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Liberal Values and the Liberal International Order
Views:147 Updated:2020-10-14

Professor Joseph Nye in 2017 ever wrote an article about America leadership and the future liberal international order. 1 In that article, he listed three possible challenges to a U.S.-led liberal international order - economic and financial capability, interventionism, and domestic political division. According to his observation, the real challenge to the U.S.-led liberal order would come from the U.S. inside such as its domestic political division and the rise of populism, rather than from its outside like the threats from other powers. 2

Given the strength of the U.S. power in a number of core areas including the economic, military, and technological aspects of the U.S. power, Prof. Nye argued that a U.S.-led liberal international order would continue. Yet he also pointed that the liberal order might be altered in certain ways. He didn’t get into detail in what ways the liberal international order would be altered - whether the U.S. would still play a dominant role on all major issue areas? or whether the content and context of the liberal order would be adjusted?

This analytical piece would assume a view that the values for driving changes and forging a future liberal order might be enriched and more pluralistic with some non - western values with a liberal nature possibly gaining more influence at the global stage.

For the challenging factors to a liberal order, apart from what having been examined by other observers, this piece would add a point that the way how western liberal values being promoted has significantly affected people’s understanding and impression to the western liberal values, as well as to a U.S.-led liberal order; and these variety of understanding and impression could still have an impact on the U.S. effort to facilitate a future liberal order.

A lot of issues have emerged in the process of disseminating the liberal values and of shaping a liberal international order. This article will analyze these issues first. Then it will tend to foresee how a future liberal international order might be like.

About The Liberal Values

The word “Liberal” is usually closely linked to something western. Liberal values are normally perceived as western values. Yet in reality, matters of being liberal are not solely western-related. Numerous ideas, thoughts, and matters though with a liberal nature, such as the Chinese value of “Harmony / Coexistence but not Sameness/Uniformity” or of “ A Community of Shared Future for Mankind”, are not originated from or created by the west.

From the author’s understanding, one of the key aspects of being liberal means being inclusive and allowing different ideas, values, and systems to exist and evolve in the vast value system.

Linking liberal values with individual humans, they emphasize civil liberties - freedom of belief, of expression, of association, and of assembly - as well as other fundamental rights of humans.

In terms of their relevance to domestic politics, the liberal values from a western perspective mainly refer to a democratic system, free election, and free market economy etc.

With respect to liberal values’ connection with international politics, the promotion of liberal values is mostly related to the forging and sustaining of a liberal international order, under which, a number of international governmental organizations, mechanisms, non-governmental organizations, and other type of transnational actors are established together with states to facilitate globalization, regionalism, multilateralism, international cooperation and trade and so on.

Liberal values weigh liberty and equality. The practice of them should aim to safeguard the liberal and equal meaning of liberal values. Nevertheless, the reality is that, liberal values, particularly from a western perspective, have been practised in a way that tends to make liberal values exclusive and exceptional in comparison to the values carried out by other cultures and systems. In this sense, liberal values could only have been a series of concepts or words, and the practice of them haven’t been able to fulfill their meaning substantively.

Problems Emerged in Practising the Liberal Values

At the domestic level, the voices of safeguarding the liberal values (e.g. defending human rights, and opposing racial discrimination ) in the west are usually high. Yet racial discrimination in the western society has always been an issue. Other kind of violations of human rights such as the violent enforcement of law by the police also frequently happen in the west. Why has racial discrimination always been a conundrum? There is a dilemma here over this issue - on the one hand, people are told that all humans are born equal; on the other hand, they are told that liberal values / American values are exceptional and universal, and very often in the process of practising the liberal values in the western society, other type of values possessed by the people with different racial and cultural backgrounds could have been downgraded or neglected.

As far as there is “something” superior and exceptional in the minds of certain group of people, this “something” would inadvertently affect the behaviour of these people. Once the sense of superiority possessed by the same group of people risks being diminished, they might take extreme measures to defend. Racial discrimination and the rise of populism partly cannot be separated from a kind of mindset that a great number of people felt their sense of superiority being challenged.

Populism and the promotion of liberal values have reciprocal implications to each other. Populism is characterized by anti-immigration, exclusion, and xenophobia etc. The promotion of liberal values at domestic and global levels have had both economic and social impacts on certain group of people. Economically, employment and the quality of life for a great number of people have become a major concern. Socially, some people have faced an identity crisis and felt that their social status of being a particular identity group has been challenged.

The economic and social impacts on the interests of certain group of people, along with the promotion of liberal values, have led to social divisions and the rise of populism; reciprocally, domestic divisions could further generate a challenge to a liberal order. As Professor Nye argued, the rising populistic politics could be a major threat to a U.S.-led liberal international order in the future, because the populistic politics could affect the U.S. readiness to lead on a number of issues such as the issue of climate change.3

To meet the populists’ primary concerns, the U.S. government has already taken a series of measures including tightening border control and the immigration policies, encouraging the U.S. companies to move back to the U.S., waging trade wars against foreign countries, and limiting transnational communications and exchanges in various ways. Overall, the U.S. has already made some attempts to apply a isolationist and protective approach to address the populists’ movement.

Given the close interconnection and interdependence of different parts of the world facilitated by the advancement of technologies, it is unrealistic to believe that a protective approach could work out well to help address the large number of populists’ concerns. To properly manage the dilemma between the rising populism and the promotion of liberal values and of a liberal order, more targeted domestic economic relief measures to meet the specific concerns of populists may need to take into account. Apart from that, enhancing governance capacity at all levels and promoting social cohesion, inclusiveness, and unity among people and groups coming from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds should also be advisable from a long term perspective.

In addition to the problems generated in the domestic society, at the international level, the dissemination of liberal values hasn’t fulfilled their meaning substantively as well. One of the typical examples is that the liberal international order driven by the western liberal values generally lacks a broad legitimacy. As the U.S. strategist Mr. Henry Kissinger ever pointed, “No truly global ‘world order’ has ever existed. What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.” 4

After WWII, under a U.S-led liberal international system, certain core liberal values have so far been only shared by the U.S. and its key allies; and this order doesn’t always produce good outcomes to non-member countries, as Professor Joseph Nye pointed. 5

The conditions and standards for getting into the system could be unrealistic for many countries, especially the developing ones. They don’t always fit well the domestic conditions of these developing countries. The prices for them to meet certain standards and conditions under the current order and to carry out certain liberal values could be high. Very often the values and the system cannot solve the fundamental problems faced by a large number of countries. For example, many African countries are democracies. However, for decades already, the western liberal values and democratic system haven’t so far helped address their problems properly such as on issues related to poverty, governance, health, and so on.

It is not appropriate to argue that the main problems just assessed above lie in the liberal values themselves. We can say that they mostly lie in the practice of the liberal values, as the promotion of the liberal values has tended to exclude or neglect the function of other values and systems. As for some developing countries, applying liberal values without having taken their domestic conditions into enough consideration could be one of the key reasons for having not made big improvement on a number of issues.

Overall, quite a lot of issues have raised in the process of promoting liberal values and of sustaining a liberal international order over the past 70 years. Disseminating liberal values without having managed to fulfill their meaning substantively can be a primary one. Meanwhile, the role of non-western values has been generally downplayed in terms of their relevance to the liberal international order. By drawing the lessons accumulated in the past years, what could a future liberal international order be like?

A Future Liberal International Order

The world would possibly develop toward a direction with more complexities and uncertainties. To forge a sound liberal international order, and avoid the world going toward isolationism or going back to a period like the first half of the 20th century, which was occupied by devastating conflicts and casualties, major powers and influential international organizations will be expected to continue to play significant roles in creating public goods while allowing more freedom, inclusiveness, and flexibility in regional and international cooperation. As advised by Professor Nye more practically, to sustain a liberal order, instead of concentrating on the advantages and strength of the American power in contrast to that of other powers, the U.S. should think about how to cooperate with others to achieve common purposes.6

This article would share a view that two key phenomenons might appear along with the process of forging a new liberal order.

First, the value system to facilitate a new liberal order would be enriched and more pluralistic with non-western liberal values acquiring more space in the value system.

Only by including the non-western liberal values into the value system, picking up the sound and positive aspects of various values, abandoning the flaws and negative aspects of certain values, and seeking commonalities from a wide variety of values, conflicting interests among major powers as well as among different races and cultures can be avoided or minimized, to that extent, a sound liberal international order can be shaped and sustained.

In the Chinese society, a number of great thinkers in history had ever subsequently produced various rich thoughts/religions including Taoism, Confucianism, and legalism etc. Buddhism was also introduced to China in ancient time. There have never been any real conflicts among those variety of thoughts. Inclusiveness should be the key for all kinds of thoughts/religions to be able to reach harmony.

The Chinese practices in managing the relationship among various schools of thoughts proved that there are no fundamental conflicts among the good aspects of all range of values (western, eastern, or others); and there should be a great deal of commonalities among them. Therefore, there is no point to deliberately uphold a particular one while downgrade others. As far as inclusiveness among them can be applied at the international stage, a peaceful liberal international order can be sustained.

On the same issue, Mr. Kissinger put a more strategic and liberal view. He argued that:

“World order cannot be achieved by any one country acting along. To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical - a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. At this moment in history, this would be a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities.”7


Second, with part of the power being transmitted from states to non-states actors, influential international organizations like the United Nations and others will be expected to play more crucial roles in helping forge and sustain a new liberal order, especially with regard to the aspects of promoting and mediating the inclusiveness of western and non-western liberal values, as well as of securing the flexibility and fairness in international cooperation.

The final point concerning a future liberal order is that how the U.S. and China engage with each other would significantly affect the nature and direction of a future liberal international order. China has no intention to challenge the U.S. status. There is a necessity for the U.S. to look at China differently from the way how great powers used to look at each other in history. China is committed to regionalism and multilateralism, would actively participate in global governance, and has expressed support to a UN-led international system and order, given that the UN membership represents the interest of a majority of the international community, rather than that of a small circle of countries.

Regardless of whether the future liberal order will be a U.S.-led, or jointly led by the major powers with a greater participation of international organizations, in order to avoid conflicts and to sustain a sound order, world leader may need to accept the pluralism of values in the process of shaping a new global order. Also creating and sustaining a new liberal order need mounting and careful calculation - calculation of internal and external environments, of the relationship between freedom and order, of the legitimacy and justice of order and so on. Borrowing Mr. Kissinger’s words, “Order must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed.” 8 Similarly, neither can values be imposed.


1. The title of the article “America Leadership and the Future Liberal International Order” was based on the translation of its Chinese version. The Chinese version of the article was published in China International Strategy Review 2017. PP. 21-31

2. See Joseph Nye (2017). “America Leadership and the Future Liberal International Order”. China International Strategy Review 2017. PP. 21-31

3. Ibid.

4. Quoted in Henry Kissinger (2015). World Order. Penguin Books. PP.2-3

5. See Nye’s “America Leadership and the Future Liberal International Order”.

6. Ibid.

7. See Kissinger’s World Order. PP.373

8. In the context of Kissinger’s writing, the sentence of “Order must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed.” was mainly applied to make an argument on the appropriate balance between order and freedom. The author of this piece thinks that it also fits the context of this analysis well when it was borrowed to highlight the significance of careful calculation and cultivation in order to forge and sustain a sound liberal order.

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