Guest article by Li Xing, Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and Society, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Aalborg University
The US-led liberal world order in crisis
In recent days and in the light of the Ukraine War some American mainstream media, such as the New York Time, began to question the sustainability of the US-led postwar rules-based order. One of its articles on March 4 – “The War in Ukraine Holds a Warning for the World Order” – reveals a feeling of the approaching of the doomsday of the old architecture of the liberal world order.
The current Ukraine War further demonstrates that the existing US-led liberal world order is suffering from a number of crises. First, multilateralism and international institutions are so weakened that they are unable to achieve and sustain what the existing liberal world order had anticipated, which symbolizes that the existing order is in a “crisis of functionality.” Second, due to the misfunctioning of multilateralism in the nexus of American unilateralism, global governance based on the old economic and security architecture is unable to cope with worldwide problems and challenges, which suggests that the existing order is experiencing a “crisis of scope.” Third, contrary to defined liberal values and expectations, the existing order fail in delivering a promising secure and just global society, leading to a “crisis of legitimacy.” Last, but not least, the global rise of China/emerging powers is changing the global balance of power, which indicates that the existing order is experiencing a “crisis of authority.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit meeting on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics and issued a statement on February 4, 2022, titled “The Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development.” The joint statement is the most comprehensive political document, and it almost covers every aspect of global affairs: international relations, governance, values, norms, security, technology, climate change, heath, etc. This document shows that China and Russia propose a plan for a new international order, they envision what kind of justified world order should be and should have been. The document forecasts the transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.
A “new era” refers to a “multipolarity, economic globalization, information society, cultural diversity, transformation of the global governance architecture and world order; increasing interrelation and interdependence between the States, a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world” (quotation from the document). By “Redistribution of power in the world” it points to the fact the US and the West are not the only rule-makers, and Russia and China take the lead and lay out a set of principles and a shared worldview.
The joint statement points out that world peace and stability will never be achieved if some states “military and political alliances and coalitions seek to obtain, directly or indirectly, unilateral military advantages to the detriment of the security of others, including by employing unfair competition practices, intensify geopolitical rivalry, fuel antagonism and confrontation, and seriously undermine the international security order and global strategic stability” (quotation from the document). Both countries “oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches” and they stand against “the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region” (quotation from the document). The document states clearly that “The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan” (quotation from the document). Both countries are promoting the establishment of a new international political and security order.
The never-ending clash over international order: Westphalian or liberal
In recent years there have been rising discussions about “international order”, triggered by the China-US rivalry. The American journal Foreign Policy has since 2021 published two interrelated articles by Stephen Walt, a renowned professor of international relations at Harvard University: “China also wants to establish an international order based on rules,” and “The world may want the rules set by China.” In his view, the use of the term “rules-based international order” seems to have become the mantra of the US president and foreign policy officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also emphasized this in his opening speech during a meeting with his Chinese counterparts that “Our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order.” Whereas the Chinese side rejected it plainly stating that the US defined rules-based order is not equivalent to the international order. According to my understanding, the rules-based international order endorsed by China is historically derived from the “Westphalian international order.”
The Westphalian international order
The Treaty of Westphalia is the collective name of the two peace treaties signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster in 1648. The Treaty was a turning point that ended the 30-year war in Europe. It demonstrated that Europe had finally learned to coexist in diversity by following the principle of “state sovereignty” and “territoriality” under a system comprising sovereign state entities.
Since then, “Westphalian sovereignty”, or “state sovereignty” is the fundamental principle in international law, i.e. every country, large or small, has exclusive sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs. This principle is the foundation of the modern international system and is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. The Westphalian system is worldwide regarded as the beginning of the international order. For centuries, the Westphalian system has effectively managed the relationship between major powers.
The US-led liberal international order
The US, in the aftermath of WWII, established a liberal international order, organized around free trade, collective security, democratic solidarity, and institutionalized cooperation. The goal of such an order was, as bluntly expressed by George Kennan, to defend the gross inequalities in the postwar international order and the tremendous privilege and power this global disparity of wealth brought for the US. Realizing that its own prosperity was closely related to the functioning of the international system and the success of its allies, the US was willing to provide international “public goods” for security protection and economic prosperity of its allies. These public goods included the Bretton Woods system, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the NATO, and the Vietnam War, etc.
However, with the end of the Cold War and with the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the Washington-centered alliance system appeared to lose its compelling rationale and legitimacy. Today, the differences and conflicts are abounding between the US and its allies regarding bilateral or multilateral economic issues, as well as global and regional security and environmental issues.
One of the most striking post-Cold War phenomena was that the liberal international order abandoned the Westphalian principle and weakened the UN authority under the banner of “globalization”, “transnationalization”, and “interdependence.” In the name of “responsibility to protect human rights,” the West/US legitimized “armed humanitarian intervention” in connection with self-defined “violations of state responsibility,” overthrew legitimately elected governments and leaders, launched all kinds of “color revolutions”, etc. Ironically, in line with the international law the NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the US invasion in Iraq in 2003 were illegal actions without the UN authorization. Ironically, the US and EU are nowadays emphasizing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integration.
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who raised the “end of history” thesis in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1989, claimed that the end of the Cold War was “not just …. the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But now in his new book he recognizes that the US political system is suffering from “political decay”.
The post-Cold War liberal international order is in crisis. Democracy is not making significant progress in a large number of countries, and global commitment to liberal principles and values remains thin and uncertain, and resistance against liberal interventionism, such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) remains high. John Ikenberry, a distinguished liberal scholar of international relations, asked a puzzling question in an article in 2018, “Is the liberal international order over?” In the article, he admitted that the 2016 US election produced a president who was hostile to the liberal international order by withdrawing from many multilateral organizations of the liberal international order that the US has established.
At the same time, the European Union, identified as a normative power of the liberal international order is in crisis too: the BREXIT, the rise of EU-pessimism, nationalism, populism, xenophobic sentiment. Especially in the US, bipartisan division and confrontation, the regression of racial conflict, the rise of anti-immigrant violence, ever-lasting rampant socio-economic inequality has made the US-led liberal international order lose its legitimacy.
The need for a new international order
The author believes that the current Ukraine crisis is the consequence of dual aspects: 1) the “triumphalism” of the US-led unilateral liberal order and its imposed global expansion that has planted the historical seed of this crisis; 2) the lack of a new international security architecture that reflects the “New Era.” Although Russia-Europe is becoming a global focus today, the world is clear about the fact that the on-going China-US rivalry, if it turned into a Ukraine-like conflict, would generate an even more comprehensive global disaster.
The current international order is in an on-going process of transformation in which the China-US rivalry is intertwined in a constant process of shaping and reshaping the international order in the nexus of national interest, regional orientation, economic and political agenda, security alliance and potential conflicts. As a result, the future emerging international order will likely return to the basic principles of the Westphalian system, namely the principles of “sovereignty” and “non-interference” after a considerable period of struggle, adjustment and tension driven by the China-US rivalry. The rivalry is being characterized by a dynamic relationship of waxing and waning and a motion of flux and reflux. It is still too early to predict what the emerging international order will exactly look like.
Li Xing is a Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and Society, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Aalborg University, Denmark. He has published a large number of international and Chinese journal articles. Since 2010 he has edited many book series on the theme of the “rise of China and the impact on the existing world order”. Four of the recent edited volumes are: Mapping China’s One belt One Road Initiative (2018); The International Political Economy of the BRICS (2019); China-Latin America Relations in the 21st Century: The Dual Complexities of Opportunities and Challenges (2020); China-U Relations in a New Era of Global Transformation (Routledge, 2021)
Li Xing, PhD, was interviewed by the Danish Schiller Institute´s Michelle Rasmussen about the joint statement by China and Russia February 4 2022 declaring a new era and a New World Order (45 minutes) here: