Fractured World

An article from the series "Elephants & Butterflies" – Science in a nutshell

The certainties of Western liberalism are falling apart. Political scientist Andrew Hurrell analyzes how liberal ideas have evolved, how they are contested and where they might lead to in an increasingly fractured world.

I have always liked Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Tower of Babel. I see it as a powerful symbol for the difficulties involved in political communication between states and societies across the world. Although we have created a common language to discuss problems, it is still extremely difficult to reach stable agreements and create the sustainable collaborative institutions which are needed to solve global challenges. 

The global world we live in today emerged from the domination of European and Western power. Imperialism and the first wave of globalization in the 19th century both emanated from one place. At the end of the Cold War, power once more seemed to re-center around the West, and liberal democracy seemed to hold the answers for how a society should be organized. But this apparent clarity lasted only for a short moment. The world today is increasingly fractured and characterized by a much broader diffusion of power and political agency.

When I started my graduate work in International Relations in the early 1980s, I focused on traditional power relations – superpowers, international law, and large international organizations. But I was also interested in Latin America, particularly in Brazil. For much of my career, those two interests ran on separate tracks. But by the early 2000s, they started to come together. We began to talk more and more about emerging powers, the diffusion of power to China and India, and a world in which the idea of domination by Western liberalism was being challenged – as a result of the Iraq War, the global financial crisis, the war on terrorism, and so forth. 

I still focus on “traditional” international relations, but I am deeply convinced that we cannot understand the world unless we understand the way in which global society has changed, especially when  the idea of “global”  is understood differently across the world.  In a deeply diverse world, we need to consider a much wider range of states, societies, perspectives, and understandings of order and justice – both the shift of power but also what I call a justice shift.

Progressive forces know they need to tackle global economic inequality and develop a global green deal. But we still need to ask: What forms of governance are needed for that?

My Einstein project is part of a collaboration with the Berlin Excellence Cluster on Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS). It concentrates on the place of international relations or, more precisely, modern international relations within the liberal script. I am writing my new book “Fractured World? Global International Society in the 21st Century” and my Einstein research group is addressing these questions through the lens of Latin America.In the recent past, a lot of people from the Right championed ideas such as “Make America Great Again” and talked about the return of geopolitics. International organizations and many parts of global governance have been under sustained attack from these forces. But we really need to exert some pressure on the Right and ask: “What do you actually want instead?” We also need to exert some pressure on the Left, which also remains silent when confronted with these kinds of questions. Progressive forces know they need to tackle global economic inequality and develop a global green deal.  But we still need to ask: What forms of governance are needed for that? And what kind of institutions must be created? In what kind of world do we want to live?

I do not want to defend the so-called “global liberal order”, but I do want to see where the broad liberal tradition can lead in a fractured world. I want to counterpose liberal ideas with the ones on the Right, who think we can simply return to an old-fashioned world of sovereignty and nation states, but also with those on the Left who need to start thinking harder about the kinds of alternative orders that we urgently need in the 21st century.

Transcript: Mirco Lomoth