In Defense of the Liberal World Order: The Alarming Rise of Nationalism in the West

By Matthieu Watson Santerre

The Liberal World Order is being challenged. Since World War II, countries have turned outwards to form international organisations whose aim is to assure peace and prosperity. Competition has been channelled into co-operation, even if reluctantly. The flurry of trade treaties that festooned the 1990s, paired with the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), further intertwined world economies. Out of the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century there emerged a consensus that the world is better off when conflict is institutionalised through international structures.

All world orders have their faults. Yet, international liberalism, for all its setbacks, has kept the world from descending into world war and provided increasing prosperity. This has happened through design and, in parts, luck. The trend towards renewed nationalism spreading through the Western world is set to undermine international liberalism.

In the United States, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has a nativist view of foreign policy. He wants to insulate America from globalisation and revoke most of the United States’ security commitments, notably by closing the American nuclear umbrella in Asia, leaving South Korea and Japan out in the cold. He wants to tear trade treaties up, dismantle or render rudderless international organisations such as NATO, and wait the world out with an immense military.

Whether or not Mr. Trump makes it to the presidency, his position as the presumptive nominee will give credence to his view to many. He has updated a brand of Charles Lindbergh isolationism for the twenty-first century. Because of America’s predominance in the international world order, a President Trump could do serious damage, even if only through symbolic actions.

Meanwhile, the rise of Europe’s nationalist parties is threatening an internationalist perception of the world. Fuelled by negative popular reactions to the Syrian refugee crisis, their influence is growing. A continent that is painfully aware of the historical dangers of aggressive nationalism is being confronted with its rebirth. The European Union’s (EU) promise of greater co-operation, connectivity, peace, prosperity, and unity is being cast as mostly negative by the nationalist right.

The EU’s core values of openness, freedom, and democracy are being eroded by nationalistic parties in power in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is creating an aggressive one-nation vision of his country. The EU is openly being challenged. Mr. Orban is using the Syrian refuge crisis to challenge the EU’s authority and scope. A referendum is planned on whether Hungary should accept the European Commission’s refugee relocation scheme, which seeks to distribute refugees throughout the EU. The aim is to give a popular mandate to exclude refugees. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party is turning the country in on itself. It is promoting renewed nationalism, and, by many accounts, cracking down on the media. Both Mr. Orban and Law and Justice want to curb the EU and cast out the outside world.

Western Europe is not immune. Austria recently went through the hair-raising prospect of electing a far-right leader, Nobert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), as its President. Mr. Hofer lost the presidency by a razor-thin thirty-one thousand votes in a country of roughly eight million people. Although the Austrian Presidency is largely symbolic, victory would have made Mr. Hofer Europe’s first far-right head of state since the Second World War. In France, Marine Le Pen is defanging le Front National of its worst abuses, such as the antisemitism displayed by her father and former Front National leader, Jean-Marie. But the far-right nationalistic and anti-European Front National is still poised to be a serious menace in the 2017 French presidential election.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is undermining the future of the European project with Brexit. The Brexit debate, which will probably continue despite the referendum, is less about nationalism than about how Britain sees itself in the world. Is Britain’s future with Europe or, ignoring history and geography, outside of it? Brexit will be a blow for the United Kingdom (as I argued in a previous post). It will undermine Britain’s place in the world, foster isolationist tendencies, and unleash economic repercussions that are difficult to predict. Underlying Brexit is a debate on immigration.

The challenges to the Liberal World Order in the West come from isolationist tendencies. Across Europe and North America, populations are re-evaluating how they see themselves in the world. Increasingly, the political centre’s worldview is being challenged. The far-right seeks to shut out the outside world and conjure up the image of the strong unitary nation. Populations are debating whether the international organisation and unions set up to ensure their prosperity and well-being are worth belonging to. Throughout the Western world a narrative is forming which downplays the benefits of globalisation and ratchets up its costs.

Why support international liberalism?

International liberalism is being contested just when it should be consolidated. The world can ill afford a turn towards isolationism. A retrenchment from the outside world will not solve the problems the West has to face. In Crimea, Russia has established a unilateral border change by force. What was perceived as unthinkable in post-Cold War Europe has become a new reality. Russia’s foreign adventurism is currently focused on Syria. The odds of a new proxy war or hybrid warfare should not be discounted. In Asia, the East China Sea is a potential flare point. The come-what-may security retrenchment Mr. Trump proposes in the Pacific could precipitate a confrontation and accelerate an arms race.

The origins of the global push against international liberalism is debatable. Certainly economic crises have played their part. The 2008 Great Recession and the corresponding Euro crisis have sapped confidence. In a path often repeated in history, severe economic turbulence has led to diminished confidence in established political systems. For the U.S., the high cost (in treasure, blood, and political capita) of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dampened the appetite for foreign interventions. Globalisation is being held up as the root cause for lost jobs and poor economic performance. Its benefits are cast aside.

The Liberal World Order is being eroded. If left to erode, it will crumble. The parallel with the first half of the twentieth century is not neat, but it proves useful. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes describes the pre-1914 world of global interconnectedness this way:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.
[…] But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.

The First World War would destroy what appeared to be a state of permanent improvement. It would destroy a largely internationalist world. Upon its ashes grew a financial crisis. Strongmen promising renewed national strength emerged. International co-operation dissolved, its symbol, the League of Nations, falling into irrelevance. By 1939, the world was once more at war.

The past is an imperfect guideline for contemporary foreign policy. Nevertheless, it provides a template to the cost which can arise when the world’s major countries turn inwards and let nationalism and the perceived need for strongmen emerge. The Liberal World Order is built on a willingness to engage the world, not push it out. It is worth defending.


Matthieu Watson Santerre holds an MSc in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. He has worked for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and published several e-books, including In Through A Coloured Lens with Pat Watson. He also blogs at julycrisis1914.com.

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