The US and the EU campaigned for a common world order based on liberal values such as democracy and human rights. But as the balance of power shifts toward developing countries, national interests are trumping values.
Brazil, Russia, India and China are pursuing their national interests as they gain in power
During the 1990s, the advanced democracies of North America and Western Europe emerged as the powerbrokers of global politics. Russia shrank from the world stage as it slid into chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the large developing countries - such as Brazil, India and China - remained preoccupied with their own internal reforms.
As a consequence, the United States and the European Union began to construct a world order based on liberal vales. They promoted a doctrine of free trade, democracy and human rights.
Those nations that accepted - or at least did not challenge -these "international norms" were integrated into a growing network of economic globalization. This network was governed by institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Meanwhile, leaders who actively undermined the liberal rules of the game - such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein - faced crippling sanctions and devastating airstrikes. Integration and confrontation became two sides of the same coin.
But in the new millennium a more diverse group of countries is sharing world power, which has made it difficult to form a consensus around a common global agenda. As Brazil, Russia, India and China - often referred to as the BRICs - confidently pursue their own national interests, the liberal international order is buckling.
Political paralysis in the West
Nearly a decade ago, developed and developing nations agreed in Doha, Qatar to a round of multilateral negotiations that would reduce poverty through trade liberalization. The goal was to eliminate economic barriers that prevented poorer countries from sharing in the benefits of globalization.
Although political leaders in the US and EU had traditionally championed free trade, they now found it politically difficult to turn the Doha Round into a final settlement. The business community felt they were not getting enough, while labor unions believed an agreement would outsource more jobs to the developing world.
The Doha Round failed, sparking criticism of the WTO in the developing world
Meanwhile, the BRICs - which once opposed liberalization as an instrument of imperialism - now championed free trade. The failure of state socialism and protectionism had pushed Brazil, Russia, India and China toward a model of export-led growth that depended on an open global economy.
"There's an irony here," Jagdish Bhagwati, an expert on international trade with the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Columbia University in New York, told Deutsche Welle. "If you look at what leaders are doing - Obama is probably the worst but Sarkozy comes pretty close - the leadership itself seems to be hamstrung and paralyzed in an inability to celebrate the openness of markets."
As the BRICs profited from openness, a growing number of voices in the US and EU began to view trade as a zero-sum game. As a result, the Doha Round collapsed.
"It just means that we are not pushing forward," Bhagwati said. "The real question during a time of recession is not moving backwards into additional protectionism."
Emerging powers take initiative
In response to the Doha Round's collapse and the onset of the economic crisis, the BRICs began to strengthen their relations among one another.
Yet political differences between these countries have prevented them from forging a true alliance.
The democratic nations of India, Brazil as well as South Africa have established their own dialogue. In turn, the autocratic regimes of Russia and China have separately signed a series of agreements deepening what they call a "strategic partnership of cooperation."
However, these nations do find common ground in their skepticism of the US and the EU's international agenda.
The US and the EU have often spread their values in the developing world through force
The US and the EU made human rights and democracy a central part of their foreign policies, jointly applying military force to spread these liberal norms in the Balkans and Afghanistan. And the US unilaterally imposed these norms in Iraq.
In contrast, the BRICs emphasize national sovereignty and non-intervention as a means to avoid unnecessary confrontation as they further their economic development.
"There is a strong old North-South mindset in the world and that ties to a set of neutral countries in opposition to Western imperialism," Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy and the rule of law with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle.
"As we move out of that mindset we could go in two directions," Carothers continued. "They [BRICs] could begin to see the value of an international community based on norms; or they could stick with the feeling of being pushed around by larger powers and have an emphasis on sovereignty."
The return of realpolitik
The US and the EU remain critically important in world politics, but their relative power is declining. In response, they may be forced to make political compromises in order to coopt the new powers.
The global agenda rooted in democracy and human rights could give way to a more pragmatic approach. Finding common ground between emerging and established powers would mean focusing on economic interests instead of liberal norms.
"They [emerging powers] don't choose their partners based on human rights or democracy," Daniel Flemes, an expert on regional powers and the new world order with the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, told Deutsche Welle. "Their foreign policies are oriented toward their interests."
A club of great powers could emerge out of the G20
And it is difficult for the emerging powers to advance their interests within the current institutions - such as the IMF and World Bank - dominated by established powers, Flemes said. As a consequence, informal venues such as the G20 are becoming more important.
A club of great powers could emerge out of the G20, and these great powers may then negotiate their interests among each other, he continued.
This development would indicate that realpolitik, the pragmatic emphasis on maintaining a stable balance of power, has trumped liberal norms in global politics.
But Carothers believes that promoting these liberal norms is in fact rooted in pragmatism, since no country has become wealthy and industrialized without democratizing, and that powers like Russia and China will ultimately have to go down that path toward democracy.
"These international norms do reflect a more global approach to economy and society," he said. "We have to be more confident that over time we will ultimately find that our interests lie in a more normative international community."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge