Opinion Editorials

The World in 2018: Defending the liberal world order

By John McCain

Monday, November 20, 2017

Seventy years ago, when announcing the Marshall Plan to deliver American assistance in rebuilding after the second world war, George Marshall began by stating simply: “The world situation is very serious.” That maxim rings more true as we head into 2018 than at any time since 1947. The world faces the most complex and daunting set of challenges in seven decades. As global leaders chart our political future, we would be well served by looking to our collective past.

Leaders of the post-war era had seen the breakdown of the world order. They saw open markets give way to protectionism and poverty. They saw ethnic and nationalist passions give way to violence and misery. They saw the brutal ambition of hostile great powers give way to war and genocide. In the aftermath of that tragic era, those leaders forged a liberal world order that ushered in an unprecedented era of stability, security and prosperity.

This new order rejected the principles that led to the failure of its predecessor. It was based not on ethno-nationalism, spheres of influence and might-makes-right imperialism, but rather on universal values, human rights, rule of law, open commerce and national sovereignty. This liberal order was not an accident. It was the result of vigorous, tireless efforts to advance, defend and preserve the values that provided its foundation.

And now, that same task falls to those of us who believe a liberal democratic world is still the best chance of maintaining stability, ensuring security and expanding prosperity.

In his speech, after identifying the obvious severity of the post-war situation, General Marshall continued: “I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.” We confront this same difficulty today.

In recent years, we have seen the steady erosion of the liberal order and the institutions that protect it. Citizens of many nations have turned away from universal values and toward old ties of ethnicity, race and sectarianism. They have become increasingly resentful of immigrants, refugees and minority groups. They have turned inward economically and prioritised protectionism over integration. They have warmed to authoritarianism and embraced strongman politics. Most troubling, they seem to have given up on the very idea of liberalism itself, betraying the underlying will that is necessary to maintain any world order.

We have seen the results at ballot boxes around the world—from the Brexit vote in Britain to the rise of populist movements and parties in Germany, France, Poland and Hungary; and of course in the United States, where voters chose an “America First” foreign policy rooted in nationalism and protectionism.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this. As defenders of the liberal order, we grew complacent and made mistakes. At times we tried to do too much, and at others we failed to do enough. We lost touch with many of our people and were too slow to recognise and respond to their hardships. Now we must acknowledge these realities. But doing so does not mean losing hope and retreating.

Don’t give in, take up the mantle

This is the choice that faces all who believe in the liberal world order in 2018: to accept decline or to inspire revival. Will we allow the further erosion of the foundation of our security and prosperity, or recommit ourselves to its advancement? For the sake of future generations, we must not give in. We must take up the mantle of those who crafted the most successful compact in history and ensure it survives for another 70 years—and beyond.

For our part, I know there is profound concern among our allies around the world that America will abdicate its global leadership. During times such as these, no one should make the mistake of betting against the United States. America remains the greatest democracy in the world, with the strongest military forces on the planet, and at its core still embodies the universal values that have always made us a beacon of hope for those seeking freedom.

We have the opportunity to define the political trends of 2018. For those who will defend the liberal world order, we must be persistent and vigilant. We must revitalise our common moral purpose. We must believe that our values are worth fighting for.

Marshall ended his speech by saying: “With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country, the difficulties…can and will be overcome.” History has not taken that responsibility away from America, but it has called all those who share liberal democratic values to join our cause. Together, we can meet the challenges of today’s world, overcome the many threats we face and secure the blessings of liberty for future generations.