The Year Ahead

Why the Liberal International Order Will Endure Into the Next Decade

It’s true that democracy, globalism, and free trade are under assault, but they may prove stronger than the forces arrayed against them in the 2020s.

People take part in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong
People take part in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 29. Adryel Talamantes/NurPhoto via Getty Images

People take part in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 29. Adryel Talamantes/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s become fashionable to wonder whether the liberal international order can survive the malign forces that have been lining up against it during the 2010s—what the Wall Street Journal called the “Decade of Disruption.” But based on recent trends, it’s a fair bet that democracy, globalism, and open trade will endure handily into the third decade of the 21st century.

Start with the state of democracy. Nothing has been more alarming to internationalists than the one-two punch of U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who have taken power in two of the world’s oldest and most important democracies by awakening the old demons of nationalism. With Trump focusing his ire on NATO and the World Trade Organization, and Johnson stalking out of the European Union, the two leaders have transformed the once-hallowed “special relationship” from a bulwark of global stability (sullied though it was by the Iraq War) into what looks more like a wrecking ball. Elsewhere, illiberalism has overtaken young democracies, such as Hungary and Poland, and even threatened mature ones with the rapid rise of nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany and Norbert Hofer’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Austria. In the world’s largest democracy, India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party appear to be sending the same message. And there are considerable doubts about whether the democratic body politic possesses an immune system strong enough to fight off a plague of cyber-generated misinformation and disinformation, and systemic hacking by such autocrats as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But democracy just won’t give up, and in 2019—which could justly be called the year of global protest—it kept reinventing itself at the grassroots. This has been happening in the most unlikely of places around the globe, in countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Chile, and above all in Hong Kong, where thousands of determined protesters have braved bullets and tear gas, embarrassing Chinese President Xi Jinping even as he brutally consolidates his autocratic rule on the mainland. Perhaps the U.S. and British democracies are becoming decadent—and 2020 will tell us a lot about that question come November—but the idea of democracy remains a powerful, ever-replenishing urge that, as sociologists and political scientists have long told us, only gets stronger the more that income and educational levels increase around the world.

Democracy just won’t give up, and in 2019—which could justly be called the year of global protest—it kept reinventing itself at the grassroots.

The international economy is also undergoing some severe stress tests—and surviving remarkably intact. The year 2019 began with deep-seated fears that Trump’s trade wars would help trigger a global recession—and among the most concerned was Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who midway through the year suggested he and other central bank chiefs simply didn’t know how bad things could get. “The thing is,” Powell said, “there isn’t a lot of experience in responding to global trade tensions.” Growth and investment are still slowing due in large part to the uncertainty Trump has created, but fears of a recession have receded. It turns out the U.S. president cannot single-handedly return the United States to the days of Smoot-Hawley—even his fellow neonationalist Boris Johnson believes in free trade—and the domino effect of retaliatory tariffs that followed in the 1930s, setting the stage for world war. (In June 1930, under the Smoot-Hawley Act, the United States raised tariffs to an average of 59 percent on more than 25,000 imports; just about every other nation reacted in tit-for-tat protectionist fashion, severely depressing the global economy.)

Today, the complexities of a deeply integrated global economy and its supply chains may prove too much to undo—even for the most powerful person on the planet.

And what of the institutions of the international system? The United States has always had an uneasy relationship with its post-World War II progeny, principally the United Nations, the WTO, and NATO—despite helping create them—and Trump only gave expression to an American id that was long seething under the surface. True, Trump is demeaning these institutions to an unprecedented degree and demanding far more of them. But he’s only saying more stridently what was said by, say, President Barack Obama, who also criticized the NATO allies for being free-riders, and former President George W. Bush, whose administration privately mocked the alliance and sneered at the U.N. (Another little-remembered precursor to Trump was President Bill Clinton’s feisty first-term trade representative, Mickey Kantor, who once said he wasn’t interested in free-trade “theology” and preferred that Americans behave like mercantilists.)

Trump is making a serious run at denuding the WTO by taking down its appellate court, but even that institution is likely to outlast a 73-year-old president who, at most, has only four more years in office to wreak havoc on the global system. This is especially likely because he is now mostly alone in his anti-globalist passion with the departure of his deeply ideological national security advisor, the militant John Bolton.

Let’s not forget either that the advent of Trump and Johnson represents a legitimate backlash to major policy errors made by the elites who have dominated the international system. George W. Bush led the Republican Party badly astray with his strategically disastrous Iraq War and fecklessness over the deregulation of Wall Street, which set the stage for the biggest financial crash since 1929 and the Great Recession. That turned voters off to traditional Republican thinking and opened the door to Trump’s unlikely takeover of the party. Something similar happened in Britain, when Bush’s partner in these neoliberal economic delusions and his ally in an unnecessary war, the once-popular Labour leader Tony Blair, set the stage for Labour’s eventual handoff to the socialist Jeremy Corbyn. (A shift that was, in turn, analogous to the ascent of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the left inside the U.S. Democratic Party in response to the rise of Trump’s 2016 presidential rival Hillary Clinton, who was seen as pro-war and too friendly to Wall Street.)

But the larger point is that Trump and Johnson are only the latest stresses to a system that, since the end of the Cold War, has suffered some pretty major ones and yet endured. In the quarter-century since then, financial markets collapsed several times, and the global economy has remained intact. Islamist terrorists have struck at major capitals around the world, and a clash of civilizations hasn’t ensued. The world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, incessantly bicker, but they’re still doing business. Ivory tower realists continue to be dead wrong in their predictions that the international system will fall back into anarchy, even when politicians like Trump are doing their best to make that happen. On the realist view, the so-called West and its institutions should have disintegrated after the Cold War with the disappearance of the Soviet Union; as Owen Harries wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1993, “The political ‘West’ is not a natural construct but a highly artificial one. It took the presence of a life-threatening, overtly hostile ‘East’ to bring it into existence and to maintain its unity. It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy.”

Instead, these international constructs only expanded—so rapidly and intensively that they generated a backlash. And that expansion is plainly still outpacing the efforts to block or destroy it, especially as we see other nations forging free trade deals behind Trump’s back. Above all, while plainly America’s stature as stabilizer of the international system has been seriously set back—first by Bush, most recently by Trump—there is some positive news even in the impeachment drama now underway. Although Trump is all but certain to be acquitted in the Senate, the impeachment vote in the House, following weeks of testimony by career U.S. diplomats, was a dramatic reaffirmation of traditional American values for fair dealing not just with Ukraine, but with all nations.

Perhaps, for now, that will be enough to keep things intact.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh