The last quarter of the 20th century was the heyday of political globalization. The defeat of communism marked a clear victory for the West and the neo-liberal order. 

Much of the literature from this time foresaw that the North-centered world order would continue operating smoothly on the platform constructed by the political and economic institutions established after World War II. Approaches and theories that criticized this notion relied on the thesis that “order” could only suffer an existential threat via external influences.

The possibility of a system being threatened by its builder – particularly the US – was barely contemplated. Why would the creator of an order destroy its own system? 

The fall of globalism

Globalism and multilateralism swept the world in an unstoppable political and economic wave. By the turn of the millennium, virtually no corner of the world had been left untouched. 

The last decade of the 20th century was perhaps the most colorful. And of course, the most colorful of all seasons is the fall.

In the 1990s, the modern global system was undergoing its most profound transformation since the internationalization of trade. Yet this period, during which globalization was thoroughly sanctified, did not last long. At the start of the new millennium, the leaves began to fall, and soon the financial crisis of 2008 had produced a global economic recession.

The economic crisis sowed the seeds of the global political depression that we now live in and lasted for several years in the West. It was a transformative time. The consequent political turmoil called into question the entire economic order established after 1945, which was accustomed to dealing with non-Western political and economic conflicts. 

This time, it was different. Developed economies and mature democracies faced their own dilemma: they needed to implement the haughty economic discourse that they had been preaching to the rest of the world for years. This package was full of pluralism, multilateralism, open borders, and the free movement of goods, labor and capital. 

This package is now being tested, and the results are not promising. In fact, the opposite package is being developed. Multilateralism is being replaced by bilateralism, open borders are being eroded by fanatical anti-immigration policies, the quality of democracy is being pressured by the rise of the hard right, and free trade has been distorted by protectionism.

Distorting multilateralism does not necessarily produce bilateralism, at least not directly and immediately. Unilateralism is an intermediate phase that shapes the quality of the bilateralism to come. The best examples include US President Donald Trump’s unilateral moves and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Today, the controversial agendas of Washington and London represent a struggle to adapt their unilateralism to the anticipated bilateral order.   The vital issue, then, is how severely the ripple effects of bilateralism will impact the rest of the world. How much will the remaining multilateralism erode, and how will bilateralism maneuver in a globalised world?