Goodbye to all that: Is the international order as we know it over?
Building walls. Closing borders. Scrapping trade deals. Exiting international organizations. Across the world, a crop of politicians is pushing for dramatic changes to the agreements and institutions that have defined the international order since the end of the Second World War. In the United States, President Donald Trump has embraced the slogan "America First," an inward turn for the country seen as the linchpin of the international system. Is this the end of an era? That will be the question in the spotlight Friday evening at the semi-annual Munk Debates in Toronto. The Globe and Mail's Joanna Slater talked to the two speakers set to clash over the topic: historian Niall Ferguson and international-affairs expert Fareed Zakaria
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of 14 books, including most recently a biography of former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
How would you define the liberal international order?
This is one of these phrases that disintegrates the minute you start trying to define it. There's a rather academic view that says that, after World War II, the United States led an institution-building exercise that would create a world based on free trade and democracy and that paved the way to globalization and that we all lived happy ever after – except then these dreadful populists came along, and if only they would go away, we could have our liberal international order back.
I think one has to be a little careful with this nice-sounding term, "liberal international order." First of all, conservatives had as much to do with the international order after 1945 as liberals did. Secondly, I don't know how international it really was until relatively recently, since Russia, China and India didn't really enter the global economic system until the 1990s. Finally, it wasn't that orderly. It has been characterized by high levels of conflict – not as high, obviously, as the 1940s, but not exactly peace and tranquillity.
Is the international order as we've known it over?
We should recognize that it is certainly past its peak. The globalization process overshot and produced a quite legitimate backlash. While people like me and Fareed were enjoying ourselves at Davos and Aspen and saying how marvellous the liberal international order was, a rather large number of ordinary North Americans were not feeling quite so chipper.
What are the roots of that frustration?
If one is asking why the average household in North America did so poorly, or at least in no way improved its lot since around 1999, part of the answer is technology and part of the answer is globalization. But that distinction is a little arbitrary, because what distinguishes the technological revolution is precisely that things like iPhones could be designed in California but made in China. The paradox of the liberal international order is that it made a lot of technology affordable while at the same time destroying manufacturing jobs in what people like to call the heartland. That's where globalization overshot in economic terms.
It's a funny liberal international order that benefits primarily a communist, one-party state. But that is exactly what has happened. The principal beneficiary of this system since the 1990s has been China. While it's great to say that 300 million Chinese people have been pulled out of poverty, and I've nothing against those people, the reality is that there has been at the same time a significant erosion of living standards for middle-class and working-class Americans. One reason why Trump's arguments have plausibility and have attracted supporters is that he was the only Republican candidate – indeed the only candidate – who was prepared to say that the liberal international order has been more beneficial to China than it has been to the U.S. That's just true. One should stop pretending otherwise.
Does the fraying of the liberal international order make the world less stable?
One of the classic and bogus arguments that defenders of the liberal international order make is that it has been responsible for peace and that if you tamper with it we'll plunge into World War III. That's just a very implausible line of argument. It usually involves people conflating populism and fascism, which I'm constantly arguing against. The thing about nationalists is that they're not particularly interested in getting involved in wars in faraway places, whereas neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the 1990s and 2000s were all too eager to have boots on the ground.
I'd like to get your thoughts on the future of some of the building blocks of the international order. Will the European Union survive?
The European Union will turn out to have committed suicide because its leaders decided the monetary union would be the way to accelerate the process of integration and it has had the exact opposite effect. The EU got that wrong and then it got the immigration issue wrong. The Europeans forgot that borders are really the first defining characteristic of a state. As they became borderless, not only internally but externally, they made themselves open to a catastrophe, which was the uncontrolled influx of more than a million people.
How about the United Nations?
The UN is this giant hypocrisy where it pretends to be the parliament of nations but actually the Security Council is run by five great powers. And because they never can agree, it hardly ever does anything good. We've reverted to the Cold War norm, where the Russians oppose what we want to do and we oppose what they want to do. If the UN Security Council could actually agree on something, it would be the most powerful body in the world. When it has been able to act, it has been highly effective, from Korea to the first Gulf War.
What about the International Monetary Fund?
Well, Christine Lagarde is an old friend of mine, and I don't want to be mean, but the IMF has really become a kind of parody of itself. It has become involved in a series of huge, open-ended bailouts to countries that really shouldn't have needed its help – Greece being an obvious case, and Ukraine being another fascinating example. You could definitely argue that the IMF, like the World Trade Organization, suffers from a kind of institutional degeneration. You could say the same thing about the World Bank, which has become less and less convincing on issues of economic development. It turns out that the Chinese can do more for African infrastructure in 10 years than the World Bank could do in 50.
What makes you uneasy about the populist, nationalist backlash we're seeing now?
It's staringly obvious that there are some meaningful risks to the Trump presidency, as there are risks arising from Brexit. It's less obvious that there were meaningful risks to unfettered globalization. My position is that the beneficiaries of the liberal international order have failed to see that it has overshot. By and large, people in elite institutions don't get why people got so pissed – and they still don't get it. They don't consider the possibility that this dialling back of globalization was necessary and could, in fact, be beneficial. My worries about Mr. Trump are well known, but at this point I'm very fed up [with the] hysteria from Ivy League professors and Hollywood celebrities. There's been a kind of massive overreaction to last November's election. It has created a very distorting prism in which people focus on trivia like the President's tweets instead of asking: Are we in fact correct to challenge an international order which has been so harmful to the interests of a big chunk of our society? The important thing about this debate on Friday is it shouldn't be a debate about Donald Trump. It's perfectly possible to be critical of the liberal international order without being illiberal oneself.
Fareed Zakaria is the award-winning host of CNN's flagship global-affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He is the author of five books, including works on America's role in the world and the spread of illiberal democracy.
What is the liberal international order? How do you define it?
It's the world we live in. The best way to think about it is before World War II, the world we lived in was a world of realpolitik, of great power wars, of mercantilism. It was a world of constant strife and a great deal of economic turmoil. After World War II, we entered a world that has been marked by extraordinary political stability and broad economic prosperity. It's a world that began at its core with the West – with Canada, the United States and 10 countries in Western Europe – and slowly expanded to take up a large part of the world, with countries all over Latin America, greater parts of Europe and parts of Asia joining in, as it were. It's a world characterized by open trade, open commerce, open contact and a greater degree of rule-based order. It's not perfect. There are political conflicts. There are military conflicts. But if you compare the 75 years since World War II to the 75 years before World War II, it's night and day.
So is that world at an end?
Well, we speak at a good moment. I sometimes wonder whether we have just witnessed peak populism. Think of what's happened in the West in the last 100 days. You had an election in Holland in which the far-right populist candidate who promised to upend the liberal international order in Europe has lost. You had an election in France in which the far-right candidate who promised to upend the liberal international order has lost. Meanwhile, President Trump is at the lowest approval ratings of any president in reported history at this point in their term. What that shows is populism is great as a slogan. It gives voice to the frustrations that people have – some of which are understandable, some of which are, frankly, unsavoury. But at the end of the day, these are empty slogans.
You recently praised Mr. Trump's missile strikes on Syria, saying he had become presidential in that moment. Do you think he is now committed to safeguarding international norms?
You never know with Donald Trump. Let's be honest: We are witnessing a freak show in the presidency of the United States. We've never seen anything like it before. Trump does not regard political rhetoric as a mechanism to communicate an articulated sense of ideas. It's performance art. It's what makes sense in the moment. It could change tomorrow. The point I was making about his Syria strike was that, in many ways, the most dangerous aspect of Trump's presidency has been that he got elected on the premise that the president of the United States should try to withdraw from and therefore destroy the liberal international order. He didn't believe in NATO, he didn't believe in the World Trade Organization, he didn't believe in NAFTA. That would have been a systematic destruction of the world that the U.S. has built over the last 70 years. In doing the strike in Syria and then justifying it, Trump talked about the importance of upholding global norms, the importance of maintaining an America that was engaged in the world and paid attention to human-rights violations. All these things struck me as a very important shift.
What are the pressures facing the liberal international order at the moment?
It is an extraordinary achievement that has grown rapidly, faster than anyone could have ever imagined, encompassing more people than ever imagined, and as a consequence it is facing enormous stresses and strains. There is an old set of institutions that are trying to adapt to this enormous infusion of new players, new actors, new people. You can't pretend that having two billion people from the emerging markets come in to compete with Western workers in a very short period of time is not producing stresses and strains – of course it is. Technology is producing stresses and strains. Immigration is producing stresses and strains. All these are very real problems, and we'll have to grapple with them, but it seems to me that the idea that the answer, therefore, is to embrace a return to narrow nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and trade protectionism is a kind of madness. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The core message of all these would-be destroyers of the liberal international order is [that] the problem has been all this openness, so we'll close the borders, we'll beat up the foreigners, we'll keep out their goods and somehow you'll be great again. It's snake oil. You can sell snake oil to some people, but over the long run, it doesn't work. You're selling people on the idea that there are these simple fixes – that you put in barriers and borders and suddenly their lives will get better. They won't.
What's going to happen in the French election?
[Emmanuel] Macron will win almost inevitably. I know we're all supposed to beat our chests that we were wrong about Brexit and Trump, but let's remember those were contests where the two sides were evenly matched. Macron is leading [Marine] Le Pen by 30 percentage points in the polls.
What's the future of the European Union?
The EU grew too big too fast, and the euro was a bad idea from the start. Whether the euro survives or not in the long run, I don't know. But the EU is the most successful institutionalized political and economic co-operation in the world. It will survive.
How about NATO?
I confess, I had thought that NATO would be substantially weakened after the end of the Cold War. It didn't seem to have a reason to exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it has managed to become a kind of expression of Western solidarity and Western co-operation and, as such, is quite likely to continue. But it will have to keep finding new missions that reflect the problems of the age.
And the World Trade Organization?
The world is too interconnected already for something like the WTO to fall apart. There might be some minor modifications, but I can't see a wholesale unravelling.
How worried are you about the threat posed by disruptive actors on the international stage, such as Russia?
Russia poses a very serious threat because it is both a great power and a great spoiler. Russia is basically a Siberian Saudi Arabia. What does [Vladimir] Putin benefit from more than anything else on the international stage? It is disruption and instability, which allows Russia to exploit geopolitical fissures and sends the price of oil shooting up. Putin has created in Russia a kind of predatory petrostate that does not have a stake in the stability of the system. I do worry a lot about Russia and Russian meddling. I do think ultimately it remains, in global terms, a weak great power, one which can be contained as long as Western powers have the willpower and tenacity to do it.
The interviews have been condensed and edited.