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Can the Western liberal order be preserved without US leadership?

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President Donald Trump has burned like a wildfire through the goodwill accrued by the United States in 70 years of being the leader of the free world. But does that constitute a genuine threat to the liberal international order? What does that term even mean?

The liberal order was not created by starry-eyed idealists in faculty lounges. It was hewed by the hard men who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and dug the world out of starvation and rubble in its aftermath. They built it because they lived the wreckage of tens of millions of lives destroyed by an unregulated international system where threats gathered, strong states preyed on the weak, tariffs strangled trade, central bank policies exaggerated economic hardship, and aggression mounted until even strong states feared being overwhelmed.

But the current president of the United States seems not to believe in the fundamental building blocks of the existing order, nor accept that they benefit the US nearly enough to justify their perpetuation. Trump considers the existing order a conspiracy: “allies” free-ride off US military power while taking advantage of trading arrangements that disadvantage America. His vengeful unilateralism has injected an unwelcome instability within the Western camp.

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America’s allies are the most strident voices about preserving the existing order, and are talking tough about preserving it despite US opposition. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted after the G7 meeting that “the American president may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a six-country agreement if need be”.


© South China Morning Post