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The Liberal Order and its Contestations. A Conceptual Framework


The notion that we are experiencing a change in times whereby an old ‘order’ of the world is giving way to a new era has been gaining legitimacy in international debates among experts, policymakers and practitioners. Such debates are as animated as they are inconclusive in their outcomes. The contours of the upcoming era remain vague, its structure and contents undefined, its direction uncertain. Grim predictions of renewed great power competition as we have not seen since the end of the Cold War or even World War II or of an increasingly fragmented and ungovernable world abound. They co-exist though with less disheartening expectations of future global re-alignments eventually providing order. In the face of such divergent opinions, imagining the future at times looks like an act of divination.
Whereas opinions differ as to what the world of tomorrow will be, greater consensus exists as to what it will not be. Two assumptions, in particular, seem relatively uncontroversial: it will be post-, or less liberal, and it will be post, or less American. It is no coincidence that experts have singled out these two features, often in connection with one another. Liberal discourse and American power have, after all, profoundly shaped the world that is ostensibly waning. International Relations theorists have in fact long recognised the combination of these two factors as systemic in nature, capable in other words of producing and defining a distinctive historical order: the liberal international order.
Contestation, both on an ideological level and in geopolitical terms, has been a constant of the liberal international order since its inception – usually set at 1945, the year of the crushing defeat of the Axis powers by the Allies-Soviet coalition and the creation of the United Nations. As long as communism had appeal, particularly during decolonisation, liberalism was hardly the dominant ideological framework for many countries. As for geopolitics, the Soviet Union was a formidable opponent severely limiting US power for over forty years. Academics, experts and practitioners are aware of this, as they know that the liberal order has come out on top of the many challenges it faced in the past. Yet, a pervading sense that the liberal order is waning persists, as if the challenges the order is confronted with today are of a different and ultimately more damaging nature.
This Special Issue of The International Spectator identifies and dissects this new set of challenges. It looks at the internal fissures and examines the external pressure points that are making the liberal order edifice reel, with a view to providing some more conclusive arguments about what we may expect in the future.