Published: 02:09, May 19, 2023 | Updated: 10:36, May 19, 2023
China should not be blamed for decay of 'liberal international order'
By Lau Siu-kai

In recent years, to contain and isolate China, the United States has repeatedly accused China of continuously ignoring, abusing, distorting, undermining, or violating the rules and institutions of the "rules-based" "liberal international order" (LIO). 

The US alleges that the goal of China is not only to undermine this international order but to build a China-centered, self-seeking and "authoritarian" international order. US President Joe Biden stated in his National Security Strategy 2022 that "China is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective."

Long before the US accused China of undermining the international order, the LIO was showing signs of continuous erosion and unsustainability. It's not fair to blame China for its decay. Recently, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made a rare acknowledgment in a speech that "the last few decades revealed cracks in the foundations of the international economic order". That is to say, the LIO has been in trouble for a long time.

The reason why the "liberal international order" is decaying is mainly the continuous exposure and deterioration of its inherent flaws and insufficient and selective compliance with its rules by the US itself. Therefore, its decay should not be attributed to the so-called "malicious sabotage by China"

Today, the international order forged and dominated by the US has not only lost its legitimacy and luster in many developing countries, but the voices questioning it have become more vociferous, even in many Western nations. Shivshankar Menon, an Indian scholar-cum-former diplomat, believes that "nobody wants the current world order", and that "fewer and fewer countries, including the ones that built the previous international order, seemed committed to maintaining it". South African scholar Tim Murithi harshly criticizes the "rules-based international order" as an "order of suppression". American scholar Philip Zelikow labels the LIO as "the hollow order" because "in the last 10 years, the institutions for managing global capitalism have become more stage than substance".

The reason why the LIO is decaying is mainly the continuous exposure and deterioration of its inherent flaws and insufficient and selective compliance with its rules by the US itself. Therefore, its decay should not be attributed to the so-called "malicious sabotage by China".

The LIO, born in the aftermath of World War II, is designed and dominated by the US. Its core purpose is to advance and maintain the interests and global hegemony of the US and the West, including the hegemony of the dollar. It's not envisaged as a fair, equitable and inclusive international order. The rules of the game of the LIO endow the US and the Western bloc led by it with many privileges, while adversely impacting the development and autonomy of other countries. The United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization (and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the US dollar, and the unrivaled military power of the US are the pillars of the LIO. Zhu Yunhan, a scholar in Taiwan, who has just passed away, poignantly pointed out that "the free trade rules dominated by Western countries often contain unequal exchange and domination relations between developed and backward countries". Murithi believes that in this order, "instead of taking what they want with brute force, as they did in the past, major powers now rely on preferential trade deals and skewed financing arrangements to drain the continent of its resources, often with the collusion of corrupt African elites".

The indisputable fact is that the long-term operation of this LIO has hindered the development of many countries and has given rise to the continuous widening of the development gap between developed and developing countries, thus fomenting growing resistance to the LIO in the Global South. Even within Western countries, scourges such as the disparity between rich and poor, the concentration of wealth, the shrinking middle class, the poverty of the working class, and uneven regional development are legion.

The LIO, which is increasingly losing acceptance in the West and developing countries, has undergone a paradigmatic shift in the wake of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the rise of the US unipolar hegemony, and the rise to dominance of neoliberalism. Under the new LIO, the US uses various means, including regime change, to demand, coax or coerce all countries participating in the new LIO to mimic the political and economic systems and the development models of the US and West. This shows a blatant contempt for the sovereignty and autonomy of other countries. At the same time, the US is advocating and pushing for market fundamentalism, free trade, financial globalization, economic deregulation, slashing the government's economic, social and welfare functions, and cutting public spending and taxes at home and abroad, thereby unleashing American multinational corporations, especially financial institutions, to roam freely in all countries. The global triumph of neoliberalism has indeed benefited the financial and corporate behemoths of the US, but at the same time, it has also led to frequent outbreaks of severe global financial crises, a widening development gap between advanced and developing countries, increasing indebtedness in various countries, and destructive climate change. All these changes have unrelentingly intensified the gap between the rich and the poor within almost all countries, worsening the conflicts between different social strata and sectors.

Unsurprisingly, the new LIO shaped by neoliberalism is even more difficult for developing countries to accept than the old LIO before it. Menon recounts, The United States led two orders after World War II: a Keynesian one that was not independently interested in how states ran their internal affairs in a bipolar Cold War world ... and, after the Cold War, a neoliberal one in a unipolar world that ignored national sovereignty and boundaries where it needed to. Both orders professed to be 'open, rules-based, and liberal,' upholding the values of democracy, so-called free markets, human rights, and the rule of law. In reality, they rested on the dominance and imperatives of US military, political, and economic power.

Rein Mullerson believes that the new LIO dominated by neoliberalism was not so liberal after all. Rather, it was an order where liberal states ruled the world, attempting to widen the circle of liberal societies (especially after the collapse of the USSR) while ostracizing or even destroying those which could not or did not want to become liberal.

Michael J. Mazarr asserts that due to neoliberalism, the US, as the hegemon in a unipolar world, is unwilling to accept a diversified world, which makes the new LIO even less legitimate than the old LIO. He cautions: If Washington hopes to sustain an international system that can help avoid conflict, raise prosperity, and promote liberal values, it will have to embrace a more diverse order one that operates in different ways for different countries and regions and on different issues. 

Unexpectedly, even G. John Ikenberry, an American scholar who has consistently eulogized the LIO, believes that to maintain this new order, "membership in (its organizations) should be predicated not on regime character, but only on recognition of a state's sovereignty status and its commitment and ability to carry out the responsibilities of membership." It's a pity that the US is in no mood to respect non-Western countries' choices of their institutions and values. Consequently, it is difficult for many non-Western members of the new LIO to accept its legitimacy.

The rise of neoliberalism has also exacerbated internal conflicts in the US and most Western countries, leading to rising public antipathy toward the new LIO. Before this, the reason why the old LIO was popularly accepted is that, while ardently promoting free trade and globalization, the governments and bourgeoisie of Western countries were willing to "sign" a "social contract" with the middle and working classes to protect their basic interests and well-being and to compensate for the damage they suffered under globalization and free trade. However, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, governments and the bourgeoisie in the West no longer felt the need to engage in "class compromise" with other classes. Taking the US as an example, Gary Gerstle notes: "A compromise between capital and labor had been foundational to the New Deal order. Labor had gained progressive taxation, social security, unemployment insurance, the right to organize, a national commitment to full employment, government backing for collective bargaining, and limits on the inequality between the rich and poor. Capital had gained assurances that government would act to smooth out the business cycle, maintain a fiscal and monetary environment that would assure reasonable profits, and contain labor power. In the 1990s, the capital still wanted the US government's assistance in ordering markets. But in a world cleared of communism, long its most ardent opponent, it felt the need to compromise with labor less and less." As a result, the US has drastically demolished the protections and benefits it used to give to the middle and working classes and is oblivious to their suffering under globalization. This has triggered their discontent with and pushback against the new LIO, and has spawned a tidal wave of anti-globalization, protectionism, xenophobia and populism in the Western world.

More glaring is that even though the US is the primary beneficiary of the LIO, it often disrespects and violates its rules to serve its interests. William Drozdiak argues that the pillars of the liberal democratic order built by the US such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO are now crumbling because of neglect, mismanagement, and diminished support from the US. The negligence shown by the US to these key institutions has diminished their power and influence.

Over recent years, as the legitimacy of the LIO among the American people and a portion of its political elites has been dwindling unabatedly, those actions which are corrosive of the LIO on the part of the US have grossly intensified under then-US president Donald Trump's "America First" banner. His trade wars against other countries, especially China, and his contempt for international rules are evidence that the US is increasingly aloof from and destructive of the LIO it has built. President Joe Biden has continued Trump's policy to a remarkable extent. The speech delivered by US National Security Adviser Sullivan at the Brookings Institution on April 27 vividly demonstrates the intention of the US to break away from the new LIO. He strongly condemned the scourges of neoliberalism, especially the unfettered market, that have been brought to the US, including the overexpansion of the financial sector, the shrinking of modern manufacturing, the decline of the middle class, and the worsening plight of the workers. To rectify the situation, the US must pursue modern industrial and innovative strategies. In his words, "A modern American industrial strategy identifies specific sectors that are foundational to economic growth, strategic from a national security perspective, and where private industry on its own isn't poised to make the investments needed to secure our national ambitions." Herein we are seeing the birth of a new "Washington consensus", which mirrors in significant ways the development path treaded by China except for the fact that the US will become more self-centered, more insular, and less interested in launching a new international order alone or in collaboration with others.

All in all, the US should bear the main responsibility for the inexorable decay of the LIO it has constructed and led, instead of blaming China for it.


The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.