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Make the Free World Free Again
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Make the Free World Free Again

It's time for a smaller, deeper liberal order.

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? 

World order has its own culture, one that takes its stamp from the norms and ideology of its strongest members. The United Kingdom planted the seed of liberal order in the 19th century and the United States vacillated between watering and neglecting it in the first half of the 20th. After World War II, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan consciously devoted themselves to cultivating and nurturing liberal order—with striking success, as illustrated by the growth of representative government, civil liberties, the rule of law, free enterprise, and cooperative security around the world. 

The liberal international order was a weapon in the Cold War for containing the Soviet Union, a commercial project for accessing new markets, and a propaganda campaign to brand the allies as the good guys against the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.” (Calling it propaganda does not mean it was false; it was certainly truer than the Soviets’ own propaganda, even if it was sometimes “clearer than truth,” in Dean Acheson’s memorable phrase.) The liberal powers did not set out to create a such an order for its own sake, but because they understood it to be an extension of their influence, an engine of prosperity, and the outer perimeter of their security. It was fundamentally a selfish project, albeit one that created collateral benefits for its other participants. The logic was realist, not utopian. It was not about democracy for its own sake; it was about using the language of liberalism to create a sense of solidarity and shared purpose among the anti-Soviet coalition.

Of course, the “free world” included many illiberal dictatorships, such as the U.S.’s allies and client states in Latin America and Africa—to say nothing of the military regime of South Vietnam. To square the circle, academics and policymakers—prominently including W.W. Rostow, a scholar who served as national security adviser for President Lyndon Johnson—invented a convenient set of ideas known as “modernization theory.” Modernization theory posited that states go through natural stages of growth and that liberal democracy is most achievable only at higher stages of socioeconomic development: Countries must get rich before they can become free. 

Modernization theory had little history, evidence, or logic in its favor. It resembles an Underpants Gnomes theory of democratization (step 1: liberalize the economy; step 2: ? step 3: democracy happens!). India was the world’s largest democracy and among the poorest states in the world when Rostow published his ideas in 1960, and other scholars, including Samuel Huntington, made careers exploring the theory’s problems. But the logic was irresistible for policymakers: Washington could purchase dictators’ loyalty with plentiful foreign aid under the pretense that they were “transitional regimes,” that democracy was just around the corner with another paycheck or another aid program, and there was no contradiction in allying with dictators in defense of the free world. The theory was a convenient fiction during the Cold War but turned into an outright cancer on liberal order after 1989.

A new era.

The end of the Cold War seemed to usher in a new era in human history—if not the actual end of history—one in which democracy and capitalism would be the unchallenged “final form of human government,” as Francis Fukuyama famously wrote. And, indeed, the era was one of extraordinary freedom and prosperity. Eastern Europe, most of Latin America, and half of Africa transitioned to democracy while a liberalizing global trading regime lifted hundreds of millions from poverty. The year 2005 was likely the high point of human freedom in recorded history, before a decade and a half of democratic decline set in. 

History might have actually ended—Fukuyama was not wrong to pronounce history’s verdict about the superiority of democracy and capitalism—but the engineers of liberal order forgot what it was for and threw away their maintenance manuals. Some Western policymakers forgot the realist logic that undergirds liberal order in the first place—but, tragically, remembered the fable of modernization theory that excused the free world’s compromise with authoritarians. This was the crucial error that gradually undermined the liberal order. 

A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe treated Russia as if it were transitioning to democracy and capitalism, welcoming it into a newly created G8 of leading economies in 1997. The goal was not misplaced: If successful, Russian democracy and Russian entrepreneurialism might have been among the greatest forces for peace and stability in the 21st century. But, apart from Russian elites’ own choices that contributed to the premature death of Russian liberalism, the Western powers resorted to their old modernization playbook, focusing their energies on helping Russia privatize its industries and liberalize its economy rather than strengthen its institutions and deepen the rule of law. Corruption exploded, the rule of law was stillborn, economic growth was nearly derailed by a financial crisis in 1998, and many Russians were ready for the return of stability when Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. 

Yet even after Russian democracy failed, Western policymakers—in their second major error—saw little reason to revisit their presumption that the liberal order was better off with Russia inside than out. The United States, distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not change its stance towards Russia when Putin’s authoritarianism became evident after 2005. Even after Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe in 2007 and invaded Georgia in 2008, the United States and its allies welcomed Russia into the World Trade Organization in 2012. This was a striking dramatization that Western policymakers had forgotten the realist logic that originally undergird the liberal order. Liberal order enriches and empowers its members: Allowing rivals to continue to enrich and empower themselves after they have openly declared their enmity is nonsensical. The West expelled Russia from the G8 in 2014 after its invasion of Crimea, though it continues to benefit from membership in the WTO. 

A similar story unfolded in East Asia. Chinese policymakers pursued a strategy of economic liberalization and political authoritarianism from 1979 onward, crushing student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 while courting international trade deals. Yet, aside from perfunctory sanctions, the West largely continued its efforts to incorporate China into the liberal order, culminating in its admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Similarly, both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank gave China a greater influence in their governance in 2010, reweighting members’ vote shares to emphasize China and other developing economies. Again, the operative theory was that making China a “stakeholder” in the international system would incentivize responsibility.

China has grown dramatically richer, yet has, if anything, become less responsible and more assertive. It’s less a stakeholder and more akin to a pirate, living off the plunder of other state’s innovation and productivity. China’s decades-long record of intellectual property theft and cyber espionage helped it leap ahead in strategic competitiveness, especially when coupled with currency manipulation, unfair trade practices, and disregard for international law. 

At the same time, China amassed a record of international aggression and domestic authoritarianism. Chinese military forces essentially invaded disputed territory in the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands and military facilities there since 2014, and it simply ignored a 2016 ruling against it by the international Permanent Court of Arbitration. It pioneered new methods of domestic control, becoming the world’s largest panopticon with universal surveillance, big data, and artificial intelligence. And it is carrying out a campaign of cultural genocide against the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang.

Russia and China are the largest and most obvious examples of authoritarians who have taken advantage of liberal order. There are others: the World Trade Organization admitted Zimbabwe (1995), Cuba (1997), Saudi Arabia (2005), and Vietnam (2007), under the mistaken presumption that economic liberalization would lead to political reform. None have made significant political reforms while all can enrich themselves with greater access to world markets. (Mohammad bin Salman’s counter-corruption campaign may succeed in consolidating his power in Saudi Arabia; it will not lead to greater accountability, political freedom, or competition for power.) 

There is no evidence that membership in the liberal order compels irresponsible authoritarians to liberalize. Yet the United States and its allies allowed Russia and China and other authoritarians to reap the benefits of the international order while flouting its rules, freeriding on a geopolitical scale. In fact, the problem is worse than freeriding: It is parasitism. Russia and China benefit economically, drawing as much wealth as they can out of the system, while actively poisoning the host through aggression, subversion, and norm-breaking. The result has been to weaken the order for everyone, to cheapen its ideals through widespread nonenforcement, to leave the free world less free and its rivals richer and more energized than at any point since the end of the Cold War. 

How America suffers.

Americans already live in a world in which Chinese influence trumps physical safety and basic freedoms. Officials at the World Health Organization reportedly aided and abetted China’s propaganda offensive to deflect blame for the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid offending China’s government, echoing Chinese talking points and minimizing the threat of the coronavirus during the crucial early weeks of its spread. While the United States wrongfooted its own response to the pandemic badly, both China and the WHO bear partial responsibility for the 110,000-plus deaths in America.

Nor is that an isolated example. Last fall, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong. In response, Chinese celebrities announced boycotts of the NBA, Chinese brands pulled their sponsorship of NBA games, and Chinese state-run media called for a reexamination of the NBA’s $1.5 billion streaming deal with China. Morey was compelled to delete his tweet and apologize, and—astonishingly—fans at NBA games in America showing support for Hong Kong protesters have been kicked out or had signs confiscated. Chinese censors are increasingly in a position to police the American marketplace of ideas, entertainment, and media. The First Amendment provides no protection against the commercial influence of a foreign power.

And, of course, there is also the economic and human cost of encouraging trade ties with states with minimal safety and environmental standards, arguably the issue with the greatest popular resonance because of its (perceived) impact on American manufacturing and employment. Skimping on worker and consumer protections lowers Chinese companies’ cost of production and gives them an artificial comparative advantage. This debate is usually cast in terms of comparative efficiency: Because manufacturing is cheaper in China, we can hardly blame the multinational corporations for offshoring there. In this framing, we debate and how best to invest in job retraining and a social safety net at home to ameliorate the impacts of economic dislocation. 

But accepting that framing overlooks a crucial aspect of the problem. Authoritarian countries do not have strong protections for workers’ safety or the environment because they are not accountable to their people. China, for example, has never bothered to police the safety and cleanliness of food, which the United States and other developed democracies started doing a century ago. And so there was little lasting reform or meaningful accountability after a scandal in 2008 in which tens of thousands of Chinese infants were sickened and hospitalized from contaminated milk. When free countries open trade ties with such countries, democratic governments are forced to choose between importing authoritarian standards of labor and environmental protections or mass offshoring to stay competitive.

This is the price citizens of the free world pay when their governments allow authoritarians to gain wealth, power, and prestige on the world stage. Freedom is only meaningful when free nations have the power to defend themselves and their ideals. Liberal policymakers deluded themselves that the soft power of their example and their trade would be enough to turn rivals into partners. Instead, rivals took their money, copied their example, distorted it for their use, and have amassed enough power to threaten the freedom and independence of much of the free world.

That dynamic now endangers democracy itself. Though international trade is not wholly responsible for developed nations’ economic troubles (automation plays at least as big a role), the issue has now become a focal point and chief catalyst for populist and nationalist movements around the world—movements which, at their worst, now endanger the future of democratic governments, as illustrated by the Hungarian parliament’s decision to vote democracy out of existence in March. Policymakers uncritically welcomed authoritarians into the liberal trading regime; the authoritarians polluted the liberal order and twisted it to their ends; and now public support has hollowed out as citizens rebel against a system that no longer serves their needs.

How to shrink and deepen the liberal order.

The solution is not to throw out the liberal international order altogether. The indictment of “globalism” by populists and nationalists is overbroad and short on productive solutions. Rather, the United States and its allies face an urgent need to minimize their exposure to authoritarians’ influence over global governance and over the free world’s economic independence. That means a managed, strategic retreat from the loftiest aspirations for the liberal order: a reconsolidation, not an abandonment; a campaign to shrink the liberal order to save it.

The first step is through some form of economic decoupling between the United States and China and, more broadly, between the free world and its rivals. This is more akin to a generational aspiration than an immediate policy goal. Abrupt moves would replicate the errors of the U.S.-China trade war, damaging the global economy with few appreciable benefits. But in the long term the U.S. and its allies should expand the number of industries they consider vital to national security, including vital medical equipment, information technology, and artificial intelligence and protect such industries through tariffs, quotas, and subsidies—or, another way of putting it, expanding “national security” to encompass employment and social solidarity. 

That will incentivize the long process of repatriating key industries and sectors of the U.S. economy and regaining influence over supply chains for vital products, such as medical equipment. Protectionism is never the most economically efficient policy and should be pursued sparingly, but efficiency is not the only goal of public policy.

Another step will involve halting the transfer of militarily exploitable knowledge and human capital to authoritarian nations. While there is good reason to sustain as many cultural and educational exchange programs as possible, the U.S. does not need to allow Chinese or Russian students to study advanced computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, engineering, or other fields at American universities. Americans have a touching faith that foreigners who study in America will absorb American ideals through cultural osmosis, but it is just as likely that those foreigners will help their governments absorb technology for use in their militaries and intelligence agencies.

The United States should also insist that authoritarians comply with the rules and institutions they supposedly consent to, such as the global trading regime, or forfeit their right to the benefits those institutions afford. China has faced virtually no penalty for its wholesale theft of intellectual property, cyber espionage, currency manipulation, state subsidies, and other trade practices despite dozens of complaints lodged against it in the WTO. Membership in the World Trade Organization requires states to commit to transparent and predictable trade policies, comply with WTO rulings, and, more generally, a commitment to the rule of law. But as the US trade representative reported in 2018, “it is now clear that the WTO rules are not sufficient to constrain China’s market-distorting behavior.” Instead, “China has used the imprimatur of WTO membership to become a dominant player in international trade.”

 The United States should continue pursuing its cases against China but, if no change in behavior is forthcoming, supplement the WTO process with its own punitive measures, including sanctions and tariffs and, at the extreme, seek China’s expulsion from the body. A trading regime that treats China as a responsible and equal partner in the face of decades of evidence to the contrary is wishful thinking bordering on delusion.

Finally, the United States might seek to create and revitalize other venues of international cooperation. There is no reason for the United States to waste its diplomats’ time and taxpayers’ money participating in institutions that routinely and systematically work against American interests and make a mockery of liberal values. The Trump administration was right, for example, to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018. In its place, the United States might channel its diplomatic energies into something like the Poland-based Community of Democracies. By limiting membership to democratic nations, the community retains far greater moral authority to speak on issues of human rights and humanitarian crises.


This is not a call to resurrect the old policy of containment, to embargo all trade and commerce with all autocracies, or to halt all cultural and educational exchange. It is a call to recognize that international governance belongs in the hands of responsible nations. Western policymakers erred by assuming authoritarian governments would be charmed into becoming responsible by tasting the blessings of the system created by their erstwhile enemies. While the United States should remain committed to cooperation among democratic nations, it should adopt a frankly transactional relationship with its autocratic rivals, engaging in trade and diplomacy on a case-by-case basis. (There are still strong reasons for global cooperation on climate change, for example, and against the pandemic.)

The naiveté and utopianism of liberal internationalism has led the world to a dark place, one in which authoritarians have extracted the benefits of the liberal order while discrediting it in the eyes of much of the free world. We are perilously close to losing the liberal order altogether, after which is likely to come either a very dangerous era of leaderless competition, or Chinese hegemony, neither of which is an improvement over even a flawed liberalism. The solution is to reaffirm liberal principles while limiting the scope and membership of liberal order to shore up its integrity, legitimacy, and resilience. That is also the best way to answer citizens’ grievances about the liberal order, restore some semblance of democratic accountability to it, and thus take the sting out of populist and nationalist movements. For the sake of ordered liberty at home and abroad, the free world must wake up to the threat of authoritarianism.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He previously served on the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Photograph by Dominique Jacovides/AFP via Getty Images.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.