Liberal international order

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In international relations, the liberal international order (some times referred to as the rules-based[1] or the US-led[2] international order) describes a set of global, rule-based, structured relationships based on political liberalism, economic liberalism and liberal internationalism since the late 1940s.[3] More specifically, it entails international cooperation through multilateral institutions (like the United Nations, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund), and is constituted by human equality (freedom, rule of law and human rights), open markets, security cooperation, promotion of liberal democracy, and monetary cooperation.[3][4][5] The order was established in the aftermath of World War II, led in large part by the United States.[3][6]

The nature of the liberal international order, as well as its very existence, has been debated by scholars.[7][8][9][3] The LIO has been credited with expanding free trade, increasing capital mobility, spreading democracy, promoting human rights, and collectively defending the West from the Soviet Union.[3] The LIO facilitated unprecedented cooperation among the states of North America, Western Europe and Japan.[3] Over time, the LIO facilitated the spread of economic liberalism to the rest of the world, as well as helped consolidate democracy in formerly fascist or communist countries.[3]


David Lake, Lisa Martin and Thomas Risse define "order" as "patterned or structured relationships among units". Interactions in the LIO are structured by rules, norms and decision-making procedures. They note that the LIO is not synonymous with a "rule-based international order", as non-liberal rule-based orders may exist (such as the Westphalian order).[3]

They define "liberal" as a belief in the universal equality of individuals, as well as individual and collective freedoms. Political liberalism entails the rule of law, and the sovereign equality of states, as well as protections for human rights, political rights and civil liberties. Economic liberalism entails free market-oriented policies. Liberal internationalism entails principled multilateralism and global governance.[3]

Michael Barnett defines an international order as "patterns of relating and acting" derived from and maintained by rules, institutions, law and norms.[10] International orders have both a material and social component.[10] Legitimacy (the generalized perception that actions are desirable, proper or appropriate) is essential to political orders.[10][11] George Lawson has defined an international order as "regularized practices of exchange among discrete political units that recognize each other to be independent."[12] John Mearsheimer defines an international order "an organized group of international institutions that help govern the interactions among the member states."[13]

In After Victory (2001), John Ikenberry defines a political order as "the governing arrangements among a group of states, including its fundamental rules, principles and institutions." Political orders are established when the basic organizing arrangements are set up, and they break down when the basic organizing arrangements are overturned, contested or in disarray. He defines a constitutional international order as a political order "organized around agreed-upon legal and political institutions that operate to allocate rights and limit the exercise of power." There are four main core elements of constitutional orders:

  1. Shared agreement about the rules of the game within the order
  2. Rules and institutions that bind and limit the exercise of power
  3. Institutional autonomy from special interests
  4. The entrenchment of these rules and institutions with a broader, immutable political system.[14]

In 2018, Ikenberry defined the liberal international order as:[15]

multilayered, multifaceted, and not simply a political formation imposed by the leading state. International order is not “one thing” that states either join or resist. It is an aggregation of various sorts of ordering rules and institutions. There are the deep rules and norms of sovereignty... There is a sprawling array of international institutions, regimes, treaties, agreements, protocols, and so forth. These governing arrangements cut across diverse realms, including security and arms control, the world economy, the environment and global commons, human rights, and political relations. Some of these domains of governance may have rules and institutions that narrowly reflect the interests of the hegemonic state, but most reflect negotiated outcomes based on a much broader set of interests.

Charles Glaser has disputed the analytical value of the concept of the LIO, arguing that the concept is so broad and vague that "almost any international situation qualifies as an international order, so long as its members accept the sovereignty norm."[16] Some critics of the LIO, such as John Mearsheimer, have argued that liberal democracy promotion and hyper-globalization are elements of the LIO.[13]


Origins of the LIO have commonly been identified as the 1940s, usually starting in 1945,[3] with some scholars pointing to earlier agreements between the WWII-era Allies such as the Atlantic Charter in 1941.[17] John Mearsheimer has dissented with this view, arguing that the LIO only arose after the end of the Cold War.[13] Core founding members of the LIO include the states of North America, Western Europe and Japan; these states form a security community.[3] The characteristics of the LIO have varied over time.[3] Some scholars refer to a Cold War variation of the LIO and a post-Cold War variation.[18] The Cold War variation was primarily limited to the West and entailed weak global institutions, whereas the post-Cold War variation was worldwide in scope and entailed global institutions with "intrusive" powers, according to Börzel and Zürn.[18]

Aspects of the LIO are challenged internally within liberal states by populism, protectionism and nationalism.[19][20][13][21] Scholars have argued that embedded liberalism (or the logics inherent in the Double Movement) are key to maintaining public support for the planks of the LIO; some scholars have raised questions whether aspects of embedded liberalism have been undermined, thus leading to a backlash against the LIO.[22][23][21]

Externally, the LIO is challenged by authoritarian states, illiberal states, and states that are discontented with their roles in world politics.[13][24][25][26] China and Russia have been characterized as prominent challengers to the LIO.[13][25][26]


The debate about liberal international order has grown especially prominent in International Relations.[27] Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry list five components of this international order: security co-binding, in which great powers demonstrate restraint; the open nature of US hegemony and the dominance of reciprocal transnational relations; the presence of self-limiting powers like Germany and Japan; the availability of mutual gains due to "the political foundations of economic openness"; and the role of Western "civil identity."[28] According to Charles Glaser, there are five key mechanisms in the LIO: "democracy, hierarchy built on legitimate authority, institutional binding, economic interdependence, and political convergence."[16]

The more supportive views of scholars such as Ikenberry have drawn criticism from scholars who have examined the imperial and colonial legacies of liberal international institutions.[29][30] The contributions of non-Western actors to the formation of the liberal international order have also recently gained attention from scholars advancing global International Relations theory.[31] In the case of Latin America, for example, "From as far back as the 1860s, Latin American jurists have made prominent contributions to international jurisprudence, the ‘mortar’ that binds international order. [...] However, in other ways, historically the LIO has been—and remains—superficial in its reach in Latin America."[32]

International organizations play a central role in the liberal order. The World Trade Organization, for example, creates and implements free trade agreements, while the World Bank provides aid to developing countries. The order is also premised on the notion that liberal trade and free markets will contribute to global prosperity and peace. Critics argue that free trade has sometimes led to social problems such as inequality and environmental degradation.[33]

Post-Cold War, some consider international agreements on issues such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and upholding initiatives in maritime law (UNCLOS) to constitute elements of the LIO.[34] The European Union is often considered a major example of the liberal international order put into effect in terms of international agreements between the constituent countries, while the supranational union has been considered a power in its own right that can uphold the liberal international order.[35][36] This has led to debates about how the European Union's identity will continue forming in the future, as multilateralism is a core part.[35]

Critics also argue that the liberal order tilts the scales in favour of the United States and its Western allies, as seen in voting shares in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.[citation needed]

Others argue that weak states played a central role in shaping the liberal international order.[37][11] Marcos Tourinho argues that weak states used the three strategies of "resistance", "community" and "norms" to push back on U.S. dominance during the construction of the liberal international order, thus ensuring that the order did not just reflect U.S. interests.[37] Martha Finnemore argues that unipolarity does not just entail a material superiority by the unipole, but also a social structure whereby the unipole maintains its status through legitimation, and institutionalization. In trying to obtain legitimacy from the other actors in the international system, the unipole necessarily gives those actors a degree of power. The unipole also obtains legitimacy and wards off challenges to its power through the creation of institutions, but these institutions also entail a diffusion of power away from the unipole.[11] David Lake has argued along similar lines that legitimacy and authority are key components of international order.[38][39]

Realist critics of the LIO include John Mearsheimer, Patrick Porter and Charles Glaser. Mearsheimer has argued that the LIO is bound to fail due to the pushback it faces internally within liberal states and externally by non-liberal states.[13] Porter has argued that the LIO was actually a coercive order and that it was not liberal.[40] Glaser has argued that the balance of power theory, bargaining theory and neo-institutional theories better explain NATO than mechanisms associated with the LIO.[16]

Aaron McKeil finds realist criticism of liberal order insufficient. He argues that the alternative foreign policies offered by realists as "restraint" and "offshore balancing" would be more generative of proxy wars and would fail to offer the level of institutions required for managing great power competition and international challenges.[41]

Relations with individual countries[edit]

According to political scientist Charles A. Ziegler, both China and Russia "reject the political dimension of the liberal international order that favors human rights, humanitarian intervention, and democracy promotion."[42] According to Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "the greatest threat to the West of the Sino-Russian partnership emanates from their efforts to adjust the international system to their advantage".[43] Additionally, "Moscow, particularly since 2014, has mounted a revisionist and offensive challenge to the current order, showing a willingness to take substantial risks to weaken Western power within the international system. In contrast to Russia, China recognizes that it has benefited from the rules-based international order. The processes of economic liberalism and globalization have facilitated its rapid economic rise over the past thirty years."[43]


Some see China as a potential challenger to the liberal order, as its initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt One Road Initiative appear to compete with existing international institutions.[44]

Van Niewenhuizen is categorical that Xi Jinping, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, seeks to supplant the LIEO. Xi distinguishes his own concept "国际关系法治化", which can be translated as "rule of law in international relations", from international law "国际法" and international rule of law "国际法治". Van Niewenhuizen writes that

Xi’s use of the character hua (化) here is instructive: it signifies a change in state, meaning the Chinese government does not believe international relations are characterised by the rule of law, and this requires revision.

Additionally, according to political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, one aim of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was to ensure that liberal democracy could not gain ground in these countries, promoting authoritarian norms in Central Asia.[45]

Rühlig asks in his March 2018 paper why China under Xi would seek to change a system by which it earns enormous profit,[46][47] but Anoushiravan Ehteshami says, "China sees Iran as its Western gateway, where not only is it a big market in itself, but it will also be the gateway to the rest of the Middle East and ultimately to Europe for China."[48]

Nisha Mary Mathew remarks that the quest for dominance of the Eurasian land mass in which China finds itself causes Iran to be a favourite.[48] In 2017 alone, the Chinese signed deals for Iranian infrastructure projects worth more than US$15 billion. Joint projects include "high-speed rail lines, upgrades to the nation’s electrical grid, and natural gas pipelines". From 2019 to 2025 the two nations seek to increase bilateral trade to US$600 billion.[48]


Many scholars agree that the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin seeks to undermine the liberal international order.[49][50] Various viewpoints have been developed on the subject. The first is that Russia is a "revanchist power" seeking to completely overturn international diplomacy, the second is that Russia is a "defensive power" that seeks to push incremental change in the existing order, and the third is that Russia is an "aggressive isolationist", with Putin playing a "spoiler role" in international affairs to boost legitimacy domestically.[49]

Political sociologist Larry Diamond argues that Putin's assault on liberal democracy is exemplified by the 2008 intervention for the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia against independent Georgia, Russian support for Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, and the Russian intervention in Ukraine by troops without insignia in 2014.[50] Putin has been accused of giving financial support to far-right or national populist parties across Europe.[51][50] For example, the National Front (now National Rally) obtained a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014.[50][52] Larry Diamond argues this influenced the policy of the National Front such as Marine Le Pen's support for the annexation of Crimea.[50]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "G20 leaders reaffirm 'rules-based international order'". POLITICO SPRL. 1 December 2018.
  2. ^ Parmar, Inderjeet (2018). "The US-led liberal order: imperialism by another name?" (PDF). International Affairs. 94 (1): 151–172. doi:10.1093/ia/iix240. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 May 2020 – via University of London City Research Online.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Lake, David A.; Martin, Lisa L.; Risse, Thomas (2021). "Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization". International Organization. 75 (2): 225–257. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000636. ISSN 0020-8183.
  4. ^ Ikenberry, G. John (2018). "The end of liberal international order?" (PDF). International Affairs. 94 (1): 7–23. doi:10.1093/ia/iix241. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 July 2020 – via OpenScholar @ Princeton.
  5. ^ Norrlof, Carla; Poast, Paul; Cohen, Benjamin J; Croteau, Sabreena; Khanna, Aashna; McDowell, Daniel; Wang, Hongying; Winecoff, W Kindred (2020). "Global Monetary Order and the Liberal Order Debate". International Studies Perspectives. 21 (2): 109–153. doi:10.1093/isp/ekaa001. ISSN 1528-3577.
  6. ^ Wright, Thomas (12 September 2018). "The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2 July 2020. Retrieved 23 July 2020.
  7. ^ Ikenberry, G. John (2001). After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-05090-4. JSTOR j.ctt7t1s5.
  8. ^ Mearsheimer, John J. (2018). Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-23419-0. JSTOR j.ctv5cgb1w.
  9. ^ Barnett, Michael (2019). "The End of a Liberal International Order That Never Existed • The Global". The Global. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  10. ^ a b c Barnett, Michael (2021). "International Progress, International Order, and the Liberal International Order". The Chinese Journal of International Politics. 14 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1093/cjip/poaa019. ISSN 1750-8916. PMC 7989545.
  11. ^ a b c Martha Finnemore (2009). "Legitimacy, Hypocrisy, and the Social Structure of Unipolarity: Why Being a Unipole Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be". World Politics. 61 (1): 58–85. doi:10.1353/wp.0.0027. ISSN 1086-3338.
  12. ^ Lawson, George (2016). The rise of modern international order (PDF). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/hepl/9780198739852.003.0002. ISBN 978-0-19-185085-1. Archived from the original on 2021.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Mearsheimer, John J. (2019). "Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order". International Security. 43 (4): 7–50. doi:10.1162/isec_a_00342. ISSN 0162-2889.
  14. ^ Ikenberry, G. John (2001). After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars. Princeton University Press. pp. 23, 29–31. ISBN 978-0-691-05091-1.
  15. ^ Ikenberry, G. John (2018). "Why the Liberal World Order Will Survive" (PDF). Ethics & International Affairs. 32 (1): 17–29. doi:10.1017/S0892679418000072. ISSN 0892-6794. S2CID 149397874. Archived from the original on 2021.
  16. ^ a b c Glaser, Charles L. (2019). "A Flawed Framework: Why the Liberal International Order Concept Is Misguided". International Security. 43 (4): 51–87. doi:10.1162/isec_a_00343. ISSN 0162-2889.
  17. ^ McKean, David; Szewczyk, Bart M. J. (2021). Partners of first resort : America, Europe, and the future of the West. Bart M. J. Szewczyk. Washington, D.C. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-8157-3852-7. OCLC 1240743103.
  18. ^ a b Börzel, Tanja A.; Zürn, Michael (2021). "Contestations of the Liberal International Order: From Liberal Multilateralism to Postnational Liberalism". International Organization. 75 (2): 282–305. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000570. ISSN 0020-8183.
  19. ^ Flaherty, Thomas M.; Rogowski, Ronald (2021). "Rising Inequality As a Threat to the Liberal International Order". International Organization. 75 (2): 495–523. doi:10.1017/S0020818321000163. ISSN 0020-8183.
  20. ^ Broz, J. Lawrence; Frieden, Jeffry; Weymouth, Stephen (2021). "Populism in Place: The Economic Geography of the Globalization Backlash". International Organization. 75 (2): 464–494. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000314. ISSN 0020-8183.
  21. ^ a b Goldstein, Judith; Gulotty, Robert (2021). "America and the Trade Regime: What Went Wrong?". International Organization. 75 (2): 524–557. doi:10.1017/S002081832000065X. ISSN 0020-8183.
  22. ^ Ruggie, John Gerard (1982). "International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order". International Organization. 36 (2): 379–415. doi:10.1017/S0020818300018993. ISSN 0020-8183. JSTOR 2706527.
  23. ^ Mansfield, Edward D.; Rudra, Nita (2021). "Embedded Liberalism in the Digital Era". International Organization. 75 (2): 558–585. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000569. ISSN 0020-8183. SSRN 3719975.
  24. ^ Farrell, Henry; Newman, Abraham L. (2021). "The Janus Face of the Liberal International Information Order: When Global Institutions Are Self-Undermining". International Organization. 75 (2): 333–358. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000302. ISSN 0020-8183.
  25. ^ a b Weiss, Jessica Chen; Wallace, Jeremy L. (2021). "Domestic Politics, China's Rise, and the Future of the Liberal International Order". International Organization. 75 (2): 635–664. doi:10.1017/S002081832000048X. ISSN 0020-8183.
  26. ^ a b Adler-Nissen, Rebecca; Zarakol, Ayşe (2021). "Struggles for Recognition: The Liberal International Order and the Merger of Its Discontents". International Organization. 75 (2): 611–634. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000454. ISSN 0020-8183. S2CID 234364938.
  27. ^ Ikenberry, G. John; Parmar, Inderjeet; Stokes, Doug (2018). "Introduction: Ordering the world? Liberal internationalism in theory and practice". International Affairs. 94 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1093/ia/iix277. ISSN 0020-5850.
  28. ^ Deudney, Daniel; Ikenberry, G. John (April 1999). "The nature and sources of liberal international order". Review of International Studies. 25 (2): 179–196. doi:10.1017/S0260210599001795. ISSN 0260-2105.
  29. ^ Jahn, Beate (2018). "Liberal internationalism: historical trajectory and current prospects" (PDF). International Affairs. 94 (1): 43–61. doi:10.1093/ia/iix231. ISSN 0020-5850.
  30. ^ Mazower, Mark. (2009). No enchanted palace : the end of empire and the ideological origins of the United Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13521-2. OCLC 319601760.
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  32. ^ Long, Tom (2018). "Latin America and the liberal international order: an agenda for research". International Affairs. 94 (6): 1371–1390. doi:10.1093/ia/iiy188. ISSN 0020-5850.
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  38. ^ Lake, David A. (2018). "International Legitimacy Lost? Rule and Resistance When America Is First". Perspectives on Politics. 16 (1): 6–21. doi:10.1017/S1537592717003085. ISSN 1537-5927. S2CID 148632667.
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