Are the West and liberal world order in decline?

Rhodes Forum gathers leaders, experts to discuss world order, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Kursk in World War Two, in Kursk, south of Moscow, Russia August 23, 2018 (photo credit: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Kursk in World War Two, in Kursk, south of Moscow, Russia August 23, 2018
The decline of the West is not a question of prediction, but rather a fact, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Committee on Education of the State Duma in Moscow at a session of the Rhodes Forum on Friday. His comments came in the midst of a discussion about whether US President Donald Trump’s recent actions increase global instability. The question of today’s global order, including respect of values such as human rights and free speech as well as dialogue and world peace, is a central concern to leaders from Asia, Africa and the West – but how to achieve common goals is not clear.   

The Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC) Rhodes Forum has brought together leaders in politics, business and other fields since 2003. This year the highlight was a discussion about Africa with a focus on security and other issues by Nigerian President Mahamdou Issoufou. He has been seeking greater global commitments to countries around the Sahel, a swath of land across Africa that separates north Africa from central Africa. There are threats of extremism, global terrorist groups and environmental degradation. Issoufou has also conducted outreach to Russia for bilateral relations and sought to mediate with neighbors and encourage African leaders to limit their time in office. 

Niger is an important example of a country seeking to confront the challenges of today, including terrorism and instability. Writ large, this is about a global order and international relations that appear to be upsetting the era that has prevailed since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost thirty years ago. Vladimir Yakunin, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the DOC Research Institute, spoke in favor of mutual respect and global equality, saying the forum seeks new approaches to globalization and the future of global economies, such as China’s Belt and Road initiative and the role of the G20

Although some of the issues discussed seem more general than specific, like platitudes about civilizational states and nation states and the need for cooperation, they touch on one of today's key questions. When countries such as Turkey launch unilateral attacks into Syria and Trump appears to abruptly reverse years of US policy, wider conflict can result. Groups like ISIS prey on this instability and threaten the world. Increasingly powerful regional states are muscling their way forward as the US is no longer seen as an arbiter of ceasefires and peace. 

There was a belief after the Cold War that a more liberal democratic process had been set in motion, whisking away ossified totalitarian regimes. Some of that even seemed to be taking place as recently as 2011 with the Arab Spring. But it has become clear that in general, the world is not becoming more democratic. Even social media, which supposedly provides more connectivity, does not mean the world has more harmony, speakers at the forum pointed out. 

“We all remember when Francis Fukuyama wrote at the end of the Cold War ‘this is the end of history,’" recalled Ali Aslan, a journalist and presenter. But today the world is full of hot spots he said. Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament, said that Trump’s recent behavior is a source of uncertainty. This is especially true in Syria. Gabriela Ramos, OECD chief of staff, agreed that today’s economies did not turn out as people thought they would at the end of the Cold War. “We thought that opening markets and trade, and liberal economic thinking, would deliver all the goods for everyone," she said. "But this broad model focusing on GPD did not deliver; we have a challenge of inequalities in advanced economies." This has resulted in populism and other challenges. 

Nikonov, however, said that he was looking forward to a world that would include more stronger countries outside the West. Trump was just a symptom of the problem; the real story is that the West is declining and Eurasia is rising. Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at the Friends of Europe, thought that we are on the verge of re-ordering the world, and that the West will need to share the historical power it has held. The unreliable and unpredictable policies of Trump have helped energize this transition.

The discussion was a unique one, bringing together important voices from China, India, Russia, the EU and elsewhere to discuss the long-term effect that US policies are having on the world, as well as the changes taking place between Europe, Asia and Africa.

Missing in the discussion was the role of the Middle East and South America. The Middle East is especially concerning because of Turkey’s unilateral military operation in northern Syria. Turkey’s action is also an example of how the world order established in the 1990s has changed in favor of states that are willing to use military force in get what they want, while the US has abjured some of its traditional roles and responsibilities.
While the overall theme of the Rhodes Forum is one of dialogue, the themes discussed illustrated that while there may be dialogue, there are many questions about what might come next in international affairs.