Mark Collins – No “End of History”, “Collapse of the Liberal World Order” Section

Further to this post,

No “End of History”, or, Don’t Expect Any Lovely Converging International Community

more from Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt:


The world is entering a period where once-robust democracies have grown fragile. Now is the time to figure out where we went wrong.

Once upon a time — that is, back in the 1990s — a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history.” The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the United States. For its part, the United States committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of pesky autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in a benevolent and enduring world order.

As you’ve probably noticed, the heady optimism of the 1990s has given way to a growing sense of pessimism — even alarm — about the existing liberal order. The New York Times’s Roger Cohen, a thoughtful and committed liberal, believes that “the forces of disintegration are on the march” and “the foundations of the postwar world … are trembling.” An April white paper from the World Economic Forum cautions that the liberal world order “is being challenged by a variety of forces — by powerful authoritarian governments and anti-liberal fundamentalist movements.” And in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan warns that the United States itself may be imperiled because it has become “too democratic.”

Such fears are understandable. In Russia, China, India, Turkey, Egypt — and yes, even here in the United States — one sees either resurgent authoritarianism or a yearning for a “strong leader” whose bold actions will sweep away present discontents. According to democracy expert Larry Diamond, “between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries,” while “many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens.” Great Britain has now voted to leave the EU; Poland, Hungary, and Israel are heading in illiberal directions; and one of America’s two major political parties is about to nominate a presidential candidate who openly disdains the tolerance that is central to a liberal society, repeatedly expresses racist beliefs and baseless conspiracy theories, and has even questioned the idea of an independent judiciary.

For those of us committed to core liberal ideals, these are not happy times. I may have a realist view of international politics and foreign policy, but I take no pleasure whatsoever from these developments…

Liberals…forgot that successful liberal societies require more than the formal institutions of democracy. They also depend on a broad and deep commitment to the underlying values of a liberal society, most notably tolerance. As events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other places demonstrate, however, writing a constitution, forming political parties, and holding “free and fair” elections won’t produce a genuinely liberal order unless individuals and groups in society also embrace the key liberal norms as well. This sort of cultural and normative commitment cannot be developed overnight or injected from outside, and certainly not with drones, special forces, and other instruments of violence.

It is also abundantly clear that post-Cold War liberals underestimated the role of nationalism and other forms of local identity, including sectarianism, ethnicity, tribal bonds, and the like…

…many people in the United States and in Europe are desperate to keep Uncle Sam fully engaged in Europe. It’s not so much the fear of a declining but assertive Russia; it’s their fear of Europe itself. Liberals want Europe to remain peaceful, tolerant, democratic and embedded within the EU framework, and they’d like to pull countries like Georgia or Ukraine more fully into Europe’s democratic circle eventually. But deep down, they just don’t trust the Europeans to manage this situation, and they fear it will all go south if the “American pacifier” is removed. For all of liberalism’s supposed virtues, at the end of the day its defenders cannot shake the suspicion that its European version is so delicate that it requires indefinite American support. Who knows? Maybe they’re right. But unless you think the United States has infinite resources and a limitless willingness to subsidize other wealthy states’ defenses, then the question is: what other global priorities are liberals prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve what’s left of the European order?

Nasty old world after all. And are Canadians prepared really to do their bit on defence. Not blinking likely.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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2 thoughts on “Mark Collins – No “End of History”, “Collapse of the Liberal World Order” Section”

  1. Meanwhile in what is probably not a very surprising coincidence, at the very moment when the NDP stood up in Parliament to demand an inquiry into the Great Detainee Affair of 2006, former British Army chief Sir Richard Barron was standing in the KCIS conference in Kingston telling us that the West had become too reluctant to use lethal force in the face of enemies who had no such compunction. Your present commentator has been known to ask similar questions.

  2. A friend well-versed in international matters observes:

    “It is useful to recall that the “Liberal World Order” is, in reality, a like-minded (for the moment) collection of oligarchies which enjoy their position because there was no meaningful economic competition and a surplus of resources to exploit.

    There is now a powerful group of (Asian) economic competitors undercutting the basic societal bargain of an enduring oligarchy, i.e., a reasonable amount of crumbs for the masses. That understanding has gone and the plutocracy and their enablers seem surprised that the peasants are beginning to revolt.

    As for the Europeans, they are perfectly capable of self-defence should they believe their cultures and values worth it.”

    Yep. And “Ouch!”.

    Mark Collins

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