Skip to main content
(KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)
(KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

2018’s Biggest Loser Was the Liberal International Order

Walter Russell Mead

It’s been a year of tumult and chaos in world politics. In Japan, a national poll selected the kanji character sai, meaning disaster, as best reflecting the national mood. Perhaps 2019 will bring better news. In the meantime, here are the states, individuals, institutions and ideas that were 2018’s biggest losers. Next week: the winners.

• China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2018 Beijing began to learn how hard it is to build an international system. The BRI isn’t only a massive infrastructure project intended to build an integrated commercial area centered on China; it is an attempt to translate China’s economic might into geopolitical power.

After Beijing forced Sri Lanka to hand over control of its Hambantota port facilities for 99 years to satisfy its debt late in 2017, this year saw China’s most important BRI targets cancel existing agreements (Malaysia), demand better terms (Pakistan) and scale back projects (Myanmar). Chinese ties to South Africa’s Gupta family (widely blamed for facilitating the corruption of former president Jacob Zuma) and other corrupt figures have contributed to a more skeptical view of Beijing’s intentions across Asia and Africa. The pushback has only begun. China’s debt-trap diplomacy will face more obstacles in 2019.

• Britain. The United Kingdom slowly twisted in the wind in 2018, unable to negotiate an acceptable European Union exit package or to make up its mind what to do next. At year’s end the future of Brexit is as uncertain as it was 12 months ago. None of the available options—accept the EU’s offer, crash out of the EU in a “no deal” Brexit, hold a second referendum, or give up and remain in the EU—command a parliamentary majority. Within living memory Britain was one of the world’s leading powers and its parliamentary system lauded as the most successful model of democratic governance. At the start of 2019, British prestige and power are touching new lows.

• Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia managed to keep his job in 2018, but otherwise the year was a nightmare for him and his country. Staging the brutal murder in Istanbul of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may have been intended to deliver a message to the Turkish leader, a Saudi rival. Instead the Turks outplayed the Saudis and dripped out one damaging revelation after another as the Saudi public-relations machine struggled to contain the fallout. Saudi prestige bled further as the kingdom’s war in Yemen wrought havoc on civilians.

By year’s end, even longtime allies in the Washington foreign-policy establishment had turned on Riyadh. President Trump’s sudden decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria was good news for the two powers Saudi Arabia fears most—Iran and Turkey—leaving the kingdom isolated and exposed. Having lost friends across the West, Crown Prince Mohammed must rethink his international strategy even as oil prices plunge. Although many younger Saudis continue to support him, his domestic critics have been emboldened by his foreign-policy failures. Another year like this, and Saudi Arabia could be looking for a new crown prince.

• Emmanuel Macron. The French president, whose 2017 election animated hopes of a “new political center” in the West, had a horrible year in 2018. His problem wasn’t merely that his poll numbers plummeted or that “yellow jacket” protests forced him to make an embarrassing public apology and roll back some of his agenda. The theory of his presidency failed in 2018.

Mr. Macron came to power with a big idea: that if he introduced sweeping economic reforms in France, Germany would support changes to the EU that promoted faster growth. As French supply-side reforms and German stimulus boosted the French economy, Europe would be reinvigorated and Mr. Macron could run for re-election as its savior. In 2018 he discovered the flaws in his plan: French voters resist his reforms, and German public opinion remains too suspicious of EU partners—including France—to turn the continent into a “transfer union” where successful countries like Germany underwrite struggling economies to the south and east. Mr. Macron and France need a new approach in 2019.

• The liberal international order. The biggest loser of 2018 was the post-Cold War system that the U.S. and its closest allies hoped would shape global politics. The idea was that liberal democracy, market-based economic systems and the rule of law would spread from the West into the postcommunist East as well as into the Global South. International institutions would increasingly replace the anarchic competition of states by developing rules-based approaches to issues from trade to climate change.

Great powers like Russia and China never liked this approach, seeing it as a thinly disguised form of U.S. hegemony and a threat to their illiberal political systems. The aspiration for a liberal world system has faced growing headwinds for many years; in 2018 it buckled further under stress.

Even Japan, long a zealous upholder of the rules-based order, exited the International Whaling Commission; Russia solidified its hold on southeastern Ukraine; China fortified its artificial islands in the South China Sea; the U.S. flouted WTO procedures in pursuit of what the Trump administration calls “fair trade”; and one country after another failed to comply with its commitments under the Paris climate agreement. A modern Voltaire might quip that the old system was neither liberal nor international nor an order, but its absence will be felt if it disintegrates.