The End of the Liberal International Order

The End of the Liberal International Order

Jorge Torres // 29 June 2020

If there seems to be any consensus among academics it is that the dominant Western liberal international order is coming to an end. With the arrival of Trump and the rise of China we must ask ourselves: which international order comes next?


Today, international relations are marked by a change in heterogeneity and a multiplicity of exogenous factors. For this reason, it has become more complex and its political and legal analysis is characterized by a depth that is difficult to systematize.

After the Cold War, a new era emerged. Some even thought we were at the “end of history”. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of a precipitous, dependent and complex world. Policies are being implemented without verifying their effectiveness. In these confusing and highly uncertain times, eclecticism increases; anything goes and the old ways are simply rejected.

In this new cycle of power, it is necessary to take into account the space in which states act. Those who are most relevant in geopolitical terms enjoy the capacity to impose themselves on others. States have become the main actors in international relations and, despite globalization, it doesn’t look like this will change. At the same time, globalization has “flattened” the world, facilitated the communication of ideas, and has allowed for the free movement of people and goods. Nevertheless, the political and cultural borders have not been eliminated or blurred – quite the opposite. The number of countries has not stopped growing since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since its origin in the Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state has been sustained on four principles: identity, legitimacy, capacity and purpose. When states recognize and respect these principles, the international order maintains its peace. If they are doubted, then conflicts and wars arise.

International relations based on the Westphalian model has been altered in these last years. This has affected states as they are no longer the only actors on the international stage and have to share it with non-governmental organizations and companies. This crisis of the state can be attributed to globalization. Joseph Nye states that this has accelerated the diffusion of power and moves it from governments towards private agents. Additionally, the advances in the information revolution supposes a rupture between social institutions and technology. The former does not have the capacity to adapt as quickly as the changes brought by the latter. The changes brought by new technologies have meant that foreign policy in international relations is no longer dealt with exclusively by governments. The traditional state no longer has a strong monopoly power. Journalist Esther Dyson explains that there has been a “disintermediation of governments”.

Given the process in which states are losing power, it is worth asking ourselves if some will disappear, especially in depressed areas. This could cause a vacuum of political power and a consequent lack of organization. The most powerful states will be responsible for ensuring that the others act in a certain way, going beyond the right of interference. This may result in a new form of neocolonialism where unviable states are in the hands of the most powerful including non-state actors.

In the close future, state legitimacy will be considered in terms of effectiveness. In order to adapt to this “new world”, the Westphalian nation-state will need to guarantee the minimum conditions required for economic, political and social development corresponding to the levels reached by advanced societies.

The international system

In the course of history, any attempt at state planning has led to misery and dictatorship. Countries who have implemented alternative regimes to capitalism and the free market have ended up collapsing. Some examples include the USSR, Cuba, Angola, and, most recently, Venezuela. One of the common characteristics of these regimes has been their attempt to extend their “revolution” to the rest of the world. To date, the closest to achieving this has been the USSR. However, just as there cannot be a state without a willing and able society to sustain it, neither can there be a world state without a willing and able world community to sustain it. Socialism is not the only system that has tried achieving global domination.

A central idea surrounding the realist theory in international relations has been the struggle for power. As Bart Landheer points out: there is no equality in social reality, but rather inequality. Inequality is truly the raison d’etre of society. If it is admitted that global society necessarily has a structure, the problem of social evolution appears from a different point of view. The developing world is not egalitarian but strongly differentiated. This derives from the inequality of capacity of social groups, and this unequal capacity is, after all, a biological phenomenon that must be accepted to the extent that it escapes entirely the human will.

Spanish politician Rafael Calduch points out that “any egalitarian claim moves more in the field of utopian desires than in that of human realities”. This acceptance of inequality in the distribution of power has two faces: solidarity and cooperation on the one hand, and domination and conflict on the other.

This disparity is reflected in international relations. If we assume Landheer’s claims, power is organized in an order, or several orders, created and directed by the great powers. According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, an order is “an organized set of international institutions that help govern interactions among the member states”. These institutions determine acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours. However, the existence of an order, or several, does not mean there is peace or stability. Since this order was created with the approval of great powers, it is also dictated by their interests. Despite appearing contradictory, Mearsheimer sees the need for order in the international arena as it is currently lacking due to the fact that great powers are allowed to influence the behaviours of the less powerful. An example of this is the integration of states in one of the two blocs during the Cold War. The members of each bloc could not carry out an action without the approval of their respective superpower. Nevertheless, the opposite argument can also be used. Proxy wars have been a common tool used by the great powers. According to Cambridge Dictionary, a proxy war is one “fought between groups or small countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and that may help and support from these”.

Another reason put forward by Mearsheimer lies in the ability of an order to manage interstate relations in a “highly hyperconnected” world. Interactions between states are no longer just economic, and problems like climate change and health crises “don’t need passports to cross international boundaries”. The latter is perfectly exemplified in the current global COVID-19 pandemic.

As noted, the international order that has been in place since the end of the Cold War is on the brink of collapsing. Some authors argue that the coronavirus crisis is the breaking point. If we accept this thesis, then we must ask ourselves which system comes next.  

If we turn to Morgenthau, the father of realist school, he claims “the moral challenge emanating from Asia is in its essence a triumph of the moral ideas of the West…carried forward under the banner of two moral principles: national self-determination and social justice… The West taught the peoples of Asia also that poverty and misery are not God-given curses that men must passively accept, but that they are largely man-made”.

Along with the Asian boom, already anticipated by the author in 1985, Morgenthau noted the decline of American power. Paradoxically, the take-off of Asian countries and the decline of American supremacy stem from the successes of ideas promoted by the West. However, the rise of Asia, and of China in particular, still doesn’t tell us which order, or orders, will prevail next.

Mearsheimer makes an interesting classification of international orders:

  1. International orders and bounded orders
  2. Kinds of international orders: realistic, agnostic and ideological
  3. Thick and thin

(from Mearsheimer’s “Bound to fail: The rise and fall of the liberal international order”, International Security, vol. 43, no. 4, p. 16)

In order for a system to be international, it needs to include all the great powers. In contrast, bounded orders are usually limited to a regional level and are controlled by a single great power. However, two or more great powers can form a bounded order provided that at least one of the powers remains outside of the region.

Within international systems, three different types exist: realist, agnostic and ideological. The distribution of power is the variable that distinguishes the three. In bipolar or multipolar systems, the security dilemma is the leitmotiv. Instead, in unipolar systems, the ideology of the hegemonic power becomes essential. In other words, a unipolar system will always translate into an ideological international order. Bipolar and multipolar power distributions will tend to be realistic international systems in which the competition of power between the great powers is a sine qua non condition.

The only difference between an ideological international system and an agnostic one lies in whether the ideology of the hegemonic power has a universalist spirit and has a vocation to spread across the world. This has been the case of the liberal order that has dominated since the fall of the Berlin Wall until now.

Since the end of the Cold War, the American National Security Strategy (NSS) has adhered to all the former points, especially the importance of the United States in maintaining world peace. Especially revealing are the 2002 NSSs written by the Bush administration and those published in 2015 under the presidency of Barack Obama. Both documents support the idea that the country’s strength lies in its values and the unity of its society. Bush’s neoconservative and Obama’s liberal administrations conclude the same thesis: the true power of the United States does not rest on its military or economic power, but rather on its democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms protected in its Constitution. They believe these pillars have made the United States a great nation. This common point shows that the vision of both administrations was based on the global domination of the United States.

The third classification focuses on the breadth and depth of the institutions that make up the international order. If the institutions do not have the capacity to influence the behavior of their member states, then the order is weak. On the other hand, if they have an impact on the actions of their member states, then the institutions are classified as robust.

Based on what has been explained so far, it seems that the international liberal order of the last two decades is deteriorating. In fact, the arrival of the Trump Administration to the White House in 2016 has been the final step towards an agnostic international order. This is demonstrated by the Trump’s motto: America First.

Another milestone that marked the end of this golden era was the 2008 Russian intervention into Georgia preceded by the already historic speech made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 10th, 2007 at the Munich Security Conference.

As with any good reasoning, more unknowns arise. Which order is next? Will the new order favour an increase in conflict between states or will it ameliorate international cooperation?

Following what has been described, the world is doomed to be a realist multipolar international order with increasingly weak institutions. Additionally, multiple bounded orders will coexist and the most relevant ones will be led by the United States and China. This diversity in systems will generate a strategic competition between both countries for hegemony – the famous Thucydides trap.

This article was originally published in Spanish by Civismo. Translated by Noemi Amelynck.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).

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EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).