The new international order is the antithesis of liberal democracy.
Lost in the daily news-media coverage of President Donald Trump’s outrages and escapades is the broader, historical perspective of the events of our time. Future historians will doubtless point to the early 21st century as a watershed in the political history of the world. We who live today are witnesses to the passing of one age and the birth of another.
The age that is passing began at the end of World War I and gathered steam after the end of World War II in 1945. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson called for a reaffirmation of faith in liberal (in the broad sense) democracy, a political system born in the Age of Enlightenment, holding that all humans are by nature free and equal; politics requires compromise; and concentrated political authority is not permitted. Wilson formulated a corollary for international relations — his Fourteen Points — which stated that diplomacy among nations should be transparent; economic barriers to trade should be minimized; the conduct of nation-states should be circumscribed by rules of law and morality; and collective security — alliances of like-minded states — is necessary to keep international peace.
Although Wilson’s vision failed, the United States after World War II successfully implemented this vision of a new world order. In the postwar period, under a succession of presidents, the United States functioned as the leader of the “free” world through new global institutions and systems of economic and political alliances that demanded protection of human rights, free and open trade, and a rules-based international order that punished nation states that did not adhere to standards of law and morality.
The American system of liberal democracy appeared to triumph toward the end of the 20th century with the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its empire. Many believed that liberal democracy, free trade and a rules-based international order now reigned supreme and would be accepted all over the world.
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We know now the reality was different: Liberal democracy is in decline, and a new world order is coming. There are many reasons for this. In the United States, there was a failure of political leadership, as the Republican Party focused on attaining power at all costs and the Democratic Party became dominated by identity politics, securing benefits for constituent groups. Since the 1990s, political compromise has been impossible; there is no one to safeguard the interests of the nation as a whole. And bipartisan politics is dead.
On the international level, the Clinton administration squandered the opportunities the U.S. enjoyed after the end of the Cold War; Russia was humiliated, treated like a conquered province, which led to the rise of Vladimir Putin. President George W. Bush failed to protect us from the events of 9/11; waged an illegal and unnecessary war in Iraq; fought an incompetent war in Afghanistan; and dug the nation into a fiscal hole by his spending and unfunded tax cuts. President Barack Obama tried mightily to right the ship of state using traditional liberal-democratic methods but was not up to the task.
In 2016, President Donald Trump (albeit with some outside help) was elected. Trump, as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently stated, has “put a capstone on every poisonous trend that preceded him.” Trump and the Republican Party have embraced the extreme political realism and nationalism that U.S. policymakers used to decry. As a result, a new international political order is coming into being.
The new international order is the antithesis of liberal democracy. Its tenets are:
• Every nation is on its own, free to use its economic, military and political clout to make deals favorable to its interests.
• Alliances are encumbrances.
• Dominant states should be allowed spheres of influence.
• Trade is bad, unless the balance of trade is favorable.
• Economic protectionism is necessary to protect jobs.
• Immigration and entry into countries should be strictly controlled.
• Moral and legal standards do not apply when it comes to international relations; a rules-based international order does not apply to state conduct.
• Nations have no business calling out human-rights abuses in other countries.
Trump will go down in American history as the most significant president since Franklin Roosevelt. He and the Republican Party have ended the 20th century political and economic world order under which the world prospered under American leadership.