C2SI’s “Paragraph 1,” Part 1: Liberal Democracy and the Rules-Based Order Under Threat

In a military operations order, “Paragraph 1” lays out the situation faced by a unit as it prepares for a mission. So what does C2SI’s “paragraph 1” look like? What about the global context drives the need for an organization with our mission? While the immediate trigger was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we created C2SI because we believe the current conflict is bigger than that – rather, we’re in the opening stages of what is likely to be an epochal standoff between authoritarianism and democracy on a global scale. C2SI intends to do what it can to help the free world unite and defend itself against this threat at a grassroots level.

In this series of posts, we will explore this topic. 

Fighting words?

During his remarks on 19 September at the High-Level Week of the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized themes of global unity and cooperation. However, there was no mistaking the undercurrent of geopolitical tension. While he asserted that emerging U.S. partnerships were not about “containing” any country, and spoke about “responsible management of competition” with China and “de-risking,” rather than “de-coupling” U.S.-China relations, he also promised to “push back on aggression and intimidation and defend the rules of the road.” Additionally, he attacked North Korea, Iran, and, most of all, Russia, for its war on Ukraine, devoting the last several minutes of his speech to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on that country. 

Throughout his speech, President Biden emphasized themes of preserving the international institutions built at the end of World War II, as well as the fundamental values of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and human rights that underpin them; and promised to “defend democracy.” The emphasis on these themes is no accident – these are precisely the things that are most under threat from a rising “Axis of Authoritarianism.” 

Background: liberal democracy and the rules-based global order

For over a century, liberal democracy – the term for (our definition) a political system in which individual rights and freedoms are strongly protected and the powers of the state circumscribed, and in which government is held accountable by institutionalized democratic electoral processes – has been the world’s leading political-economic system. Arising in the Anglo-Atlantic West in the 18th century, liberal democracy largely supplanted the old post-medieval legacy ancien regime monarchies of Europe in the 19th century, faced off with major challenges in the 20th century from fascism and communism, and with the collapse of the latter at the end of the Cold War, was left with no plausible ideological competitor as a viable organizing framework for human political affairs  – a situation which political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously referred to as the “End of History” in The End of History and the Last Man.   

The end of the Cold War also saw the consolidation of the postwar global institutional framework Biden referred to in his UNGA speech. This institutional framework is largely based around two interconnected pillars: a political order that includes many international (or intergovernmental) organizations (IOs), most importantly the United Nations, and an economic order based on the postwar global financial system. While the UN became an IO in 1945 with the UN Charter, it was originally formed in 1942 as a wartime alliance – it’s the official name for what we think of as the “allies,” which by war’s end included dozens of nations in addition to the “big four” of the U.S., UK, USSR, and China. For its part, the modern global financial system largely began with the Bretton Woods system that was established at the end of World War II, leading eventually to modern financial globalization, which includes institutions like the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. 

Together, these global political and economic institutions make up what is often referred to as some variant of the phrase “rules-based international order” or “liberal international order.” This latter name, especially, reflects the fact that while the new postwar order included 50 countries at the outset, including communist powers, it was largely shaped by a de facto coalition of the leading democratic powers, especially the wartime Western Allies. This liberal coalition has since expanded to include wealthy democracies across North America, Europe, and East Asia, evolving into what historian Bret Devereux calls the “Status Quo Coalition” – here, we’ll call the SQC for short, or simply the “free world.” 

For the 1990s and early 21st century, even during the dark days of the post-9/11 era and the Global War on Terror, the rules-based order held strong, and the U.S.-led SQC was the dominant pole in global politics. While far from perfect, the SQC-led order ushered in the most peaceful and prosperous era in human history during this period. However, as Fukuyama warned, the “End of History” doesn’t mean that events stop happening, nor does it mean that human societies can’t backslide, allowing history to restart again. This is exactly what’s happening now, as a rising “Axis of Authoritarianism” challenges not only the power of the SQC but the basis of the rules-based international order itself.  

In part II of this series, we’ll look a bit more at the “Axis of Authoritarianism” and why it’s emerging now. 


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