After Liberalism: Complexity in the Governance of a Networked Global Society

By Hilton L. Root

Below, in an excerpt from Dynamics Among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States, Hilton L. Root argues that the linkages between liberal internationalism and modernization theory fail to provide convincing explanations for variations in governance that can arise from the local pursuit of wealth and power, and discusses how global change processes are being shaped by the properties of networks of interdependent but diverse actors who respond to cues both from their local and their global situations.

All development and security policies presume a theory of change. This book considers the partnership of modernization theory, the dominant theory of social change since World War II, and liberal internationalism, the foreign policy agenda the West has promoted in political and economic development since the Cold War.It will contrast the analytical framework of modernization theory with that of the evolutionary theory of complexity to explain unforeseen development failures, governance trends, and alliance shifts.

International liberalism presumes that if developing societies adopt trade, monetary and fiscal reforms that integrate them into the global economy, the intensified speed of economic change will lead to changes in other societal structures and expedite a sociopolitical convergence toward global cooperation—a truly international society. It did not anticipate that social and political change move at a much slower pace than economic and technological change, and that considerable divergence can occur between the pace of economic and technological transition and the much more glacial pace of cultural and societal transitions. Instead of the anticipated convergence toward a common framework of values, the growing economic interconnectedness is accelerating growing diversity and disparity between the West and newly rising powers.

As it transitions from regional applications to global repercussions, liberalism must face many challenges it did not anticipate, and for which it is ill prepared. The world’s population growth and the flow of interregional trade are concentrating among regimes that operate far from first world conceptions of optimality. Both of these trends, trade shifts and demographic pressures, have implications for the evolution of global cooperation and for the kinds of policies that can be sustained through international cooperation.2 The linkages between liberal internationalism and modernization theory fail to provide convincing explanations for the unanticipated variations in governance that can arise from the local pursuit of wealth and power.3

The liberal West, which has existed at the summit of liberal internationalism’s hierarchical ladder since the end of the Cold War, anticipated a period of stable and consistent evolution toward the best practices in governance that its economic success had made legitimate. But the predictions of modernization theory, which presumes that as societies urbanize and prosper, they will converge to adopt the values of liberal internationalism, have not materialized. Since the collective behavior of the global system depends on the behavior of its parts, variations in the latter can cause system-wide effects that make the maintenance of system’s stability more complex.

Although liberal internationalism is premised on the classical idea of cooperation among equals, which obviates the need for a “central enforcer,” to make it a global standard of development requires top-down guidance from the West.4 A central administrator, the United States, provides the system’s organization and management. Yet the transition from hierarchies to networked systems is changing every facet of global interaction and requires a new language for comprehending change processes.5

Today’s adversaries are decentralized transnational networks that appear in many sizes and shapes; they are not geographically fixed, hierarchically governed, or bureaucratically managed.

The system of international relations, like most complex ecosystems, such as the nervous system or a rain forest, is yielding to its rules of complexity. In the global social system, interdependency is causing a transition with qualitatively different impacts for each of its affected regions. Illiberal and liberal regimes alike engage in a pattern of co-creation, each shaping the other. This coevolutionary process is dispelling expectations of convergence, and it can cause shifts to the larger system.

Similarly, adversaries have also become more diverse since the end of the Cold War, when the targets were other states. Today’s adversaries are decentralized transnational networks that appear in many sizes and shapes; they are not geographically fixed, hierarchically governed, or bureaucratically managed, and they can come from a number of sources. Islamic fundamentalism is but one of many stateless adversaries that can turn asymmetries of power to their advantage.6

Competition in highly interdependent global environments produces far greater local variation and diversity of structures and strategies than modernization theory ever anticipated. Rather than a one-to-one mapping of the traits of successful incumbents by their emerging challengers, heightened competition drives social agents to alter their environments by creating niches that offer new opportunities for interaction; and that competition in turn reveals new niches that other actors can exploit.7

Collective Security and Collective Values

In the post–Cold War period, the long-term security strategy of the West has been based on the belief that as countries embrace liberalism, they become more reliable allies.Thus, heavy investments in promoting the values of liberal internationalism have been guided by the hope that establishing a universal norm will ensure global security.

A consensus among the Western powers on domestic policy goals, such as social protection against unemployment, disability, poverty, ill health, and the problems that can accompany old age, made it easy to agree on the rules needed to operate within the world economy.9 Shared values and ideas about what constitutes progress allowed agreement about what public goods would enhance collective security and well-being. Enforcement capabilities were thin and the specifics of cooperation never fully articulated, but cooperative security had a mutually reinforcing logic—rather than balancing each other as potential rivals, the Western states built institutions that matched their common outlook. States that shared fundamental principles could act cooperatively without a central enforcer.

The West presumed that aspirants would accept the same values, and that participating in an open system of international trade would signal acceptance of a common framework of the norms that constitute political advancement.

The system built upon liberal internationalism is vulnerable to alteration when its values are no longer shared among the dominant powers.

Confidence in the universal appeal and ultimate triumph of liberal internationalism rests on the belief that both markets (the desire to truck and barter) and democracy (the quest for social recognition) arise out of human nature, and that harnessing these two human drives is the most efficient means to resolve complex universal dilemmas of collective action. Yet few emerging states provide examples of the connection between economic growth and the construction of liberal democracy. Instead of a liberal system based on universal values, the newcomers protest the “invitation” to join a Western system. Brazil, Russia, India, and China enjoy the advantages of international law and organization, but they contest the legitimacy of liberal internationalism’s core values—democracy, labor and human rights, an open domestic economy—to be the system-wide ethos. They rebuff limits on state sovereignty, such as the idea of interventionism to protect populations from abuses committed by their own governments. The universal legitimacy of the rule of law, they maintain, need not be bound to Western norms.

The system built upon liberal internationalism is vulnerable to alteration when its values are no longer shared among the dominant powers. If enough actors act myopically, the liberal consensus may collapse or be severely undermined. It only takes enough of these countries, or the right mixes of these countries, and the international ecology will change, calling into question the dominance of liberalism. What will happen to system stability when the core group of liberal democracies no longer constitutes the dominant power but is joined or supplanted by the rising non-Western powers formerly on the periphery of global trade or production?

Policy Diffusion and Unfolding Global Megatrends

The system of global trade has long been characterized by vertical flows overseen by the liberal West, which has assumed that adoption of its values would follow a similar top-town learning process. But emerging economic and demographic trends are changing the global ecosystem in ways that are unfavorable to the continued dominance of liberalism. Emerging economies, which provide 40 percent of global output measured by market exchange rates, are expected to continue growing at rates that surpass those of advanced economies.

The distribution of interregional trade once predominantly North–South is also changing, diminishing the West’s centrality to global interregional trade and production. Trade flows are moving along new paths, and the percentage of global trade that is South–South has increased as a percentage of total trade. Between 2001 and 2011, China’s trade with Latin American, for example, grew 1,200 percent, from $10 billion to $130 billion. If those trends continue, at some point along the horizon, horizontal South–South flows will overtake vertical North–South flows. And as trade and investment flows are altered, what began as commercial networks based narrowly on national interests may evolve into cultural, political, and intellectual affinities.

Many countries that have become dependent on China for trade have also become dependent on China for access to military and other vital technologies. China is already the primary source of weapons for both Bolivia and Venezuela that have adverserial relations with the West. South American militaries were once dependent on the West for military supplies. At least twenty regimes in Africa similarly depend on Chinese civil and military technology. Dependence on China’s technological expertise opens up many venues for reshaping the political governance, along with the economic arrangements, of its partners. Once a nation’s leadership depends on Chinese technologies (and integration into techno-political systems that originate in Beijing) that dependency can reshape the regime’s interactions with the world.

Global megatrends raise new questions about the direction of global political economy. As the South increases its share of interregional trade, what will the implications be for the evolution of networks of belief, ideas, and policy? Will it be a source of new alliances and new patterns of international cooperation? Can the global trading system maintain the identity it has acquired through the Cold War and post–Cold War periods if the new hubs of global trade are also hubs of ideas about global order? Will the rise of new centers of cultural and geographic affinity require new rules for global cooperation?10

Can Liberalism Survive Global Complexity in Transition?

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the international system had a geographical center, Europe and North America, with a large influence on the transmission of values and norms to peripheral regions. The West believed that after obtaining independence, countries would seek to emulate their larger trading partners in order to attain peak fitness. But since the end of the Cold War, the likelihood of such bottom-up emulation has been reduced as connections among emerging nations, the North–South connections, proliferate faster than those with Europe and North America. As coevolving nations form new coalitions, they unlock new governance frontiers.

The socioeconomic development sequence anticipated by liberal internationalism has failed to materialize for a number of reasons. Chief among them are the economic and social processes at work within the international system that can affect development within a national regime and result in the rise of elite internal factions that form alliances with external powers. Such alliances speed global economic integration but deepen internal divisions within regimes.

These apprehensions about the survival of liberalism as the ethos of the global trading system raise questions far beyond the scope of modernization theory. Global change processes are being shaped by the properties of networks of interdependent but diverse actors who respond to cues both from their local and their global situations.

Reprinted by permission of MIT Press. Excerpted from Dynamics Among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States by Hilton L. Root. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Hilton L. Root, expert on international political economy and development. He is Visiting Senior Research Professor at King’s College London and Professor at George Mason University School of Public Policy. His current research examines (1) global power transition and the challenge of legitimacy; (2) the comparative and historical dynamics of state-building; and (3) the use of complexity models to understand the evolution of social institutions. He is the author of Dynamics Among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States, Alliance Curse: How the U.S. Lost the Third World, Capital and Collusion: Political Logic of Global Economic Development.


1. Pritchett, L., Woolcock, M., & Andrews, M. (2010). “Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure,” Center for Global Development, Working Paper 234.

2. Axelrod, R., & Bennett, S. D. (1993). Choosing Sides: A Landscape Theory of Aggregation. British Journal of Political Science, 23, 211–33.

3. Modernization theory contributes to the agenda of liberal internationalism in which the trajectory of newcomers will converge to Western patterns, facilitating the integration of late-comers into the liberal order

4. Liberal internationalism projects a global political economy landscape based upon hegemonic stability that requires a central authority. This is a sharp contrast with classical liberalism’s ideal of complex economic interdependence free from political intervention.

5. The power to plan and execute large-scale coordination made the industrial oligopolies that once dominated the domestic markets of capitalist nations seem formidable. But networked systems of production have supplanted the supremacy of the large corporation that designed, built, and distributed its products through a single chain of command.

6. See Treverton, G., & Wilhelm, A. (Eds.). (2009). National Intelligence Systems: Current Research and Future Prospects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. When the adversary is a network, and not a state the logic of defensive strategy must be altered so as not to expect a victory. Since there can be no decisive solutions, defensive efforts must be concentrated on disruption rather than defeat.

7. Kauffman, S. (1993). The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection Evolution (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 370.

8. See: Lemke, D., & Werner, S. (1996). Power Parity, Commitment to Change, and War. International Studies Quarterly, 40, 235–260; Köchler, H. (1995). Democracy and the International Rule of Law: Propositions for an Alternative World Order. New York: Springer;

Maoz, Z., & Russet, B. (1993). Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace. American Political Science Review, 87(3), 624–638; Ray, J. L. (2003). A Lakatosian View of the Democratic Peace Research Program. In C. Elman & M. F. Elman (Eds.), Progress in International Relations Theory: Appraising the Field. Cambridge: MIT University Press; Rummel, R. J. (1997). Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers.

9. The nations that advocate liberal internationalism as an international norm generally do so after social institutions exist that offer individuals insurance options, such as a social safety net including unemployment compensation and socially provided disability insurance and retirement accounts.

10. For the oppositite point of view see Ikenberry, J. G. (2011). Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformations of the American World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (2011a; 2001b).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.