The decay of the post-war order

16 Mar 2017

The international structures created by great power politics are, as Prussian Chancellor Bismarck once noted, ‘a fluid element, which will coagulate temporarily under certain circumstances but which, at a change in the atmosphere, will revert to its original aggregate condition’.


International political structures have waxed and waned over the past two-hundred years. The Brexit vote and Trump’s election were symptoms, not causes, of the decay of the most recent western order.


Over the past year, populism has proved its power. But what do ‘populists’ want? China has risen to become a formidable player in the world economy, much to the demise of the US. In electing Donald Trump, many populists want to reverse this, by voting for a foreign policy that always puts ‘America first’. 


Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, like Vote Leave’s slogan ‘Take back control’, speaks volumes about why the international structure is, once again, fluid. The wave of reactionary politics that swept 2016 thrived on frustration with the current order.


Towards the end of the Cold War, pundits such as Francis Fukuyama predicted that liberal democracies and free-market capitalism would triumph across the globe, and remain the dominant force in international politics - marking an ‘end to history’. But, as recent political events have shown, a world order based on free-market liberalism is not unshakeable. Many nations believe they have not seen palpable profits from such a system, and so now look for something new.


Such reaction is not new. Throughout history, international political orders have been ephemeral and unstable.


In 1815, in response to Napoleon’s downfall, the great powers of Europe drew up the Vienna Settlement. The Settlement sought to prevent a relapse into competitive great power politics and establish an accepted, continent-wide framework. This framework came to be known as the ‘Concert of Europe’, whereby the great powers would hold a conference whenever an international problem arose, particularly if the balance of power and status quo was seen to be under threat.


It wasn’t long before France sought to regain her prestige and the Crimean war began to unfold, dismantling the international order put together at Vienna. As the ‘Concert of Europe’ became increasingly threadbare, and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, nations became more inward looking, paving the way for further rivalries and competition.


With World War One came a need for an updated international structure. Like in 1815, the post-Great War peace settlement also sought to prevent rivalries and set up a general association of nations, this time in the form of the League of Nations.


Yet, once again the international structure proved unworkable in the long-term, eventually leading to the most recent world order, constructed just after the Second World War. Indeed, in 1945, President Roosevelt, like President Wilson in 1919, sought to create a new international structure in order to maintain peace. The key tenets of this latest order were the establishment of the United Nations, and the dominance of western capitalism and liberalism across Europe.


This 1945 world order, like its predecessors, is now being questioned. The past few years have brought new political challenges, such as the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, the 2008 financial crash, and globalisation. Under such pressures, many are doubting the viability of an order based on open trade and movement, as seen mostly clearly in the events of Brexit and Trump’s campaign. Such doubts lend themselves to more inward-looking, protectionist policies, in which the individual country is put first.


International orders require teamwork. If countries begin to turn inwards once more, then the post-war order will be increasingly difficult to work.


The European Union is perhaps the most important product of the post-war international order. It was developed from the European Economic Community (EEC), which was established in 1958, with the aim of preventing future disputes between long-time rivals France and Germany, by building Franco-German economic ties and fostering co-operation.


France and Germany essentially held the EEC together, and they are now the lynchpin of the EU. This also means that the upcoming election in France has the potential to break the EU. Although it is unlikely she will win, Marine Le Pen has pledged to hold a referendum on membership of the EU and the Euro, if she were elected president. Le Pen, unsurprisingly, also promises to put France 'first' by prioritising French citizens and slashing immigration.


Although there is not going to be a European war anytime soon, with reactionary figures such as Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump tapping into the frustration with the current order of things, it seems the post-war international structure is now waning.


Whilst it is too early to get a clear sense of the causes and consequences of the events of 2016, it appears that, like in the late 19th century and the 1930s, nations will once again turn inwards as they no longer see the palpable domestic incentives of keeping up the status quo order. As The Economist’s Moscow correspondent Noah Sneider has recently observed, ‘The great power relationships come back to their natural equilibrium. The equilibrium of rivalry’. It seems great power politics is reverting to its original aggregate condition.



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