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By Georg Sørensen


The Montréal Review, June 2012


 "A Liberal World Order in Crisis: Choosing Between Imposition and Restraint" by Georg Sørensen (Cornell University Press, 2011)


"A Liberal World Order in Crisis is a terrifically clearheaded and well-written book; it is capacious and will lend itself well to teaching."

-Peter J. Katzenstein, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr., Professor of International Studies, Cornell University, coeditor of Anti-Americanisms in World Politics

"A Liberal World Order in Crisis points directly at the problems and contradictions of the liberal world order that has emerged since the end of the Cold War, from its approach to failed states to the question of the universality of its underlying values. Georg Sorensen is one of the keenest contemporary observers of global politics, and his book is a sober assessment of contemporary prospects for world order."

-Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University


My book is about the problematic liberal world order that has evolved in place of the idealistic vision of "the end of history". There were high hopes for a universal liberal world order when the Cold War ended around 1990. The breakdown of the Soviet Union meant that liberal ideas about democracy and market economy no longer faced major ideological competition. Francis Fukuyama was able to declare that history had ended; the task that remained was the concrete implementation of liberal democracy and market economy worldwide. That would take a while, but in terms of grand ideological confrontations, history was over.

We now know that this vision was much too optimistic. The progress of history cannot be taken for granted; reversals are possible too. "History has no libretto", Isaiah Berlin used to say; progress is possible in principle, but by no means guaranteed. In today's world, the liberal model is in a state of crisis, facing severe economic and political challenges. The financial crisis has not been handled well and may break out in full force again. In the United States and in parts of Europe a rich minority may thrive, but major sections of the populations face stagnating real incomes and unemployment. As far as democracy is concerned, several countries have seen political openings and relatively free elections. But the political systems continue to be plagued by corruption, abuse of power, inequality before the law, and lack of respect for basic human rights. About one hundred countries are in a "gray zone" between democracy and authoritarianism, and there is no guarantee that democracy will prevail.

"Liberal world order" is not an entity of fixed principles set in stone. There are two different, major strains of liberalism. One is a "Liberalism of Imposition"; it is activist, interventionist, and potentially imperialistic. Imposition became the liberal strategy chosen by George W. Bush after 9-11. It was sustained by the unparalleled position of liberal democracies, and especially the United States, after the end of the Cold War combined with the resolve to conduct a global "war on terror" and to actively seek the promotion of liberal values worldwide. This was not a recipe for a stable, well-functioning liberal order. Great powers such as China, Russia and India would not participate; nor would close liberal allies such as France and Germany.

The other major strain of liberalism is a "Liberalism of Restraint". It is moderate, empathetic, respectful of others, and non-interventionist. Under Barack Obama, the United States has turned in a more cooperative direction. But it may not be possible to recreate on a universal scale the flexible, cooperation-based liberal order that characterized post World War II-relationships between the US, Western Europe, and Japan. The common enemy is gone; that means less cohesion and less acceptance of US leadership. During the Cold War, cooperation was among a community of democracies with common values; today, non-democratic great powers (China, Russia) must be integrated in a reformed order. They will not show the kind of restraint that Germany and Japan displayed after World War II.

There are five major challenges to the creation of a stable liberal world order. The first concerns the economy. The dominant model over the past thirty years has been neoliberal, focused on deregulation and less state interference with market principles. This has helped create growth and economic globalization, even though the most successful economic models in Asia-including China-have been state-capitalist rather than "pure" market economies. But deregulation has also paved the way for a comprehensive financial crisis which has laid bare the rapid growth of financial speculation. Inequality has increased sharply in the United States and several parts of Europe. It is clear that the model is in need of reform, but strong interest groups, especially in the financial sector, work against any far-reaching reform. Nor is there any agreement about the major principles of a new model. Europe, for example, is focused on austerity measures right now. This may be understandable but it will not pave the way for new expansion and more employment.

The second great challenge concerns the network of international institutions. Such institutions are a central element in a liberal world order. Universal institutions, such as the UN system, are in need of reform. The UN reflects the international situation in the late 1940s. A reform of the Security Council has been on the agenda for about twenty years; it has gone nowhere because countries who stand to lose in terms of influence are unwilling to go ahead; a similar situation characterizes the IMF and the World Bank. G20 is an informal and not very powerful ad hoc institution; so are G7 and G8. Some argue in favor of a stronger "League of Democracies"; that would point towards more intense cooperation in bodies with democratic membership, such as NATO, the OECD, and the EU, but it is less clear how this will strengthen cooperation worldwide. At a point in time where globalization has increased the demand for cooperation, the supply of effective institutions is fairly limited.

The third challenge concerns the greatest security problem today: fragile states. Violent conflict with great human cost no longer relates to war between states. It stems from domestic conflict in fragile states where dominant elites are frequently in open conflict with large sections of their own populations and where the political and economic conditions for peace and progress are absent. In some cases, liberal democracies have undertaken humanitarian interventions in order to protect civilians and stop the fighting. But recolonization is not in the cards; we need to go home sooner rather than later, which means that sustained improvement in fragile states hinges on a local demand for reform. That is often lacking, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, Sudan, the Congo and elsewhere. The adoption of a "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) by the UN is a step ahead but it does not eliminate the dilemmas concerning conflict inside fragile states.

The fourth major challenge concerns liberal values. On the one hand, an offensive and arrogant liberalism will create opposition rather than support around the world; Afghanistan is a recent example. At the same time, too much restraint will also be a problem because domestic change will be too slow in coming. On the other hand, democracy faces new problems at home, in the liberal core countries. The theory of liberal democracy has not been able to give good answers to the new democratic challenges provided by the intense supra-national cooperation that takes place in the EU, the WTO and some other international institutions. Liberal democratic theory needs to take on a situation where sovereignty and non-intervention are transformed by new forms of cross-border cooperation.

Finally, the fifth major challenge concerns the lack of leadership. During the Cold War the United States was willing to lead and disposed of the necessary resources to take on the task. Today, it may still have the resources, but there is much less willingness to accept leadership. The US is deeply concerned with its own problems which have to do with the economy, health care, infrastructure, and several other items. We will probably not see outright American isolationism, but the United States is certainly not ready to lead in the way it did after World War II. EU-Europe is beset by a profound Euro-crisis and Japan has been in stagnation for more than two decades. And neither Europe nor Japan has the capacity to lead.

In sum, there are deep tensions in the current liberal world order. Liberal economic and political progress remains a possibility. But any progress will not come automatically. It depends on the successful efforts of people and states who are willing to move liberal world order in the right direction.


Georg Sorensen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Aarhus. He is the author of several books, including Democracy and Democratization: Processes and Prospects in a Changing World and Changes in Statehood: The Transformation of International Relations.


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