by Evangelia Papanikolaou, Member of the International Relations & Foreign Policy Research Team

Contemporary researchers of international relations (such as Haas, Ikenberry, Kissinger, Harris etc) believe that the international liberal order, which was constructed after World War II and exists until today, is in an ambit of decomposition. This article explains the theoretical framework that built this global order, the elements which composed her, what are the threats today and how these threats can actually replace her with another appearing world order.  This research analyzes the opinion of some academicians who allege that the international liberal order is under deconstruction. At first, it prescribed the term “liberal” within the three liberal theories; the ones of liberalism in international relations, economic liberalism and political liberalism.  Then, based on the theories, the elements that compose her are analyzed and they are much interconnected. The consensus of the states for peace drives them in the creation of international cooperation  through the establishment of international organizations such as the UN and the WTO. Within the international organizations the protection of human rights has been instituted. In addition, the threats of this order are listed, and which came from the same elements that composed her, analyzes the fact that these kinds of threats in the future can manage to replace the order that exists 75 years now. 

Who is the International Liberal Order? 

After World War II and especially after the Cold War, we are witnessing the emergence of a new international liberal order. It was first created by the Western developed countries, mainly as a counterweight to the communist states, but then we notice the latter becoming part of this order (Ikenberry, 2018).

 After two Wars and the disintegration of the old status quo, the need arose in most states for cooperation and/or alliance that would prevent new conflicts in the future. The spread and creation of international organizations during the second half of the 20th century, such as the UN, the EEC, and later the European Union, NATO, etc. are strongly observed. But why was it called liberal and not differently?

 For three reasons we can claim that it was called liberal order. Firstly, because it coincides with the liberal theory of international relations. Liberals argue -in contrast to the realists- that states are not the only ones that have an effective role in the international environment and, according to Mitrany, transnational cooperation was necessary to solve common problems (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2013). 

Secondly, the term liberalism is equivalent to the liberal theory of economics. Whether through market regulation or deregulation, liberalism is the longest-running theory of market freedom to date. The Cold War was also a trade war, a long-standing struggle for the supremacy of capitalism or communism/socialism with the eventual collapse of the countries that supported the latest economic ideology.

Finally, the third element is that of political liberalism, which advocates the democratization of nation-states through the creation of parliaments and the election of representatives by the people themselves. On the other hand, in addition to the liberalization of the state itself, political and social rights were given to the citizens of the states, with the basic principles being individual freedom, property freedom, the right to vote and to be elected.

However, in this particular research, we will not engage directly with the economic and political theory of liberalism, but with that of international relations which contains elements from both political liberalism and economic liberalism. Economic liberalism due to the fact of economic openness of the international markets and political liberalism because of the institutionalization of the international system (Ikenberry, 2017).

The first component of the new international liberal order, which emerged from the wreckage of two major World Wars, is the consensus between states for lasting peace, despite being under the Cold War for four decades (Kudnani, 2017). Peacekeeping would be achieved through the establishment of the largest international organization -the UN- and especially through the Security Council and the implementation of international law that would limit states and be the balancer of power, whether regional or global. The security of national sovereignty contributed to the post-war era, as the main subjects of international law were fighting for peace and cooperation.

The second element, brought by all this interconnection of states between them, is the liberalization of the international market (Kundnani, 2017). The opening up of markets and trade and the cooperation of states under the «arbitration» of an international organization -formerly GATT now WTO- with the reduction of tariffs and the greater interdependence and interconnection of states are an integral part of the new democratic world that started developing, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the United States at the forefront and their willingness to integrate Russia into the construction of international order, they have managed to integrate it into the new reality. However, the question that concerns and will be mentioned below is whether they succeeded to such an extent that it would not be an obstacle later.

Finally, the last element we observe in the new order is the democratization of states through the proclamation of Human Rights and respect for the rights of the world community (Kundnani, 2017). With the creation of the UN, the United States, where it was one of the few countries to emerge unscathed from World War II, sought to consolidate the democracy it advocated, in other states too. The Charter of Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly, protected and safeguarded the rights of citizens vis-a-vis states, but both the United States and other countries that were main factors until the end of the Cold War violated what they advocated. Thus, through the liberal order of things itself, we can discern its vulnerabilities that we now notice decomposing it and justifying those who claim that the status quo, as we know it nowadays, can change in the future.

By quoting its components, all the points that threaten it today were outlined. In fact, the very ones who created it and became part of it are the ones who threaten it. 

The failure of international organizations to arbitrate the unbridled struggle for state power was evident, especially given the weak role of the UN Security Council and the Organization itself. States, according to Kissinger, tend to interpret the concepts of international law, democracy, and other concepts that occurred in the second half of the 20th century and therefore use the gaps created by the different interpretations of these texts as an advantage. In consequence of this situation conflicts between them aroused, causing in various regions, such as Eurasia, daily threats, and violations of Europe’s borders by Turkey. According to Haas «Russia violated the most basic norm of international relations when it used armed force to change borders in Europe, and it violated US sovereignty through its efforts to influence the 2016 election» (Haas Richard). It can automatically be understood that what the West tried to achieve and «embrace» Russia in the new reality it had created under the leadership of the United States, this act of Russia to corrupt a democratic institution caused a rift in the status quo. 

The second and most important threat to the liberal world order is its «maker», the US. With the end of the Cold War, the United States was found to be the only world superpower, therefore a force without purpose and competition. After 9/11 and the war on terror, most foreign operations were attempted, such as in Iraq, except on vague assumptions and assumptions that did not have the agreed public opinion. In the following years, until 2011, there was a stabilization of the existing international system. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the United States for many theorists, especially those of realism, did not rise to the occasion. With two wars still left, in Syria and Yemen, with no real end in the near future and the Trump phenomenon weakening the US role and turning to US isolation, the world liberal class is virtually locked in.

Specifically, Haas reports on the Trump phenomenon «Under President Donald Trump, the US decided against joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. It has threatened to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. It has unilaterally introduced steel and aluminium tariffs, relying on a justification (national security) that others could use, in the process placing the world at risk of a trade war. It has raised questions about its commitment to NATO and other alliance relationships. And it rarely speaks about democracy or human rights. “America First” and the liberal world order seem incompatible» (Haas Richard).

However, it should not be overlooked that the US is not the only actor that has the potential to disrupt the multipolar system of the 21st century, but also the EU, Russia, China, North Korea, i.e. states or groups of states that have a significant role to play in regions around the world.

In recent years we have observed the emergence of many regional powers that have managed to reshape the balance of power in their regions. China is the most typical example of potential hegemony. It is well established and economically developed, it has been strengthened militarily and it is the main threat to the USA.

The Communist Party, which has ruled China from 1947 to the present, now argues that in order for the rest of the world to develop economically as they do, they must have an authoritarian regime. The Chinese themselves have clearly not accepted the term «authoritarian» as the West has rendered it in various regimes that are not or do not appear to be rule of law advocating democracy. At the same time, other regimes similar to China exist and threaten the balance of power, such as Turkey and Russia. The latter, due to the isolation imposed on it, becomes  today China’s main ally, and leading to the treatment of the liberal class by states that are diametrically opposed and different from the foundations and values ​​it advocates. 

Thus, a brief discussion about a new Cold War, a Cold War of the modern era with different terms and limits from the previous one, but also with possible different consequences. The US behavior with its last President underestimating the alliances established by its predecessors and the devaluation of threats against like-minded countries, changed the balance of power leading to the shaking of the liberal class and its replacement in the future.


History has shown that the existing orders can be replaced by others. The Peloponnesian War changed the order set by Athens with the Delian alliance, just as the Congress of Vienna abolished France’s expansion with the Napoleonic Wars and  made  a new reality. The liberal international  order was to be a class that helped modernize states, defend and enshrine civil rights in both domestic and international instruments, and lay a new foundation in the world economy, trade and cooperation between the leading players  of the international system. 

The components that were used to build this class, were at the same time  its weakest points. States now interpret external phenomena based on the state ideology and represent it in the various organizations that are part of it. They defend their national interests by bringing them forward in the daily dialogue and trying to impose them on others with the ultimate goal of their external empowerment and internal legitimacy.

Because of these conflicting interests, many states give in to the interests of others, because they did not want to emerge crises between them and to inadvertently provoke tensions. This attitude does not help the international environment and leading players to adopt effective solutions in order to confront this transition from the existing class to a new one or to confront the phenomena of the pathogenesis of the liberal order. 

States should cooperate if not all, at least those who continue to advocate the values ​​of liberalism in order to find solutions to the states that threaten it. This cannot be achieved by one state alone, but «in order to form an international order, the participants in it must acquire a second culture» (Kissinger 2014) that transcends national boundaries and is acquainted with the international ideal.


[1] Baylis, Smith, Owens, (2013), «The globalization of international politics», Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Haas, R. (2017), «Liberal World Order, R.I.P», Council of Foreign Relations, Ανάκτηση από εδώ

[3] Harris, P.(2015), “Losing the International Order: Westfalia, Liberalism and Current World Crises”, The National Interest, Ανάκτηση από εδώ.

[4] Ikenberry, J. (2017), “The end of Liberal International Order?”, International Affairs, Volume 94, Issue 1,  Ανάκτηση από εδώ.

[5] Kissinger, H. (2014), «World Order», London, Penguin Books Ltd

[6] Kundnani, H. (2017), «What is the Liberal International Order», GMF, Ανάκτηση από εδώ.

[7] Patrick, S. (2019), «The liberal world order is dying. What comes next ?», World Politics Review, Ανάκτηση από εδώ.

[8] Westad, O. (2019), «The sources of Chinese Conduct. Are Washington and Beijing fighting a new cold war? », Foreign Affairs.