New Form of Liberal Internationalism

Liberal internationalism is associated with democracy and rule of law. Democracy as a form of governance has not gained universal acceptance though its advocates are on the increase. In recent years it seems that democracy’s spread is halted. China’s spectacular economic progress has made its economy the world’s third largest. There is empirical evidence that the country’s performance in current global economic crisis has surpassed that of many other economies. But will such achievement guarantee the authoritarian states the advancement in societies? There is enough skepticism about it. Many believe that without espousing liberal democracy countries can hardly progress sustainably.

In this regard the views of Amartya Sen, a world-class economist, are categorical. He has contended that democracy has become almost universal ideal with an exception of China and a few others. Elaborating further on this he says, “While democracy is not yet universally-practiced, nor indeed universally accepted, in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has achieved the status of being taken to be generally right”.

There are instances of applying double standards by the West and particularly the U.S. which though has been leading the global efforts to consolidate democratic process. Kishore Mahbubani in his 1993 review essay “ Danger of Decadence” asserts that the West protests the reversal of democracy in Myanmar, Peru and Nigeria but not in Algeria” Continuing his criticism of the Western leadership, he adds that Western living rooms applaud when cruise missiles strike Baghdad. Most living outside see that the West will deliver swift retribution to non-white Iraqis or Somalis but not to white Serbians, a dangerous signal by any standard.”

If the above examples were evident in 1990s, we can notice the same behavior of the West in Arab upheavals where Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are excepted from demands for openness while Libya and Syria are pressurized to respect their people’s aspirations. Truly speaking this kind of approach does not assist the advocacy of liberal internationalism.

The nineteenth and the twentieth centuries were dominated by the Western world particularly the United Kingdom and the United States. The U.S. replaced the dominant position of the United Kingdom  after the end of World War II. Growing economic power bolstered by the possession of atomic weapons helped the U.S. to play a hegemonic role in managing world affairs. The U.S. provided the global leadership in political and economic areas forging security alliances and leading efforts for enhancing security and economic interdependence.

From the mid-20th century the world has been adopting liberal internationalism. Openness and rule-based relations are its hallmarks. Professor Samuel P. Huntington in his internationally-acclaimed essay, “The Clash of Civilizations”, remarks that “The West in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance, protect Western interests, and promote Western political and economic values”.

Kishore Mahbubani, an intellectual from Singapore admits that there is no substitute for Western leadership, especially American leadership. However, in “Danger of Decadence” he argues that Western retreat is possible. Today’s rising states are non-Western. He opines that unfettered individual freedom championed in the West has demonstrable social consequences. To him freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. He cites an example from the American society where violent crime rose 560% with 41% rise in population from 1960 to 1993 He attributes this scenario to unrestrained individualism in the U.S. following massive experimentation of tearing down social institutions.

The ongoing global economic recession has tarnished the American model of liberal capitalism and discredited the U.S. ability to perform the role of a global economic leader. On the other hand this crisis has enhanced the image of China as a model of economic system that has better weathered the storm. China’s remarkable economic progress nonetheless, it lacks global standard for legitimate governance. Therefore, some analysts predict that “China cannot succeed in its goal of becoming a modern developed society until it can take the leap and allow the Chinese people to choose their own rulers”.

The original principles of Westphalia system of valuing state sovereignty and emphasizing the notion that states are the rightful political units for the establishment of legitimate rule seem to be violated by implementing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Under this doctrine humanitarian intervention is justified on the shaky ground that civilian populations have to be protected from atrocities of the states. The Libyan crisis viewed as another nasty civil war is the fitting example of questioning the state sovereignty as embodied in the 1648 Peace Treaty of Westphalia.

Even before the United Nations was founded in 1945 enshrining in its Charter the principles of liberal internationalism viz openness and rule-based law, the international community made efforts to develop them at different stages of history. The principles and practices to govern the inter-state relations have been articulated in numerous post-war settlements.  These are Vienna Congress (1815), Treaty of Versailles (1919 ), Yalta and Potsdam ( 1945 ).

Prof. G. John Ikenberry of Princeton University in his Foreign Affairs ( May-June, 2011) article quotes journalist Gideon Rachman who says, “a cluster of internationalist ideas-such as faith in democratization, confidence in free markets, and the acceptability of the U.S. military power are all called into question”. But Professor Ikenberry holds the view that the rise of non-Western powers and the growth of economic and security interdependence are creating new constituencies for liberal international order.

The UN Security Council is the platform for great-power consultations. It is the global collective security body. Brazil and India, as emerging powers, are the strong contenders for permanent membership of the Security Council. They were not party to the great bargains that led to the founding of the United Nations in 1945. The legitimate aspirations of such emerging states to assume global leadership are at odds with the American-led and Western-centered system. Notwithstanding this reality the rising powers will likely not be content with existing global political order and help craft new form of liberal internationalism.

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