7 March 2021   Leave a comment

We are all wondering how the world order will evolve after the Trump Administration essentially shredded the liberal world order of post-1945/1991. It is a question worth pondering but it will be many years before we can really get a handle on it. The crises posed by climate change, pandemics, and cyber-security all suggest that a multilateral, cooperative world order is required. But the xenophobic nationalism of the US, Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Great Britain all suggest a return to the balance of power world order of the 19th century.

Parag Khanna has written a very suggestive essay for The National Interest which uses as a foil the famous essay by Francis Fukuyama entitled “The End of History?” which was published in 1989. Fukuyama suggested that the liberal world order, which favored representative democracy, market capitalism, and human rights, would become truly global as China moved toward market capitalism and the Soviet Union began to fall apart:

“While it is impossible to rule out the sudden appearance of new ideologies or previously unrecognized in
liberal societies, then, the present world seems to confirm that the fundamental principles of sociopolitical organization have not advanced terribly far since 1806. Many of the wars and revolutions fought since that time have been undertaken in the name of ideologies which claimed to be more advanced than liberalism, but whose pretensions were ultimately unmasked by history. In the meantime, they have helped to spread the universal homogenous state to the point where it could have a significant
effect on the overall character of international relations.”

Fukuyama’s essay was far more nuanced than the cited quotation suggests. It was a an important essay, notwithstanding the fact that its central thrust was not confirmed by subsequent events. Khanna analyzes the dynamics that explained the contemporary world order more accurately than did Fukuyama:

“Geopolitical schools of thought are also much more comfortable with seeing the world as a system of systems, a complex environment shaped by transnational forces ranging from globalization to climate change. In political science, these deep forces are merely a la carte add-ons. While political science reduces international behavior to mechanics, geopolitics is more comfortable with physics, especially the second law of thermodynamics, namely the tendency towards entropy. In geopolitical terms, this means the inevitability of power diffusion. Or in Woody Allen’s words from his 1992 film Husbands and Wives, ‘Sooner or later, everything turns to shit.’

“Did we realize in the 1990s that it would be us who turned to shit? Here’s what neither political scientists nor geopolitical scholars sufficiently gamed out as it was happening: The wicked brew of trade globalization and outsourced manufacturing, industrial policy fueled technological innovation, and rent-seeking financial capitalism–and how those forces not only accelerated power diffusion globally but also deindustrialization and political polarization at home.

“Fukuyama sought to marry rationalism and freedom, but even as he wrote, the great Anglo-American delegitimation was already underway. Reagan-Thatcherist privatization and deregulation were causing widening inequality, social degeneration, and the dismantling of the utilitarian meritocracy that had served as the bureaucratic backbone of postwar success. Whereas political scientists continue still to mistake the Western strategic community for a political one, the cleavage within the West has long been apparent. Weber’s ideal-type state remained alive and well in democratic technocratic states such as Germany, where the government share of the economy is high, the welfare state is robust, social protections are strong, and infrastructure is world-class. The deepening transatlantic divorce has played out over Iraq and Russia, financial and technological regulation, trade and climate change, and other areas. Even under the Biden administration, the United States and European Union may coordinate more on China and climate, but Europe won’t trust America to lead. Geopolitical allies will remain geoeconomic rivals, jointly pushing for reciprocal access to China’s markets, but competing vigorously for market share for their own firms.”  

Interestingly, Khanna is making a very simple point: most empires implode and are very rarely conquered until the implosion is well underway. The very success of the liberal world order, manifested most dramatically by the scopa and pace of globalization, planted the seeds of its unraveling. Perhaps it can be revived, as seems to be the foreign policy objective of the Biden Administration, but not without careful attention to the political costs of economic globalization.

Posted March 7, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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