Votes : 0

Governing in a Disordered Age

Jeff Steinberg - La Civiltá Cattolica - Tue, Nov 12th 2019


 The Liberal World Order (LWO) established after World War II is eroding rapidly. The world, especially the Western world, is experiencing a breakdown of responsible governance. Governments withdraw from treaties and agreements; formerly strong governments like Germany’s Grand Coalition are put in question; alliances fray, and international organizations and programs lack funding and the consensus needed for effective action. Britain’s political institutions are fracturing under the weight of the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, leading to fears of a hard Brexit. Populist nationalists are building networks to contest the European Union, possibly the LWO’s most important achievement.

Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. has withdrawn unilaterally from various negotiations: the trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Paris Agreement; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions; and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement. It has withdrawn from UNESCO, threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, and made known, in keeping with its “America First” policy, its antipathy to international treaties and organizations, including NATO.


International collaboration on global issues has become a faint memory, hardly a possibility under current conditions. The decision to abandon the INF Treaty calls into question the renewal or extension next year of New Start, the U.S.-Russian treaty limiting strategic weapons. Europeans are actively resistant to the American diktat over the Iran nuclear agreement, as U.S. sanctions have brought Iran to the brink of breaking its commitments under the JCPOA.

Even as science releases evidence that the consequences of global warming – in sea-level rise, ice-melt, desertification and erratic weather – grow more severe, chances for concerted international action on climate change grow dimmer as a result of U.S. withdrawal and China’s spread of its carbon-intensive industrialization policies along its new Silk Road, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

With the number of refugees growing and receiving countries like Turkey and Mexico under stress, new non-binding compacts on migrants and refugees signed in Marrakech seem little more than long lists of desiderata.[1] Traditional countries of asylum – the U.S., Australia and the EU – have mounted extensive policies to limit the entrance of migrants and even of refugees. The U.S., in particular, has offended against the rights of refugees through policies of family separation and forcing potential asylum seekers to apply for registration in Mexico.

With sea levels rising and catastrophic weather events exploding, the number of environmental refugees has been growing.[2] At the same time, domestic spending on disaster relief and re-development is on the rise, leaving fewer resources for care of people coming from other lands.

Xenophobia is rampant, with ethnic, racial and religious minorities persecuted and meeting discrimination on a wide front: Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, Shi’ites from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Muslims and Christians in India, Muslim Uighurs in China. Christians have been forced to flee most of the Middle East, and Jews are persecuted in many lands.

The populist ascendency

The growth of populism brings into power more and more “illiberal democracies,” which are led by elected autocrats and leaders who suppress dissent and independent journalism, and dismantle impartial judiciaries.[3] The U.K. flails about as it attempts to exit the European Union; Hungary roils with protests over its “slave law” which requires employees to work up to four hundred hours of mandatory overtime, with delayed or reduced compensation. In Italy under Conte’s last government, Deputy-Prime Minister Matteo Salvini took the coalition government into the embrace of the anti-immigrant hard-right, arresting Good-Samaritan migrant-rescuers. In Brazil, a right-wing government has withdrawn environmental protections for the Amazon region and put into question the rights of its indigenous peoples.

The rule of law is in retreat. The U.S., the homeland of liberal democracy and until recently the engine of the global Liberal World Order, has withdrawn from military and trade treaties and international organizations and threatened to retreat from others. In Eastern Europe, autocratic rulers have worked against the rule of law, curbing and overturning the judiciary.

In the absence of consensus, international law is fitfully and selectively enforced. For example, provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty are enforced against Iran but not against Saudi Arabia or India. Although they had signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, neither the U.S. nor the U.K. came to the defense of Ukraine after the third principal signatory, Russia, annexed Crimea and supported insurgency in the Donbass. [4]

Failures of global institutions

Not all the problems come from the populist surge or disruptive, illiberal leaders. Their electoral gains have been built on the failures and shortcomings of the global institutions that built the Liberal World Order. The system that was put in place at the close of World War II has suffered decline. Here are some elements:

  • The International Monetary Fund, originally established to secure global financial stability, became a lender-of-last-resort, but its one-size-fits-all approach to emerging market debt crises made matters worse.

  • The United Nations Security Council’s informal deliberative process among the “Permanent Five” collapsed after the Libya “humanitarian intervention” of 2011, leading to distrust that entices Russia and China to become a semi-permanent veto bloc. Thomas G. Weiss, a leading historian of international relations, has called for a dramatic overhaul of the UN to catch up with the vast changes in global politics since its founding.[5]

  • The eastward movement of NATO to the border of Russia in the 1990s violated an agreement to halt further expansion after the reunification of Germany, creating new security problems, especially on Russia’s southern border.

  • The United States embraced the idea of a unipolar world order, which drained American resources, led to regime-change wars and prolonged postwar occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and soured the American public on foreign involvement.

  • The response by the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations to the 2007-2008 financial crisis tilted the economic balance decisively in favor of Wall Street (finance) over Main Street (real economy). Tens of millions of hardworking American families lost their homes or their jobs through no fault of their own, while the too-big-to-fail banks received trillions in bailouts.

  • According to one economist, retirees lost $3.4 billion in wealth as the result of the zero interest policies of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, adopted in 2008. Efforts at reform (Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule) did little to redress those losses. 

Holding on and pushing back

Has the world become ungovernable? Has it, as Robert Kagan argues, returned to the law of the jungle?[6] Has a Pandora’s Box of troubles been opened that will not be contained? Can the tide of populism be reversed and the trend towards autocratic government be rolled back? Can a generation of leaders that supports human rights, environmental protections and tolerance be found again? Can the regimes for refugees and migrants be established anew? Can the UN Security Council find consensus or must it be transformed?

Political realignment. The populist-autocratic wave may be cresting. Populists increased their numbers in the recent European parliamentary elections, but they fell far short of gaining control of the parliament. The traditional centrist parties lost ground, but the Greens and Liberals gained it with commitments consistent with the environmental, human-rights and inclusive political goals that used to characterize the Liberal World Order. Greens, among whom are many social-justice-minded Catholics from the Rhineland and Bavaria, made strong gains in the German state elections earlier this year.

In Slovakia, in the Eastern European populist heartland, Zuzana Caputova was elected president after targeting the populist government’s Achilles’ heel: corruption. Across Scandinavia right-leaning governments have been replaced by weak center-left coalitions. Finally, in an exceptional international collaboration at the political level, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. came together to help ease a transition of government in Moldova.

In the United States the midterm congressional elections in November 2018 saw a marked shift in voting patterns from the 2016 presidential elections. States that gave Donald Trump his Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton swung significantly back to the Democrats. Independent voters who had given President Trump his victory put a Democratic Party majority back in the House of Representatives by a sizeable margin.

The states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, traditional Democratic Party majority states, all voted for Trump in 2016. They then gave Democrats the biggest electoral victory in 2018 since the immediate post-Watergate elections of 1974. Democratic candidates outpolled Republicans by 8.6 percent – the largest majority turnaround in the House in history. Voter turnout percentage was the highest in more than a century.

While the populists’ hope of destabilizing the European Union seems to have been foiled, it is still too early to tell whether a Green-Liberal alliance will be able to provide an effective governing majority for the European Union, replacing the centrist coalitions of recent years. Nonetheless, the growth of the Green-Liberal alliance is worth watching.

In the U.S. divided government and the Trump presidency have made checking illiberal tendencies more difficult, and the courts remain the strongest check still against the administration’s illiberal policies. Nonetheless, political realignment toward the center-left may be the surest way to turn back illiberalism. In these days of hacking, fake news, cyberattacks and transnational electoral meddling, however, sustaining parties that favor liberal values will be a grave challenge. It is easier to create chaos than to build a creative, cooperative world order.

Civil society and international institutions. Another approach to global change may be found in alliances of lesser powers with civil society in international institutions. UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres has proposed increasing the participation of civil society in United Nations deliberations and programming as a way to strengthen needed global initiatives in the face of nationalist opposition.[7]

For some time now, the UN has been inviting civil society and NGO representatives to participate in UN conferences. A notable step in this direction was the 2017 conference that negotiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.[8] The treaty was an achievement of the Humanitarian Consequences Movement, a combination of civil society and nonnuclear states.[9]

Work is continuing between the Movement, states belonging to Nuclear Weapons Free Zones and other nonnuclear states to advance the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons in defiance of the nuclear powers. The strength of their collaboration was on display at the 2019 Preparatory Committee meetings for the 2020 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review.

The conference ended without consensus. In place of a consensus declaration, the conference chair issued a summary paper of his own which the nuclear powers decried for not representing their views. This shift may point to an extended period of tension, or it could lead to a shift from state-centric/big-power international governance to new initiatives for governance by a global moral majority. The alliance between governments and civil society is an imperfect remedy, but necessary to address global challenges like climate change, refugee flows and nuclear disarmament.[10]

Technocratic collaboration. A third option for holding back the onslaught of illiberalism is technocratic collaboration. At a national level, especially in parliamentary regimes, civil servants often carry on the functions of government during times of political contestation or while governing coalitions are being organized. In the current turmoil, transnational technocratic collaboration continues priority operations and tries to avert worsening conditions.

Despite the precarious relations between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, the two countries continue to work together on the International Space Station. Likewise, in the last months of the war against ISIS, military on the two sides developed rules and practices to prevent armed confrontation between their forces and minimize the chance for accidents.

While President Trump’s antipathy to multilateral institutions is well-known and he has been publicly critical of NATO allies, NATO collaboration has gone on unhindered. Other examples are the Organization for Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whose scientists had done the preparatory work for the decommissioning of Syrian nuclear weapons in 2011, and the prior intergovernmental negotiations that made possible the Mexican-U.S. agreement on Central American refugees earlier this past summer.

Technocratic collaboration also takes place in international organizations and civil society. Despite funding shortfalls, especially in UN operations, and a narrowing of political space in too many countries, the infrastructure of governmental, inter-governmental and civil society institutions are stronger than they were a quarter century ago.

The United Nations continues its activities on behalf of refugees and migrants, feeding the hungry in regions of famine, protecting the environment and, generally, promoting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The International Criminal Court and other tribunals continue to prosecute war crimes, and despite the narrowing of public space, Human Rights Watch, Rabbis for Human Rights and other groups continue to monitor and report human rights violations around the world. While the superpowers have reversed the momentum on arms control and disarmament, groups like the Nuclear Threat Initiative continue to explore the possibilities for common ground and future progress. Above all, despite the threat of Brexit and the rise of populist movements, the European Union goes on, and the risk of other countries imitating the British exit from the union has significantly diminished.

Business and capital. The fourth forum in which countervailing tendencies to populist nationalism seem to be arising is business and trade. In some respects, the globalization of markets was the phenomenon that brought globalization to public attention. It was also the discontents and ills of global commerce that undermined the Liberal World Order.

Nonetheless, some of the strongest developments reasserting the Liberal World Order, in their limited way, come from the economic sphere. But, given the “cultural contradictions of capitalism,” they probably cannot be expected to provide for the sustainable resurrection of other liberal values, like human rights, democracy, the rule of law and religious liberty.[11]

Business and trade are intrinsically limited in their capacity to serve as the midwives of the new liberal order. The Chinese experiment in state-driven capitalist development has proved wrong the once widely-held assumption that open markets foster democratic values. With the help of the Koch brothers and other conservative philanthropists, the free-market ethos has penetrated education – including Catholic business schools – and democratic politics in ways ambivalent or even inimical to the values of the wider liberal order.

In addition, the economic disruption resulting from the loss of low-skilled and even professional jobs to robotics and artificial intelligence is likely to increase social and political turmoil, placing greater strains on those democratic institutions requiring deliberation and collaboration to execute solutions to public problems.

Nonetheless, for every oligarch or kleptocrat there is a rich philanthropist ready to support civil-society institutions, fund programs that serve the global common good and promote liberal values. In the years ahead, capitalism will be disruptive in new ways, but it will also be creative in inventing new expressions of the LWO. The renewed strength of global markets, though they will need new regulation to curb their negative impacts, can also create some conditions in which liberal values can flourish again.

A new wave of economic globalization

There are recent developments in the globalization of business that resist the pressures of populist nationalism and, bearing in mind the limits we have suggested, could give rise to other reforms.

In the latest wave of the globalization of markets, nations that lost out under the so-called “Washington consensus” on international finance have forged some new multilateral institutions, to provide alternative sources of development capital. They will promote development in the backward areas of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even Latin America. If they do that in sustainable ways, they can contribute to global prosperity and so to international security. Whether aggregate prosperity will result in greater equality and well-being will depend on political reforms rather than mere economic development, which cannot provide them on its own without governmental regulation and social policy.

New multilateral finance and development institutions include:

  • Deprived of equitable voting rights in the IMF, Brazil, Russia, India and China established a New Development Bank to lend to the developing world.

  • Earlier, the countries of Asia had collectively responded to the 1997-1998 Asia economic crisis by creating a pool of dollar reserves to protect against future speculative assaults. The Chang Mai Initiative is now a fully established capital fund to defend all the currencies of Asia against the kind of hedge fund operations that led to the collapse of the Asian Tiger economies in the late 1990s.

  • China took the lead in creating the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a specialized investment fund for infrastructure projects across the Southern Hemisphere. Today more than 80 countries are members of the AIIB, including all of the leading nations of Western Europe.

  • In response to the NDB, the AIIB and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the United States has now established an International Development Finance Corporation, with $60 billion in capital to compete with China’s BRI. The United States is already partnered with Japan, the European Union, Australia and Canada in pursuing broader investments through the IDFC.

  • Japan, while closely allied with the United States, has agreed to partner with China in BRIC projects in Southeast Asia. Japan is still the largest investor in overseas development projects, with China a close second.

These new institutions hold the potential to foster socio-economic development in the world’s poorest areas. Given the growth of quasi-market models, like that in China, which co-exist with authoritarian rule, it remains to be seen whether these economic innovations will serve to support other liberal values.

The generational challenge

Along with elections for the European Parliament, the participation of young people at the 2018 midterm Congressional elections in the United States offered hope. Fear that the nation was veering in a dangerous direction drove the turnout of younger Americans. Young voters led the surge toward the Democratic candidates. Thirty-six percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out to vote. That was a dramatic increase over 2014 (the last midterm election) when turnout was 20 percent. Turnout among voters between 30 and 44 years of age increased by 13 percent. The level of engagement by younger voters, regardless of formal party affiliation, offers hope that new ideas can be injected into the political dialogue.

The younger generation is a work in progress, but certain potentially positive cultural characteristics are already evident:

  • They are less prejudiced than their parents and grandparents.

  • They are future-oriented. They have a mastery of the new emerging digital economy and have a sense of the endless potential technology offers.

  • They are instinctively anti-war, having seen the consequences of the decades-long wars their parents supported.

  • They choose to live simpler lifestyles, abandoning private automobiles for public transportation and single-lot family homes for congregate living in revitalized urban neighborhoods.

The picture is by no means all rosy. In the United States, a college degree and the consequent debt is a mandatory stepping-stone to a decent paying job. Opioid addiction and other drug-related problems are near epidemic in scale. Marriage and family are delayed too often until couples are well into their 30s. Demographic consequences could be serious over time. One thing seems likely; the younger generation will bring a new set of values and concerns to political, ethical and economic policy deliberations.


The Liberal World Order that was put in place after the Second World War and came to maturity in the quarter-century following the revolutions of 1989 has suffered severe shocks from the rise of populist nationalism and revanchist authoritarianism. Recent electoral victories and the recent fall of populist leaders precipitated by revulsion against their corruption show the populist surge is not a juggernaut that will sweep all before it.

Though the unforeseen consequences of the U.K.’s Brexit will surely have broad impacts, the chaos illiberalism has unleashed has reached a limit for now. To a very large extent, however, whether liberal values flourish again may depend on the outcome of the next three American elections between 2020 and 2024.

Reform and re-design of global institutions will be needed to address the shortcomings of the past, and, in particular, to prevent resurgent capitalism, whether market-capitalism or modified state-capitalism, from undercutting attempted advances in political processes and social programs. While the reduction of economic inequalities will be essential to alleviate resentment over perceived injustice, limitation of the political influence of money, whether it belongs to oligarchs or corporate titans, will be imperative.

The redesign of global institutions will take patient and inventive diplomacy to accommodate the diverse facets of current world politics: the emergence of China, Russia’s big-power ambitions, the growth of civil society, the new activism of the global majority, and unfamiliar political systems like Iran’s theocratic republicanism.

In 1975 the Helsinki Accords established a new modus vivendi between the states of Western and Eastern Europe, with mechanisms for reducing international tensions, addressing new concerns and building trust between nations. Perhaps the first major step toward a renewed world order will be a new Helsinki Agreement on a global scale. It would reduce shocks to the international system, increase communication and interchange between contending political-economic systems, and foster collaboration in facing new or unaddressed global challenges. In the meantime, for global governance, in the limited ways it may be possible, we will have to look to political realignments that favor global governance, technocratic collaboration, alliances for the common good between civil society and willing states, and public-spirited initiatives by a reformed business sector.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 11, art. 2, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1910.2

[1] The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular MigrationThe Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, but as a “compact” it is a non-binding legal instrument. Likewise, the Global Compact on Refugees, though adopted in the hope of providing “sustainable solutions” to the global refugee crisis, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will also depend on international cooperation for its execution. Cf. M. Czerny, “The Global Compact for Migration” in La Civilta Cattolica (English):; cf. M.S. Gallagher, “La Santa Sede e il ‘Global Compact’ sui rifugiati” Civ. Catt. 2019 I 59-70.

[2] On the prospects for a rise in the risk of environmental refugee movements, see

[3] On the Liberal World Order and Illiberalism, see Drew Christiansen, “Catholicism Faces the Illiberal World Order” in La Civilta Cattolica (English) May, 2019

[4] Cf. G. Sale, “A New Crisis between Russia and Ukraine” in La Civilta Cattolica (English), March 2019,

[5] Cf. T. G. Weiss, Would the World Be Better Without the UN? Medford (Ma), Polity Press, 2018.

[6] Cf. R. Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, New York, Knopf, 2018.

[7] On the increased engagement of civil society organizations with the UN, see

[8] Cf. D. Christiansen, “The Vatican and the Ban Treaty” in Journal of Catholic Social Thought, 14 (2018/1), 89-108.

[9] Ibid., 90-94.

[10] Cf. D. Christiansen, “The Church Says ‘No’ to Nuclear Weapons: Pastoral and moral implications” in La Civilta Cattolica (English), May 2018,

[11] Cf. D. Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York, Basic Books, 1996.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.