A new world disorder

Three Davos summits on from the West’s Great Crash, we begin to see where we are. This is not the total collapse of liberal democratic capitalism that some had feared at the dramatic World Economic Forum meeting here in early 2009, but nor is it the great reform of Western capitalism, then the devout hope of Davos.

Western capitalism survives, but limping, wounded and carrying a heavy load of debt, inequality, demography, neglected infrastructure, social discontent and unrealistic expectations.

Meanwhile, other variants of capitalism — Chinese, Indian, Russian, Brazilian — are surging ahead, exploiting the advantages of backwardness, and their economic dynamism is rapidly being translated into political power.

The result? Not a unipolar world, converging on a single model of liberal democratic capitalism, but a no-polar world, diverging toward many different national versions of often illiberal capitalism. Not a new world order but a new world disorder — fractured, overheated, pregnant with future conflicts.


It was not meant to be like this. Remember the liberal triumphalism of the 1990s, when the West’s old adversaries all seemed to have been vanquished? Even Russia and China were turning to capitalism, and that must, in time, surely bring them to democracy.

Remember this? “The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom — and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise. In the 21st century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.”

Those were the opening words of the U.S. National Security Strategy adopted under President George W. Bush in 2002.

Maybe in the long run these words will prove to be right — that national prosperity and power cannot be divorced from respect for human rights and political freedom. I hope so. But it does not look that way in 2011.

On the one side, this is because the West has squandered its late 20th century victory. As so often in history, hubris was followed by nemesis. For all the soaring rhetoric of President Obama’s State of the Union address this week, the difficulties of pushing the reforms he proposes through America’s dysfunctional political system are daunting.

To be more optimistic about the prospects of reform in Europe, you would have to be Dr. Pangloss on steroids.

On the other side, nations beyond the historic West have discovered combinations undreamed of in the liberal triumphalist philosophy of the 1990s. They combine the dynamism of market economies with rule by one party or one family, state or hybrid ownership of companies, massive corruption and contempt for the rule of law.

A purist of liberal capitalism will say “but that is not capitalism” much as a liberal Muslim might say “but what Al Qaeda preaches is not Islam!” Yet Islam has something to do with it after all, and capitalism has something to do with the awesome rates of economic growth and capital accumulation that make China an emerging superpower.


This is a big part of the “new reality,” which is the theme for this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum. Its program optimistically proclaims “Shared Norms for the New Reality.” If only.

But Yan Xuetong, a bracing Chinese analyst of international relations, argues that emerging powers naturally bring to the table their own norms and attempt to spread them as best they can. He has a point. Are China and Russia, or even India and Brazil, more or less ready to adopt Western norms than they were 10 years ago? Less. Are countries in the global south more or less torn between Western and Chinese norms than they were 10 years ago? More.

We should still try to work toward those “shared norms.” But let’s start by acknowledging that one of the defining features of the new reality is, in fact, that there are divergent norms. China’s rulers, for example, would probably be quite happy with a world in which the Americans, the Chinese and the Europeans each conducted their affairs after their own fashion within their own borders, and to some extent — here is where things get fuzzy and dangerous — within their spheres of influence.

The shared norms would then be limited to a fairly minimal set of rules for international order, trade, air traffic and so forth, with a strong presumption of respect for national sovereignty. So one of the fundamental divergences of our time is precisely about how many or how few shared norms we need.


What follows from this for people in countries that do have more-or-less liberal, more-or-less democratic versions of capitalism? Two things above all.

First, we in the West must put our own houses in order. Physician, heal thyself. The most important steps we can take for our influence abroad are those we take at home. We have lived for decades with a paradigm of progress, in which each generation would be better off than the last. Now we’ll be hard put to ensure that our children are not less prosperous, less secure and less free than we were.

Second, we probably have to scale down — at least for now — our expectations for those shared norms. This means making hard choices. Do we put the preservation of peace, in the minimal sense of the absence of major war, before all else? Or reversing global warming? Or keeping open the pathways of international trade and finance? Or speaking up for basic human rights? Of course we want all these good things. But we have to cut our coat to suit our cloth.

Let me offer a silver lining. Both the hopes and fears of Davos two years ago already look unrealistic. Those of Davos 10 years ago seem like they are from a different world; of 25 years ago, almost from a different universe. History is full of surprises, and no one is more surprised by them than historians.


Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University. He is the author, most recently, of “Facts Are Subversive.”