The Road to Collapse of the Liberal International Order: The End of History?

The liberal international order faces internal and external threats. Hasan Suzen advises that building a sustainable international order must be a priority as the current liberal order faces a crisis.


There is a widespread acceptance that recent developments have raised concerns about the constancy of the liberal international order, established in the aftermath of World War II. In light of the Munich Security Report 2018, we could hold that the main threats emerging in recent decades to the liberal order are: the United States’ withdrawal from its flagship role in the liberal order, existential crisis of the EU, which has a long way to become a global actor, Russian aggression using primarily hybrid tactics and the Chinese assertive boom. The threats align with the decline of liberal democracy and civil liberties, the rise of nationalism and populism, erosion of the role of international institutions and agreements, and finally the rise of defence spending in many parts of the world.

No doubt that to cover all these issues is far beyond question. For this reason, I would like to identify potential threats, risks or early signals and emerging issues via horizon scanning at the margins of current thinking. Then I will go a little into the details about Russian aggression, which could have the biggest devastating effect on the liberal international order in the very near future.

In the midst of an era of competition between liberal and illiberal or autocratic states, the liberal vision of the West is under strain. As Trump, Putin, Erdogan and like-minded leaders in other parts of the world currently do; instead of promoting liberal values and universal democratic principles and rights, only pursuing national interest and, to a certain extent, leaders’ own ambitions, and advancing nationalist, pragmatist and populist approaches could easily pave the way for the collapse of the liberal order.

To be more specific, the efforts to pursue an independent grand strategy, such as “America first” and Brexit, albeit more slowly than expected, may have the welcome effect on the decline of internationalism. The pattern of withdrawal of the US in taking the lead in building regional and global institutions or maintaining alliances is likely to leave a vacuum, which Russia and China will look to fill. On the other hand, Trump also declared that he wants peace through strength. Contrary to his ambition, rather than strength based on shared values and interest, globally enjoyed unquestioned military dominance could easily become peace through war. If the US changes its course, it will have implications on international security and stability. Especially in an environment in which the effects of nationalist, far-right, and populist parties within the Western civilization have started to become obvious.

On the EU side, it is apparent that majority of the EU members see the Brexit decision as an act that has cracked the Union. Some core members led by France reacted against it with a lens of activism. Despite unexpectedly high economic growth and increased favourable public view of the EU, there have been other unprecedented developments that will likely impact the EU, such as Hungary’s and Poland’s confrontation with the Brussels institutions, Turkish issue, and refugee crisis. These developments potentially pose the greatest threats to the future of Europe. The EU’s political and institutional pillars seem to be losing their harmony and cohesion while struggling with these challenges.

Certainly, another threat associated with the rise of defence spending is the failure in arms control. The efforts to limit competition and reduce the danger of escalation are very far from the point that gives us hope to feel positively about the future of human civilization. In addition to the lack of progress in arms control, recent developments in new areas such as cyber domain, artificial intelligence, robotics could easily lead to a military escalation or catastrophic disaster. At this moment, we should revisit the nuclear crisis between the US and North Korea. Even though many think that a nuclear exchange between the US and North Korea is highly unlikely, needless to say, the risk of an accidental nuclear war is not purely hypothetical.

Turning to the interplays between parties, it has become increasingly clear that powers, such as China and Russia, do not want to be responsible stakeholders of the rules-based international order. At the very least, they never seem to avoid promoting their order. In this respect, Putin’s political warfare and hybrid model work as a genuine threat to institutional democracies. As recent developments regarding the military and infrastructure build-up in the disputed South China Sea and support to North Korea show, China also aims to transform its economic power into a growing role in diplomacy and international security.  Huntington’s argument in his “the Clash of Civilizations?” is remembered today primarily for the divide of “Western and Islamic civilizations.” But in line with the assertive rise of China, it is likely to be revisited as “Western and Chinese civilization” towards 2030.


After touching upon the threats to the liberal international order, I want to highlight Russian political warfare and hybrid model as a real, present and both internal as well as an external threat to the current order. It is crystal clear that the fundamental conflict underlying the crisis between the West and Russia is the difference in the view of the world order.

The current Russian political warfare strategy, dating back to the Bolsheviks, which were mainly shaped by Gerasimov (Chief of the Russian General Staff)’s doctrine, asks for a holistic, harmonized approach that comprises political, economic, humanitarian, informational, and other non-military instruments. With respect to the international security and stability, Russian aggression affects the liberal international order in three ways:

  • It destabilizes the global security status quo,
  • It threatens the institutional democracies’ solidarity and cohesion and undermines their roles in the international system,
  • It sets an example for other possible adversaries how they can target liberal democracies without triggering an armed conflict.

To deter Russian aggression and counter Russian efforts to divide and paralyze the liberal democracies; the West, notably NATO and the EU, must use a wide range of military, economic, political, and information tools. It is very likely that it will take time to unify these parties into a powerful political and to some extent a military front. But to set the conditions for wider cooperation, both NATO and the EU urgently need defense sector reform and redeveloping processes in some particular areas, such as decision-making, crisis response, as well as the concept of operational art to launch and counter political warfare and the hybrid model.

Developing their deterrence and defense capabilities has utmost importance for the West to keep dialogue channels with Russia open. To this end, the West should approach Russia through a sense of joint responsibility and understanding with a special focus on countering radicalism, violent extremism, and terrorism; organized crime; non-proliferation, the Middle East peace process and protection of human rights. Due to the true nature of international affairs and mutual dependency of the EU and Russia, we have come to realize that the EU must improve its cooperation with Russia in common areas.

To conclude, at first sight, horizon scanning may comprise futuristic nightmare scenarios. But a closer look reveals that the rising tensions between national, religious, cultural fault lines; regional and global rivalries; evil thoughts in politics, military, and to some extent media; and most importantly ill-advised, and arrogant leaders set the conditions for the collapse of the international order. Today, with a sense of déjà vu, we may be on the edge of collapse of the international order and another global war risk.

In essence, the Western, the EU in particular, counterrevolution against illiberal actors makes Europe an island of international stability and security. Building a sustainable international order must be the first priority for policy and decision makers; otherwise, we should prepare to welcome the end of history if the current liberal order collapses.

Hasan SUZEN is a PhD Candidate and research fellow at Beyond the Horizon, a nonpartisan, independent, and non-profit think tank organization in Brussels. He received master degrees from the Oklahoma University and the US Command and General Staff College about international affairs and security studies.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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