Is the “liberal world order” dying? Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass fears it might be. National Review Online’s own Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks such fears are a little overwrought. For those chiseling the tombstone of the “liberal world order,” the names of the murderers are familiar: rising populism across the Western world, the ascent of “illiberal” powers, and, above all, Donald Trump.
However we want to classify the overall geopolitical constellation (as “liberal world order” or something else), it seems as though many existing international institutions, understandings, and affinities are being strained. Likewise, outsider political movements are sweeping though the body politic of nations on both sides of the Atlantic. This has, in turn, produced a counterreaction among many of those who view themselves as the natural heirs to power and influence. It’s easy to view the rise of these deplorable outsiders as the prime threat to the “liberal world order,” but we might also ask how much the decisions of the political establishments (especially after 1992) have contributed to the very strains this order faces.
One of the great ironies of the time is that it has been supposed defenders of the “liberal world order” who have undermined this very order. For instance, Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy has done far more than “alt-right” social-media memes to disrupt the integrity of the European Union and inflame populist sentiments in Europe. The increasing extremism of the neoliberal consensus on trade, immigration, and finance has further undermined the stability of domestic politics.
In the United States and other countries, resistance to and dissatisfaction with some of the tendencies of neoliberalism have been obvious, yet policymakers have been slow to adapt. In the 2000–2016 period, the U.S. witnessed economic stagnation, foreign-policy debacles, a financial meltdown, and a host of administrative catastrophes. Wave election followed wave election as the public swung in dissatisfaction from one political party to the next. All these trends were clarion cries for substantive reform to reignite a common prosperity and reinforce civic fellowship. All too often, though, Republicans fell victim to a taker-versus-maker austerity politics; for their part, Democrats often succumbed to the siren song of “woke” identity politics, which inflames tensions among identity groups.
Donald Trump won the election as a fierce critic of the status quo in both the domestic and the geopolitical spheres, so it’s unsurprising that defenders of many existing international arrangements should oppose the president. However, certain iterations of the anti-Trump “resistance” can at times undermine the United States’ ability to sustain this world order. For instance, the leaks of presidential communications with foreign leaders make it harder for the U.S. to conduct diplomacy. This undermining can also feed into bigger-picture trends. A judiciary that invents new “Trump exceptions” to the Constitution sows procedural chaos, and a federal bureaucracy that behaves as a partisan actor undermines the public faith in this bureaucracy. As Jamie Kirchick (not exactly the biggest fan of the president) recently wrote, the “resistance” may be “delegitimizing the presidency, our government and democratic processes” through advancing the narrative that somehow Russia “colluded” with Donald Trump to “hack” the election in order to install him in the White House illegitimately.
If the United States is to be a supporter of stability abroad, there needs to be public trust in the legitimacy of government at home. Exacerbating — without evidence, at the moment — fears that the presidential election was stolen by an orange-skinned agent of the Kremlin is a sledgehammer taken to the foundations of that trust. Delegitimizing the nation’s governing institutions is a sure recipe for either isolationism or wild uncertainty in foreign affairs.
Preserving the gains of this system might require moderating some of the utopian impulses of neoliberalism.
The international system developed by the United States and others has done considerable good over the past 70 years. World poverty has dropped, and “hot” war between great powers has been avoided. While exerting considerable energies to defend this system, the United States has also benefited from it. However, preserving the gains of this system might require moderating some of the utopian impulses of neoliberalism, recognizing the limits of the technocratic class, and acknowledging the importance of place and culture.
Part of this process of moderation and reform would probably involve recognizing the legitimacy of sovereignty, which Haass notes is one of the founding principles of the “liberal world order.” A true understanding of sovereignty would admit that a nation’s people have a right to sustain a certain vision for their society and to organize their politics and culture in a certain way. Thus, the project of reform might entail not so much abandoning the principles of a “liberal world order” as recovering those principles and applying them in a more imaginative way.
If the best parts of the international order are to be preserved, responsiveness might need to take the place of rigidity, and hauteur might need to give way to humility.