The liberal world order has been on life support for some time. President Biden, in his inaugural address, called democracy “fragile.” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin declared two years ago that the “liberal idea” had “overshot”, while the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, extolled the strength of an all-powerful state and, as he said last March, “self-confidence in our system.”
The multinational response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that the demise of the post-war rules-based world order may not be inevitable. A month ago, no one predicted that Germany would undo decades of military hesitation and inject 100 billion euros into its defense budget, or that Switzerland would freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs, or that YouTube , the soccer World Cup and global energy companies would cut any ties with Russia.
But the reappearance of war in Europe is also an omen. With toddlers sheltering in subway tunnels and nuclear power plants under threat, it’s a global air raid siren – a warning that the US-led system of internationalism must kick back in, for the war to come and for the fight against authoritarianism to come.
“The World System was built in the 1950s, and if you think of it as a car from those years, it’s battered, outdated in some ways, and could use a good tune-up,” said James Stavridis, a retired from the US Navy. Admiral and former Commander of NATO in Europe. “But he’s still on the road, rolling, and, ironically enough, Vladimir Putin has done more in a week to energize him than I can remember.”
Almost universally, from leaders in Europe and Asia to current and former US officials, Ukraine is seen as a test for the survival of a 75-year-old idea: that liberal democracy, US military power and free trade can create the conditions for global peace and prosperity.
Because the founder of this concept, the United States, continues to struggle – with partisanship, Covid and failure in distant war zones – many foreign policy officials already see Ukraine in dire terms, as marking the official end of the American era and the beginning of a more contested, multipolar moment.
For at least a decade, liberal democracies have been disappearing. Their number peaked in 2012 with 42 countries, and now there are just 34, home to just 13% of the world’s population, according to V-Dem, a nonprofit that studies governments. In many of them, including the United States, “toxic polarization” is on the rise.
For Ukraine and its democratically elected leaders, the prospects for survival look particularly bleak. Sanctions, the favorite weapon of the anti-Putin coalition, have a long history of failing to change the behavior of rogue states or leaders. And despite all the rhetoric about defending freedom, Mr Biden has repeatedly promised that no American soldier will fight for Ukraine’s right to exist, even though a million refugees have already fled and that Mr. Putin seems determined to take the whole country.
Ukraine could also be just the first of several tests for the old order. Mr Xi, the Chinese leader, said months ago that “reunification” with Taiwan – another democracy living in the shadow of an authoritarian neighbor – “must be achieved”.
Mr Biden, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, spoke bluntly about the future risk, saying: “When dictators don’t pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos.” He insisted the free world held Mr Putin accountable.
And even some skeptics see signs of a liberal revival. Ryan C. Crocker, retired former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said after the disastrous US withdrawal from Kabul, the Biden administration had proven the US could still lead and muster a response strong world.
Robert Kagan, a historian whose latest book, “The Jungle Pushes Back: America and Our World in Peril,” was widely quoted during the conflict in Ukraine, said he too was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the liberal order was “back in place”. .”
“There has been a significant reconfirmation of many of the old lessons that we learned long ago and forgot,” he said.
One lesson seems to be that alliances matter. But for many, the most important lesson echoes what Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman concluded about World War II: America cannot retreat into isolationism; its own prosperity depends on an active attempt to maintain peace between the great powers of the world.
“We became more and more indifferent – that’s why Putin’s example was so striking,” said Mr. Kagan, who served in the US State Department from 1984 to 1988. “A lot of people had a comforting and benign view of what a position is – The American world would be like – it would just accommodate other people with different opinions – so for the consequence to be war, it’s shocking to the people.
“It should cause them to rethink their previous assumptions about what America should do,” he added.
Any attempt to reconstruct an intervention model must, however, face a heavy recent history. The costly “war on terror” that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, shifted the country’s attention and undermined the world’s confidence in American intentions and competence.
To invade Iraq despite global protests, to see wars drag on for decades without much progress — that was too much for the American public, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an interview from the Libyan-Tunisian border.
“You have this exhaustion of dying for nothing,” she said. “For the Taliban to return to power, and with a corrupt Iraqi policy led by Iran.”
The American way of the world took another hit with the global financial crisis of 2008. Wall Street and Washington, not Moscow or Beijing, wreaked economic havoc without addressing the rising inequality associated with globalization. Then came President Donald J. Trump, who turned all the frustration into an inward-looking grievance campaign.
In his view, the United States had become a victim rather than a beneficiary of the “rules-based order”. European nations, for Mr. Trump, were not allies but parasites. And while Mr. Biden has since argued that “America is back,” most people are still wondering: for how long?
Polls have consistently shown waning interest in international affairs among Americans and waning confidence in democracy’s ability to deliver on its promises. Political divisions reached levels high enough to be compared to the civil war.
“The biggest challenge to the system is the national base of American power,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under President Barack Obama. “It’s still the world’s only military power, it’s still the biggest economy, and it’s the only power that brings other countries together. The question is: does domestic politics allow America to play this leadership role?
After four years of “America first”, “there are”, Mr. Daalder said, “justifiable doubts”.
Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi has more than doubts.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said what is happening in Ukraine “will not change Xi’s ideological beliefs one iota”.
While resisting invasion may shed some light on his calculations on Taiwan, China’s most powerful leader in decades ultimately believes “the US-led Western world is fading and authoritarianism is the future,” Storey said. “As the liberal order has rallied in defense of Ukraine, it will see this as a failure.”
To be more than that, many argue that American politics must heal — fast. The nation’s leaders must explain the value of engagement, as Roosevelt did before World War II, historians note, and reinvigorate both American democracy and the institutions of the international order, which have yet to change. significantly or expand their ability to cope with challenges. from China and Russia.
At the same time, other democracies must also shoulder more of the international burden, with money, defense and summoning allies.
Daalder envisions a system in which the world’s 12 or 13 largest democracies share leadership, “where the United States is perhaps first among equals, but still one among equals.”
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney and author of a book on Roosevelt, described such a grouping as one in which countries like Germany and Australia are stepping forward for bigger roles.
“The beneficiaries of the liberal international order understood that they had to serve in its bodyguard,” he said.
Mr. Crocker was one of many to put the issues in the harshest terms.
“If we come out of Ukraine with the narrative that a united NATO, a united Europe, was able to take on Putin,” he said, then “we are moving forward to face the inevitable challenges ahead in from a position of unity and American leadership”. .”
If Russia gains control of most or all of Ukraine and Mr Putin is still in charge of a largely stable Russian economy, he added, “welcome to the new world of disorder “.