Whither the liberal international order? A Europe-Japan Dialogue

Session 1: What is Russia’s endgame? Authoritarianism and the world order

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Session 2: Interventions, security and democracy: lessons from the West´s policy in the Middle East and North Africa

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Session 3: The international order in East and Southeast Asia: towards a new status quo?

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Final roundtable discussion: Europe, Japan… Who and how will salvage the liberal world order?

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On 13th of March Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations organized a one day conference Whither the international liberal order? A Europe-Japan Dialogue. The event gathered high-level experts, decision makers, politicians and diplomats from Europe and Japan that during 4 planned sessions had a chance to exchange their views on to the condition of the new liberal order, including the role of Russia and authoritarianism, the impact of security and military interventions of the West in the Middle East and the international order in East and Southeast Asia. The conference ended with with a round table discussion on tge future of the liberal order and possible challenges that the Western world will have to face to mantain the tenets of liberal world order and reform it in response to changing circumstances.

The ECFR event gather around 60 experts among which we should mention: Aleksander Smolar, Ulrich Speck, Amb. Akio Kawato, Dejan Jović, Konstanty Gebert, Anthony Dworkin, Tomáš Klvaňa, Satoshi Ikeuchi, Mathieu Duchâtel, Hiroko Maeda, Tamas Matura, Jiří Pehe, H.E. Shigeo Matsutomi, Adam Daniel Rotfeld and

François Godement.

Its aim was to provide a platform for open and truthful dialogue between Japanese and European experts and policy-makers. The project succeeded in increasing mutual understanding and contributed to a strengthened European engagement with Japan in a period of important changes in international politics. The project enabled influential European and Asian stakeholders to identify potential areas for cooperation between the two regions.

Whither the liberal international order? A Europe-Japan dialogue

The conference featured a wide ranging discussion that touched upon both specific issues and the broader problems with conceptualising the liberal international order. The main findings are presented below:

What is the liberal international order?

  • The liberal international order, based on democracy, free trade and the rule of law in international relations, is facing competition and contestation from within and without. These challenges transcend socio-economic grievances and are directed at the core values of liberal order.
  • Europe is vulnerable – both in economic and security dimensions – to the weakening of the liberal order and it can no longer assume the US will commit to upholding it. It thus needs to pick up the mantle and use its considerable economic leverage, soft power and other tools, such as arms sales, to uphold liberal principles and prevent damaging conflicts.
  • Defending the liberal international order requires looking beyond the US and towards other liberal democracies that retain considerable untapped potential in international relations, Japan and Germany in particular.
  • The term “liberal order” itself is underdefined and consists of several components that are at tension with each other. While elements of it have spread worldwide, actual experiences vary between regions. Also, one has to be careful to distinguish between an order based on liberal values and an order effected by liberal states – these two may overlap, but often liberal states act counter to liberal values.
  • Moreover, liberal international order has been created by a combination of pressures of patterns of globalisation, scientific and economic progress, on one hand, and conscious political action, on the other. The former set of factors is hard to reverse and thus while the liberal order is under pressure, it might not be easy to demolish.
  • The rules of liberal international order have never been fully accepted by some of its participants, especially as its more solidarist aspects conflict with the norm of sovereignty as enshrined in the UN Charter.
  • Japan is working hard to engage the US under Donald Trump. From its perspective, the current situation is to a degree similar to previous disruptive transitions in the US in 1980 and 1992. Time is needed to rebuild ties and ascertain the direction of new presidency. Nevertheless, Japan sees potentially much larger role for the EU.

Russia: Authoritarianism and the world order

  • Russia has positioned itself as an opponent of the liberal international order. In place of current multilateralism based upon rules and win-win interactions it proposes a multipolar world characterised by power politics, low-trust and zero-sum games that would allow it to take a seat at the table. In a three-pole system (US, China, Russia) there is no place for Europe or Japan.
  • Russia has particular attractiveness in Western Balkans, where the liberal international order has lost its attractiveness and is no longer seen as inevitable due to shortcomings of liberal democracies, fallout of the Kosovo independence, stalling of EU enlargement process and securitisation of migration. Political courage – such as delivering on EU membership promises – is needed to reinvigorate liberal order in the region.
  • Leadership in Russia perceives itself as being at war with the West and is capable of integrating various instruments – both military and non-military – in actions against it. It shrewdly uses interdependence against the West and exploits transnational networks on all levels – legal, formal, informal and criminal.
  • Russia is well aware of its weakness and believes it is forced to choose between a China-centred order and a US-centred one. Russian leadership does not fear China as much as the West: China does not threaten its way of life.
  • There are considerable differences of perceptions of Russia between Japan and Europe. While European speakers saw Russia as a formidable threat, a Japanese participant underscored its profound weakness in the Far East. Moreover, European military thinking is focused on land armies, while in East Asia navies retain their primacy.

Lessons from the West's policy in the Middle East and North Africa

  • The liberal order in the Middle East was a package of ideas – international law and sovereignty, democracy and human rights, order and regional stability – that sat together uneasily. Now “it is still competitive, but no longer without competitors” as Russia offers a simpler, if less comprehensive and ultimately counterproductive, vision based on regime survival and opposition to both popular movements and Islamist terrorism.
  • Experiences of Arab Spring have exposed the universality of the pursuit of rule of law and human right, as well as the complexity of liberal democracy. Participants noted cases of “decoupling” of liberalism and democracy, and debated the importance of prior rule of law to democratisation.
  • Liberal values retain aspirational potential in the Middle East but the belief in their universality has suffered due to the failures of the Arab Spring. Europe needs to carefully calibrate its approach: contain extremism, rethink its approach to identity and assimilation, bolster its soft power and step up humanitarian and developmental aid in order to limit the damage that developments in the region can deal to the liberal international order. More generally, the West needs to reassess its policies in the region with an attitude of humility.

International order in East and Southeast Asia

  • In East Asia, the regional security architecture is based on deterrence and self-restraint, not rules and norms, and attempts at confidence-building failed, while regional states militarise. Integration initiatives and protection of refugees have also given way to a sense of sovereignty. On the other hand, states in the region are exceptionally committed to free trade and some of them exhibit robust democratic political systems and energised civil societies.
  • Unlike EU-Russia relations, the conflict is not ideological in nature. Though China domestically sees democracy as a threat, it does not seek to undermine it abroad.
  • The status quo in the region is inevitably changing and the primary question now is how to manage this change.
  • A conflict in East Asia is not unimaginable and would involve two of Europe’s largest trading partners. It would also force it to pick sides and would draw US attention away from containing Russia. It is thus in Europe’s vital interest to promote the creation of a security regime in East Asia.
  • Chinese strategy is skilful in avoiding overt conflict while expanding using physical power. Its moves stem from security and sovereignty considerations, but this may conflict with the need to safeguard economic prosperity. Short-term, the former set of factors dictates a more assertive foreign policy. In the long run domestic problems may prompt it to become more cooperative.
  • China is neither prepared nor willing to replace the US as the leader of global order. It wants to maintain economic globalisation and free trade regime, but has less interest in political and legal aspects of the liberal international order.