Western agency and normative discourse remain powerful factors in international governance, but their reach has undeniably diminished since the 1990s, when their influence and prestige seemed uncontested.
Western power is constrained by several factors, including long and ultimately ineffective US military deployments overseas; European difficulties in turning the EU project into a lasting source of internal prosperity and external stability; and, last but not least, the emergence (or re-emergence) of new powers whose interests and sensitivities are not aligned with the West and that now possess, enough critical mass, either individually or collectively, to successfully resist Western policies. As Western power has dwindled, so has the appeal of its normative discourse. Non-Western diffidence towards the West liberal peace discourse, generally perceived as a justification for Western interventionism, never abated; following NATO’s intervention in Libya, ostensibly carried out under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) rubric but widely perceived as a forced regime change in disguise, it has instead solidified.
The liberal order faces not only the challenge of an increasingly contested Western power (on which the liberal order relies), but also the problem of an increasingly ‘asymmetric’ West. Contrary to expectations, the end of the Cold War has not brought about an emancipation of Europe from the US. If anything, the hierarchical structure of Western power has consolidated, with the US at the centre as the unchallenged leader and European countries revolving around it, part genuinely, part fatalistically, as committed followers.
The dual development of increased transatlantic asymmetry and emerging multipolarity has negatively affected global and regional governance. The spread of US-dominated systems of alliances and partnerships in Europe and Asia-Pacific has left little room for other forms of pan-regional security governance. Thus, NATO’s enlargement in Europe has ultimately made the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe irrelevant, while the proliferation of Asian-only groupings in Asia-Pacific has anything but diminished the appetite of a number of Asian-Pacific countries for maintaining, or developing, strong security ties with the US. Concomitantly, conflict with the two main powers left out of the US system of alliances – namely Russia and China – has intensified, especially with Russia. The Chinese and Russian governments have joined forces to keep the US away from Central Asia, and have made some inroads into other regions where US or Western power is not as established as in Europe and Asia-Pacific, such as the Middle East and Africa. Regional tensions have reverberated on a global level, hampering the ability of the United Nations Security Council to meet its responsibility for peace and security.
In light of the above, experts have considered both the US’ instinctive preference for unrestrained international action (often labelled ‘unilateralism’) and multipolarity as undermining the liberal order. The evidence, however, is not as straight-forward as the prophets of the liberal order’s eventual demise assume. In fact, the US, Europe and even the most restive among the non-Western powers all have a stake in the endurance of the liberal order and the establishment of rule-based international regimes for addressing global governance challenges.
In the security field, the West has been able to find common ground with China and even Russia (as well as other countries) over the management of key issues, such as Iran’s nuclear programme. More broadly speaking, international security today is (still) more characterized by functional threats such as nuclear proliferation and Islam-rooted terrorism than by confrontation between great powers. Along with competition come mutual concerns around which great powers can, and actually do, cooperate.
In the economic area, arguably the one policy domain in which US and EU power is relatively even, the West has the opportunity to continue to heavily influence the ‘rules of the game’. It can do so not so much via multilateral fora such as the World Trade Organisation (where the Doha round on trade liberalisation has been dormant for years), but through a strengthened bilateral partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. TTIP would work as an irresistible pole of attraction for all countries wanting to access the US and EU markets, providing the necessary incentive to abide by rules and standards set in Washington and Brussels. This, of course, entails the risk of creating an even bigger imbalance in global economic governance structures; however, if TTIP is designed in such a way that US and EU markets remain open and accessible, it could actually become a pillar of global economic governance and even inject new life into trade multilateralism.
In the environmental and climate change policy field, there is an even stronger case for unilateralism’s (by the EU) and bilateralism’s (between the US and China) compatibility with multilateral cooperation. The EU continues to set the pace in addressing climate change by setting goals repeatedly far more ambitious than anyone else’s, whereby the threshold of action against global warming is constantly set higher than most countries would like it to be. Moreover, the recent US-China deal on environmental issues has credibly increased the chances of a successful Paris conference on climate change, to be held later this year.
Even in the highly contested field of human rights and democracy divisions are not beyond mending. Certainly, NATO’s intervention in Libya has given R2P ill repute. It is nonetheless worth emphasizing that the controversy focuses on the application rather than the principle itself, meaning that even countries such as Russia and China have accepted the human rights discourse underlying R2P.
To conclude, the liberal order is challenged and less capable of functioning than in the past. Yet, its pillars – Western power and the liberal discourse – are far from collapse. Western power is in relative decline, but no country in the world, not even China, has the ability (or the willingness, for that matter) to replace the fundamental role played by the US as ultimate guarantor of international security. Even if it so willed, China would lack the influence the US derives from the liberal discourse, which might have lost relevance but continues to be faced with a lack of valid alternatives. Governance within the current system is more complicated, but not structurally impossible.