Home Decline of the Liberal International Order and its Geo-Strategic Implications

Decline of the Liberal International Order and its Geo-Strategic Implications

Envisaging the World Order


The liberal order was born as a vision of successive American Presidents as they swerved the American foreign policy from a pre-World War isolationist one to an actively ideologically driven one in the cold-war era. Bipolarity, aggressive arms race, ideological spheres of influence and regional proxy wars defined the Cold War politics.  The US bounded Liberal Order stood on the pillars of Liberalism, Democracy, Human Rights and Free Global Trade, fostering geo-strategic ties and economic growth in their regions of relative prosperity.

The Communist ideology driven Eastern bloc, on the contrary, was staggering on the principles of state ownership, authoritarian governments, press and media censorship and closed economies.

Fierce competition between the two veered the ambitious American Presidents to subscribe to a form of “order” within their spheres of influence, giving birth to military and economic organizations of international cohesion like NATO and the Bretton Woods Institutions.

John F. Kennedy’s opening speech with the Congress on 20th January, 1961 was a postured and succinct depiction of the US will to initiate, preserve and promote the Liberal World Order, wherein he called upon the nation to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” [1]

Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor expanded this American dream to a universalistic alliance for those “willing to fight the good fight against hunger, disease and misery,”[2] in his address to the UN General Assembly. 

Ultimately, it was on the Christmas night of the historic year of 1991, 7:32 pm, the blemished, patchy deep red Communist Flag was lowered from the post in Kremlin. Boris Yelstin became the new Russian President and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

It wasn’t long after that the United States, as the unipolar hegemon truly globalized its dream of a world order. Institutionalization of the global participants was the primary step, wherein the cooperation and balance of power was ventilated through a process of “legitimation” of liberal politics as the trend of the century. Legitimacy, as Henry Kissinger explicitly mentions, along with power, “…is the essence of statesmanship.”[3] 

The liberal bounded order gained universal legitimacy from the swelling increase in membership of its institutions after states like Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine joined the liberal establishment led by the “West.”


The Beginning of an End? Where is this Liberal Order headed?

“Every international order must sooner or later face the impact of two tendencies challenging its cohesion: either a redefinition of legitimacy or a significant shift in the balance of power.” [4]

Of late, the pendulum of world power and alliances seems to be oscillating away from the liberal establishment that the United States gloated about in the past.

The tectonics of balance of power are now trafficking towards the East.

The legitimacy born out of the majority subscription of its institutions seems to be backfiring the liberal establishments. The causes for which are deeply embroiled in the self-destructive nature of the liberal world order.

The Economic Paradox of Hyper-globalization

As the Democratic Peace Thesis is replaced by the Stratification Theory of economic inequality, nations discard the economic pillar of the Liberal International Order - “open economies”. The increasing nature of populist tendency in Trump-led politics has led to a decrease in economic trade and a rise in protectionist tariffs in American trade balance. The pioneer seems to be closing its door at the algorithm of free trade and global economies at a time when populist Europe clings on similar feelings, doubling the blow at the Liberal Establishment. The Brexit deal, Trumps denunciations of the WTO politics and the ensuing trade war between the two economic giants could be grave red signals towards the global establishment of trade.

This process of de-globalization and economic isolation is termed by many as the end of the “third wave of globalization.”[5] The US policies of economic recklessness could harm global economic growth and institutions like IMF have expressed serious concerns over the same, Christine Lagarde addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce categorically debunked these actions of reverse-globalization, “the expected rebound in global growth later this year is precarious. It is vulnerable to downside risks—including country-related uncertainties, such as Brexit, and broader uncertainties such as high debt in some sectors and countries, tensions around trade policy, and a sense of unease in financial markets.”[6]

When the liberal order gained “global” validation the economic factor played a crucial role. The stagnating economies of the Soviet bloc led to the collapse of unions such as COMECON and USSR releasing the satellite states to develop on western lines of open non-communist economies. All of the freedom movements like The Budapest Uprising, The Velvet Revolution, The Prague Spring, Azerbaijan’s Black January, all had economic revulsions against the stagnant Soviet economy. At a time when the Western regions were glowing of prosperity, global validation for the lucrative system of Liberal economies grew, leading to a expansion of institutes such as IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization.

Ironically, the economic backlash against “hyper-globalization” is threatening the very establishment of global economies. During the Cold war, the American economy was twice the size of the Soviet economy whereas now the figures have declined drastically, the U.S. economy now standing at one sixth that of China’s. This economic magnet has predictably attracted most of Asian, South-Asian, European and African nations away from the Liberal establishment.

The Asian powers seem to be capitalizing and growing out of this economic void in the West. A seemingly greater front of multi-lateral ties and economic solidarity is depicted in forums such as BRICS and BRI summits. The future needs eradication of protectionism and greater regional and global cooperation in terms of economic and technological growth.

This economic void and ineffectual globalization in increasing economic opportunities has given rise to a political backlash against liberal governments, called Populism. Left-wing populist regimes have gained popularity in Southern European countries, ringing the death knell of liberal regimes and globalization.

Turning of the tide- Is Populism the New Trend?

Populism could be termed as the Franskenstinian socio-politico offspring that feeds on the economic insecurities created by the capitalist trap. Populism, derives its political legitimacy off of the population and varies in its nature according to the demographics of the concerned territory.

The nature of these populist regimes varies, but their commonality strikes at anti-liberal principles of internationalization and global cultures. The anti-immigration wave and the recent wave of identarian politics have taken forms of surging support for populist regimes.

The past decade has seen rapid socio-politico rise in support for populist regimes. Hungary’s Victor Orban, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, the political backlash against Angela Merkel, the Brexit debate, the rise of the white supremist movement in the Christchurch bombings, the ISIS retaliation in Sri Lankan Easter bombings, France’s Five Star Movement, all corroborate against the “liberal future” that this world order spells out. Donald Trump threatening to back out of WTO, withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent troop reduction from Syria as well as the anti-refugee stance- are all instances of the ambitious “America First” policy that brought him into office, a deathbed for the liberal international order.

As every country recoils into the domesticity of its populist insecurities, the future could be develop on increasing bilateral ties, in a future of foreign policy realism. Many have coined the future as a balance of “lopsided multipolarity.”


The Future Strings- An Eastern Axis or Lopsided Multipolarity?

This decline in the liberal internationalism comes at an opportune time for China, who is adroitly filling the economic void left behind by America’s rollback. Economically, China has acquired international claims in multiple regions guarding its energy and maritime security concerns. Institutions such as European Union are licking its wounds just when China’s geo-strategic brainchild Belt and Road Initiative has gained Eurasian membership with Italy’s entry. Other institutions such as CPEC and ASEAN-China Multilateral dialogues and its Hambantota-style foreign asset acquisition has deftly established a conduit for regional connectivity and cooperation amid the increasing identarian insecurities in the western model of global cooperation, in the varied and strategically important regions of central Asia, Africa, South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Europe.

A Sino-American Future?

China’s Institutionalism could be evaluated as a step just short of a mellowing world order. The Chinese realist circumspection in foreign policy lures strategic partnerships and alliances at a time when the United States is embroiled in reckless adventurism across the world. A Chinese architecture of a realist model of economic alliances is emerging on the horizon. Institutions like the BRI have successfully ensured Asian and European inclusion, others like CPEC and String of Pearls have achieved trade and energy security. Therefore, the Chinese architecture seems to be spreading its wings under national interests building a universalistic future.

Both the nations are indisputably global stakeholders and economic giants and contain the military and technological might of destructive capability. Therefore, while evaluating the future world order, one needs to define the clear line of Sino-American relations.

The nature of great power behavior has been predicted to discourage the rise of another, usually leading to confrontation. As substantiated by a recent Harvard Study, a clash between an existing world power and an emerging one, ten out of sixteen cases have ended in violence. Subsequently, there is little doubt in a future marred by Sino-American rivalry, which already seems to have kicked off in the cooperate sector with the recent American allegations and sanctions against the Asian tech giant Huawei. Furthermore, with a presence of hardliners advisors such as Bolton and Pompeo in the American governance, the future of Sino-American relations is more on the confrontationist gradient, as America increases trade tariffs against China, discourages the BRI future in Eurasia and increases naval surveillance in the South China Sea. 

This rivalry may see rise in future proxy wars in regions of mutual interest over energy security and SLOCS, particularly in the South China Sea, where China has been asserting its sovereignty and military supremacy at the cost of American claims of freedom of navigation.


The Asian Tiger

Born out of this rivalry, would be the rallying power with Asian actors like India, Pakistan, Japan, all of which the United States would want to secure as proxy allies against China.  As Henry Kissinger articulately applies the theory of the survival of the fittest to the Asian powers, attributing their strength to their turbulent pasts and elucidating their rise as inevitable.

Consequently, staunch and unrivalled regional cooperation and solidarity would ensure that the ball stays in the Asian court. The Trans-Atlantic Alliance is fissuring under the populist developments and the economic backlash of hyper-globalization and the anti-immigration stance. The future of isolationism, jingoism and xenophobia is crowding around isolationist domesticity as an opposing force against the liberal imperialist past.


The Indo-Chinese Pendulum- Bandwagon or Balance?

The question of intra-Asian rivalry will define the politics in the neighbourhood in the near future. The United States would like to capitalize on the Indo-Chinese fissure as a rally against the prospectus of an all-powerful and economically developed continent. 

For Indian diplomacy the options are plentiful, but all must be realistically contingent to the security of economic and national interests. Broadly this field offers two contrasting alternatives of either a bandwagon or a balance of power in the subcontinent.

Stephen Walt’s “Bandwagon theory of Great Powers”[7] leads the Indian approach of diplomatic cooperation with China. This would essentially mean participating in the Chinese economic architecture and developing under the Chinese rules of the game, something that doesn’t fit in the Indian canvas of an independent foreign policy. However, the benefits of this option would be an active participatory role of Indian economy and foreign policy with an increased bargaining power on the international front and a possible end to the diplomatic and economic Chinese threat. This would require a deft approach towards the resolution of North-eastern frontiers with China and increased mutual economic development in the future.

The second and more likely alternative would be a strong realist front against Chinese aggression in the neighbourhood and a diplomatic standoff against overlapping Chinese and Indian national interests. This approach would require certain pre-requisites of strengthening bilateral neighbourhood ties and developing a more self-sufficient economic approach to secure energy and technological independence for India. A strong economy would be a proviso to independence in the diplomatic field. Although, a military confrontation does feature in the rational future however, diplomatic confrontation for protection of national interests as a West supported check on Chinese aggression in the neighbourhood certainly does.



Anti-establishment fractures through newly emerging populist nations and Trump’s narrative on “America First” has laid the deathbed for Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaties like those of the INF and the JCPA with Iran. Henceforth, the security dilemma for the future could take a two-way turn. Either, the growing dismantlement of these treaties could lead to an ironical Clausewitzian era of ammunition stockpiling and reduced chance for an actual conflict or on the contrary, it could crumble into risky and aggressive power politics wherein only a minor skirmish could spill into a global crisis nuclear or otherwise. In the day and age of second-strike capability, the former seems more likely.

For swing states like India, the future is opportunistic as the global balance of power experiences a prime shift in its tectonics.

The future should focus on betterment in neighborhood ties, securing national interests in the energy and trade sector and a gradual technological advancement as the future of confrontations lies solely in AI, nuclear, space, data and energy security.

Henry Kissinger famously quoted “History may be thought of as a river, but its waters will be ever changing,” and therefore, I reiterate the nuances of this global order are ever evolving, some factors push away from it while the others pull towards it, it’s an unpredictable reality of actions.





[1] “8- The United States: Ambivalent Superpower .” World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, 2015, p. 276.

[2] “8- The United States: Ambivalent Superpower .” World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, 2015, p. 277.

[3]“World Order in Our Time? .” World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, 2015, p. 367.

[4] “World Order in Our Time? .” World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, 2015, p. 365.

[5] Vanham, Peter. “A Brief History of Globalization.” World Economic Forum, 17 Jan. 2019, www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/how-globalization-4-0-fits-into-the-history-of-globalization/.

[6] Lagarde, Christine, et al. “A Delicate Moment for the Global Economy: Three Priority Areas for Action.” IMF, 2 Apr. 2019, www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2019/03/29/sp040219-a-delicate-moment-for-the-global-economy.

[7] Walt, Stephen. “The Origins of Alliances.” Find in a Library with WorldCat, Cornell University Press, 1990 , 21 Jan. 2019, www.worldcat.org/title/origins-of-alliances/oclc/15696266.


Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India

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Tamanna Dahiya

Contact at: [email protected]
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