By Mark Leonard

One of the big stories of the last 60 years has been the creation of a European-inspired legal order in the shell of an American security order.  The Westphalian order of Bretton Woods has given rise to a new idea of order that gives greater sway to individual rights, institutionalized cooperation, and an idea of security based on legal interdependence and pooling sovereignty to deal with common problems.  This is often called – in short-hand – the Western liberal order – and I think that the biggest global risk is the threat to that order.

The Western liberal order has faced threats over the last few years – but mainly asymmetrical ones, including populist states like Cuba and Venezuela or non-state actors like Al Qaeda.  But now there is a conventional challenge: the rise of “post-colonial superpowers.”  The rising powers of the 21st century – China, India and Brazil – are all relatively new states forged by movements of national liberation whose experience of globalization has been bound up with their new sense of nationhood.  For the West, globalization is destroying sovereignty — but for these new former colonies it is creating sovereignty on a scale never experienced before.  This surge in economic power is also leading to a questioning of Western ideas on sovereignty and the liberal rules of the road.  Let me provide two illustrations.

The first is the rise of the G-20 as the main mechanism for global economic decision-making.  People have focused on who sits around the table — EU members held half the seats in the G-8, and they account for just a quarter of the G-20.  But – from the perspective of the liberal order– it is worrying is that the G-World seems to be one where global governance takes place within informal institutions governed by the balance of power rather than treaty-based institutions that pool sovereignty.  For me this shows that we have been naïve in thinking that integrating rising powers into global institutions will turn them into so-called “responsible stakeholders.”  It is right to engage and involve rising powers in global institutions, but it is now clear that rather than being transformed by their membership of the institutions, the rising are dramatically changing the nature of the institutions themselves.

A more dramatic illustration of the trend against Western liberal values is the Arab Spring.  After 1989, democratization and Westernization went hand in hand.  When countries of Eastern Europe threw off autocratic rule they wanted to join the West.  Now Arab countries are democratizing – but they are not turning towards the West.  In many ways they are going through a “second decolonization,” emancipating themselves from Western client states in the same way that earlier generations freed themselves from Western rule.  Although the revolutionaries themselves may have been using Facebook and working for Google, the politics they will unleash will be challenging for the West.  I do not think we will see fundamentalist Islamists coming to power across the region – but in Egypt we can already see some of the challenges.

These trends are made more extreme because of the way that America is trying to re-invent its leadership for a “post-American world.”  On the one hand, Americans continue to believe that we will transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (in spite of much evidence to the contrary).  On the other hand, they think that Europe’s over-representation in the existing institutions is a threat to the consolidation of that order.

This is leading a declining America increasingly to turn against Europe.  As Walter Russell Mead has written, “Increasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.”  The liberal order can probably survive the dismantling of America’s hegemony — but can it survive the political and economic marginalization of the EU?  A little-commented fact is that it was the EU’s normative agenda — rather than U.S. hegemonic power — that gave legitimacy to the liberal order of the 1990s.  If the United States was the sheriff of the liberal order, the European Union was its constitutional court.

Mark Leonard is Co-Founder and Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think-tank. He is the author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (2005) and What Does China Think? (2008).