faces its greatest challenges since the Cold War.


The second part sheds light on what it calls the “illiberal international kleptocratic tide” that is undermining the liberal international order and liberal democracies from within, considering Putinism just part of this tide. Kleptocracy is a system run by a group of thieves and the corrupt. The authors provide examples of the success of Russian “kleptocrats” in exploiting the weaknesses of the liberal international economic and political order and making Russia a major player in a globalized kleptocracy. Russian oligarchs have been able to smoothly move money abroad, invest in luxury real estate, obtain residency and citizenship in liberal Western countries, spread their influence in these countries, influence their policies, and whitewash their images by funding leading cultural institutions, donating to universities, and supporting politicians and interest groups in the West. They share these tactics with Chinese billionaires, Saudi princes, and others by which they undermine the liberal international order. The Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted liberal democracies to become more serious about kleptocrats. They have been able to impose severe sanctions on them, confiscate their property, and reduce the influence of many Russian figures in Europe. However, it can be difficult to mobilize against the kleptocrats, as they pose a more complex and dangerous challenge: disinformation campaigns that are undermining the democratic values and institutions, and social cohesion of liberal democracies even within the United States itself.


The third part explains the extent of the existing great divide revealed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, between the core of liberal democracies on the one hand and the rest of the world, especially the countries of the Global South; 141 countries condemned the invasion in a UN resolution, five were opposed, and 35 abstained. The authors clarify how the need for Russia as a strategic partner for some countries (China and India) or the Russian commercial and military influence in other countries (Central Asia and Africa) is the most important reason behind these positions. This proves Russia’s ability to become an important patron and geopolitical partner across the world. Moreover, there are partners who condemn the Russian invasion but did not actually engage in the measures to punish Russia, such as Turkey which benefits from Russian tourism and regional trade, or Israel and the UAE who enable and benefit from Russian companies operating in their borders and whose laws allow the Russian oligarchs to launder money or facilitate smuggling. Thus, Washington and the EU will face a difficult choice between punishing these partners or allowing them to subvert the sanctions system. More seriously, as energy and food prices rise the sanctions system may create a state of global resentment against the West’s arming of the international economy, and this may lead to global social unrest that would increase the prosperity of the illiberal international tide.


In the final part, the authors emphasize that the most serious challenge facing the liberal international order comes from within the liberal democracies themselves, especially the United States where anti-democratic factions, specifically within the Republican Party, are causing the erosion of liberal order and undermining its values and institutions. This was evident during Trump’s tenure when he even told one of his advisers that he was planning to withdraw the United States from NATO during his second term. The authors argue that the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides a great opportunity for the center-right in the Republican Party to repudiate these tendencies. But if “Trump, or someone like him, is elected to office in 2024, then all bets are off.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate 



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