By Griffin Edwards ’17
Since the 1940s, there are certain mores that nearly every world-power state has followed fairly closely, largely to avoid another set of World Wars. Agreements and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as Bretton Woods, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, NATO, the Warsaw Pact, GATT, and a slew of others encouraged diplomatic cooperation between nations for the sake of economic prosperity, national security, and general goodwill.
This kind of cooperation is typically called “liberalism” in modern International Relations circles. Liberal-style international cooperation was so strong at one point, the UN itself fought a (nearly successful) war in Korea to contain communism, led by US General Douglas MacArthur.
Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, liberalism was the norm. The foundation of economic unions such as the EU, NAFTA, and ASEAN only strengthened its hold on international relations policy, and liberal organizations, and liberalism steamed ahead into the twenty-first century, seemingly invincible.
However, recent events may spell the downfall of the seventy-year-old international status quo. And this largely stems from a resurgence in right-wing nationalism in “the West”- that is, Europe and the United States.
Brexit is an outstanding example. After spending more than 40 years in the European Union, as of 2016, the United Kingdom is preparing to bid farewell to the political, economic, and social partnership for a variety of reasons ranging from refugees to economic policy. Since Brexit, European nations see Britain’s egress as pretense and precedent for leaving themselves: France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria found large portions of the population in favor of holding their own referendums regarding EU secession. And without the UK, Germany is the only outstanding economic power in the region. Although Scandinavian and Baltic economies are currently stable (more so than Western European and Mediterranean economies), no single economy is large or diverse enough to fill a leader’s shoes. Were Germany to leave the EU, the confederation would be without a de facto leader and would almost certainly crumble. And with the German election less than a year away, Merkel’s days may be numbered.
Britain’s goodbye to a long-standing institution isn’t an isolated incident. Last week, Russia announced its intention to leave the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to prosecute individuals for war crimes and other international law violations. The ICC is the epitome of a liberal intergovernmental organization built on norms established in the 1940s and 50s. However, thanks to a recent UN report labeling Russia’s annexation of Crimea an “occupation” and accusing Russia of human rights abuses in Ukraine, Russia now joins the company of Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa in leaving the ICC. In doing so, Russia not only expresses contempt for ICC, but also for the UN as a whole- two of the most integral liberal institutions on the global stage today.
In Europe especially, it seems, the liberal world order is beginning to fray. But that’s not an entirely bad thing. Some organizations are stale, 70-year-old leftovers. NATO in particular has long overstayed its welcome: established in 1949 to “contain” Russia for the sake of direct security interests, and countered by the Eastern Bloc’s Warsaw Pact, NATO no longer has a single, clearly-defined purpose. What’s more, NATO’s current military endeavors are problematic: while performing airstrikes in Libya, NATO aircraft carriers were notoriously costly and ineffective, some days managing only a single airstrike. In Syria, NATO airstrikes come in close contact with Russian activity, which has created a fair amount of friction between NATO and Russia, only exacerbated by NATO activity in the Baltics. Old habits die hard, and as NATO continues to prepare for war against Russia, it may actually, ironically, provoke it.
Lastly, there’s the wild, or Trump, card: America’s next president. As a proud political outsider, Trump is bound to be skeptical of the crumbling liberal institutions, especially those touted Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. In addition, he’s been fairly outspoken against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, claiming that it will “rape our country”. A Trump presidency will, most likely, see America also disengaging from these institutions. But this doesn’t mean a period of isolationism is looming: Trump has already been in contact with Vladimir Putin and Theresa May. Trump’s foreign policy could lead to more direct interaction between states, rather than interaction through organizations. He may choose to deal directly with leaders rather than via liberal organizations.
We’re entering into a brave new world of international relations, brought on by a resurgence of nationalism and skepticism of international cooperation. Domestic politics aside, doing away with fading institutions created to deal with now-irrelevant problems could be beneficial. Direct relations between states may be more effective than multilateral agreements. However, that’s not to say that all intergovernmental organizations are unnecessary. The missions of intergovernmental organizations like the WHO and UNICEF are certainly noble, and their work has greatly benefited developing nations through public health initiatives. Will a less-liberal world order do away with these organizations as well?
The landscape is changing, albeit slowly. Whatever happens, the field of international relations is in for a shake-up, if it hasn’t already struck. Perhaps a new specter is haunting Europe: one of nationalism, populism, and skepticism.