The liberal international order (sometimes referred to as the rules-based international order or the US-led liberal international order) involves international cooperation through multilateral institutions like the UN and World Trade Organization (WTO), and is constituted by human equality (freedom, human rights and rule of law), open markets, security cooperation and promotion of liberal democracy. The US military and economic might was the custodian of the liberal world order, a network of alliances across Europe and Asia and nuclear weapons, which helped to deter the aggression of the illiberal states like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).
The liberal international order is the product of centuries and unrelenting innovations. It is highly integrated, developed, organized, institutionalized and deeply rooted in the societies and economies of both western and non-western countries. It is the product of two phases of history: (1) the Westphalian project dating back to 1648, (2) the construction of liberal order led by the United Kingdom and later by the United States. The Westphalian system enunciated the principles of state sovereignty and norms of great-power conduct. While the construction of liberal-order-building project has been possible only, just after the relations of the great powers became stabilized.
After the Second World War, the United Nations (UN) along with the bipolar system were the defining features of the world order. At the end of the Cold War with the disintegration of (USSR), the U.S. was the indispensable power in the global order.
All mainstream theories of International Relations (IR) concur that the age of the liberal world order is over, a rare moment of consensus in the field of IR. Though liberal world order was already in decay, Covid-19 accelerates the process and profoundly reshapes the geoeconomics and geopolitical configuration of the world.
The Liberal world order is in a state of disrepair. There appear several reasons why this is happening. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, talk of order has given way to talk of disruption: the end of unipolar world; rising nationalism in the heart of the West; lack of proper handling of Syrian crisis among P5in the UN Security Council, rising protectionism, depleting credibility of democracy and fragmented response of UN bodies like WHO in the Covid-19 crisis.
America’s reluctance to abide by the liberal rules it has nurtured in the global system for more than seven decades thus marks a turning point. The present transition to the new world order has some differentiating characteristics compared to the liberal world order. One of the most important factors is the attitude of the US. Under President Donald Trump, the US backtracked against joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The US also quitted the Iran nuclear deal signed by the major powers and threatened to leave the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It has unilaterally introduced the trade tariffs repugnant to the liberal economic system and introduced the policy of “America First” incompatible to the liberal world ideals.
The rise of China will certainly be the greatest phenomenon of the twenty -first century. China’s extraordinary economic expansion and vigorous diplomacy are transforming the dynamics of the international politics. Propelled by the rapid economic growth, China is extending its political influence as well as military capabilities and reach. Despite its engagement with the liberal world order, China is concerned about this order’s ability to protect its national interests.
But what are the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on liberal world order? The emerging world order, in the context of decaying liberal order, looks very different. First, a more fragmented world order in which “great power competition” will be intense and pervasive. Escalating tensions between the United States and China are the hallmark of this emerging world order.
Second, the emergence of new geopolitical environment indicates that there will be multi poles in the international politics. No single country can dictate the world in the direction of its will. Third, the economic effects of Covid-19 will certainly reduce the defense budgets, more spending on health care, infrastructure development and people-oriented government spending. Fourth, the credibility of the world governance system is strongly depleting in the context of very weak response to the Covid-19 crisis. Five, China’s successful response to Covid-19 raises the questions on the credibility and efficiency of the democratic system of government.
With the shifting economic power from west to east, the liberal world order faces multiple challenges. Already in the process of decay, Covid-19 has also some special meanings for the liberal world order. In the words of Dr Kissinger, “the coronavirus pandemic will forever alter the world order”. With the passage of time after Covid-19 pandemic, the emerging geopolitical and geoeconomics realities of the world are testimony to this changing world order.