Recent events have dramatically intensified doubts about the durability of the liberal world order. Russia’s actions in Crimea and the east of Ukraine in spring 2014 are the main factor driving these heightened concerns. But other trends are preoccupying too. An ever more polarized Middle East seems to be reverting to brutal geopolitics, where transborder sectarian groupings menace the state system. Bitter rivalries in Asia make the region’s security worryingly brittle. Western powers are weakened by economic crisis, and the EU is faced with its own tide of illiberalism.

Against this backdrop, the fate of the current international order appears more obviously to be in jeopardy, assailed from a multiplicity of directions. Articles now appear regularly arguing that such sharpened geopolitics render Western powers increasingly naive in clinging to an order based on rules, collective security, and global public goods.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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This situation poses particularly searching questions for the European Union. The EU has formally ascribed to a liberal vision of global order and has pledged uniquely strong support for multilateralism, interdependence, positive-sum cooperative security, and universal political norms. Yet, it clearly needs to adapt to the assaults on international order. To do this, the EU should mold its external policies around a balanced concept of multipolar liberalism. Under this rubric, the EU would retain commitment to the liberal order but fine-tune the means through which its core principles are defended.

Eclectic Order

The EU has been relatively more committed to rules-based liberal order than any other actor—and this has been a cornerstone of its strategic self-identity. Yet, even before the current cluster of crises, the EU had already begun to shift its position.

In practice, European actions have not always conformed to the lofty principles of multilateralism and universal norms. While European governments may genuinely believe that support for liberal world order constitutes enlightened self-interest, in practice they have commonly resorted to policies that sit uneasily with such a global organizing principle.

The EU has not abandoned multilateralism altogether but has come to give it more selective and instrumental support. The EU is more insistent on ensuring that international institutions, alliances, partnerships, and global governance norms produce tangible benefits. It attaches less absolute priority to multilateral process and the generation of global public goods as desirable end goals in themselves. The EU has shifted toward a more ad hoc form of multilateralism, which varies in terms of issues and clusters of partners.

Policymakers, and many analysts, feel that the EU should avoid seeing formal processes of international cooperation quite so indiscriminately as ends in their own right. Rather, the EU needs to bargain harder to ensure that multilateral initiatives tangibly address its own concrete interests. In its basic strategic orientation, the EU has tilted more toward what theorists call a logic of transaction and away from a logic of diffuse reciprocity.

Examples of this incipient shift are evident in several areas of policy. In the area of security, the EU has been driven toward a preference for minilateral groupings, within which its prospects for leverage over short-term strategic priorities appear greater. What some European governments see as “liberal intervention” has not disappeared; but when carried out, it takes a more circumscribed form than that implied in the original idealism of liberal peace building. In a broader political sense, the EU has not pushed with any notable effort to make global institutions more democratic or more open to citizen participation; with European forbearance, international institutions still rest on essentially Westphalian bases.

On financial matters, European states have sought from the G20 direct support for their own economic problems rather than for general, rules-based multilateral solutions. The EU did not follow through on its declared desire for comprehensive, postcrisis global financial reform, as it was reined in by both internal and external forces.

In trade policy, the EU has pressed for a mix of global, regional, and bilateral trade liberalization. It has both acted more assertively against other powers’ disregard for multilateral trade rules and tested the boundaries of such rules itself in its bilateral commercial diplomacy.

EU institutions adhere to multilateral rules in some spheres because this is essential to their own international role, as their legitimacy is itself based on rules rather than power. But in areas where such legitimacy is less central, calculations of short-term material power now come to the forefront.

This broader context informs the EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis. Following Russia’s intrusion into and annexation of Crimea, European governments firmly committed to upholding the most basic norms of the liberal order: sovereignty and territorial integrity. But member states have weighed the trade-off between economic and political order. Contrary to much commentary, the riposte to Russia is not simply a matter of choosing whether to prioritize “values” or “interests.” Rather, the intricate strategic conundrum is that there are different aspects of international order that affect different types of self-interest. European governments’ economic interests have led them to seek minimal disruption to inclusive economic order. They also refer to the centrality of rules-based political order but seek to coax this cautiously from appeals to dialogue with Russia. At least so far, in these relatively early stages of postcrisis decisionmaking, European governments’ desire to minimize disturbance to economic order apparently outweighs any fear of imminent, systemic risk to political order.

As of this writing, it remains unclear how far the aftershocks of the annexation of Crimea will spread. For now, it seems that the EU may be willing tacitly (albeit not formally) to accept the bounded infringement of international rules if Russia can be persuaded to get a handle on separatists in the east of Ukraine. To some extent, this makes a virtue of necessity: the EU probably has little means to reverse the annexation of Crimea, but it can still wield influence in preserving the rest of Ukraine as a single, better-governed state.

Multipolar Liberalism

For some time, internal and external constraints have been pushing European governments to look at global institutions less in terms of an imprecise, generic “primacy of rules” and more as potential sources of tangible support for their own immediate crisis-related material interests.

There is much that is sensible and logical in this subtle shift. It contains at least some of the contours of a strategic philosophy sensibly tailored to the “post-Western” order. Yet striking a judicious balance between consistent rules and necessary flexibility will tax EU policymakers in coming years.

One danger is that the EU adheres too inflexibly to the generic principles of liberal order without updating the way in which these are operationalized. The inverse danger is that the EU cedes to the temptation to pursue immediate “transactional” gain in a way that undercuts the core tenets of liberal order. That is, one risk is believing that business as usual will suffice; the other lies in assuming that (paraphrasing several official responses after the annexation of Crimea) everything must change.

To avoid these pitfalls, the EU’s process of fine-tuning the means it uses to defend its core principles should involve two reconfigurations. First, the spirit of cosmopolitan liberalism must be more firmly rooted in European governments’ concrete self-interest. Second, the liberal order must be transformed into a more participative process of rule formation and arbitration.

The rub lies in the combination of these two necessary changes. What is conceptually challenging is that the EU will need simultaneously more realism and more genuine liberalism.

A revamped liberal internationalism should entail a renewed commitment to work with other powers on improving the rules and norms of global cooperation. The EU has developed partnerships with all major rising powers; these need to move from the pragmatic and transactional to the search for a mutually legitimate “negotiated order.” In theoretical terminology, modified global rules need to be “co-shaped.”

The EU should, in particular, put more effort into cooperating with rising democracies on this imperative. A more democratic internationalism must be more equitable and more constitutively inclusive—of both states and citizens.

While this may sound airily idealistic, it rests on a hardheaded calculation of self-interest: the more that rising powers feel ownership of the global order, the more likely they are to emerge as more responsible stakeholders in upholding its formative rules.

And the broader the legitimacy behind core global rules, the more widely those rules will be defended when they are threatened in the fashion of Russia’s recent actions. This is why a fully strategic response to the current Crimea crisis is not merely a matter of “getting tough” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather, it requires reflecting on how to inject broader ownership and thus global legitimacy into the rules that he seems intent on threatening. This broader lens may not provide an instantaneous recipe for dealing with Putin, but such a framework is necessary to widen the range of policy options capable of having some impact on egregious rule spoiling.

This will require the EU to take a step back from seeing liberal-multilateral principles quite so dominantly through the prism of “Europeanization” and exporting EU norms. The EU needs a basic change of approach: it must move from seeking to replicate itself to supporting a more flexible and jointly shaped spirit of universalism.

In the long term, the EU would also benefit from a form of multilateralism that is less hegemonic, and it should work to achieve that end more tangibly in its relations with the United States. For many in the United States, the liberal world order is seen as inseparable from the preeminence of American power. They believe that preserving the liberal order is essentially about safeguarding the U.S. role in underwriting liberal end goals, such as free trade and democracy. This conflation accounts for much that is so precarious about today’s international norms because it distorts what other countries would define as a more genuinely participative, cooperative, and rules-based order. The EU will need to entice the United States toward a more balanced understanding of liberal order.

This again rests on a pivotal claim: Successfully defending liberal order is not a question of retaining Western preeminence and presence in international institutions. It is about infusing liberal norms with greater universal legitimacy. The EU should work to advance a more decentralized liberalism—this would chime more harmoniously with and help deepen today’s polycentric world order.

Such a shift would give greater voice to other stakeholders in determining precisely how the core tenets of liberal cooperation and universalism can best be maintained. It is this strategic principle that stands the best chance of avoiding widely predicted G0 anarchy that might result from multipolarity and of correcting the increasingly evident undersupply of global public goods—economic, social, diplomatic, and strategic.

Making It Happen

Creeping doubts over the future of liberal order are well founded. But the strategic context is complex and multifaceted. In some ways, liberal principles are more clearly challenged; yet in other ways, they are holding ground. Rising powers are buying into some dimensions of liberal order, even as they question others. Both interdependence and citizen support for democratic rights have been resilient, even deepening.

The most likely future includes a liberal order that does not continue on the same exact grounds that are enshrined in the post-1945 architecture yet does not entirely wither away. The makeup of the international system is not set in stone; it will be an essentially “negotiated order,” with some liberal features and some national-interest-based, competitive-realpolitik aspects. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are serious, but it is not yet evident that they sound the death knell for a whole order.

At present, the EU veers between commitment to the liberal order and doubts over that order’s longevity. It is understandable that with so much of the reshaped global system no more than embryonic, the EU’s conceptual strategic anchor is pulling loose. Fluctuations and inconsistencies are increasingly evident in its foreign policy.

The Crimea crisis could still galvanize the EU into realizing that overly instrumental support for global rules is likely to rebound against its own long-term interests. But it could also result in a further European retreat into the geostrategy of ad hoc containment.

The EU needs to move beyond its ritual pledge of allegiance to the generic principles of cooperative internationalism and devise a more operational and updated framework to realize them. The EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security, who will take the EU foreign policy reins from Catherine Ashton in 2014, should make it a priority to lay out a clear assessment of the ways in which the current array of challenges to liberal order requires such a strategic recalibration. This longer-term, structural challenge should not be overlooked in the face of more immediate imperatives.