The West and the Rest: Resetting the Order
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This piece was previously published by Gateway House.
For western foreign policy elites, the prospect of the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States was something like the Apocalypse. Trump represents a break with a consensus going back decades–and shared by both sides of the political spectrum in the United States–about the so-called liberal international order that was created in the aftermath of World War II and is said to have produced peace and prosperity. Thus the Transatlantic foreign policy establishment was appalled by the idea of him occupying the White House. Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote in January that Trump “seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments”.
Outside the geographic West, however, many people, including foreign policy experts, seemed comparatively relaxed about the election of Trump. Some even saw it as an opportunity for them precisely because he might end the U.S.-led liberal order. A Gateway House article presaged that the election of Trump could lead to “the dismantling of the geopolitical Bretton Woods” –that is, the liberal international order created after World War II–and could therefore “energise a multipolar world”. Thus “Trump may be the unwitting catalyst for a more equitable era”. (Some within the geographic West, those mostly on the left who are critical of American power, share this view–even if they abhor Trump.)
The reason for this disconnect is the difference between western and non-western perceptions of the liberal international order. In Europe and the United States, the liberal international order is understood in terms of the provision by the United States of public goods such as international security, free trade, financial stability, and freedom of navigation. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently put this view in an op-ed published in the New York Times after the election of Trump, “The liberal order led by the United States favoured an open world connected by the free flow of people, goods, ideas and capital, a world grounded in the principles of self-determination and sovereignty for nations and basic rights for their citizens.” In short, U.S. “hegemony” was on balance positive.
However, this is not a description of the liberal international order that many outside the geographic West, including in democracies such as India, recognise. They see the liberal international order, not in terms of public goods, but in terms of a particular ideological agenda (the “Washington Consensus”) and, ultimately, the interests of the “haves” – that is, Europe and the United States. Attempts by Europe and the United States to “defend” the liberal international order are, therefore, seen as desperate attempts to preserve their own power. According to this view, U.S. “hegemony” was on balance negative – hence the openness to the idea of “multipolarity”, which is equated with equality (or even “democracy”).
The complex reality is that both sides have a point. Western foreign policy elites do often have a somewhat idealised view of the liberal international order. Both Americans and Europeans tend in different ways to identify their own interests with those of humanity as a whole – in part because they see those interests as based on universal values. They think about the liberal international order in an imprecise way. They are not always clear about the sense in which the current order is “liberal” and can be blind to the ways in which it negatively impacts others around the world.
Probably the best example is trade. Europeans and Americans like to think that the current liberal trade order reflects shared rather than particular interests. In particular, through mega-regional trade agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they have in the last few years sought to set the “rules” for trade in the twenty-first century. But supporters often fail to see how those rules – for example on intellectual property rights – might be skewed in favour of the most developed countries.
At the same time, however, the liberal international order is not simply a cynical cover for the interests of Europe and the United States. U.S. security guarantees have pacified regions such as East Asia and prevented the emergence of regional hegemons (whose “hegemony” would be of an even less benevolent kind than the United States’). The trade order and the globalisation for which it was the basis has not only benefited Americans and Europeans, but has also lifted millions outside the geographic West – including in India – out of poverty. (In fact, the current backlash against it in Europe and the United States is partly because of the way it has negatively impacted some within the geographic West.)
The urgent task now is to find some common ground. Western foreign policy elites need to think more precisely about the liberal international order and the problems with it – and how they can be fixed to create a more equal world. But at the same time, people outside the West (and those within the West who are critical of American power) need to take seriously the western argument about public goods. There are certain public goods – especially freedom of navigation – that, were the U.S. to cease to provide them, cannot (yet) be easily provided by other powers. A world without these public goods could be disastrous for India that is increasingly dependent on energy imports.
Thus the West and countries like India need to reach a shared understanding of how the liberal international order can be reformed in order to save it.
 Wright, Thomas ‘Trump’s 19th century foreign policy’, Politico, 20 January 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/donald-trump-foreign-poli....
 Neelam Deo and Aditya Phatak, “Dismantling the geopolitical Bretton Woods”, Gateway House, 31 March 2016, http://www.gatewayhouse.in/dismantling-the-geopolitical-bretton-woods/.
 Antony J. Blinken, “What Is America Without Influence? Trump Will Find Out”, New York Times, 13 December 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/opinion/what-is-america-without-influe....