How is the Liberal International Order Being Challenged?

By Yi Qian

The liberal international order emerged in the aftermath of World War Two and generally means the construction of a “rule-based” order anchored in a range of international institutions with the United Nations at its centerpiece. The liberal international has offered a function in organizing international space. But now it is facing many challenges. 

The first challenge notably comes from the rise of China. Nowadays, there is palpable anxiety in Western capitalist democracies that the rise of China will undermine the foundation of the liberal international order. In the past few decades, international society has witnessed the meteoric rise of China in politics, economy, and the military. It is unprecedented that the largest economy in the world would be a non-western power, which means that there are not just Western democracies driving the global order now. Thus, Western countries worry that the transformation from West to East might change the balance of power and bring instability to the international system. 

The West is not only concerned about the shift in material balance of power, but also the politico-cultural change China brings. In this aspect, China has provided a “Chinese model” of “market socialism” as a new approach to the conduct of governance. China has offered this model as an alternative to liberal democracy for the rest of the world to follow, which poses a great threat to the democratic world order. Simultaneously, China is pursuing its geopolitical interests assertively and continuously demanding more say in global affairs, in an endeavor to reshape the international order through its own scheme. As China brings different values and norms to the table, the West afraid that the normative consensus that previously sustained the international order will fracture, or China would not commit to international law and the Western-construction of rule-based international order as a whole. Therefore, it remains a question that whether or not China’s growing capacity will be accommodated within the existing liberal international order.

The second challenge is the return of nationalism. According to the status quo, there is an astonishing resurgence of nationalism in contemporary international politics. For instance, Donald Trump’s debut on the international stage pushes further the alternation from integration to isolation, from globalist to nationalist. He questions the capability of the international organizations and multilateral agreements to do good to Americans, instead, he proposes the “America First” agenda as a right cause. It seems that the US has lost its appetite to shoulder the leadership of global politics, withdrawing from a bunch of agreements and organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Besides the US, there are many other cases as well. A majority of British people voted for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) because they feel their nation has delegated too much power to the EU and it is time to assert self-determination and sovereignty. In China and Russia, authoritative leaders are manipulating national sentiments to centralize power in their hands. All over the world, liberal democracies are waning, while authoritative political regimes are gaining power. In every sense of the word, nationalism organizes people into discrete sub-units below the level of the international system, chipping away the secure foundation of international order and ushering a new era of renewed instability and great power politics. Nationalism as a disintegrating force is spreading internationally, which is incompatible with the original commitment to shared values, interests, and purposes. Therefore, nationalism has been more prominent in world politics than it was before and it functions as a threat to global liberal order to some extent.

From what has been discussed above, the emergence of China as a powerful actor and the resurgence of nationalism challenge the validity and undermine the effectiveness of existing liberal international order. And this has left an unsettled problem for the international society to deal with.

This article written by Yi Qian, the APYouthS Ambassador of China, was submitted as a part of APYouthS’ Article Submission program. We are calling for enthusiastic and impassioned youths in Asia-Pacific who are willing to share their opinions on current situations of the world. Submit your article now through

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of Asia-Pacific Youth Service.

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