Elements of the Liberal World Order

Jack Krupansky
50 min readMay 23, 2018

The liberal world order is a collection of multilateral intergovernmental organizations, international institutions, treaties, international law, civil society, and norms of international behavior, including international consensus, which govern the interactions of nations and cross-border commercial, civil society, and individual transactions and movement, focused primarily on economic and political order, but with some emphasis on social and cultural development and exchange as well.

Loosely speaking, what we now call the liberal world order developed in the aftermath of World War II as an effort to assure that conflicts similar to the two world wars of the 20th century would never happen again.

The goal of this informal paper is not to detail all aspects of the liberal world order, but to provide a high-level summary of the main elements.

This paper should serve as a baseline reference for anyone wishing to establish a firm understanding of the foundation of the liberal world order.

The United Nations is certainly a key, core element of the liberal world order, but there’s so much more to it.

In a nutshell, the liberal world order pursues these missions:

  1. Security. Recognizing borders. Resolving disputes without resorting to military action. Alliances. Avoiding war and armed conflict, at all costs.
  2. Economic. Stable money and foreign exchange. Finance and international banking. Economic activity (commerce), growth, prosperity. Development of infrastructure. International trade. Alleviation of poverty.
  3. Democracy. Promoting democracy and human rights. People controlling their own destiny.
  4. Technology. Innovation. Standards.
  5. Food security. Fighting famine and hunger. Response to disasters which threaten or damage food supplies.
  6. Health and medicine.
  7. Cultural exchange. Heritage. History. Education. Arts.
  8. Sociopolitical integration. Not world government, but not every country for itself either.

Or in an even briefer nutshell, the liberal world order fills the gaps between and across countries.

The liberal world order is not designed to be world government, but again, focus on filling the gaps between nations. To make the world more seamless, but allowing each country to maintain its own distinctive culture and identity.

The liberal world order faces a number of challenges and has plenty of room for improvement, but its greatest success has been that there has been no World War III, no further use of nuclear weapons, and no large scale use of chemical or biological weapons.

Alternative names for liberal world order

There are a variety of phrasings for the what this paper is calling liberal world order:

  1. World order
  2. International order
  3. Globalism
  4. Global order
  5. Democratic order
  6. Liberal order
  7. Liberal democratic order
  8. International economic order
  9. Liberal economic order (LEO)
  10. Global economic order
  11. Liberal world order
  12. Liberal international order
  13. International liberal order
  14. International rules-based order
  15. Global international order
  16. Rules-based international order
  17. Rules-based world order
  18. Rules-based global order
  19. Global rules-based order
  20. Rules-based order
  21. Western liberalism
  22. Liberal international economic order (LIEO)
  23. Liberal international system
  24. Liberalism
  25. Postwar order, Post-war order
  26. Post-World War II liberal world order, Post-war liberal world order

There may be other formulations, but those seem to be the most popular, with liberal world order being the more common term in contemporary discourse.

Historical background

As already mentioned, the so-called liberal world order developed in the aftermath of World War II as an effort to assure that conflicts similar to the two world wars would never happen again, but the roots of this interest are much older.

The League of Nations was organized In the aftermath of World War I, with a similar goal, to assure that no conflict similar to that war would ever happen again. The League had some limited success and created some organizations which were later used as the basis for the United Nations, but overall failed to check the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II itself, which doomed the League.

A partial success of the League was the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact or Pact of Paris, officially the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, which effectively banned war as a primary instrument of foreign policy, although war was still valid for self-defense. Technically, the Pact was strictly outside of the League, probably because the U.S. never joined the League due to resistance in Congress. Principles of the Pact were incorporated into the UN charter. Obviously the Pact failed to prevent World War II, but that was more a fault of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) than the rest of Europe or the U.S.

Even earlier, there had been various efforts at international cooperation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 for laws of war and war crimes, and a variety of conferences and agreements that ultimately led to the Geneva Conventions in 1864, 1906, 1929, and 1949 which still govern the treatment of prisoners of war and civilian non-combatants in times of war.

The true origins of international law and order were the treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia, back in 1648, which established a commitment to:

  1. Recognition of sovereignty and autonomy of states.
  2. Recognition of borders and territorial integrity. Borders will not be changed through military aggression.
  3. Recognition of national self-determination. Outside powers should not be determining the future of any country.

At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the Allied powers agreed to create a new body to replace the League, the United Nations, incorporating the parts of the League of Nations which had been successful, but with an overall new structure.

But the UN was only part of the grand landscape of what has become our liberal world order here in the 21st century.

Before the liberal world order

Before the advent of the liberal world order, the world was characterized by:

  1. Ethno-nationalism. Ethnicity and national identity were everything.
  2. Authoritarian governments. Not very democratic. Human rights problematic.
  3. Spheres of influence. Focus on neighboring countries, the near abroad.
  4. Great power politics. Smaller countries ally with preferred larger countries. Larger countries making self-serving deals with each other.
  5. Imperialism . Extending one’s own country’s power and influence. Us first, and us only.
  6. Waging war to resolve disputes between nations. Diplomacy and compromise considered weakness.
  7. Narrow webs of interlocking international alliances. Mostly bilateral arrangements or small number of closely knit countries. Individual countries belonging to numerous alliances, where the countries in any given alliance don’t typically belong to all the same alliances, such that your friend in one alliance might be in another alliance with your enemy.
  8. Isolationism. Let each country look after its own affairs.
  9. Shifting borders. Continual conflicts and disputes rendered borders unstable.

Smaller countries thrived only at the mercy of larger countries. Survival was not guaranteed.

With the liberal world order

After World War II, the new world order was based on:

  1. Global system. Not regional. Not local. Not power blocs. All countries as equals, peers.
  2. Responsible world powers. Great power still exists, but great power confers great responsibility. The great look after and assist lesser countries.
  3. Greater democracy. Democracy and human rights becoming the norm. Dictators, tyrants, strong men, and authoritarian leaders no longer welcome. Promoting democracy and human rights where it is not yet flourishing.
  4. Global responsibility. All countries participate in helping all countries.
  5. International institutions. Fill in gaps that smaller countries could not manage on their own. Balance power between larger countries.
  6. Universal, shared values. Human rights. Rule of law. National sovereignty.
  7. International norms. Respect for borders. Commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes. Consensus rather than special interests.
  8. International law. Greatly facilitate peaceful resolution of disputes and commerce between all countries.
  9. Global integration. Countries come together to pursue common interests.

Goals and missions of the liberal world order

The liberal world order pursues a combination of political ideology and economic ideology.

General goals and missions:

  1. Maintain stability.
  2. Ensure security.
  3. Respect for national sovereignty and national identity.
  4. Commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes.
  5. Expand prosperity and health, for all.

More specific goals or missions:

  1. Avoid war between nations.
  2. Respect national sovereignty, borders, identity, and culture.
  3. Facilitate global commerce.
  4. Ensure economic prosperity for all.
  5. Facilitate and manage international migration.
  6. Facilitate and manage international travel.
  7. Facilitate and manage international communication.
  8. Promote economic development for all.
  9. Promote and protect human rights for all.
  10. Promote democracy.
  11. Promote pluralism.
  12. Promote rule of law.
  13. Promote equality.
  14. Promote rights and opportunities for women and girls.
  15. Promote rights and opportunities for minorities.
  16. Promote and facilitate food security and relief from famine and hunger. Respond to disasters which threaten food supplies.
  17. Fight, alleviate, and eliminate poverty.
  18. Promote health and wellbeing.
  19. Promote education.
  20. Decisions by international consensus.


The liberal in Liberal World Order is a reference to liberalism, with its traditional meaning of liberty and equality which arose during The Enlightenment, in contrast to absolute monarchy, tribalism, feudalism, dictatorship, and power relations between countries and between the people and their government which are outside of the rule of law.


Democratic government with the only power of the government derived from the people is central to the liberal world order, and to liberalism itself.

Democracy and the liberal world order go hand in hand.

That said, not every country participating in the liberal world order has the same level of commitment to democracy or even a nominally democratic government.

Democracy and the liberal world order go hand in hand.

That said, not every country participating in the liberal world order has the same level of commitment to democracy or even a nominally democratic government.

America’s role in the world

The U.S. is not the sole proponent of the liberal world order, but especially since the outcomes of the two world wars, the U.S. has led the process for two reasons:

  1. A strong desire to avoid getting sucked into massive disasters as we were with the two world wars.
  2. A strong need from virtually all of the countries of the world for strong leadership.

As a result, by default, the U.S. has become the de facto leader of the free world.

The EU has risen up to compete with that U.S. role, but only to a limited degree.

Nonetheless, the notion of the U.S. as leader of the free world is not central to the conception of the liberal world order. Although, one could be excused for believing that the liberal world order as we know it might not exist in anywhere near its current form without the U.S. playing the role that it does.

U.S. as the indispensable nation

Some people now refer to the U.S. as the indispensable nation (former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, et al), alluding to our unique leadership role in the modern world.

Others firmly reject that characterization or role, insisting that the U.S. should severely limit its participation in the affairs of other countries.

Even others go further and reject multilateral arrangements in favor of more carefully crafted and limited bilateral arrangements.

The result is an ongoing debate as to the role of the U.S. in the world.

Nonetheless, the notion of the U.S. as the indispensable nation is not central to the conception of the liberal world order. Although, one could be excused for believing that the liberal world order as we know it might not exist in anywhere near its current form without the U.S. playing the role that it does.

U.S. as the world’s policeman

Similar to the role as the indispensable nation, some people have seen the U.S. as the world’s policeman.

Similarly, some categorically reject this characterization and role. Although few dispute that the U.S. has indeed played this role for a number of decades.

Nonetheless, the notion of the U.S. as the world’s policeman is not central to the conception of the liberal world order. Although, one could be excused for believing that the liberal world order as we know it might not exist in anywhere near its current form without the U.S. playing the role that it does.

International consensus

The single most overarching principle of the liberal world order is that actions and resolution of disputes should be by international consensus, rather than solely or primarily by any single dominant country or even some relatively small group of powerful countries.

Rejection of great power

The hallmark and ideal of the liberal world order is that the notion of great power is being discarded, including:

  • Great power dominance. Individual superpowers.
  • Great power competition.
  • Great power cooperation and conspiracy. To dominate smaller states.
  • Regional dominance. Spheres of influence.

Needless to say, that ideal has not been fully realized.

In fact, recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in pursuing and using great power.

Structure of the liberal world order

As mentioned at the beginning, the liberal world order has several major components:

  1. Multilateral organizations.
  2. International institutions.
  3. Treaties. Broad, multilateral, in contrast to limited, bilateral.
  4. International law.
  5. Free trade agreements (FTA).
  6. Intergovernmental forums.
  7. Civil society.
  8. Norms of international behavior.

All of which serve to govern the interactions of nations and cross-border commercial, civil society, and individual transactions and movement.


A wide range of organizations exist in the world:

  1. National governments.
  2. Sub-national governments. States. Regions. Local. City.
  3. Commercial ventures. Businesses.
  4. Nonprofit organizations.
  5. Religions.
  6. Civil society organizations (CSOs) and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
  7. International organizations. Comparable to nongovernmental organizations but of a global nature.
  8. Intergovernmental organizations. Not world government, but between and among national governments. As exemplified by the UN and all of its subsidiary organizations.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs)

Much of what comprises the liberal world order is structured in the form of Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), commonly formed and organized on the basis of treaties, binding agreements between countries having the force of law.

Bilateral and multilateral treaties

Some treaties are limited to two particular countries. These are bilateral treaties.

Any treaty between three or more countries is a multilateral treaty.

Bilateral relations and treaties are generally speaking not part of the liberal world order.

Many or even most multilateral treaties are not commonly part of the liberal world order, simply because they are more focused on regional interests rather than global interests.

Open membership for treaties of the liberal world order

Generally speaking, a country will only be a party to a treaty if it is invited to join and approved to join by the other parties to the treaty.

In general, such restrictive membership is not the hallmark of participation in the liberal world order.

The general basis of the liberal world order is that it is open to all, generally without restriction.

There are, of course, exceptions. The broad basis of the EU makes it effectively a portion of the liberal world order, even though it is somewhat regional and does have restrictions for membership.

Ditto for the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has restrictions, but more with the intention of having standards of conduct rather than with any intention of excluding any country.

International institutions

International institutions are intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) which serve as the backbone of the liberal world order.

They provide the structure in which the many processes of the liberal world order function.

The more prominent international institutions of the liberal world order are:

  1. United Nations (UN). Actually, a host of more specialized international institutions.
  2. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  3. Regional unions of countries. Such as the EU and AU. See subsequent section.
  4. Council of Europe (CoE).
  5. Community of Democracies (CoD).
  6. Organization of American States (OAS).
  7. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  8. Bank for International Settlements (BIS).
  9. International Police Organization (INTERPOL). International Criminal Police Organization, founded in 1923, long before the UN.
  10. International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
  11. Regional intergovernmental institutions. See subsequent section.
  12. Regional intergovernmental forums. See subsequent section.
  13. Regional development banks. See subsequent section.
  14. International financial institutions (IFIs). See subsequent section.
  15. Cooperation of central banks. Informal professional relationships between governments. See subsequent section.

Regional unions of countries

More than simply relatively superficial relations between countries in a region, regional unions represent significantly tighter integration of the countries at some level. Examples include:

  1. European Union (EU).
  2. African Union (AU).

Regional intergovernmental institutions

Individual regions of the world may have specialized international institutions which serve the international interests of the countries in that region, such as:

  1. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

These are institutions which have permanent staff who are actively working on issues in the region, in contrast to regional international forums which are really just forums for leaders to occasionally meet and discuss matters of concern.

Regional intergovernmental forums

For just about every region of the world, the countries with fairly direct interest in that region participate in a regional cooperative forum which provide opportunities for leaders and senior officials to occasionally meet to discuss important issues. Examples include:

  1. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
  2. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  3. Arctic Council — member states: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, U.S.
  4. Arab League — gray area between a mere forum and a true union.
  5. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — more properly, Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Again, a gray area between a mere forum and a true union.
  6. Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). See subsequent section

Regional development banks

Regional development banks serve to fund economic development projects in a particular region of the world. For example:

  1. Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).
  2. Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
  3. African Development Bank (AfDB).
  4. Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  5. Development Bank of Latin America (CAF).
  6. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
  7. Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB).
  8. European Investment Bank (EIB).

United Nations (UN)

The United Nations (UN) is the core of the liberal world order.

I won’t go into the detail and history of the UN in great detail in this paper. For detail, see:

The major elements of the UN are:

UN programs and funds:

  1. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
  2. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
  3. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  4. World Food Programme (WFP).
  5. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
  6. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
  7. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
  8. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
  9. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
  10. UN Women.
  11. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

Note that UNESCO is not on that list — because it is a specialized UN agency, on the following list.

UN specialized agencies, which are autonomous from the UN, but work closely with the UN:

  1. World Bank. See subsequent section.
  2. International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  3. World Health Organization (WHO).
  4. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
  5. International Labor Organization (ILO).
  6. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
  7. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
  8. International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  9. World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
  10. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
  11. International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO).
  12. International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
  13. United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  14. Universal Postal Union (UPU).
  15. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Other UN entities:

  1. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
  2. United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).
  3. United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

UN related organizations:

  1. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  2. World Trade Organization (WTO).
  3. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).
  4. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  5. International Organization for Migration (IOM).
  6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

International Bill of Human Rights

Analogous to and in parallel with the U.S. Bill of Rights, the UN has an International Bill of Human Rights to define and protect human rights around the world. It consists of three parts:

  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted in 1948. Doesn’t have the force of law — see the two covenants for that — but does lay out the broad framework for human rights.
  2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR). Adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. Has the force of law, but only for ratified signatories.
  3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. Has the force of law, but only for ratified signatories.

Note: The U.S. signed but never ratified the CESCR, but has ratified the CCPR.

UN organization

This paper won’t delve deeply into the structure and organization of the UN, but at a high level it consists of:

  1. General Assembly. All of the member countries. Meets once a year in September at the UN headquarters in New York City.
  2. Security Council. Fifteen member countries who discuss and make decisions concerning critical issues related to security and peace, including and especially peacekeeping deployments and authorization of member countries to intervene with military force in armed conflicts. They also consider and vote on admitting new countries, changes to the UN charter, and approval of candidates for the position of Secretary-General. Ten members rotate on a two-year basis. Five members are permanent. Meets frequently, a each new issue or crisis flares up.
  3. Permanent members of the Security Council. Each of these countries, U.S., UK, France, China, Russia, has an absolute veto on decisions of the Security Council.
  4. General Assembly observers. See subsequent UN General Assembly observers section.
  5. Consultative status with the Economic and Social Council. For civil society NGOs. See subsequent UN consultative status for civil society NGOs section.

Organizationally, the UN has six “main organs”:

  1. General Assembly.
  2. Security Council.
  3. Economic and Social Council.the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue and recommendations on economic, social and environmental issues, as well as implementation of internationally agreed development goals. It serves as the central mechanism for activities of the UN system and its specialized agencies in the economic, social and environmental fields, supervising subsidiary and expert bodies.
  4. Trusteeship Council.to provide international supervision for 11 Trust Territories that had been placed under the administration of seven Member States, and ensure that adequate steps were taken to prepare the Territories for self-government and independence. By 1994, all Trust Territories had attained self-government or independence. The Trusteeship Council suspended operation on 1 November 1994. By a resolution adopted on 25 May 1994, the Council amended its rules of procedure to drop the obligation to meet annually and agreed to meet as occasion required — by its decision or the decision of its President, or at the request of a majority of its members or the General Assembly or the Security Council.
  5. International Court of Justice.principal judicial organ of the United Nations… The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.
  6. Secretariat.comprises the Secretary-General and tens of thousands of international UN staff members who carry out the day-to-day work of the UN as mandated by the General Assembly and the Organization’s other principal organs. The Secretary-General is chief administrative officer of the Organization, appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term. UN staff members are recruited internationally and locally, and work in duty stations and on peacekeeping missions all around the world.

UN General Assembly observers

Countries or states which are not a member of the UN General Assembly, as well as intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs can apply for observer status on the UN General Assembly. This status permits them to participate in the sessions and work of the UN General Assembly.

The list of non-member states, entities, and organizations having received a standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly includes, as states:

  1. Holy See — Vatican
  2. Palestine

And includes intergovernmental organizations, such as:

  1. African Development Bank
  2. African Union
  3. Arab League
  4. Asian Development Bank
  5. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

And international NGOs, such as:

  1. International Committee of the Red Cross
  2. International Olympic Committee
  3. International Chamber of Commerce

Observer status further cements the role of these organizations and states in the liberal world order.

UN consultative status for civil society NGOs

The UN is anxious to work closely with NGOs whose mission is in close alignment with the mission of any UN program.

The UN will grant consultative status to NGOs wishing to work with the UN Economic and Social Council.

As the UN states:

  • Consultative status with the Economic and Social Council provides NGOs with access to not only ECOSOC, but also to its many subsidiary bodies, to the various human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, ad-hoc processes on small arms, as well as special events organized by the President of the General Assembly. There are three types of ECOSOC consultative status for NGOs.

The three types of consultative status are:

  1. General consultative status. Larger, more established, and broader NGOs which align with many UN programs.
  2. Special consultative status. Smaller, newer, or more specialized NGOs with special competence which aligns with a more narrow set of UN programs.
  3. Roster status. When an NGO does not fit into either of the other two statuses.

UN Consultative status further cements the role of civil society in the liberal world order.

Consultative status is separate from and more generally available in contrast with General Assembly observer status.

World Bank

The World Bank is a group of five discrete agencies which collectively pursue international economic development efforts of the UN through lending in developing countries.

Collectively these five agencies are known as the World Bank Group:

  1. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)
  2. International Development Association (IDA)
  3. International Finance Corporation (IFC)
  4. Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)
  5. International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)

The first two agencies (IBRD and IDA) are generally collectively known as the World Bank proper:

  1. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)
  2. International Development Association (IDA)

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an initiative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to make a better world for all, by 2030.

A few key points, as per UNDP:

  • The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.
  • These 17 Goals build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, while including new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected — often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.
  • The SDGs work in the spirit of partnership and pragmatism to make the right choices now to improve life, in a sustainable way, for future generations. They provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large. The SDGs are an inclusive agenda. They tackle the root causes of poverty and unite us together to make a positive change for both people and planet. “Poverty eradication is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, and so is the commitment to leave no-one behind,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said. “The Agenda offers a unique opportunity to put the whole world on a more prosperous and sustainable development path. In many ways, it reflects what UNDP was created for.”
  • The SDGs came into effect in January 2016, and they will continue to guide UNDP policy and funding until 2030. As the lead UN development agency, UNDP is uniquely placed to help implement the Goals through our work in some 170 countries and territories.
  • Our strategic plan focuses on key areas including poverty alleviation, democratic governance and peacebuilding, climate change and disaster risk, and economic inequality. UNDP provides support to governments to integrate the SDGs into their national development plans and policies. This work is already underway, as we support many countries in accelerating progress already achieved under the Millennium Development Goals.

The 17 SDG goals for 2030 are:

  1. No poverty.
  2. Zero hunger.
  3. Good health and well-being.
  4. Quality education.
  5. Gender equality.
  6. Clean water and sanitation.
  7. Affordable and clean energy.
  8. Decent work and economic growth.
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure.
  10. Reduced inequalities.
  11. Sustainable cities and communities.
  12. Responsible consumption and production.
  13. Climate action.
  14. Life below water.
  15. Life on land.
  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions.
  17. Partnerships for the goals.

These goals should be considered part and parcel of the liberal world order.

UN peacekeeping

The UN Security Council has the ability to commit UN peacekeeping troops to be deployed to conflict zones to help keep the peace. Not to engage in an active conflict, but to keep the peace by acting as a deterrent.

As per the UN:

  • UN Peacekeeping helps countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace. We have unique strengths, including legitimacy, burden sharing, and an ability to deploy troops and police from around the world, integrating them with civilian peacekeepers to address a range of mandates set by the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

This is a rather unique capability, unseen in the world before the creation of the UN.

The African Union (AU) also has a peacekeeping capability.

And the U.S. frequently acts in that role.

But the ability of the UN to deploy troops of diverse countries in a strictly peacekeeping role is a very special aspect of the liberal world order.

International law

International law consists of three main areas or sources:

  1. International treaties. Most under the aegis of the UN.
  2. Customary international law. Practices common between states but not codified through treaties.
  3. General principles of law. Which are commonly recognized by the major legal systems of the world.

Human rights under international law are defined and protected under the UN International Bill of Human Rights, as summarized in a previous section with that name. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the broad framework, but is not enforceable international law per se, while the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are treaties which do have the force of law — for the ratified signatories.

Disputes between states and advisory opinions for the UN concerning international law are settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ or World Court). See a subsequent section.

Prosecution of international crimes by individuals is performed by the International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the UN under a treaty known as the Rome Statute. The court has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

It is not the intention of this paper to delve too deeply or comprehensively into specifics of international law, other than simply to convey the gist of how international law fits into the conception of the liberal world order.

For more, general detail, see the Wikipedia International law article, the Wikipedia International Court of Justice article, or the Wikipedia International Criminal Court article.

International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is responsible for adjudicating disputes between states under international law.

The ICJ was established by the UN Charter and its organization and operation is detailed in the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

For more detail also see the Wikipedia International Court of Justice article.

Arbitration to settle international disputes

Neither the International Court of Justice (ICJ) nor the International Criminal Court (ICC) get involved in arbitration.

Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism which is specific to particular UN treaties.

For example, the recent dispute between China and the Philippines over issues related to China’s claims in the South China Sea. The arbitration was handled by an arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty.

History of international law

Although the history of international law is quite interesting, this informal paper won’t delve deeply into it.

The wikipedia History of international law article gives a relatively decent summary of the history.

International treaties for international law

As mentioned earlier, most of the international treaties for international law are under the aegis of the UN, but some predate the UN. So, the full set of sources for international treaties for international law are:

  1. UN multilateral treaties. See subsequent section.
  2. Hague Conventions. Laws of war and war crimes.
  3. Geneva Conventions and Protocols. Humanitarian treatment during war.
  4. Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.

Although, generally and loosely speaking, all of these treaties operate as if they were all under the auspices of the UN.

UN multilateral treaties

According to the UN, there are 560 multilateral treaties which are “deposited” with the Secretary-General of the UN.

I won’t list them all here, but they are organized in 29 “chapters”, with the count of individual treaties in parentheses:

  1. CHAPTER I — Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice (4 treaties, plus amendments).
  2. CHAPTER II — Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (1).
  3. CHAPTER III — Privileges and Immunities, Diplomatic and Consular Relations, etc. (13).
  4. CHAPTER IV — Human Rights (16).
  5. CHAPTER V — Refugees and Stateless Persons (5).
  6. CHAPTER VI — Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (19).
  7. CHAPTER VII — Traffic in Persons (11).
  8. CHAPTER VIII — Obscene Publications (6).
  9. CHAPTER IX — Health (4).
  10. CHAPTER X — International Trade and Development (20).
  11. CHAPTER XI — Transport and Communications (Custom Matters — 18, Road Traffic — 34, Transport by Rail — 6, Water Transport — 8, Multimodal Transport — 3, total: 69).
  12. CHAPTER XII — Navigation (8).
  13. CHAPTER XIII — Economic Statistics (3).
  14. CHAPTER XIV — Educational and Cultural Matters (7).
  15. CHAPTER XV — Declaration of Death of Missing Persons (3).
  16. CHAPTER XVI — Status of Women (3).
  17. CHAPTER XVII — Freedom of Information (1).
  18. CHAPTER XVIII — Penal Matters (15).
  19. CHAPTER XIX — Commodities (49).
  20. CHAPTER XX — Maintenance Obligations (1).
  21. CHAPTER XXI — Law of the Sea (9).
  22. CHAPTER XXII — Commercial Arbitration (3).
  23. CHAPTER XXIII — Law of Treaties (3).
  24. CHAPTER XXIV — Outer Space (2).
  25. CHAPTER XXV — Telecommunications (4).
  26. CHAPTER XXVI — Disarmament (9).
  27. CHAPTER XXVII — Environment (18).
  28. CHAPTER XXVIII — Fiscal Matters (1).
  29. CHAPTER XXIX — Miscellaneous (1).

That adds up to 308 treaties, but I suspect that the 560 number from the UN counts each individual amendment and supplemental protocol document as a distinct “treaty.”

Just as one example, the convention against torture — Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — is treaty #9 of Chapter IV — Human Rights. It also has two amendments. Actually, that’s one amendment, and one optional protocol.

Responsibility to protect (R2P)

Although there is no formal treaty per se, in 2005 the UN established the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P), as part of the UN General Assembly 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. A portion of that documents briefly lays out the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The primary responsibility lies within nations themselves, to protect their own people, but the UN asserts that it is the responsibility of the UN to take collective action if a nation itself us unable to protect its own people. The UN Security Council could vote to authorize member countries to take action.

That said, this remains more of an ideal and aspirational, and untested in the real world.

For example, Syria remains a real mess, with claims of war crimes, etc., but R2P has not been invoked. Part of the problem there is that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, so it would veto such efforts due to its support for the regime in Syria.

Customary international law

Although the main body of international law is defined by UN multilateral treaties (see a preceding section), customary international law is used as a source as well, defined as practices common between states but not codified through treaties.

As per the Wikipedia Customary international law article:

  • Customary international law is an aspect of international law involving the principle of custom. Along with general principles of law and treaties, custom is considered by the International Court of Justice, jurists, the United Nations, and its member states to be among the primary sources of international law.
  • Many governments accept in principle the existence of customary international law, although there are differing opinions as to what rules are contained in it.
  • The International Court of Justice Statute defines customary international law in Article 38(1)(b) as “a general practice accepted as law.” This is generally determined through two factors: the general practice of states and what states have accepted as law.
  • There are several different kinds of customary international laws recognized by states. Some customary international laws rise to the level of jus cogens through acceptance by the international community as non-derogable rights, while other customary international law may simply be followed by a small group of states. States are typically bound by customary international law regardless of whether the states have codified these laws domestically or through treaties.

Jus cogens is also referred to as the notion of peremptory norms. Again, these are international norms which must be followed without exception, even if there is no explicit treaty to that effect, so-called non-derogable rights. For more information, see the subsequent section on peremptory norms, jus cogens, and non-derogable rights and norms.

As per the Wikipedia Custom (law) article:

  • Custom in law is the established pattern of behavior that can be objectively verified within a particular social setting. A claim can be carried out in defense of “what has always been done and accepted by law.” Related is the idea of prescription; a right enjoyed through long custom rather than positive law.
  • Customary law (also, consuetudinary or unofficial law) exists where:
  • a certain legal practice is observed and
  • the relevant actors consider it to be law (opinio juris).
  • Most customary laws deal with standards of community that have been long-established in a given locale. However the term can also apply to areas of international law where certain standards have been nearly universal in their acceptance as correct bases of action — in example, laws against piracy or slavery (see hostis humani generis). In many, though not all instances, customary laws will have supportive court rulings and case law that has evolved over time to give additional weight to their rule as law and also to demonstrate the trajectory of evolution (if any) in the interpretation of such law by relevant courts.

To be honest, the concept is still more than a little vague, murky, ambiguous, and indistinct to me. These cited statements are as clear as I can discern at this time.

The main difficulty is that although matters will be clear when the opposing states have the same customs and national laws, matters will be very unclear when the opposing states have differing customs or differing national laws. Or, maybe the opposing states have the same views, but the court has a divergent view from the parties.

General principles of law

The third main source for international law is general principles of law, which are commonly recognized by the major legal systems of the world. Or as the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) puts it:

  • the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.

Again, this is a bit vague and ambiguous, since there is a wide range of variation in legal systems around the world.

My own personal inference is that to some degree, this is really a reference to the general principles of law recognized by Western nations, the countries of Western Europe and other countries whose legal systems are to a fair degree derivative of the countries of Western Europe, such as the U.S., Canada, India, and Japan. That can make justice for the rest of the world problematic.

Peremptory norms, jus cogens, and non-derogable rights and norms

Although individual treaties can declare various forms of behavior as prohibited, international law goes one step or leap further and adds the notion of peremptory norms, also known as jus cogens, or non-derogable rights and norms which recognizes that some forms of behavior are so widely and intensely intolerable as declare them off limits even for treaties.

As the Wikipedia article for Peremptory norm states:

  • A peremptory norm (also called jus cogens, Latin for “compelling law”) is a fundamental principle of international law that is accepted by the international community of states as a norm from which no derogation is permitted.
  • There is no universal agreement regarding precisely which norms are jus cogens nor how a norm reaches that status, but it is generally accepted that jus cogens includes the prohibition of genocide, maritime piracy, enslaving in general (to include slavery as well as the slave trade), torture, refoulement and wars of aggression and territorial aggrandizement. Recent scholarship has also proposed the idea of regional jus cogens.

That said, there are actually treaties, such as for human rights, which specifically ban many of these practices.

Nonetheless, the general principle holds that international legal tribunals are permitted to find against any practice which is considered by the international community to be unacceptable, even if there is no explicit treaty provision banning that unacceptable behavior.

Just to recap the common norms of non-derogable rights:

  • Genocide
  • Maritime piracy
  • Slavery and the slave trade
  • Torture
  • Refoulement (forcibly returning a refugee)
  • Wars of aggression
  • Territorial aggrandizement

International norms

People speak of international norms, but the term is vague and nonspecific.

Generally, it simply means that nations are adhering to the charter, principles, treaties of the UN, international law, and all other institutions of the liberal world order.

It also includes adherence to the even more vague notions of peremptory norms, jus cogens, and non-derogable rights and norms — the stuff that is considered real but isn’t actually codified in writing in any treaty.

Norms of behavior

Generally speaking, even outside of the liberal world order and international norms per se, the general notion of norms of behavior is still rather vague and ambiguous.

The general term norm has several distinct senses, all of which are relevant and important:

  1. The preferred form of behavior. What you should do. Independent of whether there is any formalized law or treaty to enforce such behavior.
  2. A cataloging of the full range of human behavior, the good, the bad, the great, and the terrible, with some thresholds to indicate the specific forms of behavior which most people, the vast majority, engage in. Exclude the extremes and focus on the core, central, or average and typical forms of behavior. Again, independent of what the law may encourage or prohibit.
  3. The specific forms of behavior which the law or treaties legally permit or prohibit.

International norms of behavior

In the context of international law and the liberal world order, that first sense, behavior that is preferred, is the main focus, at least from the perspective of an aspiration and goal.

The last sense, behavior permitted or prohibited by international law, is the goal of the liberal international order, but the system is not quite there yet.

And as a practical matter, we need to be concerned with actual behavior of international actors, rather than what the ideal might be.


Treaties are simply legally binding agreements between countries.

They can serve a variety of purposes, including:

  1. Basis for international law.
  2. Formation of intergovernmental organizations, international institutions.
  3. Security or mutual defense. Alliances.
  4. Economic cooperation.
  5. Trade cooperation. Free trade agreements (FTAs.)
  6. Technical standards to facilitate interoperability of products, devices, vehicles, systems, and services.
  7. Scientific research cooperation.
  8. Environmental protection.
  9. Human rights.

The Wikipedia List of treaties article lists all known historic treaties. Not sure of its accuracy, but it gives the general idea of the breadth and scope of international treaties.

The Wikipedia List of United States treaties article gives a reasonably comprehensive list of treaties to which the U.S. is or has been a party. It may not be complete.

The U.S. Department of State has a Treaties in Force (TIF) document listing all treaties to which the U.S. is currently a party. Should be accurate for the year specified in the document.

Although other countries have treaties to which the U.S. is not a party, the whole point of the liberal world order is to have an open international framework to which any and all countries can be a party, so quite a few of the treaties that the U.S. is a party to are indeed part of the liberal world order. Although, it is worth noting that there are some UN treaties to which the U.S. is not a party, such as the International Criminal Court and the ban on landmines. As well as the recent decision of the U.S. to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Free trade agreements (FTA)

Free trade agreements (FTA) are designed to facilitate trade between countries, especially to reduce the use of tariffs and to increase the level of trade.

Free trade agreements can be:

  1. Regional
  2. Bilateral
  3. Multilateral

Some examples of free trade agreements:

  1. NAFTA — North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
  2. KORUS — South Korea and the U.S.
  3. Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) — South American trade bloc.
  4. European Union Customs Union — all member states of the EU.
  5. European Union free trade agreements — each FTA governs trade between a particular non-EU country and all members of the European Union Customs Union.
  6. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — failed agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the U.S.
  7. Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP11) — between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Successor to TPP after the U.S. pulled out.
  8. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the U.S.

For more, see the Wikipedia List of free-trade agreements page.

Intergovernmental forums

Short of organizations and institutions which have staff and activities to perform, there are a variety of intergovernmental forums which are really just meetings which give governmental leaders and staff an opportunity to discuss pressing concerns.

These include:

  1. Group of Seven (G7) — Sometimes G8
  2. Group of Twenty (G20).

The representation at these forums can be at several levels:

  1. National leaders.
  2. Ministerial level. Ministers of finance or foreign affairs.
  3. Central bank chairman level.

Intergovernmental technical forums

Specific, technical forums exists as well, such as:

  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — issues periodic reports related to global warming and climate change. Has a secretariat to manage the overall process, but most work is done by appointed representatives from each country.

The UN has a variety of technical forums for technical areas of enduring interest, such as weather and aviation.

The West

Although the liberal world order is a global effort, the core and backbone of that effort has always been The West. Loosely speaking, the West is primarily the U.S. and Western Europe, plus a few other countries.

The emphasis is on security and economics, but common cultural heritage and values as well.

These common interests of the West are usually referred to as Western interests.

For more depth on the West, see a companion paper, What Is The West?

The European Project

After two major world wars in the 20th century and centuries of conflict, and with encouragement by the U.S., leaders of European countries decided that they collectively had a brighter future through a closer economic and political union than to continue as wholly sovereign and wholly independent nations.

This is the so-called European Project — ever-closer economic and political integration of the disparate nations of Europe.

This resulted in the creation of the European Union (UN) with all of its associated institutions.

There was never a clear vision as to a military component to the union, and the U.S. was never a formal member of the project, but NATO was clearly a robust equivalent to such a military union. NATO probably should be considered a key component of the European Project, even though it has no direct connection to the EU per se.

The European Project is clearly a key to the postwar order in Europe, and the EU plays a key role elsewhere in the world, but the liberal world order is much bigger than the European Project alone.

That said, the European Project has been a template for a lot of the other institutional relationships in the liberal world order.

Lately, the integrity of the EU has begun to fray a bit as the EU has expanded dramatically from Western Europe into Eastern Europe and the former member states of the Soviet Union. Turkey as well. The culture and heritage of the newcomers is not quite in sync with the traditional, core, Western, original member states of the EU.

The UK is attempting to leave the EU.

Turkey has taken an authoritarian turn, distinctly in opposition to EU values.

Italy has shifted authoritarian as well.

And even Germany, the nominally strongest continental member of the EU, is struggling with difficulty forming a coalition government under the onslaught of authoritarian interests and under pressure due to refugee flows.

Where the EU is headed is anybody’s guess. Are these simply transient speed bumps, a phase that will be over soon, or harbingers of further crumbling? Nobody really knows.

European Union (EU)

Technically, the European Union (EU) is not part of the liberal world order per se, being more of a regional cooperative of sovereign nations, but as an outgrowth of the European Project and having similar goals as the liberal world order overall, namely filling gaps between nations, it is worth considering the EU in the context of the larger liberal world order.

The EU is neither a sovereign nation nor an organization. It is a political and economic union of 28 member states. It was founded based on two treaties, the Treaty on European Union or TEU and also referred to as the Treaty of Maastricht and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union or TFEU also referred to as the Treaty of Rome, and has a number of institutions:

  1. European Parliament.
  2. European Council.
  3. Council of the European Union.
  4. European Commission.
  5. Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
  6. European Central Bank (ECB).
  7. European Court of Auditors (ECA).
  8. European External Action Service (EEAS).
  9. European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
  10. European Committee of the Regions (CoR).
  11. European Investment Bank (EIB).
  12. European Ombudsman.
  13. European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).

The Council of Europe (CoE) is closely associated with the EU and has the mission of upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe, through the European Court of Human Rights. All of the members of the EU are also members of the CoE, but there are other European countries which are not members of the EU but are members of the CoE.

The EU does not yet have a military force per se, but many members of the EU are also members of NATO, and with their own national military forces.

International financial institutions (IFIs)

The liberal world order is critically dependent on a number of global institutions which are referred to as international financial institutions (IFIs):

  1. International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  2. World Bank.
  3. Regional development banks.
  4. Bank for International Settlements (BIS).
  5. SWIFT interbank money transfer system.

SWIFT is a bit of an anomaly since it is a collective of private sector banks, but it effectively operates as if it were an international institution.

Cooperation of central banks

There is no central bank for the world.

Even the IMF has only limited involvement with the central banks of the world, only getting involved in times of severe crisis.

Each country has its own central bank, responsible for ensuring the integrity and stability of that country’s monetary and banking system.

The central banks of the world do cooperate to a significant degree, but more as an informal network than any official, formal intergovernmental organization.

They commonly have informal arrangements to cooperate in times of financial crisis.

But this informal cooperation of central banks is a critical component of the liberal world order.

Bretton Woods institutions for monetary order

Shortly before the end of World War II, in 1944, the allies agreed to form a collection of institutions to assure that money and foreign exchange rates would function in an orderly manner. This was the Bretton Woods system of money management.

The institutions were:

  1. International Monetary Fund (IMF)
  2. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD).
  3. General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) is now part of the World Bank Group.

GATT has been succeeded by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The IMF and IBRD/World Bank are under the aegis of the UN, while the WTO is outside of the UN structure.

Bretton Woods was originally based on the gold standard, but in 1971 U.S. President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard. Fiat paper money is now the standard among countries in the liberal world order, with the value of currency determined by free and open market conditions, although national governments will on occasion intervene to prop up or weaken the value of their own currency.

The IMF, IBRD/World Bank, and WTO remain active and vital for the financial stability of the liberal world order.

Bank for International Settlements (BIS)

Another important component of the international monetary system is the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which promotes global monetary and financial stability.

BIS is not under the aegis of the UN. Rather it is jointly owned by 60 of the central banks of the world. Nonetheless, it is yet another key international institution in liberal world order.

BIS was founded in 1930, predating the UN.

Functions of BIS include:

  1. Regulating capital adequacy of banks through its Basel Committee on Banking Supervision.
  2. Encouraging reserve transparency.
  3. Fostering discussion and facilitating collaboration among central banks.
  4. Supporting dialogue with other authorities that are responsible for promoting financial stability.
  5. Carrying out research and policy analysis on issues of relevance for monetary and financial stability.
  6. Acting as a prime counterparty for central banks in their financial transactions.
  7. Serving as an agent or trustee in connection with international financial operations.

Technically, BIS is/was not part of Bretton woods. The focus of BIS is on banking itself, while Bretton Woods was focused on money and foreign exchange.

Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO)

Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO) is the subset of liberal world order related to economics alone:

  1. Free trade. No tariffs or trade policies that restrict trade in any way.
  2. WTO.
  3. World Bank.
  4. IMF.
  5. Bank for International Settlements (BIS).
  6. Free trade agreements (FTA).
  7. SWIFT interbank money transfer system.

Washington Consensus

The Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO) is also known as the Washington Consensus, primarily by critics, commonly progressives, anarchists, and nationalists who object to having institutions outside of the country wield so much power over our internal affairs.

SWIFT — facilitating global financial transactions

SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is a cooperative owned by its member financial institutions (banks) around the world. It is not a bank and does not directly handle money per se, rather it is a messaging system and standard for how banks communicate with each other to arrange for money transfers.

SWIFT is not a governmental entity, but effectively functions as if it were.

Not technically, strictly, part of the liberal world order per se, but SWIFT greatly facilitates the financial operation of both businesses (including banks) and the liberal world order, so it should be treated as if it were part of the liberal world order.

Civil society

Civil society is a poorly defined term — see my own paper, What is Civil Society? — but in the context of the liberal world order it consists of civil society organizations (CSOs) or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which operate either internationally, or within individual countries but receive funding from either foreign governments or international institutions and organizations.

Civil society organizations tend to serve one of two primary functions:

  1. To provide services to citizens where the government is failing to adequately provide services to the people.
  2. To advocate for change, particularly governance, both for national governments as well as activities of international institutions.

International institutions frequently actively solicit input from and participation by civil society organizations, both to get feedback for development of policy and to help promote and execute policy for that particular institution.

Examples of international civil society organizations include:

  1. International Olympic Committee (IOC). A private organization, but considered a force for good in the world and contributes to a shared sense of humanity.
  2. Amnesty International. An NGO which is a force for good in the human rights arena, but not associated with any governments. Known for its advocacy.
  3. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), AKA Doctors Without Borders. An NGO which is a force for good in the medical relief arena, but not associated with any governments. Known for its service.
  4. Greenpeace. An NGO which is a recognized force for good for protecting the environment, but not associated with any governments. Known for its advocacy.
  5. International Committee of the Red Cross. An NGO known for its global humanitarian efforts.
  6. Countless other NGOs. All doing great good, but not associated with any governments. Although, some do accept financial grants from various government agencies to pursue activities favored by those government agencies.

In essence, civil society organizations play an active role in the liberal world order.

But whether they should be considered part of the liberal world order or simply coexist with the liberal world order is an open question.

For now, this paper will take the position that civil society is an integral part of the liberal world order even though civil society organizations are not organizationally part of the intergovernmental organizations which comprise the core and bulk of the liberal world order.

Without the extensive ecosystem of civil society, the liberal world order would be significantly less rich and vibrant.

Democracy promotion

Democracy is fundamental to the liberal world order.

Likewise for democracy promotion. Encouraging countries with democracy deficits to liberalize their governance to be more in line with international norms for democracy of the liberal world order.

Democracy deficits commonly go hand in hand with human rights deficits.

But in recent years there has been increased resistance and active pushback against attempts to liberalize countries with are not as democratic as the expected norm for the liberal world order.

Democracy promotion occurs at two levels:

  1. Direct efforts by national governments to nudge other countries towards more liberalized democratic governance. Sometimes countries will band together or even manage to pass resolutions at the UN.
  2. Civil society efforts to push countries towards more liberalized democratic governance.

Promotion can come in many forms, the most prominent being:

  1. Public statements, lecturing, and jawboning. Attempting to rhetorically persuade countries.
  2. Carrot and sticks approaches, such as treaties with incentives or requirements for liberalization.
  3. Foreign funding of local civil society organizations which promote more liberalized democratic governance.

U.S. government efforts to promote democracy occur through U.S. government sponsored organizations such as:

With the exception of CoD, those efforts are U.S.-driven activities, but they benefit the overall liberal world order.

Democracy promotion is a long game, with efforts rarely bearing fruit in the near term.

Not uncommonly, democracy only comes about as a result of revolution of some sort, whether armed or peaceful. The people of the country itself have to make democracy happen.

Nonetheless, one of the functions of the liberal world order is to promote democracy whenever and however possible. If nothing else, such efforts encourage peoples around the world to take control of their own national destiny.

BRICS nations

There is no formal, codified relationship between the so-called BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — but they all have a relatively similar economic situation, or at least more in common with each other than with other nations.

They also have in common that they are not aligned closely with Europe or the U.S.

As such, they have a special place in the modern world order.

If nothing else, they have the prospect of playing a spoiler role in any efforts by Europe or the U.S. to attempt to nudge the world order in their chosen direction.

Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a group of countries which are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc.

The principles of the Non-Aligned Movement:

  1. Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
  2. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations.
  3. Recognition of the movements for national independence.
  4. Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations, large and small.
  5. Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country.
  6. Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself singly or collectively, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.
  7. Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country.
  8. Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.
  9. Promotion of mutual interests and co-operation.
  10. Respect for justice and international obligations.

Technically, the Non-Aligned Movement is not part of the liberal world order, but it is a reality in the world as it is. But, since members of the Non-Aligned Movement are implicitly acknowledging the validity of the UN, are technically part of the UN, and the UN is by definition part of the liberal world order, that makes the Non-Aligned Movement overlap with the liberal world order to a significant degree.

To some extent the Non-Aligned Movement helps to facilitate the liberal world order by keeping these non-aligned countries out of the way so that the countries of the liberal world order can pursue their common interest without interference.

In effect, the Non-Aligned Movement really is part of the liberal world order, just not in precisely the same way as the aligned member countries.

Major power blocs

Technically, the liberal world order does not have any major power blocs per se, deferring power to international institutions, intergovernmental organizations, and international law, but in reality there are quite a few blocs or fissures or alignments in the world as it is, such as:

  1. The U.S.
  2. Europe, the EU.
  3. Western Europe.
  4. The U.S. and Europe.
  5. The U.S. and Western Europe.
  6. The U.S. and the UK.
  7. The U.S., UK, and British Commonwealth countries. Canada, Australia, New Zealand.
  8. NATO allies.
  9. Russia.
  10. Russia and allies among the former Soviet republics.
  11. China.
  12. Russia and China.
  13. Russia and Iran.
  14. Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), or Shanghai Pact — a Eurasian political, economic, and security organization currently consisting of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.
  15. Japan.
  16. BRICS.
  17. OPEC.
  18. The Gulf States.
  19. Arab countries.
  20. African Union.
  21. Latin America.
  22. G-7.
  23. G-20.

If anything, the existence of these major power blocs only confirms weaknesses in the current conception of the liberal world order.

Alternatively, one can simply accept that no conception is ever perfect in practice, so that seeming weaknesses in the liberal world order are not necessarily fatal — less a minefield and more in the way of mere potholes.

Davos / World Economic Forum (WEF)

The World Economic Forum (WEF), a private nonprofit organization (foundation), meets annually in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together top business and political leaders and media to discuss pressing global issues.

As the WEF states their mission:

  • The World Economic Forum, committed to improving the state of the world, is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.
  • The Forum engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.
  • It was established in 1971 as a not-for-profit foundation and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests. The Forum strives in all its efforts to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance. Moral and intellectual integrity is at the heart of everything it does.
  • Our activities are shaped by a unique institutional culture founded on the stakeholder theory, which asserts that an organization is accountable to all parts of society. The institution carefully blends and balances the best of many kinds of organizations, from both the public and private sectors, international organizations and academic institutions.
  • We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change.

WEF is not technically part of the liberal world order proper in the sense of governmental and intergovernmental institutions, but it is essentially a civil society organization, and is thus as much a part of the liberal world order as the rest of civil society.

From a practical perspective, WEF is essentially a mirror which relatively accurately reflects the current state of the liberal world order by dint of the fact that so many of the leaders of the liberal world order attend their annual meeting in Davos.

Dictators, tyrants, and strong men are no longer welcome

Countries are required to show respect for each other and for their citizens in the liberal world order.

Force is not supposed to be used to resolve international disputes. Threat of force is not discouraged as well.

Democracy is supposed to be the norm in the liberal world order. There are many forms and variations for how a democracy is structured and organized, but human rights and respect for citizens is codified in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Given these two requirements for membership in the liberal world order, there is no longer any room for dictators, tyrants, and strong men.

Consent of the people and moderation are required in the liberal world order.

That said, the liberal world order remains an aspiration and an ideal rather than a reality in quite a few countries and regions of the world.

Armed conflict still occurs.

Threats still occur.

Democracy remains problematic in many countries.

But the ideal, the aspiration, and the norm remain intact — dictators, tyrants, strong men, and leaders with an authoritarian bent are not welcome in the liberal world order.


Between the liberal world order and globalization, which is the chicken and which is the egg?

It is certainly true that the liberal word order greatly facilitates globalization by providing a lot of the financial and commercial infrastructure as well as the political stability needed for global commerce.

And it is certainly true that the demand for commerce around the world has been a key motivation for much of the financial and commercial infrastructure as well as the treaties and intergovernmental organizations which enable and facilitate global political stability of the liberal world order.

But the question of which caused which is indeterminate since they both depend on and facilitate each other. But that’s probably okay since all that matters at this stage is that we have both and they reinforce each other.

It may also be true that we could not get rid of one without crippling if not destroying the other.

Not all international organizations are part of the liberal world order

Some international and intergovernmental organizations may be distinctly illiberal, and should not be considered as part of the liberal world order:

  1. Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Especially when the actions (or inaction) of such an organization causes outright harm or impedes the development of other countries.

Shared values

One topic area which is not covered much but is very important is values, particularly shared values.

Each country will tend to have its own shared values, among the various social groups in that country.

The question is what subset of values are shared globally, across all countries.

One can artificially construct a list of values by teasing them from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various principles espoused in the many documents related to the liberal world order, but as of this moment there is no explicit list of values of the liberal world order.

In fact, I have done exactly that as part of my In Search of American Values project. Or at least part of it.

The shared values I have identified are listed in three sections of my paper Values of Significant Groups, Organizations, and Figures in America:

  • United Nations Charter.
  • United Nations Millennium Declaration.
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My lists are not the ultimate answer to the question of global shared values, but they are at least a starting point.

No World War III

The liberal world order faces a number of challenges and has plenty of room for improvement, but its greatest success has been that there has been no World War III, no further use of nuclear weapons, and no large scale use of chemical or biological weapons.

We’ve seen quite a few local and regional conflicts, but nothing even close to igniting a global conflagration.

The Cold War was, and once again is, a major disappointment, but its negative impact had and has been much more limited and muted than any large-scale, outright military conflict.

Syria, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, and global terrorist organizations are interesting challenges, but none of them, separately, or together, rise even remotely close to the level of threat to humanity that a true World War III would pose.

As problematic as the liberal world order is, it continues to be quite effective at avoiding a true World War III.

Challenges to the liberal world order

Although the topic is beyond the scope of this particular paper, it is worth noting that in recent years and even decades here have been a variety of challenges to the liberal world order, including:

  1. General loss of confidence in the UN.
  2. Gridlock in the UN Security Council due to veto power of each of the five permanent countries. Most notably with Russia and China, but sometimes with the U.S.
  3. Refugee crises due to major, unresolved conflicts. Such as Syria and Tunisia.
  4. Proxy wars. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Such as Syria.
  5. Rise of transnational terrorist groups. Global jihad. Non-state actors across borders.
  6. Rise of transnational criminal groups.
  7. Rise of transnational drug trafficking.
  8. Rise of transnational human and sex trafficking.
  9. Difficulty ratifying treaties in the U.S. Senate.
  10. America First.
  11. Nationalism.
  12. Populism.
  13. Ethnicity.
  14. Nativism.
  15. Inequality. Within and between countries.
  16. Regime change. Including, and especially, the U.S. Coalitions of the willing rather than the UN or NATO proper.
  17. Occupation and annexation. Russia in Ukraine.
  18. Politically-motivated assassination. Russia, internally, and the UK.
  19. Lack of respect for all UN institutions, such as China refusing to abide by decision of an arbitration panel under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
  20. Various countries, including the U.S., refuse to be signatories to various UN conventions, such as the International Criminal Court and the ban on landmines.
  21. The Korean war has never been fully resolved, although we may actually be on the verge of finally arranging a peace agreement. Still, it shouldn’t have taken so long to get to this stage if the so-called liberal world order had been functioning up to its full potential.
  22. The Vietnam war (technically, conflict) was a real mess. Not a great success for the liberal world order. We should have been able to do a lot better.
  23. The confused status of Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC), remains unresolved. Once again, another blemish on the record of the liberal world order.
  24. We never had a good solution for the Rwandan genocide.
  25. Failure to provide an adequate solution to the Cambodian Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot genocide.
  26. It was never clear that we had a solution that would preclude the emergence of a country run as Hitler ran Nazi Germany.
  27. We currently have no clear and palatable solution to the mess in Syria.
  28. We currently have no clear plan for how to revive and accelerate the Arab Spring, such as how to rejuvenate their economies, including Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
  29. Never managed to cope effectively with the Cold War.
  30. Never managed to cope effectively with major powers having nuclear weapons. Strategic arms limitations have occurred completely outside of the institutions of the liberal world order, although nuclear nonproliferation is actively pursued within the framework of the liberal world order (IAEA).
  31. The EU and the whole European Project is struggling under authoritarian pressures, refugee flows, and the UK attempting to leave.
  32. No clear solution to the problematic relationship between Russia and the West.
  33. The re-emergence of a Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is rather disappointing.
  34. The level of tension between the U.S. and China is rather disappointing.
  35. Rising nationalism and populism with backlash against the power and authority of the institutions of the liberal world order in favor of greater interest in local control by democratically elected officials as opposed to unelected elite technocrats.
  36. Persistence of dictators, tyrants, and strong men, even today, coupled with a renewed interest in strong, authoritarian leaders over a strong, elite, technocratic ruling bureaucracy.
  37. Uncertainty and dispute over the proper role of traditional civil society institutions, including the media, established religions, and labor unions.
  38. Regime change remains an active issue. No clarity as to when it is or isn’t permissible and who can do it and under what circumstances. Gridlock in the UN Security Council makes it especially problematic.
  39. Democracy promotion is problematic. There has been an extreme backlash in recent years, both for civil society in general, and foreign-funded civil society organizations in particular.
  40. The democracy recession of the past dozen years or so. Even established countries are becoming less democratic.
  41. The public image of democracy has gotten significantly tarnished.
  42. Increasing uncertainty and distrust of traditional media in democratic societies. People are increasingly uncertain who or what to trust, who or what to listen to, and what information and information sources can be trusted.
  43. Lack of clarity on the potential impact of bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and blockchain distributed ledger technology on the global financial system.
  44. Unable to resolve the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
  45. No clear approach to dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  46. No clear approach to differences in values between The West and Russia, China, India, and a host of other countries.

These chinks, defects, limitations, cracks, and fissures in the fabric of the liberal world order don’t necessarily rise to the level of a complete crumbling the liberal world order, but it might very well be that we need some rearchitecting and reengineering to produce a fresh new Liberal World Order 2.0.

Global/world citizens?

As already mentioned, the liberal world order does not comprise world government, so there is still no notion of global or world citizenship, which some people really want, rather than identifying with a single country. Neither as a reality nor even as an ultimate goal.

Each of us is still a citizen of a particular country, or in some cases two countries through dual citizenship.

What do the kids want?

Regardless of the reality and goals of the existing liberal world order, it is worth asking what the younger generations want. What kind of world do they wish to live in?

Which is their preferred direction:

  1. Maintain the essence of the status quo, the existing liberal world order? Maybe with some changes, but overall the same essence?
  2. Shift more towards a unified world government? World citizens, finally?
  3. Shift back towards isolationism, with each country 100% focused on its own needs?
  4. Or some other, radically distinct alternative?

Not that I expect any shift in the immediate future, but maybe ten years or a generation from now, as the Baby Boomers exit the political scene and memories of World War II, the Cold War, and the former vast legions of destitute Third World countries fade from public consciousness.

And most certainly by the generation after that, who grew up with the Internet, global connectivity, globalization, and all of the effects of the greatest success of the liberal world order.

They certainly will have benefited from the effects of the liberal world order, but they will likely take it for granted and probably lean towards a belief that it was more of a temporary crutch to get to a good place rather than a necessary foundation for that good place.

And maybe Global Warming and Climate Change literally change the face of the planet so that more radical change is forced upon us.

In any case, it will be for them to decide what kind of world they wish to live in and what kind of institutions they wish to place their faith in.


The liberal world order is still alive and kicking, has plenty of momentum and resiliency, is likely to persist for the indefinite future, and unlikely to crumble anytime soon.

That said, as with any human creation, whether a physical structure or organizational, continuous refinement, evolution, and occasional radical reinvention is certainly needed.

For those who lived through the World Wars and Cold War and the era of widespread destitute third world countries, the liberal world order has had very great value and continues to inspire them.

The liberal world order faces a number of challenges and has plenty of room for improvement, but its greatest success has been that there has been no World War III, no further use of nuclear weapons, and no large scale use of chemical or biological weapons.

But for those younger generations for whom the entire 20th century is a faded memory and mainly a matter for the history books, the liberal world order does not resonate as much and in fact seems more like a carryover from the past rather than a vibrant necessity for the future.