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The Next Liberal Order: The Age of Contagion Demands More Internationalism, Not Less

Author: G. John Ikenberry 

Affiliation: Princeton University, Department of Politics 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: July-August, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 10


Keywords: International Liberalism, Roosevelt Liberalism, Modernity Problems, Age of contagion, and New Liberal Order


As one of the most prominent contemporary liberal theorists in the field of international relations, Ikenberry argues in this essay that the liberal international order can continue and renew itself despite all the flaws and failures that affected it and caused its end as many expect. According to the author, the Coronavirus crisis has exposed the flaws of the liberal order and accelerated a path that was already accumulating for years, so that historians may refer in the future to the spring of 2020 as a milestone that marks the end of the liberal world order. It is the moment when liberal democracies have not been able to agree on a joint statement in which they face the most serious public health danger and the accompanying economic disaster unparalleled since the post-war era. Nevertheless, Ikenberry argues that the ongoing pandemic crisis offers the US the last chance to reverse the path in its favor and restore the two-centuries-old liberal international project to build an open, multilateral system based on the alliance of the leading liberal democracies. At the beginning of his article, Ikenberry diagnoses the problems and crises facing the liberal world order and its patrons, especially the US. He sees that the order fell victim to a “crisis of its success” resulting from hyper expansion and openness until the liberal world order has become like a shopping mall, where countries can pick freely and choose from institutions and systems that they want to join. The security, economic, and political cooperation has not become grouped within one framework, as countries can obtain the benefits of the order without having to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities towards it, as well as adhering to its shared values. Such conditions have allowed emerging and competitive powers such as China and Russia to cooperate with the liberal order on an opportunistic and selective basis that serves their interests exclusively and narrowly. Moreover, the author considers that the biggest challenge facing the US and its partners is not related to China and competing powers but is related to “problems of modernity,” that is, the profound and global transformations unleashed by the forces of science, technology and industrialism that make modern societies engaged in a global system increasingly sophisticated and interconnected. Dangers such as pandemics, climate change, financial crises, failed states, and nuclear proliferation are risks that do not exclude any country. Modernity has produced hyper-globalization which is not favored by the author. It produced a “new age of contagion” as he calls it, quoting former US President Franklin Roosevelt who faced a similar era. Hence, Ikenberry reclaims here the successful Roosevelt experiment in order to overcome the ordeal that the liberal world order is now experiencing. Liberals usually refer to President Wilson as a reference to liberal internationalism, but the author considers that the great revolution in liberal thinking occurred with President Roosevelt. Wilson believed that modernity naturally favored liberal democracy. On the other hand, Roosevelt believed that the forces of modernity were not on the side of liberalism, in the sense that science, technology, and industrialism can be used for both good and evil aims. For Roosevelt, the order-building project was not an ideal attempt to spread democracy but rather an effort to save the democratic style of life, that is, a bulwark to confront an imminent global catastrophe. That’s why his liberalism was liberalism for the difficult times, which Ikenberry argues we need today. Roosevelt saw an urgent need to manage the problems caused by interdependence, as it created weaknesses and vulnerabilities that affected all countries involved in the global liberal project, so he envisioned the need to establish permanent and multilateral institutions of governance. Roosevelt also contributed to the redefinition of the concept of security, especially after the new changes caused by the Second World War. The concepts of “social security” and “collective security” emerged at that time, both of which reflected the new idea of the state’s role in ensuring the health, well-being, and security of its people. Therefore, the author sees Roosevelt as closer to the liberal internationalism which he is advocating for in his writings and distinguishes it from globalization, as globalization revolves around reducing barriers and integrating economies and societies, while liberal internationalism revolves around the idea of interdependence. Accordingly, he emphasizes that liberal internationalism should not produce another globalization. Countries have been appreciating the value of the liberal international order because its rules tamed the devastating effects of open markets without eliminating the gains that came from them, and it has allowed governments to use the tools needed to achieve economic stability and provide social protection, or what John Ruggie called “Embedded Liberalism.” This idea receded with the absolute triumph of liberalism after the end of the Cold War and the spread of hyper-globalization. Now, the time has come to restore it. The author concludes that the liberal international order has a special advantage, which is its ability to self-correct, and whatever its serious failures, they were pale compared to its countless achievements, so it would be a great strategic mistake if the US simply abandoned it. Finally, the author provides a set of recommendations that would enable liberal democracies led by the US to reform; he proposes expanding the G7 group and transforming it into D10, i.e. to shape a club of leading liberal democracies that will guide and return the world to a pluralist and democratic path and rebuild a world order that protects liberal principles and confronts the current challenges in “the era of a new contagion “; The contagion of the pandemics, rapid spread of extremist nationalism, and despotic governance models promoted by China through its own model. As for the United States’ struggle with China, it will ultimately be decided by the country that is taking a better path towards progress. The US has exceptional abilities compared to others. Its abilities lie in its unique ideas, leadership capabilities, its geography, history, institutions, and convictions. Thus, the US should not give up trying to save the liberal world order, or else it would end up becoming just another big, powerful state operating in a world of anarchy, nothing more and nothing less.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate 



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