The United States is set to pursue a more hawkish policy toward China in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have called for holding China accountable for its role in exacerbating the pandemic through its delays and denials, and the resulting economic catastrophe and shortage of medical supplies has prompted calls to decouple the two economies. But policymakers should not stop there. The pandemic has illustrated not only the danger of economic reliance on China, but the danger of an international order that empowers and legitimizes authoritarian states. It’s time to loose the ties that bind the free world to its opposite.
The gatekeepers of the liberal international order erred by allowing authoritarian states to participate as equal members after the Cold War. Whether China’s influence over the World Health Organization, Saudi Arabia on the U.N. Human Rights Council, or Russia in the former G8, authoritarian states have proven themselves untrustworthy stewards of international responsibility. Instead they have undermined international security and international standards of transparency, accountability, and of human rights. Liberal democracies should take steps to minimize their exposure to authoritarians’ influence by reforming international institutions, expelling irresponsible members or withdrawing from them. The goal should be a narrower but deeper version of liberal order: limited to liberal democratic nations but more meaningful, trustworthy, and accountable to democratic publics around the world.
Doing so has a double benefit. Not only would it limit authoritarians’ influence, it would also be a politically effective way to answer the anger over “globalism.” Though often misdirected, the nationalist and populist movements of the past decade were inspired by a justified frustration that the global system was not working for the average citizen. Democratic countries should heed their citizens’ frustrations by insisting that all states, including rich authoritarian countries, play fair, follow the rules, and act in good faith—or risk expulsion from the liberal order. The best answer to the populist and nationalist challenge is not to throw out liberal order, but improve it.
What was the liberal order for?