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Centre of Business Development and Strategic Management|16 Mayıs 2017 Tuesday

‘How does the disintegration of the liberal international order impact upon international relations and Turkish foreign policy?’

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

Incek Debates, on 19 April 2017, discussed ‘Disintegration of the liberal international order’. Speakers were Amb Osman Taney Korutürk, journalist Ms Tülin Daloğlu and Assoc Prof Burak Bilgehan Özpek (TOBB University of Economics and Technology).

The basic structure of the liberal international order—based on democratic institutions, integrated markets, rule of law and open borders—still stands, but in the course of the last 25 years it has weakened considerably. Like dilapidated old buildings, it has been giving signs that it is now hardly able to stand the next earthquake. And the long-predicted earthquake—of massive magnitude & intensity—in the form of a wave of powerful authoritarian governments and anti-liberal political movements, has already started. Under the “pressure of systemic economic stresses, growing sectarianism, ethnicism, nationalism and a general loss of confidence in national and international institutions” these institutions are weakened, international law is increasingly violated, established norms are ignored. As xenophobia, a deep sense of insecurity and authoritarianism surge, peoples increasingly yearn for ‘strong leaders’ who are readily available. They do not hesitate to express racist beliefs, baseless conspiracy theories, question the idea of an independent judiciary, freedom of the media, separation of powers, even the role of ‘opposition’ in a ‘democratic’ society. 

Populist right wing parties—and ideologies associated with them—are expanding their constituencies throughout Europe in Austria, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France. They have even come to power in Poland, Hungary, Russia—and Turkey. In each of these countries, the ‘decline’ in some form of ‘democracy’ inside the country and/or in conformity to liberal norms in the international arena, is certainly of different nature and degree. But both right and left wing revisionists challenge the liberal order and even seek cooperation against it. Now this bleak picture has been further enriched by addition of the United States under the Trump presidency.

According to Freedom House, freedom is declining in the world as populism and nationalism surge: “More worryingly, 67 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties last year. In years past, those declines were largely confined to countries with autocratic leaders or dictators”. However, in 2016, it was established democracies—countries rated Free before—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks. Turkey (with Gambia) represents the second largest 10-year score decline which is -28. To compare, the decline in Russia and Ukraine is -12, while in Syria and Afghanistan (the least, in scale) is only -10. Finally, although the US is still rated Free, is now named ‘a country to watch’.

Executive Summary

The liberal international order is not simply about an idealistic devotion to ‘liberal’ principles in international relations, but commitment to certain institutions, rules, norms and habitual conduct of interaction between nations. The order is multidimensional and each dimension has its international institutions—and rules. The liberal order does not replace ‘interests’ with ‘values’, but pursues interests by relying upon liberal principles and through the institutions of liberal international order.

A ‘new’ order is needed as a facilitator, not only allowing or curbing, but also ‘empowering’ the family of nations to jointly tackle with the global-scale problems that no nation is able to handle alone.Therefore, by definition, the only alternative to the ‘old’ less-than-liberal liberal international order is a ‘new’ liberal international order. There is a correlation between the values of the new liberal order and democratic values.

French presidential elections of 2017 are the latest of a series of historic elections in Europe. Sound majorities in democratic countries are still supportive of a liberal international order. However those leaders who are unhappy with the liberal order, reaching out to their counterparts risks a downward spiral that may lead to a new power competition and conflict.

Not only democratic but also competent national and international political ‘leadership’ is key to success in fighting the emerging illiberal international order and to foster a genuinely liberal one. Incompetent leadership comes with and lives with incompetent advisory structures and yes-man bureaucracy. ‘Leadership’ has to be supplemented by unmitigated freedom of the media and expression, freedom of association.

The struggle also requires international coalitions, alliances across borders, involving not only politicians and political parties, but also civil society—particularly civil society think-tanks—media outlets, academia, social movements and platforms, and the public sphere.

Turkey is at a crossroads. Aligning with global anti-liberal front by Turkey results in bandwagoning, making Turkish foreign policy subordinate to others’ priorities and preferences. This does not bode well for Turkish national interests—and for the world.

Like Turkey, the world is in the grip of the most serious global political crisis since the 1960s. Just as democratic regimes are threatened by anti-democratic alternatives, liberal international system is threatened by illiberal alternatives based on unilateralism, protectionism, short term interests and populism. However, their inherent weaknesses have become all the more visible. Meanwhile, democratic forces have mobilized world wide to face the powerful challenge to democracy and to the emergence of a genuine liberal international order. The future of democracy—and liberal international order—looks brighter and full of promise.

Is the liberal international order worth-preserving?

Debate testified to an overwhelming and passionate commitment—and devotion—to the notion of liberalism. However, the liberal international order needs to be further discussed and the concept of ‘liberalism’ to be reconsidered in the international context as to what it was and what it wasn’t.

First of all, it is not simply about an idealistic devotion to ‘liberal’ principles in international relations, but commitment to certain institutions, rules, norms and habitual conduct of interaction between nations which have been well established since the mid-1940s. The liberal international order is multidimensional—political, ideological, military, economic, security–and each dimension has its international institutions—and rules—to implement the ‘order’ such as the United Nations, NATO, WTO, North American Free Trade Agreement, Trans-Pacific Partnership (already moribund after Trump administration pulled out of it in January 2017). It also has historic agreements by which global challenges are dealt with such as Paris Agreement on climate change, Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). And it has norms and a specific culture; working through international institutions, consensus-based negotiations, giving priority to multilateral initiatives over unilateral ones and above all respecting the international law.

Secondly, it is not about replacing ‘interests’ with ‘values’, but pursuing interests by relying upon liberal principles and through the institutions of liberal international order. In the final analysis, although policies that can be called ‘illiberal’ would represent a departure from ‘liberal’ values, still—for their adherents—they are supposed to serve national interests better, albeit based on a different set of values. 

So, the answer to the question of ‘if the liberal international order should be preserved’ very much depends on how one evaluates how the system works to serve perceived interests. There isn’t one universally applicable answer because it is value-conditioned, but interest-driven.

The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.


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