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The end of the liberal world order? On the necessity for regeneration

Writing: Grace Callaghan

Illustration: Isi Williams

According to numerous international relations scholars, the political framework of global politics is undergoing a process of fundamental transition. The liberal world order of the 20th century was seemingly a consensus between nations across the realms of trade, arms control, environment, and human rights. Historians at the end of the 20th century used the liberal world order, and the promotion of a multilateral system between nations, to suggest that the Western world was moving in a liberal progressive internationalist direction. Yet we enter 2019 in a so-called post-liberal era. In turn, it seems that it is time for forced modesty amongst scholars. They got it so badly wrong. The post-1945 liberal international order is in crisis. Trump is the first president to be elected since the 1930s that actively poses a threat to this international project. On issues of trade, international law, human rights, climate change, and multilateralism, Trump has promoted such exceptionally myopic policy that if it were to ever come into play, would strip America of its place as leader in the liberal world. Sequentially, this would forge a new path of history for the global international order as it currently stands - creating a regressive, hostile, and illiberal new world order.

The place of liberal democracy in the geopolitical system is equally under threat, as variations of ‘new authoritarianism’ advance in countries such as Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and Turkey. Here, populist, nationalist, and xenophobic reactionary rhetoric has proliferated. It begs the question: how deeply rooted is this crisis? According to some, today's crisis marks ‘the ending of the global trajectory of liberal modernity. It was an artefact of a specific time and place—and the world is now moving on.’ Yet, if history is anything to go by, the current political climate is little more than a blip for the international liberal project. And we’ve been here before. Across history, periods of intense human rights abuses and the breakdown of multilateralism have been followed by periods of unchallenged and peaceful liberal order.

Liberal internationalism has survived into the current century because it offered a coherent and functional vision of how to organize international space. In all of its various configurations it has provided templates for cooperation in the face of the grand forces of modernity. To do so again, the liberal international project will need to rethink its vision. It has to regenerate, adapt itself into something new, and rebuild from the rubble. Britain has committed itself to a cause of action for which is there is no logical, moral, or financial justification. Trump and Brexit have been cited as signifiers of dissent - as signs of widespread political disillusionment amongst the electorate and as the evidence that the current liberal international project is failing.

Political engineering of state ignorance is just but one of the symptoms of the flailing liberal democratic system in Britain. We live in an age of misinformation. Lies and myth are perpetuated by the state on issues of salience in order to detract attention away from the body politic’s own political interests that deviate from its mandate. The issue of immigration serves as one of the more depressing examples of salience in both America and in Britain and has been a key motivating factor for whole swathes of society to vote against the essence of the liberal projects that both nations have upheld for the last seven decades. A research study conducted by the University of Edinburgh about the perspective of ‘irregular residents’ across Europe evidenced that most nations have very little data surrounding the number of ‘illegal immigrants’ that exist within any particular state. Perhaps most interestingly, the study identified a distinct difference on the perspective of the state and the general public. Huge proportions of the electorate considered immigration to be one of the most important issues in national politics; yet such feeling was not reciprocated by the state.

In the UK, the Home Office has very rarely commissioned research on the clandestine population and has no policy targets related to illegal immigration. Public authorities have purposely avoided producing information around immigration. As a consequence, political rhetoric in the last few years has seen ‘facts’ reduced to mere ‘beliefs’: ‘Brexit was a feeling’. Knowledge and common sense can no longer be taken for granted. Gove’s statement that ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ highlights how Britain as a nation has become a country where individuals hold strong opinions based on little to no knowledge. Ignorance is state engineered. Lies and myth have become part of the fabric of the political system in the West, and there needs to be a push back against this.

Regeneration really has been rendered a necessity. It’s a difficult time for liberals. The current architecture of British politics has become nonsensical, but it all seems a bit too Russell Brand to confidently stand behind the idea of revolution. So, what exactly are the left supposed to do? The Burkean model of representative democracy needs to be replaced, and so does the politician. After watching May appoint Secretary of State David Davis, who announced he’d be off to Berlin and not to Brussels to negotiate a deal, and the following consistent display of profound ignorance on how the single market works, it has become so blindingly obvious that the people who represent us don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. How gross does a discrepancy have to be before you are sufficiently discredited enough not to continue to hold your position in office? We should be electing teachers to run our schools, and nurses, doctors, and administrators within the public health system to run our NHS.

As long as politics is a career we’re going to be condemned to being ruled by idiots. The next two decades are most likely going to be characterised by division. Regeneration will have to start small. It’s about holding people to account. Challenging lies and idiocy. As John Ikenberry touched upon in his literature on international relations and the new dynamic of the global set up, this is our political holocaust: times so horrendously damaging for the liberal order that it forces liberals into action, to fight for a new ordered system of international governance. Things will get better. They have to. It’s about realising that liberal order isn’t a given anymore; it’s something we to have to fight to protect.

Ikenberry, G.J., 2010. The liberal international order and its discontents. Millennium, 38(3), pp.509-521.

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