Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2017 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfolded and providing insights on today’s most urgent international issues. Check out our live coverage here.
Carl BildtFormer prime minister of Sweden
No, it’s not exaggerated. But that’s not the same as saying that the demise of the liberal order is either imminent or unavoidable.
The fundamentals of the world order are fraying, and some of its ideological foundations are being challenged in a way that is seriously worrying. The liberal global order, which has been astonishingly successful and whose widening and deepening has produced a golden quarter-century, was built on strong security relationships and a commitment to an open global economy.
Now, those security relationships are under pressure as isolationist sentiments grow in key countries and revisionist powers become more assertive. There is an uninhibited questioning of free trade and the open global economy. There is talk of protectionism and bilateralism in a way that risks taking the world into trade wars and slower global growth. Add to this the rise of nostalgic identities and tribal politics, and the result is a longing for a mythical better past stolen by evil forces.
This is the time for the EU to stand up for its core values and core interests, which are intimately linked to the liberal global order. The world needs a forward-looking, confident, and fighting European Union.
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
Not at all. The world is at the beginning of a geopolitical recession, in which the U.S.-led order is coming apart. President Donald Trump’s America First policy is above all a rejection of American exceptionalism and, with it, America’s role in the liberal order. No country or group of countries are presently capable of replacing U.S. leadership; China will play a greater global leadership role on economics (and economics alone), but that’s hardly going to bolster the liberal order.
It’s now every nation for itself. No liberal order—and, for now at least, no order, period.
Tobias BundeHead of Policy and Analysis at the Munich Security Conference and researcher at the Centre for International Security Policy of the Hertie School of Governance
As the Munich Security Conference argues in its Munich Security Report, the world is witnessing an illiberal moment. The three core elements of the liberal international order—liberal democracy, open economies, and multilateral institutions—are all under pressure.
According to Freedom House, there has been a steady decline in global freedom for more than a decade. Support for populist leaders has grown in Western societies, where many citizens doubt that the system works for them. U.S. President Donald Trump has questioned both free trade and the value of international organizations and U.S. alliances, signaling a clear shift from post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Tellingly, notions such as democracy and human rights were absent from Trump’s inaugural address. For decades, Europeans have taken for granted the role of the United States as the main guardian of this liberal order. Judging from the discussions in Europe, including about a possible European nuclear deterrent, this crisis is not exaggerated.
Whether this illiberal moment turns into an illiberal era will depend on how liberal democrats respond to it. The continuous weakening of the liberal international order is far from preordained. But its demise has become much more likely recently.
István GyarmatiPresident of the International Centre for Democratic Transition
Yes and no.
On the one hand, what is being seen is not a crisis of the liberal order, but the inability of liberal forces to give appropriate answers to the challenges of resurgent nationalism and extremism as well as the communication challenge posed by the Internet.
Nationalism and extremism are quite easy to understand: at the end of an era—in this case, the Westphalian era of nation-states—such tendencies always emerge. In the past, policymakers have each time been able to find a satisfactory response, albeit after some hesitation.
The special difficulty today is that the Internet has changed the way political elites communicate with the public: communication used to go through opinion makers such as intellectuals and the reputable press; today, it takes place via the Internet. And the web and social media can be used more easily to transmit simple (or simplistic) messages than sophisticated arguments. That’s why populists and extremists are much better at using such platforms, and therefore also better at influencing the public. Liberals need to become populists as well, in the good sense of the word: actors who can communicate in such a way that the general public understands.
On the other hand, these challenges are severe. It takes time for democracies to wake up—maybe too much time. People are also hostages of their own ideas. Liberals need to recognize that times have changed and they must adapt.
Corinna HorstDeputy director of the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and president of Women in International Security Brussels
The question is not so much whether the crisis of the liberal order is exaggerated as whether policymakers realize that there is a crisis and what they do about it. In every crisis lies an opportunity.
The transatlantic partners and the West in general face many crises, internally as well as externally. The disruptive impact of the newly elected U.S. president is fundamentally challenging how societies—from policymakers and journalists to advocates and business representatives—do business. It has been a wake-up call that the West cannot take its democracies for granted. New alliances among different civil-society groups have led to tremendous public outcries, including over the executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the United States or over women’s rights. Private-sector associations, businesses, and NGOs are organizing new alliances to address the divisions in Europe.
More than ever, the Western world is being challenged on how to keep itself secure, peaceful, and prosperous. Whether the West remains this way has more to do with the way its societies treat its people—including women—than any other factor. As a starting point, people need to remember to look beyond grand strategies and states, and focus on how to keep reengaging citizens and create diversity-sensitive behavior and policies.
Toomas Hendrik IlvesBernard and Susan Liautaud visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies
Yes and no. The liberal order is in crisis. Increasing income disparities have caused a backlash among those left behind, yet it is not clear what this has to do with free and fair elections, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, which after all define the liberal order. There is a widespread distrust of elites, though that term applies to anyone who has been democratically elected. Fear of immigration is a legitimate worry. But crises are nothing new for the system derived from the Enlightenment. It has coped with far worse.
What is not exaggerated is the threat to the liberal order from authoritarian regimes that capitalize on liberal openness in the digital age. Hacking the e-mail accounts of Western politicians and parties, doxing hacked documents, sharing fake news more widely than serious journalism: all these are new threats. In 2017, parliamentary elections will be held in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, with a possible snap election in Italy as well as a crucial presidential election in France. In all of these countries, an authoritarian Russia has used the same techniques as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The threat to the liberal order is asymmetric. Authoritarian regimes don’t have to worry about election results; the techniques and ploys they use don’t threaten them. But such techniques do threaten the liberal order.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
The crisis of the liberal democratic order is real, but it is caused more by internal factors than by external ones. Russia and so-called illiberals are piggybacking on the eroding trust between citizens and governments, the fault lines of the global economy, growing inequality, and increasing political polarization. For these reasons, there is a global backlash against elites. Ukraine’s 2013–2014 Euromaidan revolution was originally about the same issues.
Defenders of liberal democracy should take into account that in this system, how things happen is as important as what happens. Labeling and blacklisting are not cornerstones of liberal values. Slight majorities—for example, the Brits who voted in June 2016 to leave the EU—are now openly questioned by those trying to defend liberal democracy.
Central and Eastern Europe have undergone traditionalist turns. In the East, these internal challenges came earlier than in the West. Instead of doubling down, the West needs to address internal issues while managing external factors in a different way—fewer interventions and more observations would be a fresh start. There is a risk, though, that by overemphasizing Russia’s influence, some in the West may increasingly adopt Russian tactics to strike back against real and perceived threats, internally and externally.
Bahadır KaleağasıChief executive officer of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) and president of the Bosphorus Institute
This is not simply a crisis of liberal democracy. The world is going through a very risky phase in the transition toward what could be described as democracy 4.0: a better-functioning political system based on instant and direct access by citizens to fact checking, impact analyses, and policymaking. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution begins to take hold around the planet, processes of societal change and democracy are going through stages of fluctuation as was the case in every other industrial revolution.
Industry 4.0 is quickly being uploaded into citizens’ daily lives, but there is an algorithmic problem with coding a modern democracy 4.0. The current evolution has several adverse dimensions as well as beneficial ones. On the one hand, innovations like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of things have the potential to lead to more transparency, direct democracy, and public scrutiny. On the other, liberal democracy’s turbulent evolution may eventually result in authoritarian manipulation of communication in the digital public sphere. Maybe a technology inspired by the blockchain that makes financial transactions more transparent through decentralized trust and distributed consensus can be adapted to the flow of information between public authorities and citizens.
Karl-Heinz KampPresident of the German Federal Academy for Security Policy
No, it is not exaggerated. The crisis clearly exists, particularly as the United States is about to lose its role as the spearhead of the West. How can the benefits of liberal democracy over dictatorship or autocracy be advocated if the U.S. president has cultivated the lie and regards ignorance or incompetence as a quality? How can liberal democracy be promoted if the alleged leader of the free world does not even sign up to its basics, namely acceptance of the results of elections?
Europe is plagued by similar trends: populist movements in France, Germany, and elsewhere are united in their rejection of pluralism, alliances, commitments, solidarity, and consensus—all ingredients of a liberal world order with institutions like NATO, the EU, and the UN.
Fortunately, it is not a zero-sum game in which democrats lose and autocrats win. Autocrats are also reaching their limits. In China, growth remains below expectations and an increasingly self-confident population is speaking up against environmental disasters and bad governance. Moscow’s great-power ambitions are economically and politically built on sand; Greece has a bigger GDP per capita than Russia.
The liberal order is still alive and worth fighting for—against all the odds.
Sylvie KauffmannEditorial director of Le Monde
First of all, observers should stop calling it the “liberal” order. Not only does the label confuse the French, for whom libéral refers to right-wing free marketeers, but it also legitimates the proponents of an illiberal order—as if they had a real alternative to offer, which they do not.
If we’re talking about the crisis of the rules-based order, then no, it is not exaggerated. Utmost confusion reigns at the very center of that order, Washington, D.C. The U.S. leadership does not seem to know by which rules to abide, and its foreign partners are at pains to identify what or who the U.S. leadership is—today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.
Yet the world needs rules, and many people outside the United States still value some of the basic rules of the global system, like international treaties and the rule of law. This is where the EU has an enormous responsibility. A redefined, reinvigorated EU must become the new shining city on a hill. Europe must offer a political compass in a chaotic world that needs new, more balanced rules, to be written with others. This is why the upcoming French and German elections are crucial.
Jessica T. MathewsDistinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
World trends are deeply frightening. Many causes—growing income inequality, too-rapid social change, effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, disappointment in governments’ performance—have produced widespread anger and a backlash against real and perceived losses of sovereignty. Constantly pushed forward by the Internet and social media, anger and fear of change have made whole populations vulnerable, in Garrett Mitchell’s apt phrase, to “slash-and-burn sloganeering.”
Threatening conditions can change from unthinkable to inevitable seemingly overnight, but crisis still seems the wrong word. Neither Russia nor China is as strong as it is painted. Russia’s one-legged economy cannot be transformed without wrenching political change. China suffers from profound corruption, a government whose legitimacy rest on a weak base, and slowing (though still strong) economic growth. Neither country commands the loyalty of a single strong ally.
And so the threat to the liberal, rules-based world order comes from within Western democratic societies. The threat is substantial, but it can still be addressed. Domestically, that will require restoring a degree of shared purpose, diminishing polarization, and improving government performance. Internationally, it will mean reminding older generations and teaching younger ones—especially Americans—of the seventy years of growth, prosperity, and general peace that the postwar order has produced and the unrelenting effort and investment it takes to maintain it.
Mikhail MinakovAssociate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
No, it isn’t exaggerated.
Currently, the key institutions responsible for the functioning and development of the liberal order can only react to the snowball of challenges they face, not anticipate them. These institutions respond properly only to immediate risks and fail to avert medium- to long-term problems. This strategic blindness of liberal centers of power must be cured.
What makes this crisis of liberal globalism exceptional is the profound shift in the cultural order. Recent elections and referenda in the EU and United States show that enemies of liberal universalism are winning the trust of Western societies. Isolationism, obscurantism, and ultraconservatism are taking over Western capitals.
Universalism provided the liberal order with legitimacy. After the fall of the Soviet Union and in the absence of a disciplining enemy, Western elites betrayed their adherence to universalism and turned instead to more egoistic practices. As a result, illiberal conservatism offers Western societies alternative solutions that people find more convincing. With the fall of liberalism in the West, the liberal order has no future in other regions.
Liberalism is losing the competition for citizens’ hearts in the West. But it still can win their minds and consciences. Liberals should return to taking universal values seriously and put them at the core of new global agenda.
Nora MüllerHead of the International Affairs Department of the Körber Foundation
Populist parties are on the rise all over Europe. Autocrats and extremists of various persuasions are testing the West’s resolve to protect its values. The new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue harbors a barely disguised penchant for strong leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, vows to put America first, and believes that the Doha Round is a Qatari golf course. Against this backdrop, it is impossible to deny that the liberal order faces dramatic challenges—from inside and outside.
For a country like Germany, where stability and prosperity are inseparably tied to a rules-based international order, functioning multilateral institutions, and the American security guarantee, U.S. retrenchment and the advent of a postliberal global order (or disorder) do not bode well. But succumbing to weltschmerz is not an option for Berlin.
Faced with the domestic fallout from the refugee crisis and the shock waves of a disintegrating EU, Germany may not have the capacity or the political will to act as the knight in shining armor who leads the free world in the struggle against its foes. Nevertheless, Berlin must fulfill its role as what German political scientist Herfried Münkler has called the Macht in der Mitte, or power in the middle. Germany needs to act as a counterweight to the centrifugal forces in Europe and a defender of an old-fashioned virtue: respect for international law in the context of a cooperative international system.
Tsveta PetrovaAdjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the European Institute of Columbia University
From a Central and Eastern European perspective, one is struck by the United States’ unprecedented swing in a politically illiberal direction. The United States no longer has the will or standing to promote or project liberal values. This has already emboldened some of Central and Eastern Europe’s illiberal elites—in Hungary, Poland, and Romania, for instance.
Yet in a region where the perceived inescapability of history is always palpable, there are also significant segments of the elites and citizens who believe that the historical pendulum will eventually swing back, perhaps even as the economic cycle turns and fiscal room is constrained. Recent political protests in Romania show that there are many in the anti-establishment camp who are mobilizing not to support but to resist the current wave of illiberalism. Moreover, even the illiberal governments in the region buoyed by this wave are committed to remaining in the EU club of liberal democracies while working to change some of its rules.
Finally, there is an awareness that the next liberal moment will not be a return to the previous liberal order, and there is an appetite for change—especially when it comes to liberal economic policies, national sovereignty, and political-rights entitlements.
Jerzy PomianowskiExecutive director of the European Endowment for Democracy
The trauma of World War II led the fighting nations to build an order that would reduce the risk of history repeating itself. Collective security, free trade, economic cooperation, and international institutions were established to promote and protect liberal values. The liberal order was based on trust in elites and a belief that societies are driven by rational choices. Yet what has been discovered over the last fifty years is that playing with people’s emotions brings in bigger profits than fostering deep debate and wise arguments.
The Internet has destroyed the fragile pact between the mainstream media and politicians to avoid the overuse of negative emotions in the democratic process. Fear, hate, and populism spread at the speed of light with no reflection or comment. New elites surf this wave gladly. The quest for popularity and power has no rules. Societies polarized and confused by post-truth messages seek refuge in the comfort zone of what sounds familiar, leading to a return to traditional identities. The best example: Britain’s vote to leave the EU, under the flag of restoring sovereignty.
If the liberal democratic order is to survive in the long term, its elites cannot become a closed circuit but must be an open network that feels the pulse of society. When trust is more important than truth, liberals must be passionate, committed, and credible enough to defend democratic values.
Anders Fogh RasmussenFounder and chairman of Rasmussen Global
Not necessarily, but the question is whether anything good can come out of this crisis.
The liberal order is challenged today not by one but by two separate forces, one domestic and one external. Domestically, it is challenged by populists who bring volatility to political systems; externally, by forces that seek to undermine democracies. The Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine—a country embarking on reform and integration with Western Europe—are an example of that. And these forces are not operating in isolation. Russia is known to support populist parties. The consequences are dire; the world could become defined by nativism, protectionism, and authoritarianism.
However, the key strength of the liberal way of life is that it is malleable and predisposed to generate new ideas. Through crisis, liberal democracy has an opportunity to renew itself. Rather than coalesce against populists and feed their rhetoric, the mainstream should engage with them. When I was prime minister of Denmark, we shared with populists the responsibility of government. This can go a long way toward moderating them. Another strength is free and open debate. When speaking of outside challengers, liberals need to call out aggression when they see it and sanction the aggressors.
Norbert RöttgenChairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag
First of all, it is crucial to note that there is no one liberal order. The post–World War II order instituted and embodied by the United States was and is a Western order that materialized in constructs such as the European Union, the transatlantic partnership, NATO, and other multilateral organizations.
This Western order is clearly under threat from within. In Europe, Hungary and Romania are cases in which the rule of law is being disassembled from above. In France, right-wing populism is part of the erosion of the internal liberal order. And in the United States, there is a president—and thus the so-called leader of the free world—who has effectively labeled the political system rotten and promised a complete overhaul, in a most illiberal and antipluralist fashion. These are examples of nationalism and egotism and, ultimately, demonstrations of how hamstrung the liberal order has become with regard to today’s problems.
Therefore, there is a real ideological illiberal potential that must be taken seriously. The problem is not exaggeration; the true threat is underrating the crisis and continuing with business as usual. The crisis is real and present. A collapse of the liberal order, however, can still be prevented.
Marietje SchaakeVice-chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations With the United States
There is no room for complacency amid the multiple threats to open societies. While external attacks from terrorism or an assertive Kremlin should unite people around the core of open societies, the risk is that paralysis, fragmentation, and compromise on fundamental values may exacerbate the crisis of liberal democracy from within.
That is not to say there is no need for reforms, but the agenda of change risks being monopolized by forces seeking destruction. Reform cannot be left to nationalists, populists, and protectionists.
The crisis of liberal democracy should be turned into energy to fight for it, rather than misplaced self-defeat. With U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House and his assaults on the rule of law and the press, the United States is quickly losing credibility as a global liberal democratic leader. It is now up to Europe to take a big step forward, along with like-minded countries like Canada, where the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proved that uncompromising progressive leadership can be popular. A global movement of politicians, the private sector, civil society, and citizens should come together to defend liberal democratic values.
It is high time for more robust leadership and outspokenness in standing up for the values that have offered people in liberal democracies the highest quality of life and the many rights and freedoms they enjoy.
Daniela SchwarzerDirector of the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
The world has reached a turning point at which substantive further economic liberalization without serious compensation for the losers of market opening and deregulation will no longer be politically possible in democratic countries. Nondemocratic market economies may be able to push economic liberalization further, until uncontrollable protest builds up.
However, even the status quo is at stake in Western democracies. Moderate political leaders and liberal societies are under serious pressure from forces that cater to growing fears by promising nationalistic responses to the losses of sovereignty caused by globalization and incomplete integration. Governments no longer control the socioeconomic tracks their countries are on unless governance mechanisms match the level and scope of monetary, financial, and economic integration.
It is only by dealing with the challenges to liberal democracy in nation-states and the EU that governments will have the drive and power to maintain the liberal international order and improve it to accommodate global power shifts. The challenge to that order is very serious and needs to be answered on both the national and the European level. If this doesn’t happen, order will erode.
Alison SmaleBerlin bureau chief at the New York Times
That the question is posed at all could be taken as an affirmative answer. But here in Berlin, a city where paths were once blocked shut by an ugly, deadly wall, it is impossible to lose faith in the strength of the human desire for freedom. At the same time, Berlin is a reminder that people always need to try to impose some sort of order on societies, so that clashing wills and visions do not deteriorate into disorder or, worst of all, an ungovernable chaos that would almost inevitably result in some authoritarian course.
The Cold War was terrible, but it had rules, and a hot war in Europe was avoided for decades until the Soviet bloc collapsed. In the ensuing twenty-five years, many mistakes were made. But more people in Europe arguably live more freely today than they did before. The liberal order has not collapsed. In Europe, it faces strong tests of its own making—namely, democratic elections—particularly in the Netherlands, France, and Germany this year. How they turn out is up to those who vote, and indeed all of us.
Angela StentDirector of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service
Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and the rise of European far-right parties have prompted a cacophony of doomsday predictions about the end of the liberal world order. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia flexes its military and cyberwarfare muscles as Western politics becomes more polarized and inward looking. Moscow demands a new world order whose rules Russia and China would largely determine.
Is it really that bad? In the United States, less than a month into the Trump presidency, a robust reaction to the attack on the liberal order has mobilized multiple groups to defend the institutions of democracy. In Europe, the prospect of an American downgrading of the transatlantic relationship has opened a lively debate about Europe taking more responsibility for its own defense amid uncertainty about the U.S. commitment.
Europe and the United States can use this unsettling situation to engage in a long-overdue reassessment of their own political order and their mutual relationship. Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, a Europe whole and free is under stress. The West should use the moment to reimagine what a robust twenty-first-century liberal order should look like and commit themselves to defending it.
Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik and the Berlin Policy Journal, published by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
When the main pillar of a building is about to erode, it isn’t exaggerated to assume imminent danger. U.S. President Donald Trump and his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, certainly think that the liberal order is a framework for free riders, to the disadvantage of the United States. They strongly believe in the survival of the fittest. To them—as for Russian President Vladimir Putin, French National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and others—a rules-based order to the advantage to everybody is for decadent weaklings. Welcome back, world of Thomas Hobbes.
However, erosion isn’t destruction. The international liberal order is greatly weakened if the United States, the architect of that order after World War II, no longer supports it. Trump can cause enormous harm. But not everyone in his administration thinks that a liberal order has outlived its days, and the president doesn’t even have a majority of Americans behind him. Plus, a liberal order, a rules-based system, and peaceful negotiations on diverging interests—in other words, the bulwark against a nasty, brutish, and short life—still form a revolutionary and attractive idea.
Yes, the liberal order is in imminent danger. But the jury is still out on whether Trump and his fellow populists will prevail, or whether the world can shore up an order that is the only guarantor of security, wealth, and freedom.
Maha YahyaDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
It is no exaggeration to say that populists are on the rise across the globe, elected into office by citizens angry at the economic shortcomings of the liberal order, its exclusionary politics, and widening inequalities. Instead of open borders and open societies, which populists present as the causes of economic decline and rising insecurity, they seek walls that shelter identity-based communities, whether by sect, tribe, or ethnicity. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is in part a more extreme reflection of this anger. In politics, this translates into a decline in Western support for principles like universalism and disengagement from the responsibility to protect.
Nowhere is this crisis more palpable than in Syria, where demands for freedom have spun into a six-year conflict and proxy wars that have generated the biggest refugee crisis the world has seen since the end of World War II. An inability to address both conflict and crisis has exposed the costs of withdrawal by the United States, the principle underwriter of this liberal order, and the weaknesses of the current multilateral system of governance.
The strength of this order lies in its ability to adapt policies to address its own shortcomings. Unless like-minded political elites, intellectuals, and citizens ferociously defend the political gains of the liberal order and engage with its socioeconomic failures, the world may witness even greater strife and dislocation at ever-expanding cost to lives and values.