As the COVID-19 crisis shows, international cooperation is vital to address global issues. International organizations (IOs) that were founded after the Second World War in the so-called rule-based “liberal international order” (LIO) were extensively involved in the reaction. The United Nations (UN) has drawn up a global humanitarian response plan. The UN agencies, especially the World Health Organization (WHO), have provided data, guidelines and technical support around the world. The World Bank deployed rapid funding for pandemic-related challenges in emerging markets and approved a funding plan for coronavirus vaccines. The International Monetary Fund made its USD 1 trillion credit capacity available to member states.
However, multilateralism has failed in many ways. The G20 and G7 were hardly a unified front, and the WHO’s response was heavily criticized. In particular, the United States (USA) accused the WHO of covering up the initial epidemic at the behest of China. The feud culminated in the suspension of US funding and the announcement of a complete withdrawal. In retrospect, the strengths and weaknesses of the WHO’s response can be assessed. Like other IOs, WHO has modest resources for a broad mandate: its competence depends on the leverage left by member states and how much policy they are doing. Indeed, China’s growing influence within this organization is related to the recent US disinterest in IOs. Multilateralism is not perfect, but it remains essential to tackling such crises, not to mention critical global challenges like climate change.
According to its proponents, the LIO is organized on guiding principles, including: multilateral institutions, open markets, liberal democracy and US leadership. Liberal internationalists denounce the rise of authoritarian powers and the retreat of democratic values to explain the decline of these principles. They also accuse Donald Trump of leaving the LIO leadership. Under his administration, the US has indeed abandoned important international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iranian Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), abandoned the role of the IOs and, with a few notable exceptions, introduced aggressive diplomacy. As a result, numerous analyzes have heralded the “twilight” of the LIO and prepared for what comes next. Others have argued that this order is doomed as the perpetual debate about American involvement in world affairs is regularly rekindled.
Most of these analyzes are missing two important components. First, they attribute the LIO’s demise to external factors and strategically flawed foreign policy, without realizing that such a weakening is directly related to America’s democratic shortcomings. The Trump presidency is the symptom of institutional dysfunction that makes the US less democratic. This decline is the result of rigid institutions that disproportionately favor a conservative minority.
Second, they negate the extent to which the US has used this arrangement and evade its rules when it is convenient to do so. America has a history of ambiguity about multilateralism: even if Donald Trump took the subversion of rule-based institutions to a new level, the trend didn’t start with him. The conservative minority has regularly undermined the LIO foundations. Ultimately, America’s ability to improve democracy will be critical to driving multilateralism and a truly rules-based international system.
America’s democracy needs to be fixed
The US has declined steadily on major democratic indices such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index and the Varieties of Democracy Liberal Democracy Index. These indices highlight factors such as treatment of journalists, polarization and compliance with the rule of law by the executive branch. The Trump administration shows how the executive’s disregard for democratic norms undermines the framework for “checks and balances”. However, these metrics fail to take into account the deeper dynamics inherent in the US system, such as voting rights, voter turnout, and the extraordinary influence of money on policy making. To answer the first two questions:
US institutions prefer conservatives, which allow Republicans to maintain power with an increasingly smaller minority of voters across the country. Particularly powerful are voters in small states and rural areas, who usually campaign for conservative candidates. The states are represented equally in the Senate: from Wyoming to California. Rural voters have an advantage in House and State legislation because they are more efficiently distributed in a first-past-the-post system that rewards the distribution of voters across space. Since the electoral college assigns the votes to the congressional delegations of the states, these differences are reflected in the presidential elections. The imbalance is exacerbated by the winner-take-all approach, which gives voters in important “swing states” additional voting rights.
Over the past fifty years, voter turnout for the presidential election-age population has fluctuated between 50% and 55%. While the 2020 election should set a record at 65%, the US is still lagging behind other democracies. Voter turnout in similar elections is usually around 70% in Great Britain and France and 80% in Germany. This low turnout in the US is mainly explained by the ongoing problem of voter suppression. Voter registration restrictions, voter cleansing, disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and restricted access to polling stations are some of the most important tools used to exclude minorities and poor groups. Millions of voters have been purged in recent years (following the 2013 Supreme Court ruling to amend the voting rights law), and jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination have shown higher purification rates. Every 13th African American cannot vote because of voter suppression.
As the pandemic in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere made clear, conservatives are trying to restrict voting. Before the presidential election, Republicans waged a multi-front battle against mail-in and other forms of early voting: from litigation to unsubstantiated fraud. Protected by rigid institutions, the conservative minority was able to undermine democracy by limiting voter turnout. Such democratic deficiencies have decisively influenced the LIO.
The LIO considered
According to liberal internationalists, the LIO is a framework that is rooted in the institutions that the US built after World War II. The American approach was new because it distracted from zero-sum thinking and instead promoted collective prosperity and security. The US provided global public goods through a number of multilateral institutions and advanced rules-based cooperation on a variety of issues. Even if the Soviet threat partially explains American motivations, the commitment to liberal norms was unprecedented and there is no doubt that the international landscape would have been different if Germany had prevailed in World War II.
The full version of the LIO emerged after the end of the Cold War when the US benefited from a “unipolar moment” of unmatched power. America’s security frameworks were strengthened while IOs expanded their mandate. Liberal internationalists celebrated peacemaking successes and general economic growth. By the turn of the century, interstate conflicts had actually decreased and humanitarian concepts such as the “responsibility to protect” emerged. Despite major setbacks against the Washington Consensus in parts of the world, 1.2 billion people emerged from poverty between 1990 and 2015. American leadership was characterized by legitimacy.
Liberal internationalists, however, became increasingly disappointed. Interestingly, they agree with realists, conservatives, and other foreign policy thinkers on some of the factors that doomed the golden age of the US-led LIO: the counter-effects of untamed globalization; the rise of authoritarian and revisionist powers like China and Russia; and America’s overstretch in promoting liberal values. Finally, they accuse the Trump administration of accelerating the decline.
In fact, the US has regularly undermined the LIO for the past few decades. For example, the US has developed a habit of failing to honor contracts and agreements it has signed. After the election of George Bush, the USA refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Trump administration went a step further and blacklisted ICC officials to investigate possible war crimes in Afghanistan. Previously, the US withdrew from the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice after the Court condemned America’s interference in Nicaragua.
The Iraq war is also significant. All of America’s democratic allies supported their campaign in Afghanistan after September 11th, and that intervention had no difficulty in obtaining approval from the UN Security Council. However, many allies were against the intervention in Iraq as there was no clear evidence of terrorist links to the Hussein regime or weapons of mass destruction. The invasion proceeded without the support of the United Nations Security Council and resulted in a humanitarian and strategic disaster.
How are LIO and American democracy connected?
Liberal internationalists portray the LIO as a benevolent American corporation, arguing that democracies behave differently than other regimes in international affairs. However, they overlook the wide variety of regimes we casually refer to as “democracies”. Despite its long history of slavery and racial segregation, the US has been a liberal democracy since its inception. Such characteristics would disqualify any country that claims to be a democracy today, even if it holds elections and offers an obvious separation of powers in its institutions.
If we agree on a fundamental conceptual level that Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or the People’s Republic of China would create a different international landscape, we also agree that a segregated power sees international institutions differently than one that will not do. Likewise, a great power with a democratic regime in which nearly 50% of the voting age population cannot or cannot vote is likely to behave differently from one with greater democratic legitimacy. The term “liberal democracy” can encompass very different forms of government.
The link between American democracy and the LIO is straightforward: the two governments that have undermined the LIO the most in the past 30 years (Bush 2000-2008 and Trump 2016-2020) were brought to power by holding the referendum electoral college were lost but successful, under difficult circumstances in the case of Bush versus Gore. Foreign policy experts argued that the decision to invade Iraq was motivated by a desire to export democracy to the Middle East. One famous realist even claimed that the goal was “to turn this region into a huge peace zone […] because the United States is so passionate about the virtues of liberal democracy. “Promoting democracy was just an excuse, and significantly, none of these thinkers can address an obvious paradox: why would a party so eager to export democracy abroad work so hard to keep people from voting at home?
No power, however, has been able to match America’s promotion of rules-based multilateralism. The European Union is divided over major challenges, appears unable to deal with illiberal regimes among its members and is struggling to maintain an influence on the world stage. The US has promoted liberal values such as human rights in difficult contexts. To take just one example, due to Leahy laws, foreign officers around the world are reviewing military units among U.S. allies to ensure that units suspected of human rights abuses are not being funded or trained. The U.S. also built an exceptionally diverse society and, despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric, developed an unprecedented ability to integrate immigrants.
America’s legitimacy, however, is undermined when it goes against liberal principles. Contrary to what many have argued, America’s behavior is more important than what it stands for. When it violates human rights, it loses credibility to condemn terrible crimes committed elsewhere. As symbolized by the Trump administration’s tendency to pamper violent authoritarian leaders and condemn others on human rights grounds, its moral compass is tarnished. The US must lead by example. As its relative power will diminish over the next few decades, building solid legitimacy is a rational strategic choice.
Institutions that maintain disproportionate minority representation have enabled the subversion of democratic norms that have been observed for the past four years. It took Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a historic turnout and a 5 million vote lead to defeat Donald Trump. If there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud, as the Trump administration has claimed, there is ample evidence of how voting has been restricted in many American states. The gap between the conservative minority and the rest of society continues to grow on various issues. Democratic reforms would force Republicans to expand their platform, as restricting voting should not be a legitimate electoral strategy.
Indeed, the fate of the LIO depended heavily on how successful the voter suppression laws were in some swing states. With better representation, citizens would promote policymakers more in line with the progressive values of the majority at home and abroad. Without such measures, and if democracy is not further undermined, the US could slowly get there. However, we cannot wait to build a truly rules-based international system to address critical global challenges. To support liberal principles on a global scale, the US must make sure that people’s voices count.
Further reading on e-international relations