By John Selkowitz
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it marked the end of Communism in a nation that had been one of its strongest global advocates.
It also marked a new reality: that a coalition of liberal democracies led by the United States had emerged pre-eminent from the Cold War. There was widespread speculation that liberalism and globalization would forever dominate the world.
Fast-forward to today, and we see Russia and China promoting authoritarian capitalism around the world, challenging U.S. influence economically, militarily and diplomatically.
Liberal states — with open markets, democratic societies, civil rights and secular governments — would be better placed to handle this challenge if their coalition were unified.
But key countries that have led the global liberal order seem to be backing away into isolationism, raising an important question: Will the liberal order survive?
Liberal democracy is at a crossroads.
Last June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, threatening EU unity and giving a lift to euro-skeptics across the continent.
Then in November, Donald Trump — who has often spoken out against key aspects of the liberal order — shocked the world by winning the U.S. presidential election.
Trump has raised eyebrows in Europe by seeming to question the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, which since World War Two has been a pillar of Western security and which during the Cold War was a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.
Trump has raised questions about the nature of Washington’s defense commitments in Asia, where Japan and South Korea are leading models for liberal democracy. Some fear that any weakening of longstanding U.S. military support for these countries could redound to the benefit of Russia and China.
It’s clear that liberal democracy is at a crossroads. At such a moment, it is useful to remember that the liberal order has faced similar challenges in the past.
In the 1920s and 1930s, isolationists kept the United States out of the League of Nations — the predecessor of the United Nations — and were hesitant to stand up to the rise of fascists in Europe.
The Great Depression weakened the U.S. and Western European economies at the same time that Adolf Hitler offered an alternative, national socialist model that eventually drew strength from its expansionist and militaristic pursuits.
There’s a chance nationalists could be in power for some time.
In the end, Britain, the United States and their allies were able to defeat fascism in Europe and Asia, but not before liberal democracies teetered on the edge of defeat.
After World War Two, Washington and its victorious allies took the lead in setting up organizations that have been at the heart of the global liberal order ever since: the UN, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization) and eventually the EU.
Western democracies thrived for the most part in the 1970s and 1980s, while the Soviet Union stumbled and eventually crumbled.
Today’s isolationists in the United States and Europe may eventually fade away, yielding political power to leaders committed to deeper international cooperation and open economies. But there is a chance that nationalists could be in power for some time to come.
The stakes for the global liberal order that has dominated the developed world since World War Two could not be higher.
John Selkowitz is in his second-to-last year at the Greens Farms Academy secondary school in the U.S. state of Connecticut. He is interested in history, geography and international relations, and enjoys playing squash.