The True Global Order Crisis

Illiberalism is gaining ground.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 ignited a huge discussion over the nature and future of the liberal international order, which looked to be stuck between the Charybdis of illiberal great-power competitors and the Scylla of an adversarial US president. Despite the fact that Trump did not win the president in 2020, the liberal order is still under jeopardy. Recent events have only served to emphasize the enormity of the issues it faces—and, more importantly, that these challenges are simply one aspect of a far larger crisis threatening liberalism itself.

The major elements in both the Democratic and Republican Parties were devoted to the aim of establishing a US-led liberal international order for decades following WWII. They saw Washington as crucial to constructing a world based at least in part on market exchanges and private property, as well as the protection of political, civil, and human rights, representative democracy's normative superiority, and formally equal sovereign states cooperating through multilateral institutions. Despite its flaws, the post-Cold War system pulled millions of people out of poverty and resulted in a record percentage of humankind living under democratic governments. However, it also removed firebreaks that made it more difficult for political turbulence to spread from one level to another—for example, from the subnational to the national to the regional to the global level.

Key figures in established democracies, particularly in Europe and North America, believed that lowering international obstacles would help liberal movements and principles grow. For a time, it did, but the resulting international order now favors a diverse array of illiberal forces, including authoritarian states that reject liberal democracy outright, such as China, as well as reactionary populists and conservative authoritarians who position themselves as protectors of so-called traditional values and national culture while gradually subverting democratic institutions and the rule of law. Western illiberalism appears perfectly democratic in the perspective of many right-wing Americans and their international equivalents.

President Joe Biden began talking about "a war between the value of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies" soon after his inauguration. He was echoing a widely held belief that democratic liberalism is under attack from both inside and beyond. Authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies are attempting to destabilize crucial elements of the liberal international order. And the order's ostensible foundations, most notably the United States, are in risk of falling to illiberalism at home.

Whether they want to "make America great again" or "build back better," every American analyst appears to agree that the US must first straighten itself out in order to compete effectively with authoritarian major powers and promote the cause of democracy on the global arena. But the two major political parties have very different understandings of what this project of renewal entails. This schism is far greater than disputes over economic regulation and public investment. Partisans see the other side as an existential threat to the very survival of the United States as a democratic republic.


Although the United States is one of the most divided Western democracies, its political disputes and tensions are the result of larger, worldwide events. For example, the regressive right in the United States is linked to a worldwide network that includes both opposition political movements and ruling governments. Efforts to strengthen liberal democracy in the United States will have a cascading and often unforeseen impact on the broader liberal order; at the same time, politicians cannot put the country's affairs in order without addressing larger international and transnational issues.

All of this goes well beyond a new coat of paint for American democracy and a kitchen renovation. Simply recommitting the United States to multilateral organizations, treaties, and alliances would not solve the situation. It has structural roots. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to both internal and foreign illiberal influences due to the structure of the present liberal international order.

In their current form, liberal institutions cannot stem the rising illiberal tide; governments have struggled to prevent the diffusion of antidemocratic ideologies and tactics, both homegrown and imported. Liberal democracies must adapt to fend off threats on multiple levels. But there is a catch. Any attempt to grapple with this crisis will require policy decisions that are clearly illiberal or necessitate a new version of liberal order.


Critics of the idea of a new Cold War between China and the United States point out significant distinctions between today's reality and the Cold War's early decades. The Soviet Union and the United States were the geographic epicenters of distinct geopolitical blocs. Beijing and Washington, on the other hand, operate in geopolitical regions that are overlapping and interdependent. Politicians in Washington have been debating for years how many limits to impose on Chinese investment in the US. When it came to the Soviet Union, there was no such concern, and no need for it. The Soviet Union was never a large provider of completed goods to the United States or its important treaty partners; neither did American corporations outsource manufacturing to Soviet facilities.

A wide range of developments—all of which accelerated over the last three decades—have made the world denser with flows of knowledge and commerce, including the expansion of markets, economic deregulation, the easy mobility of capital, satellite communications, and digital media. People are more aware of what is happening in different parts of the world; formal and informal transnational political networks—limited during the Cold War by hard geopolitical borders and fewer, costlier forms of long-distance communication—have grown in both importance and reach.

The geopolitical environment that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union was confused by these developing events. Despite the ambitions of neoliberal politicians, no unified, uniform international system replaced the more divided international order of the Cold War; the globe never became "flat." Instead, by the turn of the century, the international order had become extremely fragmented. Many of the new democratic regimes that emerged in the 1990s were only shakily democratic; optimists made the mistake of dismissing early signs of weak liberal democratic institutions as minor stumbling blocks on the route to full democratization. Liberal ordering grew increasingly patchwork as it moved eastward throughout Eurasia. Some countries, such as China, have been able to reap the benefits of the liberal economic system without having to embrace the demands of political liberalism.

Liberal institutions cannot stem the rising illiberal tide.

Many observers predicted at the time that market development would result in a strong middle class, which would demand political reform. They maintained that the growth of a global civil society based on human rights, the rule of law, and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would aid in the cultivation and mobilization of pro-democracy forces, particularly in post-Soviet space. The Internet, which is commonly seen as an unstoppable force for liberty, would play a key role in spreading the irresistible attraction of both liberal economic principles and liberal political liberties.

Even after 2005, the last year in which worldwide democracy saw a net growth, according to the pro-democracy advocacy group Freedom House, there is reason to be optimistic. In retrospect, though, it appears utterly foolish.

The September 11 attacks prompted the United States to declare war on terrorism in 2001, only months before China formally joined the World Trade Organization. The Bush administration embraced a militaristic form of democracy promotion and adopted or extended a number of illiberal policies, including torturing "unlawful combatants" through "enhanced interrogation" techniques and "extraordinary renditions" to third-party governments. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as the preemption policy that accompanied it, strained ties between the US and European allies such as France and Germany even further. The "color revolutions"—liberal uprisings in post-Soviet nations (in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004)—and the Arab Spring, which erupted in 2010, highlighted the threat presented by liberal order agents including international institutions, Western NGOs, and social media. Authoritarian and illiberal regimes increasingly pursued strategies to inoculate themselves from these transnational liberal threats.

The peculiar fact is that the present liberal order works better for authoritarian regimes than it does for liberal democracies as a result of technology breakthroughs, policy decisions made by liberal powers, and increasing authoritarian behaviors. Authoritarian nations are far more effective than liberal democracies at limiting the impact of international civil society, multinational enterprises, economic flows, and even the Internet on their populace. Authoritarians can leverage global flow freedom—as provided by liberal policies, whether economic or political—to further their own illiberal power. They do it by interdicting, excluding, and regulating cross-national flows of ideas, organizations, information, and money that might jeopardize their dominance.


The openness of liberal countries—one of the core principles of such societies—has become a liability. A fundamental problem confronting U.S. policymakers—and one that is especially challenging to those whose assumptions were shaped by governing during the 1990s and early years of this century, when the United States exercised hegemony—is the adeptness with which illiberal states and political movements exploit an open and interconnected global system.

Openness is not producing a more liberal global media and information environment; authoritarians build barriers to Western media in their own countries while using access to Western platforms to advance their own agendas. For example, authoritarian states now enjoy expanded media access to the democratic world. State-run global media outlets, such as China’s CGTN and Russia’s RT, receive billions of dollars in government support and maintain a plethora of foreign bureaus and correspondents, including in Western democracies—even as authoritarian regimes increasingly exclude Western media. China expelled BBC correspondents and banned the British network from broadcasting in the country in 2021 for its coverage of abuses in Xinjiang.

Similarly, even when nations like China and Russia ban Western officials, scholars, and think tanks, authoritarian-sponsored organizations and lobbying groups continue to operate within open societies. Image is important to today's autocrats. They shape their worldwide personas and enhance their stature with both domestic and international audiences by utilizing new technology and social media platforms. They frequently use public relations agencies in the West to present their clients as popular at home, underline their geostrategic relevance, and sanitize their repressive and corruption history. Autocrats also finance think tanks and arrange "study tours" and other junkets to influence lawmakers in liberal democracies. Reputation management businesses, hired by illiberal governments and oligarchs from autocracies, comb the worldwide media for bad publicity and threaten lawsuits to stop inquiries.

A protest against the Hungarian government's use of Pegasus spyware, Budapest, Hungary, July 2021
Protesting against the Hungarian government’s use of Pegasus spyware, Budapest, July 2021
Marton Monus / Reuters

New means of local and multinational repression are enabled by digital technology. They have allowed security services in both powerful (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) and weaker countries (Belarus, Rwanda, and Tajikistan) to intensify campaigns to monitor, intimidate, and silence political opponents in exile and activists in diaspora communities—even those living in countries that are normally considered safe havens, like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Authoritarian regimes conduct significant digital monitoring of dissidents and journalists from other nations, as a recent investigation into the Israeli technology company NSO Group and its Pegasus malware revealed, frequently with the help of businesses headquartered in democratic states.


Western technology companies were once self-proclaimed champions of openness. Now, many are capitulating to pressures from their host countries to remove content and tools that could be used to facilitate mobilization against the regime. Just prior to the parliamentary elections in Russia in September 2021, the Kremlin convinced Apple and Google to remove an application developed by supporters of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny that was designed to help coordinate the opposition vote. Navalny accused the technology giants of acting as the Kremlin’s “accomplices.”

Authoritarians are also molding international organizations to their agenda. Under President Xi Jinping's leadership, China has worked hard to limit criticism of the nation in UN human rights forums. Beijing has attempted to "neutralize the potential of that system to hold any government responsible for major human rights crimes," according to the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch. Authoritarian states have formed coalitions such as the Like-Minded Group to combat criticism of individual countries' human rights practices, to protect state sovereignty, to prevent NGOs from being accredited, and to limit their participation in authorized UN processes such as the Universal Periodic Review. China currently leads four United Nations bodies and has pushed for its favored leadership candidates in others, such as the World Health Organization. In September, the World Bank Group canceled its influential “Doing Business” annual study after an external investigative report found that its leaders, for political reasons, had applied “undue pressure” on their staff to improve China’s position in the 2018 ranking.

Not only can authoritarian states operate freely in the universalist institutions of the liberal international order, but they are also constructing an ecosystem of alternative ordering institutions from which they exclude or significantly curtail the influence of liberal democracies. By founding new regional economic and security organizations, China and Russia can press home their regional agendas via institutions that openly reject the dissemination of political liberal norms and values, use those institutions to help organize illiberal blocs within more venerable international organizations, and maintain exit options should liberal ordering institutions become less welcoming to authoritarians.


The threat to liberal democracies also comes from within. The liberal order is anchored by two large federations: the United States and the European Union. Both are also home to some of the most potent and potentially consequential forces of illiberalism. These assume, broadly speaking, two forms: the illiberal actions that liberal democratic governments themselves take in seeking to counter perceived threats and the antidemocratic forces seen in illiberal political movements, parties, and politicians.

Democratic governments have always had to choose between liberty and security, and liberalism has always had to decide how much illiberal behavior to allow. For the bulk of the twentieth century, the United States government tolerated Jim Crow-style subnational racial authoritarianism and racial segregation, with disastrous results. Following 9/11, US national security strategy contributed to the current liberal order problem by promoting the notion of preemptive war and militarizing democracy promotion, among other things. The United States became the core of the 2008 financial crisis due to its embrace of speculative capitalism and highly funded economy. The worldwide epidemic has lately normalized stronger border restrictions and more stringent immigration policies, as well as undermining the credibility of refugee safeguards.

Democratic countries have undertaken measures that cut against the openness that characterizes the current liberal system in order to battle back against illiberal influences, most notably China. In order to maintain access to and dominance in strategically essential technology, Washington has utilized coercive measures to meddle in global markets. For example, security worries over Chinese monitoring of Western telecommunications traffic prompted the Trump administration to put significant pressure on its partners to reject Chinese 5G technology. Even many lawmakers and foreign policy officials in the United States who, unlike Trump, are devoted to market liberalism see this program as a success.

Liberalism risks undermining itself.

Genuine support for broad-based economic decoupling from China remains limited, but the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington has produced other, albeit partial, moves away from market liberalism in the name of competitiveness and strategic autonomy. Stuck in the reconciliation process at the time of this writing, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act is the first significant bipartisan legislation in years to embrace national industrial policy. In this respect, it represents a very limited reversal of the open liberalism, or neoliberalism, of the post–Cold War period.

The neoliberal variant of market liberalism—the push for ever-greater deregulation, privatization, and capital mobility that began in the 1970s—eroding social protections and increasing inequality, including by dramatically refashioning the tax code to benefit high-income earners and U.S. corporations. However, rather than altering these regulations, many American politicians prefer to criticize Chinese trade tactics. Tariffs on Chinese imports appeal to populist feelings and help a small number of employees in industries that compete with Chinese imports, such as steel. However, the damage it does to export businesses and consumers is much higher. The tariffs do not appear to have resulted in a new, improved commercial relationship with China so far.


Efforts to grapple with homegrown antidemocratic forces also threaten to undermine liberal norms and values. In the United States, liberals and progressives have called for changes in procedural rules to prevent democratic backsliding. They champion taking an aggressive stance against right-wing militias and paramilitary organizations, stacking the Supreme Court with liberal judges, and abandoning long-standing legislative practices, such as the filibuster. When overtly illiberal regimes take these same measures, observers rightly accuse them of undermining democracy.

The reality is that reactionary populism, conservative authoritarianism, and other antidemocratic groups pose a serious danger to liberal democracies. One of the two major political parties in the United States is still loyal to an authoritarian demagogue. The Republican Party is purging officials who stand in the way of efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election, motivated by the "Big Lie" (the objectively incorrect assertion that Democrats stole the election from Trump through widespread voting fraud). Efforts by Republicans to restrict voting are intensifying. Some states, such as Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, have already become de facto legislative anocracies, or government systems that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. If current trends continue, procedural adjustments may be the only way to prevent the United States' democracy from collapsing.


More broadly, liberalism risks undermining itself. At the heart of contemporary political liberalism lies the belief that certain rights and values are universal—that they exist regardless of differences among countries, cultures, or historical backgrounds. The human rights treaty system embraces this understanding; signatory states commit to protecting specific rights, such as due process, and to refraining from particular violations of human rights, such as torture.

The expansion of liberal rights in recent decades, however, has fueled a growing backlash. The Obama administration’s effort to promote LGBTQ rights abroad, usually through the State Department, sparked anger among conservatives in countries as different as the Czech Republic and Uganda. The sprawl of contemporary liberal values—from LGBTQ rights to gender equality to the rights of migrants—invites pushback in both democratic and nondemocratic states. It provides illiberal politicians with opportunities to isolate specific liberal values and use them as wedge issues against their opponents.

Through a campaign to discredit LGBTQ rights as a stalking-horse for child sexual assault, Moscow, maybe unintentionally, succeeded in casting itself as a paragon of conservative values. This type of tactic isn't really unique. What's noteworthy is how it's grown international, serving as a foundation for illiberal policies in other nations. By linking reformers to illiberal ideals, such wedge methods are also used to weaken support for reformers in the international community. Following a Kremlin-backed information campaign that highlighted bigoted statements he had made in the past regarding Central Asian migrants, Amnesty International temporarily withdrew Navalny's "prisoner of conscience" designation.

Putin at the crowning ceremony of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, February 2009
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 2009
Ria Novosti / Reuters

The point is not that the United States should retreat from making LGBTQ rights part of its foreign policy or that Navalny’s alarming views on Central Asian migrants are of no consequence. It is that in advancing liberal rights, policymakers have to navigate significant tradeoffs, inconsistencies, and contention.

This goes beyond the promotion of democracy and civil rights. Corruption has been rightly identified as a national security threat by the Biden administration. However, anti-corruption efforts will have a negative impact, posing a national security risk. Aggressive actions will put political oligarchs in Europe and worldwide in danger. Anti-kleptocracy efforts, such as expanding diligence requirements for service providers and prohibiting foreign officials from accepting bribes, are likely to be seen as a serious threat to corrupt autocrats' regimes, and they will rally their people against these new forms of "domestic interference." Important actions to preserve liberalism, even if they are defensive in nature, will elicit opposition to the liberal order—and not just from outside. A wide spectrum of politicians, businesses, and consultants in the United States are threatened by anti-corruption regulations. Such measures have been another cause of party divisiveness in recent years, particularly since the 2016 election.


That divide isn't confined to a single country. Reactionary populism in the United States is one aspect of a worldwide trend. The widespread popularity of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban among right-wing journalists, ethnonationalist leaders, and conservative celebrities (especially in the United States) demonstrates the transnational nature of illiberal networks. Orban has become as a media favorite of the American right: a head of state who denounces the influence of benefactor George Soros, advertises anti-immigration measures, and defends traditional values. He was not invited to the scheduled Summit for Democracy in December by the Biden administration.


The Conservative Political Action Conference—a major forum of the American right—plans to hold its 2022 annual meeting in Hungary. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson—arguably the single most influential conservative media personality in the United States—spent a week in Hungary in the summer of 2021 to interview Orban, praise his government, and tell his audience that Hungary is a model democracy. Carlson echoed Orban’s vision of a world in deep cultural crisis, with the fate of Western civilization supposedly in the balance; that perceived peril is the glue that unites the transnational right.

The guardrails designed to ward off illiberalism have failed.

Orban consolidated power through tactics that were procedurally legal but, in substance, undercut the rule of law. He stacked the courts with partisans and pressured, captured, or shut down independent media. Orban’s open assault on academic freedom—including banning gender studies and evicting the Central European University from Hungary—finds analogies in current right-wing efforts in Republican-controlled states to ban the teaching of critical race theory and target liberal and left-wing academics.

The barriers erected to keep illiberalism at bay have fallen short. R. Daniel Kelemen, a political scientist, points out how the EU, which is meant to be a paragon of liberal democratic values, did almost nothing to prevent governments in Hungary and Poland from gradually eroding their democracies. Anti-EU parties, such as Hungary's Fidesz and Poland's Law and Justice party, are essentially shielded from censure by the European Parliament's regional party groups. The shared European labor market makes it easier for political opponents and frustrated citizens to flee to other European nations, undermining the fight against illiberal policies at home.

These dynamics are not dissimilar to those that exist in the United States federal system: courts protect antidemocratic practices like extreme gerrymandering and targeted voter suppression, and some Republican-controlled states have enacted laws allowing legislatures to intervene in local election oversight under the guise of preventing fraud. For fear of personal political ramifications or harming the party's election prospects, many Republican leaders who have become concerned about the party's sudden authoritarian shift have done little or nothing in reaction.

The elevation of Orban by right-wing academics and television personalities in the United States is a high-profile example of how the liberal order's deep linkages may aid the emergence of antidemocratic groups. Another example is Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's sons, who is a member of a nationalist organization created by US reactionary populist Steve Bannon. Dark money from the United States underwrites illiberal parties and movements abroad. At the same time, kleptocrats launder funds into U.S. bank accounts, real estate, and even politics. This stokes populism in the United States via its corrupting influence.  Many oligarchs and kleptocrats see the patrimonial governing style of reactionary populists such as Trump as supportive of their interests and so are happy to support them in any way they can. Russian financing, often funneled through Kremlin-affiliated oligarchs, subsidizes right-wing and culturally conservative organizations in Europe and North America with the aim of undermining the liberal order.

Trump speaking in Warsaw, Poland, July 2017
Trump in Warsaw, Poland, July 2017
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

As divisions in many nominally liberal democracies develop, a US foreign policy oriented at safeguarding liberal democracy would necessitate the Biden administration—or any future Democratic administration—taking sides in the domestic politics of allied, democratic, and semidemocratic nations. When the Obama administration attempted this strategy, it was chaotic and ineffective. The Biden administration has notably avoided using Trump-era security promises to Poland to put pressure on the ruling Law and Justice party over the country's democratic backsliding, at least publicly.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has publicly promoted illiberal right-wing administrations in Hungary and Poland; it's probable that Trump's attempts to assist Andrzej Duda in the 2020 Polish presidential race helped him defeat the more liberal Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw's mayor. Neither the Trump administration nor the Trump-appointed ambassador to Hungary pressed Orban to reverse his decision in 2018 to evict the Central European University—established with money from George Soros—despite the fact that the university represented the largest single U.S. investment in higher education in post–Cold War Europe.


There is no question that a U.S. president who more openly and substantively aligns with center-right, center-left, and liberal parties overseas will risk further politicizing American foreign relations—most notably with respect to the broad transatlantic agenda that still commands support from influential Republicans. But as is the case with many of the dilemmas created by rising illiberalism, trying to avoid further politicizing this or polarizing that means, in practice, handing a substantial advantage to illiberal forces.


For many, this peculiar moment in the international order augurs the coming of a new cold war, driven by an intensifying rivalry between Beijing and Washington. But a better, albeit still strained, historical analogy can be found in the “Twenty Years’ Crisis”—the fraught period between World War I and World War II when democracies faced multiple pressures, including the Great Depression, reactionary conservatism, revolutionary socialism, and growing international tensions.

Liberal democracies looked to be adrift, internally divided, and unable to meet the challenge. They struggled to adapt to globalizing technical factors, which included new forms of mass communication that illiberal forces could effectively exploit. The rise of nativism was fueled by international migration. Illiberal policies and ideas were on the rise across the world, in both old and new democracies. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, democratic nations such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States did nothing to prevent the emergence of fascism and the descent of young democracies into conservative authoritarianism.

To defend liberal democracy, Washington will need to pick sides in the domestic politics of other countries.

The United States finds itself in a not entirely dissimilar position today. Republicans spent the 2020 presidential campaign calling the Democratic Party “communist” and associating their rivals with authoritarian capitalist China; right-wing media claim that Beijing is implicated in many of their favorite bête noires, including critical race theory. For their part, Democrats tied Republicans, and especially Trump, to the far-right ideology of white nationalism and invoked the specter of extremist militias and other domestic militant groups. U.S. policymakers struggle to pursue a coherent and effective foreign policy in defense of the liberal order for the simple reason that the American public is fundamentally divided.

This historical parallel even provides some limited grounds for optimism. The standard story holds that the vast spending program of the New Deal made liberal democracy attractive again; President Franklin Roosevelt transformed the United States into an “arsenal of democracy.” The United States, together with its allies, defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan on the land and the sea and in the skies. This comprehensive defeat, as well as the ample publicity given to the atrocities committed by the Axis powers, left fascism discredited and stigmatized.

This analogy appears to be favored by Biden. In terms of domestic policy, he has tried his own version of the New Deal by combining multiple major spending legislation, including the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and another infrastructure bill—all of which were in limbo as of this writing. In terms of foreign policy, Biden wants to form a coalition of democracies led by the United States to combat increasing illiberalism, particularly Chinese and Russian efforts to reshape the world order along more authoritarian lines. The White House thinks that gatherings of leaders, such as the Summit for Democracy, will help to strengthen this approach.


The odds, however, are not in the administration’s favor. The United States remains the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, but China is challenging the United States’ influence over the international order—and will continue to do so even if its dramatic rise tapers into stagnation. Washington is reaping the costs of two decades of failures in the Middle East and Central Asia. The United States burned through truly staggering sums of money in those failed overseas entanglements, ultimately purchasing the breakdown of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and the total collapse of its nation-building project in Afghanistan.

But the domestic front should be even more worrisome for the United States. The two parties may muddle through and avoid tanking U.S. liberal democracy—no small achievement considering Republican actions in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. There remains, however, the overwhelming crush of intense political polarization, hyperpartisan scorched-earth tactics, and legislative gridlock. These ills have generated a host of further problems. Both U.S. allies and U.S. rivals are acutely aware that any agreement they make with the United States may not outlive the sitting administration. The U.S. Senate cannot ratify treaties for the foreseeable future, which limits Washington’s ability to attempt significant reforms of the international order, including exercising consistent leadership on matters such as climate change.


After 30 years of worsening political polarization and dysfunction in the country, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has failed to reckon with this reality. Some acknowledge that promoting liberal democracy is now a less relevant priority than preventing democratic backsliding. But such policy debates still do not address the likelihood that the next administration will reverse any new policy, whether the consequences of such a reversal would be better or worse than never enacting a new policy in the first place, or how a new policy might be adjusted to make it harder to undo.

The United States cannot contemplate defeating its current authoritarian challengers in a total war.

Rather than tackling this issue head-on, foreign policy analysts propose, expressly or implicitly, that a certain approach—to managing US-China ties, for example, or international trade—will suddenly create the foundation for a new, bipartisan consensus. However, this puts the wagon ahead of the horse. There wouldn't be a severe domestic political issue to address in the first place if Americans could establish a broadly agreed sense of worldwide challenges and consensus on the goal of US foreign policy.

Within the liberal order's framework, there is a formidable collection of issues. The current situation is too tense, too fractured internally, and too asymmetrically susceptible. The liberal order will have to adapt in order to survive.

Officials in the United States who really want to safeguard the liberal order will have to choose sides both at home and abroad. As a result, the line between liberal and illiberal activities will be blurred. They will have to defy domestic standards, such as not altering the federal judiciary's size or jurisdiction due to its ideological bent. They'll also have to abandon post-Cold War standards like restricting preference for political groups inside and among key democratic partners. And they'll have to do it knowing full well that their actions might backfire, providing ideological justification for illiberal and antidemocratic activities both at home and abroad.

On the economic front, both Democrats and Republicans seem willing to sacrifice some amount of openness, but with very different ends in mind. Fortunately, most of the steps required to conserve the liberal order—such as clamping down on the flow of foreign kleptocratic money into the United States—would deal significant blows to external illiberal forces, even if they’re conceptualized as domestic policies.

Grappling with domestic illiberal threats remains a thorny exercise. Of course, the defense of liberal democracy has produced terrible excesses in the past, including ugly repression and horrific violence. U.S. officials adopted decidedly illiberal policies during the Red Scare that followed World War I, when the specter of Bolshevism loomed large. In trying to stem the rising right-wing extremist tide today, the United States risks returning to those dark times. But the alternative of inaction—Western liberalism’s failure to beat back fascism in the 1930s—remains a dangerous prospect.

History is an imperfect guide. Fascism was defeated—at least for a time—on the battlefields of World War II. Had Hitler been less interested in military conquest, fascist states might be a perfectly normal part of the current global landscape. The Soviet Union, for its part, collapsed because of a combination of the inefficiencies of its command economy, nationalist pressures, and policy choices that turned out very poorly.

The US cannot really consider defeating its present authoritarian adversaries in a complete war, as this would almost certainly result in a devastating nuclear exchange. China, its most major authoritarian rival, is a completely different polity from the Soviet Union. China is prosperous and relatively active, and while it has its share of structural issues, it is unclear if its flaws are any greater than those of the United States.

In short, neither of the historical paths to liberalism's ideological triumph appear feasible. As a result, liberal democracies must accept the fact that they will not reclaim the catbird seat of the international system anytime soon. As a result, the issue is no longer whether the liberal order will alter, but rather on what conditions.

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