Throughout 2016, several events occurred which seem to have shaken the foundations of international security. Brexit, Russian resurgence, and the election of Donald Trump have all greatly worried foreign policy experts who fear that the "liberal international order" is in jeopardy. Now this isn't Liberal as in Democrats and Republicans, this is liberal in the sense of free and open societies versus autocratic systems of power. These experts believe that the rise of right-wing populism throughout established democracies is a harbinger of even greater instability to come. Just a few weeks ago, the Eurasia Group (a well-renowned policy think tank) published their top ten global security risks for 2017, listing a retreating America as the number one risk to the global security system. But what exactly is this liberal international order and how does the United States factor into it? This week, we'll describe how international security currently works, and how the "rise of the rest" might threaten this reality.
The liberal international order is essentially the global security framework that was established after the end of the Second World War. There are many different aspects that make up the order, but the dominance of the American military and its commitment to the security of its allies is the cornerstone of this system (NATO is a prime example of this). These allies, emboldened by the protection that the United States offers, are then encouraged to spend less on military power and more on social welfare programs to help create open, more democratic societies. This encouragement for liberal democracies which prioritize open borders and free trade is another major aspect of the liberal international order (though there are some obvious autocratic exceptions). Finally, the resolution of conflicts via international institutions is another fundamental factor of the order. This includes international forums like the United Nations and the global encouragement of nonviolent means to solve transnational disputes.
So how does the rise of populism seem to threaten this order? The answers to this can almost all be found within the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. All along the campaign trail (and even after it), Trump seemed to constantly undermine the assumptions of the liberal international order. He dismissed the importance of NATO and openly questioned America's fundamental alliances. He and his supporters have also been highly critical of the phenomenon of globalization brought on by the order. The campaign was well known for proposing closed borders and stoking the fires of racially based nationalism (whether intentionally or unintentionally). This isn't to say that the Trump campaign and presidency is against the liberal international order, just that he managed to tap into growing disillusionment with the downsides of leading the system.
In addition to populism, the rise of other great powers could potentially challenge the global security framework created by the United States and its European allies. Russia will continue to expand its influence throughout eastern Europe and the Middle East. China will continue to expand its influence in the Pacific and in the surrounding seas (as it has already done in the South China Sea). But this doesn't necessarily spell the end of the liberal international order. This system was in place during the Cold War when the Soviet Union maintained a nearly equal status with the United States, so it is clear that this system does not necessarily need the cooperation of all great powers to exist.
The problem is that this "rise of the rest" comes just as the United States has decided to decrease its support for multilateral global institutions and pull back from its obligations as leader of the liberal international system. The key to global stability is allowing Russia, China, and others to expand and grow WITHIN the broad parameters of the existing global order, not opening the door for these powers to create their own competing orders (such as global communism or a system which only recognizes military domination as legitimate).
Still, the main threat to the global order comes not from without, but from within. Many Americans (and populists worldwide) no longer view the liberal order with the same sense of reverence as before. They sometimes take for granted the stability, prosperity, and general freedom of movement that comes with an open world order. Instead, they are focusing on the negatives of globalization which sometimes disproportionately impact the main guarantors of the world order.
Fortunately, even American retrenchment away from the global order won't necessarily spell the end of the liberal international system. Global financial and social interdependence (economic peace theory and democratic peace theory respectively) are among the strongest forces preventing global war (since the costs of ending the whole system far outweigh the potential benefits). The United States also remains far and away the global military superpower. As powerful as Russia and China are, they still come nowhere close to American military supremacy in a global sense. And even as concerning as the Trump election has been, his cabinet picks of General Mattis for Secretary of Defense and Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State all seem to bode well for America's continued commitment to the order.
But the problems of globalization brought on by the liberal international order are real. So this isn't to say that America should assume it is doing everything right in its role on the world stage. Still, voluntarily relinquishing our position as the global hegemon by abolishing free trade or ending the NATO alliance is dangerous and short sighted. It might not hurt America right away, but it certainly increases the risk of instability abroad. And as we have seen from two previous world wars, the problems of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East always come back to involve the United States.