Is the liberal international order in a state of terminal decline?

…The disengagement of the United States from multilateral cooperation and a rise in ‘illiberal’ politics across the globe have led many observers to conclude the liberal international order is in a state of decline. Drawing on a new study, Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Stephanie C. Hofmann argue that what we may be witnessing is not necessarily the breakdown of the existing order, but rather its transformation into a broader, more inclusive system of global governance, reflecting the need to accommodate new actors and problems.

The “liberal” global order may be in need of therapy. After all, some say it is in rapid demise. Others insist it remains as strong as ever. Not only is the vigour of the liberal order hotly debated, but its very constitution is questioned. Is the order about economic and/or political freedoms? Is it a global order or merely a club of western (or westernised) democracies who diffuse and/or impose their standards on others? Lastly, one might wonder whether the liberal order presents a self-sustaining normative system, or whether it is part of a larger system in which principles like sovereignty co-exist with liberalism. These questions and doubts are a recipe for an identity crisis.

In a recent study, we critically examined the global order since 1945, identifying three foundational elements that have done most of the ‘ordering’ of international relations: national sovereignty, economic openness and rule-based multilateralism. These values and norms do not combine to form a harmonious system, but exist in a tense relationship as they can combine in different – and sometimes clashing – ways. For example, principles of multilateralism and economic openness have frequently clashed with norms of sovereignty, and vice versa. Thus, economic liberalism has never been absolute, nor has respect for national self-determination been consistent. Still, we concur that if one or more of these principles were to lose their prescriptive force and be systematically violated, this would constitute a crisis of the existing order.

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