Deglobalization and the international order

The new special issue of International Affairs examines the future of the liberal international order (LIO) by looking at three competing trends – globalization, deglobalization and reglobalization.

Expert comment Published 23 September 2021 3 minute READ

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 immediately preceded by the return of Afghanistan to Taliban control, it is hardly surprising that the future of the US-led liberal international order has come under renewed scrutiny. In recent weeks, the news has been replete with harrowing images, such as desperate individuals falling from a US Air Force C-17 as it took off from Kabul airport, the devastating aftermath of natural disasters caused by climate change, and migrants at the US-Mexico border being attacked by border guards. Meanwhile, the world is still struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While politicians in rich countries debate whether a booster vaccine is needed, much of the world has yet to receive a first jab. At this time of acute crisis, why is the international system so limited in its ability to act?

Making sense of the future of the liberal international order (LIO) has never been more important. The new International Affairs special issue, edited by T. V. Paul and Markus Kornprobst, aims to do so by looking at three competing trends – globalization, deglobalization and reglobalization. Globalization – processes of removing restrictions on free movement of goods, services, people and cultures – has been a mainstay of the LIO in recent decades.

Since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, new political forces have emerged to challenge the globalization consensus. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the backlash against the refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of populist leaders in the United States, Brazil and India are all symptoms of deglobalization, fuelled by scepticism about free markets, international cooperation and open borders. The relative trajectories of these dynamics have widespread implications for the international system, from trade and global health to human rights and migration regimes. 

The articles in this issue are clustered into three groups. The first group examines the agents of globalization and deglobalization processes, looking at how hegemons, Great Powers, middle powers and non-state networks both foster and undermine the LIO. Norrin Ripsman’s paper emphasizes how the Great Powers can shape international order and questions the assumption that the order will automatically change as hegemons are challenged by rising powers. Steve Chan challenges the belief that hegemons will automatically seek to preserve the existing order by examining the transformation of the United States into a revisionist power.

Emerging middle powers do not challenge the liberal international order as Great Powers are capable of doing; nonetheless, they may still chip away at its stability.

Umut Aydin, Associate Professor, Instituto de Ciencia Política, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Benjamin Miller’s contribution looks at the interaction between domestic and international politics, highlighting how fostering liberal policies at the international level has, over the long term, undermined such policies at home. Focusing on medium powers, Umut Aydin shows how the illiberal turn at this level is undermining the LIO. Lastly, Dorit Geva and Felipe Santos analyse the rise of right-wing anti-globalists and how they are undermining the LIO through the establishment of far-right educational institutions.

The second group of papers addresses the role of international institutions in this debate. John Owen takes a longer historical view, highlighting that a contested understanding of liberalism has undermined the LIO and arguing that the future order is a liberal camp led by the US and a non-liberal camp by China. Jozef Batora looks at the current composition of the LIO, highlighting its various sub-orders and the relations between them.

If it continues, deglobalization may lead not to atomization but two overlapping international orders.

John M. Owen, Taylor Professor of Politics, University of Virginia

The third collection of papers considers how deglobalization tendencies manifest themselves in specific policy fields. Katharina Coleman and Brian Job argue that current liberal peacekeeping practices are being challenged by non-liberal states and regional organizations. Jarrod Hayes and Katya Weber warn of the dangers to human security of deglobalization trends, highlighting the plight of minorities in Myanmar as a recent, tragic case study. Stephen Lobell and Jordan Ernstsen examine the rise of economic nationalists and their promotion of deglobalization. Mark Brawley looks at how financial globalization has coped with a series of crises, arguing that economic recoveries have at best been partial, generating new inequalities and embedding longstanding precarity for the working classes.

Looking at trade, Aseema Sinha diagnoses a new North-South divide with, perhaps surprisingly, the former looking to change existing trade rules and the latter to maintain them. Markus Kornprobst and Stephanie Strobl contend that global health institutions have failed to keep up with the globalization of the spread of diseases, with COVID-19 being latest and most damaging example. Jeanette Money addresses the question of migration, arguing that the pressures on the international mobility system are as much a by-product of the existing LIO as they are of deglobalization. Finally, Navnita Behera takes a broader look at how knowledge about the international system is generated. She cautions against the epistemic colonialism inherent in the globalization of knowledge production and suggests that, however troubling, the forces of deglobalization are encouraging epistemic pluralism.

T. V. Paul concludes this issue by making the case for adapting the liberal order through a reformed welfare state to help liberal states tackle economic and social challenges, such as the massive income inequalities brought by globalization as well as democratic backsliding even in established democracies. 

Although this ‘reglobalized’ international order remains contested, recent international focus on Afghanistan reminds us that while the liberal internationalist image has been dented, it also has enduring appeal. But a rising China seeking to offer a counterpoint to the liberal order through its trade networks and infrastructure projects across the world poses a serious geopolitical challenge. All in all, the conflict between the forces of globalization, deglobalization and the different ideas of reglobalization is not likely to be resolved any time soon and will have substantial ramifications for world politics in the 21st century.