Much of the reaction to Donald Trump’s election into the White House focuses on the effect that the increasingly protectionist and isolationist President will have on the future of the liberal international order. This has led many commentators to ask the following questions: are we moving into an era of illiberalism where authoritarian governments are replacing the more traditional western based democracies? Is this part of the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States? Are we going to see a departure from the liberal world order as we know it?
Whilst it is important to carefully outline the possible danger of breaking or ignoring international agreements or established institutions, it is crucial that Donald Trump’s isolationism and xenophobic/sexist discourse doesn’t get lumped together with the different candidates in the various elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Whilst there are of course similarities between candidates, it is important to recognise that populism across North America and Europe takes on different forms based on political history, culture, and specific issues on a national level.
The demonization of minorities, oppression, racism and xenophobia is intolerable and has no place in mainstream politics. For this very reason, it is unfair and often inaccurate to label a politician attempting to address popular concerns as a xenophobe or a racist. Journalists and commentators need to ensure that they do not tar racists and those genuinely concerned with social issues such as migration and national values with the same brush.
Neither must we conflate nationalism with national pride and support for national values, and especially not with racism. It is perfectly legitimate for nation states to defend their own borders and define their own narratives. An integral part of the liberal world order is internationalism, a body of interacting nation states that may trade freely, share policies and examples of best practice that can simultaneously remain as sovereign actors.
As outlined by Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University, if sovereignty is the legal expression of national independence, then sovereignty is to the nation what freedom and liberty are to individuals. In essence, the building of an international law underpinned by the concept of sovereignty that respects the independence of states, whilst concerning itself with the external relations between states is crucial. Moreover, sovereignty does not imply there is no movement outside of that sovereign state, as the sovereignty of one state goes hand in hand with the sovereignty of other states, offering examples of best practice and good governance which states can either dismiss or learn from.
The global international order is not static or unchanging. The reality is quite the opposite. The Liberal international order should be defined by the agency of its nation states, and the ability of its people and members of those institutions to speak out when they consider those institutions to be working less effectively than they previously have been. Human rights, liberal and democratic values do not stand unchanged and without being subject to scrutiny and criticism throughout time: the backlash against Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies and sexist comments is a perfect example of this. Our institutions require constant re-thinking and re-working. Leaders and people of our nation should not become complacent and forget to challenge leadership, values and challenges to democracy. Protest, marches and the democratic election of leaders are the cornerstones of our liberal democracy. And, criticism of elected leaders and protest against policies, laws and statements made by global leaders are an integral and indispensable part of the democratic, liberal world order we are part of. This is not the end of the liberal world order: rather it is the time where the power of democracy and of free speech can and must come to the fore.