Contemporary States and the Crisis of the Western Order

by Marek Cichocki (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 314 Pages


The current crisis of the international order cannot be referred only to the liberal concept of globalisation. It is also a crisis of a certain model and ideas of order, which – as a result of the financial and migration crisis in Europe – were invalidated by reality and must be reconsidered.
The aim of this book is to present how contemporary European states attempt to be active actors, responding to the crisis of the international order, in divergent and sometimes contradictory ways. This phenomenon inevitably leads to the undermining of many existing cooperation mechanisms, but on the other hand, it also reveals the limitations in terms of the state actions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I Sources of the Crisis of Liberal Order
  • The crisis of liberalism vs. the future of the global order
  • Crisis and adjustment. The liberal order in Europe from the perspective of Poland
  • The crisis of the West in the light of Arnold Toynbee’s conception
  • Part II Crisis of the Liberal Order – Different Case Studies
  • Germany and the decade of the crisis – 2008–2017
  • Immigration and public trust: Lessons for Poland from Brexit Britain
  • Liberal democracy in the country of Jacobins
  • Part III Poland Facing the Crises
  • Can states think? Political counsel in the times of crisis
  • Politicisation and the sudden end of the consensus. The European migrant crisis in 2015 vs. Polish immigration policy
  • Conflict over the rule of law between the Polish government and the European Commission as an example of a multifaceted crisis in the EU
  • Polish political parties towards the European Union and its crises
  • Public policy in the age of the Crisis of the West – conclusions for Poland
  • Biographical notes
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables

Marek Cichocki


This book is the result of a project carried out in 2017–2019 at the Natolin European Centre Foundation by a team of Polish scholars.1 The main objectives of this project encompassed an analysis of attitudes and behaviours adopted by contemporary European countries, including Poland, in response to the crisis of the existing international order, which emerged in Europe and in the world after the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The research problem framed in this way was aimed at contributing – after the required analyses were carried out – to finding answers to two underlying questions:

What is a state in the contemporary world, and are we still dealing with a specifically European model of the state, different from models functioning in other parts of the world?

How to properly define the nature and scope of the current crisis of the Western (liberal) concept of international order with its unique element – European integration?

There is little doubt that the current crisis can be boiled down to the issue of geopolitics in modern international relations, the rivalry between old and new powers and challenging the liberal concept of globalisation. This is also not the case of a purely structural crisis, evidenced by the insufficiency and failings of the increasingly inefficient and overburdened institutions and mechanisms tasked with maintaining the existing order. It is also a crisis of a certain model and ideas of order, which – above all, as a result of the financial and migration crisis in Europe – were invalidated by reality and must be reconsidered.

What is the behaviour of European countries in this context? Do they serve as a factor reinforcing the crisis of the current order, or are they rather a necessary starting point for creating an opportunity to resolve the crisis and re-emerge ←7 | 8→again? An important starting point for finding an answer to these questions may be the statement by G. John Ikenberry, who believed that it was the conviction that we managed to build a lasting accord revolving around the balance in relations between state sovereignty, the area of international order and the ever-growing interdependence of nations was one of the foundations of post-war, liberal international order and its stability.

From this point of view, the case of European integration was of key importance, along with the effects and outcomes of the process of economic and political transition in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the vision of a broader, worldwide transition, inscribed in the liberal vision of globalisation. This is why the crisis of faith in the existence of such a balance seems to be one of the most crucial aspects of the ongoing crisis, which should point our attention towards the role of the state as a key factor, and – by extension – the state-formatted, modern electoral democracy.

The issue of finding the main source of the current crisis in the Western world is also not without its significance. Does it stem primarily from the political crisis of the internal, national models of social and economic development or in other words from challenging the existing post-war social and political contract? Or perhaps it is rather a result of an international liberal model of order and development, created at the behest of the West? If both of these phenomena are what is de facto taking place, it is definitely worthwhile to consider the relationship and interdependence between them. This issue has been the subject of new discussions and debates for a decade now, which is reflected in the expansive subject literature, and which also served as a starting point for our research project and this publication.2

←8 | 9→

One of the most important aspects of this book is a closer look at the issue of the role of contemporary European countries and the crisis of the Western, liberal international order from the perspective of the experience of Central and Eastern Europe and from the point of view of Poland, as the largest country in the region. After all, the economic and political transition of the entire region, later combined with the process of extension of European integration, was an element of a broader liberal design of post–Cold War order, regardless of the contradictions or conflicts, which emerged between Europe and the United States, particularly in 2003–2009.

That is why the first chapter of the book features essays that constitute an attempt at diagnosing the causes and the nature of the ongoing crisis of the liberal and Western international order, as well as presenting the perception of this issue from the point of view of Poland and the Central and Eastern Europe region. Looking at this crisis from this exact point of view seems important, because the “peripheral” nature of the transition process, we make note of some aspects of the crisis which could have been unnoticed from the standpoint of the “centre.” We also pose the question of how the crisis of the liberal order is perceived by those, who have become its biggest beneficiaries, perhaps only second to Germany, over the course of the last three decades. This issue is particularly interesting and worth reflecting upon.

The second part of the book covers three case studies: France, Germany and the United Kingdom, juxtaposed with Poland in the context of the consequences of the migration crisis. These three examples are, of course, hardly exhaustive for the entire, increasingly complex spectrum of the European Union or Europe as a whole. They are, however, symptomatic from the point of view of the issue of the actions of a contemporary state in the face of a crisis, as well as crucial for the process of European integration. From the standpoint of Poland and the entire Central and Eastern Europe region, they are certainly authoritative and robust, serving as the main economic and political benchmark for comparison with Western Europe after 1989.

These examples serve as a good illustration of the overarching European tendency for states, particularly the large ones, to seek their own national strategies to respond to the European and global crisis, as well as to look for new international and supranational solutions.

←9 |

The third part consists of essays devoted exclusively to Poland. It comprises analyses of the Polish political scene, the structures of Polish strategic thought, as well as examples referring to the migration policy and the conflict with the EU regarding the rule of law.

In the summary of this part, we attempt to answer the question to what extent Poland – a post-transition country, currently at a specific and difficult stage of its political evolution – can respond to the crisis of the existing international order without closing down paths towards future development and growth, and while opening new ones instead.

The objective of this publication is not only to present the way of thinking of Polish scholars on the ongoing crisis of the liberal West. It is, first and foremost, intended to help the reader better understand how contemporary European states attempt to be active actors, responding to the crisis of the international order, in different and sometimes contradictory ways. This phenomenon inevitably leads to the undermining of many existing cooperation mechanisms, but on the other hand, it also reveals the limitations in terms of the state actions.

This is why this crisis is not only forcing us to rethink the model of international cooperation, but it will also eventually considerably impact our understanding of the role of the contemporary state in Europe. One thing seems to be certain – it will be difficult to rebuild mutual trust without creating a new type of balance between the dimension of national sovereignty and the structures of international governance in Europe and the broadly understood Western world.

←10 |

1 Research project “Resources of the humanities for building and improving the integrated state management model in the light of the dynamics of crises and threats. The dialogue between the humanities and the administration, and the challenges facing Poland”, financed under the “Dialog” programme, carried out in 2017–2019 by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Decision of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education no. 0104/DLG/2017/10.

2 P. Blokker (2010): Multiple Democracies in Europe, London: Routledge; D. Bohle, B. Greskovits (2012): Capitalist Diversity on Europe’s Periphery, Cornell University Press; G. Dale (2011): First the Transition, then the Crash. Eastern Europe in the 2000’s, Pluto Press; R. Eatwell, M. Goodwin (2018): National Populism. The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Penguin Random House; B. Emmott (2018): The Fate of the West, The Economist Books; G. Evans, A. Menon (2017): Brexit and British Politics, Polity; F. Furedi (2018): Populism and the European Culture Wars, London: Routledge; Ch. Guilluy (2019): Twilight of the Elites, Yale University Press; J. Kirchick (2017): The End of Europe, Yale University Press; I. Krastev (2017): After Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press; Ch. von Marschall (2018): Wir verstehen die Welt nicht mehr, Herder; L. van Middelaar (2019): Alarums and Excursions. Improvising Politics on the European Stage, Agenda Publishing; Y. Mounk (2018): The People vs. Democracy, Harvard University Press; C. Offe (2015): Europe Entrapped, Polity; D. Rodrik (2012): The Globalisation Paradox, Norton & Company; S. Shields (2012): The International Political Economy of Transition, Routledge; W. Streeck (2013): Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus, Suhrkampf; H.A. Winkler (2017): Zerbricht der Westen?, C. H. Beck; J. Zielonka (2018): Counter-Revolution. Liberal Europe in Retreat, Oxford University Press.

Marek Cichocki

The crisis of liberalism vs. the future of the global order

Abstract: In order to understand the current crisis of the liberal Western order, one should first look at its genesis and structure. The author begins this by reflecting on liberal internationalism in a historical context, and then presents the identity of the West and liberalism itself. Based on these observations, he analyzes three areas of liberal international order: security order, economic order and order of values. The current crisis of liberalism has external causes in the form of growing ambitions of such countries as China or Russia, but also the internal ones – growing divisions and contradictions within the West. Up to the present time, Poland has not experienced directly the manifestations of the crisis of liberal order; however, there is a growing uncertainty and external threats as well as national divisions related to the normative and cultural aspects.

Keywords: liberalism, liberal order, liberal institutionalism, security order, economic order, order of values, crisis

Do we live in the moment of change of world orders that must be understood as a deep crisis of the international system existing so far? One of the most popular topics in modern political science and in political journalism in European countries and the USA is the question about the condition of the postwar Western liberal order. At the same time, the current debate focuses strongly on the threats that cast doubt on the likelihood of further dominance of the liberal order around the world or even allow us to assume the possibility of its collapse and ultimate end. Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election and the rising populist movements in Europe that challenge the status quo on the wave of consequences of the economic and social crisis in the Western world stimulate fears of this kind and sometimes lead to completely apocalyptic visions. However, if we want to avoid the situation in which the crisis of the existing liberal order would lead us to total cultural and political defeatism, as a result of which we would still be able to recognise the nature of ongoing transformations, we must first ask the question about the essence and ingredients of this endangered global liberal order. This text is aimed mainly at answering this question through the reconstruction of fundamentals of the Western liberal order prevailing in the world after the end of the Cold War. We also want to show that the current crisis of this order is not only a consequence of the growing pressure ←13 | 14→from non-liberal states gaining the status of powers in global politics, as in the case of China, but also reflects deep internal splits and disagreements. Because of the globalisation of internal liberalism, hidden internal splits begin to result in increasingly stronger tensions and conflicts in deep crisis situations. The concept of Western liberalism as a foundation for a new type of internationalism has never been as cohesive and homogeneous as we commonly think. Thus, the future of the liberal order will be decided not only in confrontation with the rising competitive powers; it will also depend on whether it produces new forms of effective management of growing internal diversity. Finally, we also want to consider how the crisis of liberal internationalism, both in view of the pressure of external factors and internal disagreements, may influence the position of Poland in Europe and in international relations.

Liberal internationalism in a historical perspective

An apparently simple question involves a complex answer. John Ikenberry assumes that it is possible to identify at least five basic principles due to which he regards the Western liberal order as a cohesive and functional concept. It is, firstly, openness manifesting itself in free trade, exchange and mutual relations; secondly, attachment to a certain set of common rules determining the relations and behaviours of actors that support multilateral co-operation between them; thirdly, actions aimed at reinforcing international security (for example, by resigning from the use of means of violence); fourthly, conviction of the possible progress occurring in international politics thanks to the ability to improve it and to draw conclusions from earlier errors and catastrophes; fifthly, the belief that compliance with all of these rules will bring advantages to all states and will contribute to the dissemination of the benefits of liberal democracy and global capitalism.1 However, the sense of obviousness that often accompanies the concept of the Western liberal order in the world in political or academic debates conceals actual deep ambiguity. We can also see clearly that the current situation of crisis and uncertainty in the West enforces a new reflection on this concept and leads to attempts to present new precise definitions of Western liberalism in its actual sense and of the world order built on it.2 In this context, however, we ←14 | 15→cannot avoid asking additional questions, mainly about the way of understanding the West and liberalism and about their mutual relationship, which involves also the coherence and nature of the concept of the Western liberal order; whether we actually deal here with the coherent idea of such an order, a homogeneous and valid concept and its concrete expression in various dimensions of politics, or we rather employ a certain idea or myth that arouses sentiment and longing in some people and anger and impatience in others. It is worth reflecting on all of these things, particularly because, from a historical viewpoint, the concepts of the West, liberalism or the Western liberal order are dynamic and have been subject to serious evolution.

World War II is obviously the turning point for the materialisation of structures of the Western liberal order around America’s leadership. Nevertheless, the roots of this process date back to an earlier period and concern mainly changes in the functioning of international politics brought on by World War I. This refers to the very idea of liberal internationalism expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine3 that is based on the mechanism of growing interdependence and mutual and equal relationships that functions in international relations through the promotion of liberal political rules of the state, the free market and liberal values, such as respect for minorities and human rights. As a new organising principle of the international order around the United States and their allies, this idea replaced the 19th-century order of the balance of European powers, European colonialism and American isolationism. Historically speaking, liberal internationalism appeared even earlier, at the turn of the 19th century, as an idea of international order built around the principles of liberal utilitarianism founded by Jeremy Bentham.4 In 19th-century European politics, liberal internationalism was connected mainly with Great Britain and Richard Cobden, who supported free trade as the basis of international co-operation and peace, but also the right of nations to decide about their fate. This early form of liberal internationalism was in conflict with the traditional internationalism symbolised by the Holy Alliance and Metternich’s policy that prevailed on the Continent since the Vienna Congress in 1915. As a result of the idea of brotherhood of ←15 | 16→nations (Giuseppe Mazzini, Jules Michelet) and growing pressure from workers’ movements and emerging Marxist internationalism, liberalism has been shifting towards interventionism in international politics in favour of the promotion of its values since the middle of the 19th century, which culminates in Wilson’s policy but is also strongly connected with the change that makes Great Britain lose the role of the main liberal ruler to the United States.5

The concept of the Western liberal order as a transatlantic system6 appears as a result of World War II and the ideological conflict with fascism and Nazism in Europe and then becomes strengthened in confrontation with communist Russia. The Atlantic Charter of 1941 can be regarded as the first coherent communication of the rules of the new postwar system led by two Anglo-Saxon states: the United States and Great Britain. But the USA became the main architect and promoter of the new world order after the war as the only power capable of designing a system of institutions, norms, practices and interdependencies forming the basis for the transatlantic order. In view of the new Cold War conflict, in opposition to communism and world aspirations of the USSR, it became mainly the Western order.7 Thanks to postwar institutions, organisations and international agreements, such as the UN, Bretton Woods, World Bank, IMF, GATT or subsequently OSCE, the Western liberal order based on the superpower position of the United States could have a global impact in spite of the bipolar division of the world persisting because of the Cold War. Only after the end of the Cold War did the Western liberal world become fully global. The belief that the fall of Communism and the USSR opens the way to the inevitable globalisation of the Western liberal order and that the transformation and unification of Europe is the starting point for this huge process can be found in the text of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990) and in texts of influential authors such as Francis Fukuyama or subsequently Robert Cooper.8 Thus, what ←16 | 17→is today often described as a crisis, threat or the possibility of disintegration, refers to the globalised form of the earlier concept of the Western liberal order formed a result of World War II and based on the political, economic, technological and military supremacy of the United States with an important supplementary role of united Europe and the European Union – the role that is the subject of an ongoing strategic dialogue or occasional crises within the scope of the transatlantic co-operation.

Today the crisis and future of liberal internationalism is the subject of important debates concerning primarily the evolution of American politics. There is also a frequently prevailing opinion that Donald Trump is essentially responsible for breaking with the rules of liberal internationalism in American foreign policy, but the gradual abandonment of these rules by the political establishment of Washington has been indicated at least since the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s presidency. In its more radical form, this argument claims that, under the pressure of the influential group of neo-conservatives after 11 September attacks, the policy of Bush’s administration has completely abandoned the traditional assumptions of American foreign policy that effectively formatted the unity of the West since World War II, submitting to a specific kind of war and unilateral aberration in its strategic decisions and rhetorics.9 In its milder form, this argument states that Bush’s policy was a symptom rather than the cause of the collapse of the existing modus vivendi of American politics supported both by Democrats and Republicans, and the projection of American strength was combined with the projection of the co-operation with transatlantic allies, which essentially guaranteed the stability and unity of the Western order.10 However, not everyone shared this critical point of view – at least until the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA. Some commentators and analysts thought that Barack Obama’s presidency is a proof of the fact that the period of political aberration of Bush’s administration was followed by the return to Washington’s consensus around liberal internationalism in the USA’s foreign policy.11 But there were also critical opinions on that subject according to which Obama not only ←17 | 18→failed to rebuild a political consensus around liberal internationalism with his policy,12 but even escalated the abandonment of the traditional policy dominating since World War II.13 Only against the background of these earlier debates can we consider the current discussion regarding Trump and his policy, where two main opinions clearly collide: one opinion asserting that the system of liberal internationalism created over the decades is so strong that its rules cannot be destroyed by any kind of political voluntarism of the presidential administration in Washington limited by its term of office, which also applies to Trump,14 and the other opinion claiming that the political consensus around American politics has irretrievably collapsed during the last two decades and even if Trump is not the cause of the current change, he is its symptom announcing the transition to a new situation in international relations, which would mean in practice the end of the previous order based on the rules of liberal internationalism and the unconditional dominance of the USA as its guarantor.15

Today the discussion on the crisis of the existing order in international relations as a crisis of liberal internationalism concerns essentially the question about the place of the USA in the security system and mutual dependence. Will the United States make a real decision to withdraw from the role of the guarantor of the western order that they have continued to fulfil since World War II? Fears in this respect have been fuelled, particularly recently, by Trump’s numerous declarations, his strategy “America first!”, the actual withdrawal of Washington from some international agreements and organisations, the criticism of the NATO and the EU, or the focus on economic patriotism (nationalism) and on cultural sovereignty in international relations.16 The discussion about whether and to what extent America still wants to act as the protector of the liberal international order has been going on for a long time, at least since George W. Bush’s administration, and has not disappeared during the presidency ←18 | 19→of Barack Obama, whose attitude to America’s presence in Europe was strongly hesitant, among others, because of his Asiatic pivot policy. Thus, the question whether contemporary American politics follows the path of withdrawal from the existing transatlantic model and whether Europe becomes increasingly dependent on itself has been present for a long time and emerged before Trump’s presidency.17

The identity of the West and liberalism


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (January)
State strategy Liberal order Financial crisis Migrant crisis Public policies Political legitimacy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 314 pp., 1 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Marek Cichocki (Volume editor)

Marek Aleksander Cichocki is Research Director at the Natolin European Centre (Poland), Professor of International Relations at the Collegium Civitas and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, Natolin.


Title: Contemporary States and the Crisis of the Western Order
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316 pages