Theme Panel: The Liberal Order Under Stress

The Liberal Order Under Stress

The liberal model of organizing politics and society is under stress, both internationally and domestically. Rising powers dispute the liberal international order for being dominated by and biased towards the “West”. Authoritarian state leaders characterize liberal democracies as weak, decadent and indecisive. Likewise, fundamentalist religious thinkers and activists criticize the secularism, materialism, and moral corruption of liberal societies. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, Brexit, and the growing power of populist movements indicate that challenges to liberal democracy also come from within liberal societies. Many liberal democracies face a loss of confidence by parts of their citizens. Economic, political and cultural changes caused by globalization have created economic and social insecurities. Growing inequalities and fears about social exclusion have nurtured the rise of nationalist movements and populist parties. Where authoritarian populists have seized power, they seek to limit individual freedoms and undermine the independence of the judiciary to consolidate their power. These developments are fundamental to political science in that they question some of the underlying assumptions constitutive for major research fields in the discipline.

Against this background, the roundtable aims at approaching three sets of questions. First, to what extent do current challengers target the core of the liberal order? Are alternative concepts of political and social order, such as nationalist populism or Chinese state capitalism on the rise or are these varieties of existing liberal ideas? If they are genuine alternatives to the liberal order, are they gaining in appeal both inside and outside liberal democracies? How do the current contestations compare to earlier contestations in history?

Second, what are the causes of the contestations of the liberal order? Under which conditions does liberal democracy lose or gain attractiveness, and what drives the rise of alternative scripts? Are these contestations the result of endogenous crises developments within the liberal order are they due to new external forces?

Third, what are the consequences of the intensified contestations of the liberal order and the potential rise of alternatives for the challenges the world is facing in the 21st century, such as climate change, migration, nuclear proliferation, and transnational terrorism? Is this merely another backlash against the ongoing spread of liberalism or are we dealing with powerful new ideas and scripts that will shape conflicts and create cleavages over how to organize societies at the domestic and international levels for a long time to come? Alternatively, do we see even the beginning of the end of the dominance of the liberal order?

The roundtable brings together different perspective and approaches to studying the question. The goal is to discuss an appropriate research agenda and appropriate research programs to understand the fundamental changes within liberal and illiberal societies but also the world order.

Tanja A. Boerzel, Free University Berlin (Chair)
Peter J. Katzenstein, Cornell University (Presenter)
Lisa L. Martin, University of Wisconsin, Madison (Presenter)
Tony Tam, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (Presenter)
Michael Zuern, WZB Berlin Social Science Centre (Presenter)