The End of the Liberal World Order?


“America,” former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, in his later years proclaimed, “is the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world the caboose.” The new liberal world order fashioned together after WWII was the “rules-based order” led by the United States. The alternative, Acheson believed, is an international jungle with no “rules, no umpire, no prizes for good boys.” Does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursion into Ukraine signal a return to the jungle and an end to the liberal world order? Or, are the world’s democracies going to stand their ground for freedom, a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed?

Yes, democracies worldwide are standing at the precipice of a future where humankind can flourish or wither. So, how did we get to this awful moment and what can we do to navigate a future of order, respect for human rights, and prosperity of soul and self? The answer to the first part of this question is not straightforward but fully understandable. The start point is the legacy of two world wars and a determination by the leaders of the free world to never forget the dreadful price in lives lost and prosperities stunted. Institution building followed with the creation of the United Nations, the withering of colonial powers, and the world policing responsibilities of the United States, including the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.  Alas, no sooner had the promise of a new future arrived then it ran headlong into a struggle for ideological dominance between communist dictators and market democracies. The Cold War decades eventually gave way to a unipolar world when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989.

The Russian empire was no more, and western democracies bent on ensuring a born-again Russia with its nuclear arsenal could not menace its neighbors found relief in the expansion of NATO from 12 original members to 30. The containment of Russia, it was widely believed, would preserve the peace and well being of America and Europeans for the indefinite future. Moreover, conventional liberal marketplace wisdom held that a new Russia would be attracted to the cultural and material benefits so grandly showcased by the European Project—the establishment of the European Union in 1993 along with a common currency in 1999. Other developments—the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and the globalization of communication and information technologies at the start of a new millennium—many believed, would surely fortify a stable rule-ordered international environment.  Under these circumstances, how and why would any world leader dare to use force to prey on another country?

Fast forward to 2014—Russian President Vladimir Putin plants the Russian flag in the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and pronounces the territory belonging to Russia. World leaders protest and slap Putin on the wrists. Eight years later, President Putin orders a “special military incursion” into Ukraine claiming that Ukraine has never been a sovereign state but has historic ties to Mother Russia. Has the international jungle in which the powerful prey on the weak returned? Does the Russian invasion of Ukraine mark the demise of the liberal rule-based world order? If so, is there an alternative world order that will tame the jungle with the promise and hope that a better future awaits? What lies beyond?

Futures prophets are notoriously wrong but here goes.  Step one is to build new international organizations that can truly make a difference when the powerful raise their ugly heads. The United Nations is no longer what it proclaims to be—peace loving countries capable of policing themselves. The European Project is also a relic of the past. A new Europe must be forged with bars that restrain ethnonationalism and its failed siren call to cleanse peoples and countries of a different stripe. Step two is to challenge the entire construct of the nation-state. The world of the 21st century can no longer function as a collection of nation states. Is world governance on the horizon? Think about it. Step three is to disarm existing nuclear states and find a way to end the growing conventional wisdom that lesser states must have nuclear weapons to fend for themselves. These steps are tall orders but . . .



Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.

5 Replies to “The End of the Liberal World Order?”

  1. Much food for thought here.
    The world policing responsibilities of the United States….an interesting phrase that covers for the anti-democratic incursions of the United States, and its interference in various central and South American countries, for example, United Fruit Company, anyone? And the many ways in which the United States has shored up anti-democratic countries, e.g., in the Middle East.
    Indeed democracy is the only answer to current dilemmas but we must look to our own historical record as well.

  2. Hi Don, you have written a GREAT article, a call to arms to preserve our and this world’s freedoms.
    I’m from Poland, a country battered by the Soviets (and before that by the Russian Tsars) to the point that between one and two million of us, mostly innocent civilians, were tortured, starved, and killed or died in the Gulag–my dad was one of them; miraculously, he survived to tell about it..
    This is not the time to bring up our past faults, everyone. Silence! Every country has its culpabilities; do we want to play into putin’s hands by confessing publicly, now? Poland and Ukraine were at war at one time, and Lviv was Polish. But now, no one brings that up; what for??? On the contrary, Poland has been magnificent by welcoming into their own homes and families millions of displaced, orphaned, suffering, horrified Ukrainians who have lost everything–by the hands of another Russian regime and a degenerate, a mass murderer, a vicious narcissist, a bully, and a liar at the head of it.
    I’m so thankful to this, my adoptive country, the USA, that our President and Congress are sending a continuous, massive military and humanitarian help to Ukraine–recognizing its sovereignty, its essence, its identity. Go Ukrainians, go! Long live Ukraine, it’s brave President, and its yellow and blue standard. We carry you in our hearts. Tomorrow, we could be in your situation . . . So, today, we are all Ukrainians!
    Thanks Don for alerting us that the liberty and independence that we enjoy could be lost if we don’t fight for it!

  3. Thanks Don for the topic and the opportunity to share an action item:
    Having participated directly in two wars, the COLD War and the Vietnam War;
    noting that we won the Cold War and the Vietnam War …( we lost the peace in the Vietnam War ).
    My Step One is based on the fact that civilization for the passed thousands of years or recored history – there have been wars and that it is time the United Nations declares War a crime.
    War being defined as one nation attacking another nation i.e. Russia attacking Ukraine is a crime.
    Recommended Action Item: https://unatampabay.org/
    Contact them and request that they discuss the subject and hopefully they will forward a request to the United Nations …to our UN Ambassador to propose a General Assembly vote outlawing WAR.

  4. Thanks Cornelius for your dedication and service. I’m a “Cold War” warrior, too–having served as a nav-bombardier on B-52s in the ’60s. I left the USAF in 1967 just as the 52s were being retrofitted for Vietnam duty.

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