20 July 2019
The so-called liberal world order has been built upon support among powerful states, which seem to enjoy the 'liberty' not to observe these rules at will. Photo: Bloomberg
The so-called liberal world order has been built upon support among powerful states, which seem to enjoy the 'liberty' not to observe these rules at will. Photo: Bloomberg

Delusion of the liberal world order

Since the beginning of 2018, German chancellor Angela Merkel, largely frustrated by Donald Trump’s foreign policies, has twice warned that the liberal world order, which is characterized by a rule-based system featuring multilateralism as well as supranational and intergovernmental bodies, is under threat.

This article, however, argues that the Trump administration has in fact just laid bare the true nature of world politics, which is described by the realist theory in international relations studies as an anarchic world, in which states – the key players – are compelled to compete for power against each other. In other words, a genuine rule-based liberal world has never existed but only sustained by the consensus of powerful states, when their national interests are well served.

The liberal world order

The liberal world order was engineered following the end of the Second World War, in which time countries wanted world politics to move away from the primitive, zero-sum power politics, or the so-called the law of jungle – as the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire recently put it when discussing the current trade war. This goal set the tone for the gradual development of a rule-based liberal world order in the coming decades. Such world order embodies rule-based politics organized through various supranational and intergovernmental organizations. The most notable ones include the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked the triumph of liberal democracy as a superior political system. Francis Fukuyama, a well-known scholar of international relations, then famously commented that the end of the Cold War meant the end of history, with liberal democracy destined to be the final form of mankind’s governance, of which a liberal rule-based system is to supplant power politics, or realpolitik, in international relations. Indeed, more supranational organizations in international trade and security have sprung up since the end of the Cold War, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Union.

A delusion

However, the liberal world order is, at best, a delusion. The rule-based outlook of world politics that politicians have kept publicly mentioning nowadays has in fact been built upon the consensus amongst powerful countries, which believe such system serves their national interests.

Such consensus, however, is not bound by any rules. In other words, this is not a genuine liberal rule-based world system, in that this system principally serves the interests of powerful states, which are willing to ignore or even withdraw from when their interests are at stake. Without the backing of powerful states, the rules that build the expectation and predictability for liberal institutions on free trade and collective security would, all of a sudden, become feeble. Donald Trump, who does not appear to be a believer of the liberal world system, has undermined such system, while more accurately his domestic and foreign policies have revealed the nature of international politics, as described by the realist theory.

Realism is a mainstream theory in the studies of international relations. The theory depicts international politics as played out in an anarchic world with no supreme authority or sovereign, in which states, rather than supranational organizations, are key players. Without a functioning rule-based system, which is similar to a domestic society where rules/laws are clear and binding, states are compelled to compete for power against each other to protect their interests and security.

We have picked three most notable supranational and intergovernmental organizations in international security and economy- the UN, the NATO and the WTO – to illustrate the argument.

The UN

The UN Charter bans the use of force, except in situations when a mandate is granted by the Security Council in response to international threats or a country acting out of self-defense. However, when national interests is at stake, powerful states are willing to and, more realistically, capable of violating these rules. Cases in point, military invasions and interventions in Iraq, Libya, Crimea and Syria by the West and Russia have never received clear UN mandates nor involved obvious elements of self-defense.


The NATO, established in 1949, is a military alliance of liberal democratic countries. Originally formed to defend the Western liberal world against the Soviet Union, the alliance, underpinned by the US military capability, has been the cornerstone defending the liberal world order.

Failing to appreciate the realist idea on anarchy, European NATO members have been complacent about the US protection. For this, Donald Trump has not been the first US president criticizing the low levels of defense spending amongst his European NATO allies, although undoubtedly Trump’s criticism has been the sharpest so far. With Donald Trump in power, the defense commitments from the US look dubious overnight, despite the NATO treaty on collective defense.

To put it differently, Trump effectively reveals the anarchic nature of world politics to his European allies, in which states have to be able to take care of their own survival/security. The revelation indeed came at the worst possible time for the Europeans, when the US leadership is most in need in the face of multiple security threats to Europe, in particular the Russian geopolitical interests recently manifested in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria, while at the same time the military readiness of the UK, France and Germany have been widely publicly questioned due to years of under-spending.


The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been one of the most significant multilateral economic organizations since the end of the Cold War. Established in 1995, the WTO is mandated to create a rule-based trade system with missions including resolving trade disputes, gradually pushing back unfair trade practices, and tamping down threats of trade war. However the rule-based trade system has been set up in favor of rich countries, which are not too bounded by these rules when national economic interests are at issue.

Donald Trump’s several recent moves against the WTO have threatened the functionality of the organization. He was reported to have criticized the WTO as a scheme “to screw the United States”. As such he has attempted to weaken the organization. In March 2017, media cited a draft proposal prepared by the Trump administration promising to ignore any WTO rulings that would run afoul the US sovereignty. In July 2018, Axios reported that the White House had drafted a proposed legislation allowing the US to abandon the WTO principles in setting tariff rates.

Trump, however, has only exposed the structural problems of the WTO. The organization has been criticized of being institutionally lopsided in favor of rich countries.

Take the trade dispute settlement mechanism as an example. Trade experts have widely perceived this WTO pillar as putting developing countries in disadvantages when up against their rich counterparts. The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development stated in 2011 that among the 400 cases having filed to the WTO for dispute settlements, no African countries had acted as a complainant.

Developing countries are disadvantaged in trade disputes due to a lack of local legal experts on trade and limited resources to obtain external legal supports. For example, in the cotton trade dispute between the US and Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali – four cotton-producing countries nicknamed the “Cotton Four”, Ambassador Samuel Amehou from Benin once lamented that his country chose to negotiate rather than launching complaints to the WTO because “The C-4 [Cotton 4] didn’t have the money to hire a good lawyer.”

Even when a complaint is officially launched and a verdict issued by the WTO, rich countries can simply ignore. In 2017, Arie Reich, an international economic law scholar, identified that between 1995 and 2015, there were 38 complaints of non-compliance, or 20 percent of total dispute settlements. Notably, the US and the EU accounted for over 80 percent instances of non-compliance.

Moving away from dispute settlement, another key objective of developing countries joining the WTO has been to roll back huge subsidies given by rich countries in support of their less competitive sectors, in particular agriculture. However, this too has been proven delusional. Members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which comprises the most developed economies, spent US$258 billion to subsidize their agricultural sectors in 2013 alone. The developed world did not agree to eliminate agricultural export subsidies until 2015, 21 years after the establishment of the WTO. However, the elimination of rich countries’ domestic subsidies, which are in fact more harmful to the exports of developing countries, are still under negotiations at the WTO.

Life under a realist world

The so-called liberal world order has been built upon the support among powerful states, which seem to enjoy the “liberty” not to observe these rules at will. It is therefore hard to call it a true liberal world system.

States should be wary of the fancy liberal catchwords such as rules, institutions and multilateralism, and instead understand the nature of anarchy, where rules and institutions can be abandoned overnight. Power politics, however primitive as it sounds, dictates international political processes and outcomes, of which – to cite the great Athenian historian Thucydides, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

But how can a state survive in such a world? Ask a realist.

– Contact us at [email protected]


The writer is a partner of Wallbrook, a global intelligence and compliance risk consultancy. He specialises in Asia with a focus on political and economic developments in the region.

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