So, the liberal order is in free fall? Not so fast



by Robert Muggah & Taylor Owens

The Globe and Mail
January 10, 2018

For the first time in over half a century liberal democracy is in retreat. The democratic waves that ebbed and flowed between the 19th and 20th centuries appear to be receding once more. The signs of pushback against liberal values and democratic institutions are not just visible in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, but also in the strongholds of Western Europe and North America. After triumphantly declaring the "end of history" in 1989, scholars like Francis Fukuyama now fear that the world is moving from a "democratic recession" toward a "democratic depression."

With illiberalism on the rise, there are fears that this could be the year the global liberal order dies. The order consists of a dense network of international agreements, trade arrangements and military alliances. Drawing on enlightenment era values of liberty and reason, it was constructed by U.S. President Roosevelt and the Western allies in 1945. Its express purpose was to prevent the recurrence of war and the economic nationalism that inspired conflict to begin with. While the order has come under criticism in the past, it has never experienced anything quite like the assault of the present.

At the centre of the global liberal order are a clutch of organizations designed to defend democratic governance, open economies and common security. Among them are the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (all founded in 1945), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that later became the World Trade Organization (in 1995), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (in 1949) and others. Taken together, their express goal is to generate positive sum, or win-win, solutions. While critics routinely grumbled about their legitimacy, effectiveness and overstretch, on balance, they have helped preserve stability, extend democracy and expand economic opportunity.

While the global liberal democratic order is most certainly down, it is far from out. According to the Polity Project which tracks trends in autocracy and democracy, democratic governance is still spreading. In 1989, at the time of Mr. Fukuyama's pronouncement, there were 52 democracies. By 2009, at the start of the Obama administration, the number had risen to 87. Today there are at least 103, accounting for over 60 per cent of the world's population. Even China and Russia are less repressive to their own populations than in the past. It is true that some democracies in parts of Western and Eastern Europe have experienced set-backs and a spike in reactionary nationalism, but these are nevertheless remarkable achievements.

So what explains the fears of a democratic deficit and the decline of the global liberal order? According to columnist Edward Luce, a big part of the story has to do with the spectacular rise of China. The country's economic growth is nothing short of breathtaking: Its GDP grew from $950-billion (U.S.) in 2000 to $22-trillion in 2016. What's more, China benefited from three geopolitical windfalls over this period – the Iraq War in 2003, the 2008 global financial meltdown and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Each of these developments bolstered the appeal of China's alternative, and authoritarian, pathway to development, emboldening autocrats who may have previously been swayed by the political and economic dividends of liberalism.

Another factor driving anxiety among supporters of the global liberal order is the eroding commitment to democratic principles inside Western countries themselves. Revolted by the election (or near election) of extreme-right parties and the rise of populists, moderate Europeans and North Americans are suffering from a crisis of confidence in their democracies. And not without good reason. Since coming into office, U.S. President Donald Trump has defunded the UN and denounced NATO, threatened to end multilateral trade agreements and badly damaged the trans-Atlantic relationship. On the domestic front, he has been widely perceived as defending white supremacists, denounced independent media and denigrated migrants. If the binding agents of democracy are trust and equal opportunity, the glue of autocracy is fear and discrimination.

Looking to the future, will the global liberal order survive the onslaught from within and without? Steven Pinker believes that the historical forces underpinning the forward march of liberal democracy – mobility, urbanization, education and connectivity – are not ending any time soon. Nor are international pressures for greater gender, racial and social equality. Mr. Pinker and other defenders of the liberal project are adamant that they are on the winning side of history. After all, authoritarian populism is an old man's game. Its supporters tend to be male, religious, less educated and in the ethnic majority. They complain of being strangers in their own country, and often dislike immigration and global governance. New studies of the election of Mr. Trump, Brexit and the rise of nationalist parties in Europe suggest that support falls off in relation to age.

This is not to say that the global liberal order is unscathed or not in need of fixing. Urgent repairs are required in liberal democratic states themselves – including addressing disproportionate representation that overweight rural areas in favour of urban ones (where most people live). Strategies to reduce the consequences of economic inequality are commendable alongside efforts to curb polarizing discourse and the stoking of inflammatory identity politics. To be sure, the global liberal order will survive in some form but it must also learn to accommodate a more pluralistic world. The U.S. will need to play a major role – deep global engagement is not optional – but it will also have to recognize the realities of a multi-polar world full of new and restless powers. The results will be halting and incremental, but it could well be more positive than a world of disorder.

A key requirement to ensure the reform and improvement of the global liberal order is reasoned and informed debate. The resort to hysterical narratives creates fertile grounds for extremism and charismatic demagogues. What is urgently required is a careful reflection on the nature of our civic discourse. The ways in which new technology platforms shape and amplify the worst of our human instincts must be brought squarely into the discussion. The business of liberal democratic politics and society is messy and confusing – but that does not mean it cannot be improved. This should not be the year that the liberal global order dies, but rather one where democracy sits confidently at the center of our public discourse.

Robert Muggah is the co-founder of Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group. Taylor Owen is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

Image credit: YouTube

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

No events are scheduled at this time.


Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email