The end of liberal hegemony, and not of history

John West
The US has made a giant mess of much of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War three decades ago
Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

Just 30 years ago, America was on top of the world. It had won the Cold War and its enemy—the USSR—had disintegrated into a multitude of separate republics. Russia seemed like the USSR’s weak successor.   

America’s unipolar moment was seemingly symbolised by Francis Fukuyama’s book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man,’ which argued that with the dominance of Western liberal democracy, humanity had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

The US thus pursued a policy of “liberal hegemony”, as John Mearsheimer has argued. It wanted to remake former communist and developing countries—in America’s image—as liberal democracies and market economies. It sought to accomplish this by spreading liberal democracy across the globe, even by force if necessary; integrating more and more countries into the open international economy; and integrating more and more countries—especially big ones like China and Russia—into international institutions. The US believed that individual human rights and freedom are inalienable, and are undeniable rights for the entire world. This attitude turned the US into a crusader state.

I saw this strategy first hand when I was working at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organisation that represents the democratic, capitalist West. Countries from Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and Latin America were invited into programmes billed as ‘policy dialogue’, but had the clear objective of spreading Western values of open markets and good governance.

Why pursue liberal hegemony?

Why would the US, strongly supported by Europe, want to mould these countries into liberal democracies and market economies? 

There was certainly a good dose of hubris on the side of the West, especially the US, which believed it had found the elixir of political and economic success. The other countries were being welcomed into the club of wisdom.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously said: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

But there was more to it than that. The US and Europe place a high premium on the protection of human rights, and consolidating liberal democracy was seen as a way to prevent shocking human rights abuses in these young democracies.

Democratic peace theory was another factor. Adherents of this theory believe that democracies don’t go to war with each other. Fostering liberal democracy was, therefore, a powerful way to reduce the prospect of war. It was also seen as an effective way of countering nuclear proliferation.

Another argument that Mearsheimer makes is that promoting liberal democracy can help make the world safe for liberal democracy. What he means is that inside any democracy, there will always be few who detest liberal democracy and want to overthrow it. And that there is a danger that such people will call on a communist or authoritarian country for help in their cause. So, if the whole world is converted to liberal democracies, this risk is eliminated.

The US was able to pursue liberal hegemony because of this unipolar moment in history. It did not have any competitor on the global stage, and could therefore ignore balance of power considerations. In its quest to bring freedom to societies around the world, it was free to do as it liked.

More fundamentally, the US was able to pursue liberal hegemony because of this unipolar moment in history. It did not have any competitor on the global stage, and could therefore ignore balance of power considerations. In its quest to bring freedom to societies around the world, it was free to do as it liked.

And it did, but not with the best results. The US’ travails in the Middle East—which it has sought to transform into a sea of freedom and democracies—have been well-documented.

But in my view, it is its miscalculations with reference to two other parts of the world that truly highlight the failure of US strategy.

Failure of the liberal hegemony strategy (Part I) – Central and Eastern Europe

One of the biggest blunders was the West’s embrace of central and eastern European countries, and the resultant sharp deterioration in relations with Russia. The US and Europe rushed to incorporate central European countries into the OECD, with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joining in the 1990s. Meanwhile, a bigger group from Central Europe joined the EU in 2004.

But it was the incorporation of central and eastern European countries into NATO that most affected relations between the West and Russia. NATO was after all, a military alliance system of Western countries designed to oppose the USSR and the other Warsaw Pact countries. 

When the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999, the Russians made it clear to the West that this was unacceptable to them. But at that time, Russia was too weak to do anything about it. Russia’s reaction was the same when a further seven central and eastern European countries joined NATO in 2004.

The crunch came in 2008 when the NATO summit declared that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. The Russians weren’t particularly pleased and had no intention of letting either Georgia or the Ukraine become a Western bulwark on their doorstep. 

Come to think of it, would the US tolerate a military alliance between Canada and China? No, the US has the Monroe Doctrine by which it owns the Western Hemisphere, and no other world power is welcome to intervene.       

Thus began the serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. It is hardly surprising that there was a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and that in 2014, a major crisis broke out over Ukraine. And while the Obama administration was actively working to rid Syria of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the Russians intervened in the Syrian war and successfully saved him. Why? The Russian Navy has its only overseas base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Today, Russia is going to great lengths to try and split NATO and the EU. Both Western Europe and the US have terrible relations with Russia. And the West has now foolishly pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. It is a pity we did not listen to the great George Kennan, architect of the policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War, who was steadfastly against NATO expansion.

Failure of the liberal hegemony strategy (Part II) – strategic engagement with China

In the 1990s, following China’s post-Tiananmen Square rehabilitation, China was clearly on the rise. The US was faced with the issue of what to do with China?

For America’s liberal hegemonists, the answer was simple – the tried-and-trusted formula of ‘strategic engagement’. China should be deeply integrated into the open international economy, and embedded into international institutions. In arguing for China’s membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO), President Bill Clinton said “it is likely to have a profound impact on human rights and political liberty.” He also said that China’s attempts to crack down on the internet were “sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall”.

We were all naive in imagining that participation in the global economy and international institutions would make China a liberal democracy. We had no way of knowing what China's intentions would be, and they are clearly quite different. Rather than becoming a political soulmate, China has become an increasingly powerful adversary.

As it happens, I was part of the OECD team that developed the organisation’s programme of dialogue and cooperation with China from 1995. We also firmly believed, just like our American and European friends, that this would foster political openness in China. We all hoped that as it became more affluent, it would even become a liberal democracy, and a responsible stakeholder in the international system. 

But even then, there were signs of Chinese inflexibility, as it insisted that the OECD downgrade Taiwan’s participation in the OECD. Almost an entire year of negotiations would prove necessary to agree on Taiwan’s terms of engagement with the OECD without, of course, any consultation with Taiwan.

We were all naive in imagining that participation in the global economy and international institutions would make China a liberal democracy. We had no way of knowing what China’s intentions would be, and they are clearly quite different. Rather than becoming a political soulmate, China has become an increasingly powerful adversary.

What now?

Given these developments, we no longer have the unipolar world of the early post-Cold War period that enabled the US to pursue an idealistic policy of liberal hegemony. With the rise of China and Russia, we have the return of great power politics, multipolarity and security competition.

Indeed, some say we are witnessing the start of a new Cold War.

Part II of this piece focuses on the geopolitical quagmire the US finds itself in as a result of the Trump administration’s foreign policy and can be read here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author profile
Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).

You may also like