Updated: Mar 29
Policy Brief by Peter Hamilton
The liberal international order is unravelling, and the decision of the recent U.S. presidential election will have a significant impact on its future. President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris have key polarized differences in their approach to American leadership and foreign policy than the incumbent Trump administration. Assuming that the election results are upheld and there will be a transition of power to in the new year, what can we expect for the liberal international order under the Biden-Harris administration?
The Liberal International Order
The liberal international order (hereinafter the liberal order) can be conceptualized as a combination of an architecture and infrastructure (1). The architecture encompasses its norms and values, including democracy, free-market capitalism and human rights, while the infrastructure encompasses the international organizations and institutions that serve to administer these ideals, including the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This order was deliberately created after the Second World War to establish administrative platforms for the various domains of international relations as well as to aid dispute settlement and collective problem solving. Although this order is validly criticized for its systemic hierarchies that favour the US and other world powers, there is evidence that it has contributed to a global aggregate decline in conflict related deaths as well as improvements to certain measures of development across all states, including life expectancy and child mortality (2).
Despite these achievements, the benefits of the liberal order have certainly not been equal or fair, and the disproportionate gains of states in the so-called Global North has led to increased wariness and contempt for failures in American leadership. Prominent liberal thinkers like G. John Ikenberry commonly argue that this discontent is a result of the US’s disregard for the international institutions it requires others to abide by, often demonstrating that sovereignty is conditional upon whether or not a state’s behaviour aligns with Western norms and interests (3). For example, there is groundlessness in the US’s chastisement of Russia for annexing Crimea while it simultaneously supports the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
As a result of these inconsistencies and shortcomings in America’s leadership, the liberal order has begun to unravel, and the existing architecture and infrastructure are being challenged by revisionists (4). China and Russia are notable leaders of this movement, fostering the emergence of alternative organizations and institutions that offer development, financial and security aid without conditionality or concern for erosion of democracy and human rights abuses. In many cases, partnerships with these types of organizations are attractive and preferable to leaders who wish to retain illiberal governance structures. Some of the emerging organizations include the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These new organizations serve to break the monopoly enjoyed by many of the organizations of the liberal order, creating new bilateral and multilateral linkages with hopes of fostering regional spheres of dominant influence.
Non-Western leaders are not the only ones fed up with the liberal order, as President Donald Trump has been purposefully aiding its unravelling over the past four years. He has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and the Arms Trade Treaty, expressed interest in withdrawing from NATO, regularly gaslights the UN in general, and has ceased funding and initiated its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump sees little benefit in these conventions and relationships, arguing that the U.S. pays a lot and receives little in return but constraints on its sovereignty, and that the WHO specifically is vulnerable to political influence from rival states (5). Although these points have a degree of validity, he fails to see the utility of collective problem-solving in the face of existential dilemmas that threaten the entire world. But this should come as no surprise, as one of his frequent slogans is “America first.”
The Biden-Harris Foreign Policy Agenda
The Biden-Harris platform on American leadership and foreign policy is distinctly different from the incumbent Trump administration. Some of their macro-level objectives include organizing a summit to strengthen the international coalition of democracies, ending the involvement of the U.S. in certain global conflicts, restoring and modernizing Western security arrangements like NATO, and exerting a renewed effort in arms control (6). They also express their intent to rejoin the Paris Agreement, understanding the agreement as a necessary multilateral starting point to confront climate change while acknowledging its structural shortfalls. But perhaps one of the more critical components of their approach to American foreign policy is attempting to restore a degree of morality to American leadership by disengaging from the practices and divisive rhetoric that have inevitably caused political blowback, such as the controversial use of enhanced interrogation techniques, separating migrant families that arrive at the U.S. border, and banning the entrance of travellers from Muslim-majority countries.
Biden’s objectives are further detailed in a recent article he wrote for Foreign Policy entitled “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump” (7). Here, he asserts his support for open trade through American-led regulation that confronts Chinese transgressions, namely intellectual property theft. He also pledges to work with American partners to develop an ethical and legally bound private sector 5G network, and to confront Russian aggression and nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Biden’s tough stance towards autocratic regimes is a primary reason why revisionists like Russia have been meddling in the U.S. election, indirectly eroding the liberal order by supporting the re-election of Trump due to his disdain for it (8). This greater theme is also why the Biden-Harris election has been met with mixed opinions from other international leaders, including Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Israel, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, and even Brexiteers from the United Kingdom, who will all miss Trump’s admiration of international strongmen and indifference to their illiberal policies (9). And even though Trump has directly confronted China through trade, consulate closures, and racial condemnation for being the likely origin of COVID-19, many policy analysts assess that Biden’s strategy on China will remain just as firm, but will treat it more like a competitor than an adversary and fostering cooperation in certain domains, like the pandemic and climate change (10) (11).
Conclusion: Future Uncertainty
The Biden-Harris election does not automatically reaffirm the legitimacy and effectiveness of the liberal order. China, Russia and others will continue to pursue revision and attempt to secure regional spheres of influence that are largely free of Western interference. Although the debate over the decline of American hegemony remains divided and inconclusive, one thing is evident: the Biden-Harris ticket represents the best option for America to restore its soft power and reapply liberal leadership to the international order. The remaining question is whether or not they will be able to garner enough global and international support to bolster the system it worked so hard to create.
Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, Exit from Hegemony: The Unravelling of the American International Order, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 34.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Hans Rosling, “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen,” TED, February 2006, Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen?language=en#t-612962
G. John Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs 81, no 5 (2002), 58.
Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, Exit from Hegemony: The Unravelling of the American International Order, 80.
Kathy Gilsinan, “How China Deceived the WHO,” The Atlantic, 12 April 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/world-health-organization-blame-pandemic-coronavirus/609820/
“The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century,” Biden-Harris, 2020, Retrieved from: https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/
Joseph R. Biden, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again
Jen Kirby, “Yes, Russia is Interfering in the 2020 Election,” Vox, 21 September 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/2020/9/21/21401149/russia-2020-election-meddling-trump-biden
Bessma Momani, “In some capitals around the world, there is no joy in a Biden win,” Globe and Mail, 9 November 2020, retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-capitals-around-the-world-there-is-no-joy-in-a-biden-win/?fbclid=IwAR3iEWombOvuV0AOwIPPguNgxMV3nZMKni1htwJERYorAJBdO-OKUX_iv1Y
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “What China thinks of Biden,” Axios, 10 November 2020, retrieved from: https://www.axios.com/china-biden-relationship-d4f9bf18-3748-4779-a11f-7f51c3c1c87e.html?fbclid=IwAR1ezj_q7axL9Rt-xe5eKQzXk11eYMIjArJMlMta1LpxPJc91sz5Gmx7SZo;
Tom Mitchell, “China expects less volatility but tough relations under Joe Biden,” Financial Times, 9 November 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/560473cf-16e4-4544-aeee-b47f7746e666