The liberal international order is over. What will replace it?

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That we have entered a new and distinctive era in the history of international relations ought to be self-evident.

We long ago left behind the era of Cold War bipolarity. Indeed, that world – with two ideologically defined blocs competing for supremacy in a rapidly decolonizing world – now seems like ancient history. And, although it happened more recently, we have also left behind the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Inaugurated with the fall of the Soviet Union and the “triumph” of the West in the early 1990s, by the mid-2010s that era – defined by the hegemony of one superpower (the United States), one ideology (neoliberalism) and one bloc (the liberal international order) – had also passed from the historical stage.

We now inhabit an international order that is neither bipolar nor unipolar, an order that is perhaps best described as multipolar but with strong undertones of bipolarity and hints of unipolarity on the finish. It is an international order that is as different from its predecessors as they were from each other. And it is an international order that is generating its own distinctive field of geopolitical forces — that is pressuring states to act in certain ways while powerfully disincentivizing them from acting in others.

But if the new geopolitical realities ought to be self-evident, they are not.

The contours of this new and historically unique geopolitical order remain only vaguely perceived, obscured by a veil of concepts, frames and imaginaries that were formed in the geopolitical contexts of yesteryear but that remain firmly in place today. Precisely why this should be is something of a mystery — though the usual suspects of nostalgia, anchor bias, willful ignorance and failure of imagination are all likely to play their part.

But it cannot be denied that there is a widespread failure to grasp the existing geopolitical realities of the current moment. Simply listen to all those in positions of political power and intellectual influence as they invoke the memes and metaphors of the Cold War, or the liberal international order, or even the appeasement tropes of “Munich” and 1938, and you will be left with little doubt that the overlapping mental maps of the bipolar and unipolar moments continue to be treated as reliable strategic guides, even though they no longer bear any relationship to the topography we are now forced to navigate.

And this is a problem — a very serious problem.

As the British historian and international relations theorist E.H. Carr argued long ago, one of the principal causes of World War II was just such a failure to recognize that the geopolitical realities (and utopian fantasies) of the 19th century had given way to a different geopolitical field of forces in the 20th. It was the inability to grasp this hard truth, and the reflexive attempt to address the challenges of the interwar period on the basis of assumptions that were by then superannuated relics of a bygone era, that led first to what he called the “twenty years’ crisis” and ultimately to global conflagration.

Assuming, as I do, that another 20 years’ crisis and subsequent world war is undesirable, this would seem to suggest that we get over our nostalgia for world orders past and come to grips with the unique realties of the present world order.

And what are these realities? Well, the first and most fundamental is that we no longer live in a unipolar world. The post-Cold War era of American hegemony has passed from the historical scene, superseded by a new era defined by the institutional residues of U.S. dominance, China’s emergence as a second indispensable power, Russia’s persistence as a diminished great power and the emergence of other powers (including India) that are not only dominant players in their home regions but countries that will shape global politics more broadly.

Second, we no longer live in a world defined by the norms, rules and institutions of the liberal international order (recently rebranded as the “rules-based international order” in partial recognition of the seismic changes that have taken place). We have grown very accustomed to thinking and talking as if the planet were governed through a single operating system, one structured around essentially liberal rules of democracy, free markets, human rights, peaceful resolution of disputes. But that operating system, built by the U.S. in 1945 and coming fully into its own with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, is giving way to something new and qualitatively different.

It’s not clear yet precisely what this new operating system will look like, but one thing is certain: Our nostalgic delusion that this is still the 1990s notwithstanding, the new laws, technical standards and other norms around which world politics will be organized in the coming years will reflect China’s interests and values as much as those of the United States.  

Finally, we most assuredly do not live at the end of history. That we were living in such a millennial moment – that we were entering a time in which wars of conquest would be no more, cooperation would replace competition, globalization would produce harmony and the whole world would move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands of liberal peace, prosperity and freedom – was a utopian dream harbored by many during the post-Cold War era. But it was just that, a utopian delusion. The hard and timeless realities of conflict and competition remained latent throughout that era, recessive but not extinguished. Once the global balance of power inevitably shifted back to the factory settings of multipolarity, those timeless realities reemerged with a vengeance. And with them, the tragic tendency toward war, famine and conquest that have been such a constant in global political life reemerged as well.

These then, roughly sketched, are the basic contours of the existing post-unipolar moment. Now, as in the interwar years, it would be a mistake to think that the conceptual tools and cognitive maps of an earlier era will somehow provide us with what we need to navigate the new geopolitical topography and maintain some semblance of peace. The Cold War is long past, and the post-Cold War era of Pax Americana is dead and buried. We need to acknowledge this reality and develop new tools and maps appropriate to this era. And we need to do it soon — because arguably we’re already a decade into our own 20 years crisis and, if the past is any guide, we might not have much time left.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags China Cold War International order Rise of China Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine United States

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