Did you notice how China brokered the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Or that Turkish President Erdogan recently announced an extension of the deal that allowed exports of Ukrainian grain? Remember the 2014 Minsk agreements among representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE which sought to end fighting in Donbas? All three negotiations centered on autocratic rulers; Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Türkiye and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Where was the United States in these major events? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Central Asia was not in the same league. One could almost be nostalgic for Henry Kissinger and his legendary shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East or opening to China.
The three above examples of autocratic diplomacy show the decline of America’s role. To give a specific example of the decline of the U.S. role in the Middle East; on his trip to Saudi Arabia last year, President Biden declared about U.S. policy in the Middle East: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” Last week’s rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, suggests that this is precisely what has happened. But that is only the tip of an iceberg describing the U.S.’s international decline.
It is banal to say that the United States is in decline in economic comparison to China. It is not banal to say that the liberal international order established by the United States and other Western powers after World War II is being challenged by countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS).
Narratives of democracies versus autocracies miss these much deeper changes that are taking place.
To set the context of where we are and where we were; from 1980-1990 the United States, Germany, France, and Japan made up 44.2 percent of contributions to global nominal GDP economic growth according to the International Monetary Fund. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa made up 4.8 percent. By 2010, the numbers had radically changed. The “liberal” countries made up 25.6 percent. The BRICS made up 27.5 percent.
An obvious response to these statistics is that focusing on economic indicators misses the larger question of values. While various institutions were established after WWII based on values such as human rights and international cooperation through the United Nations, it is obvious that other institutions are now being created under the leadership of non-Western actors with different values, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the world’s largest security regional organization in terms of geographic scope and population, or the economic Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with China and 14 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region with 2.2 billion people and 30% of the world’s economic output.
These new organizations feature forms of cooperation not under Western leadership or based on Western values. The United States relative decline, therefore, must be seen in the context of a larger diffusion of power.
Where is this leading? At a recent academic conference, Professor Kyle Lascurettes of Lewis & Clark College, proposed a distinction between the post WWII liberal international order dominated by the United States and Europe and an evolving global international order with no obvious leader. His point was that functional issues, such as trade, climate and global health can be agreed upon by countries with different visions of how societies should be organized. Instead of arguing about whether democratic capitalism or authoritarian socialism are the best systems, agreements can be reached on other issues less ideological.
Global cooperation can exist in different forms in different venues. Within the liberal order, having countries be part of the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization does not mean they will agree in the UN Human Rights Council or the UN Security Council on issues of human rights or war and peace. Nor does it necessarily lead to submitting contentions to arbitration before tribunals like the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the RCEP are not Western based and outside the traditional liberal order, but there is no reason why they cannot cooperate on specific issues with organizations like the European Union.
A new global order could be based on thin cooperation, somewhere between mere co-existence and a deeper integration and robust cooperation. Technical issues and globalization force some form of interaction that does not necessarily lead to full integration. There can be a “géométrie variable” of relationships between countries and institutions with very different political systems.
That is the distinction between the liberal international order and some evolving global order. The first has been dominated by the West. The second will not be dominated by any major power, not even China. It will reflect a diffusion of power, a new form of global order according to Lascurettes.
On a positive note; while the West and the United States may bemoan their decline in leadership, the new global order will be more democratic, more horizontal and less vertical in its organization. The liberal international order has not been truly democratic since it excludes those countries that are not democratic – think of China before its recognition and admission to the UN or North Korea, or many of the other countries that are victims of various forms of sanctions and abstained in condemning Russia in the UN General Assembly.
The decline of the liberal international order does not necessarily lead to anarchy. On the contrary. For ardent democratic enthusiasts, it could mean more equitable distribution of world power and a more democratic global system. If leaders of the liberal order feel threatened by this vision, it can only mean that they are more interested in their own power than true democracy.