In the age of Donald Trump, the melodrama and self-pity of the foreign-policy elite is nearly bottomless. Richard Haass has written the latest obituary for the entire liberal world order. Cause of death; America’s abandonment. Under Trump, the U.S. is leaving behind “the role it has played for more than seven decades.”
The clichés used in this kind of editorial are now so familiar, I don’t even think the authors notice how silly they sound. Haass writes: “It is increasingly difficult to speak of the world as if it were whole. We are seeing the emergence of regional orders — or, most pronounced in the Middle East, disorders — each with its own characteristics.”
Can anyone really claim there weren’t regional orders during the last seven decades? Or that the world was “whole”? One of the defining characteristics of the seven-decade liberal world order was that you constantly used terms like “First World” and “Third World.”
What are the signs of defection? Haass writes:
Under President Donald Trump, the US decided against joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. It has threatened to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. It has unilaterally introduced steel and aluminum tariffs, relying on a justification (national security) that others could use, in the process placing the world at risk of a trade war. It has raised questions about its commitment to NATO and other alliance relationships. And it rarely speaks about democracy or human rights. “America First” and the liberal world order seem incompatible.
Notice that by the second sentence we are already at merely “threatened” revisions rather than actual ones, and by the end of this short list we are down to merely rhetorical offenses. Haass flatters himself in this editorial for thinking in terms of hard power, but he writes as if the whole world depended on the precise use of a few political slogans.
There is something utterly creepy and underhanded in the fact that political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are allowed to get away with criticizing trade deals on the electoral hustings because figures such as Haass can reliably trust that these are just opportune lies for public consumption only. But Trump might mean what he says! Take cover in your fallout shelters.
In the history of the liberal world order, the offenses Haass presents amount to utterly trivial deviations and perturbations. A trade pact rejected and a toothless climate agreement passed over. And the whole world order is unraveling? How weak was it to begin with? If the liberal world order is as old as Haass says it is, then it survived the Anglo-American split over Suez, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the calamities of the Vietnam War, the wage and price controls of Richard Nixon, botched coups in the Middle East, and wave after wave of domestic terrorism across the West, the tariffs of Ronald Reagan, the retreat of America from the horn of Africa, and on and on.
What happened to that resiliency? If the liberal world order can be declared dead the moment that centrist parties are forced to parlay with their populist critics, then its commitment to political freedom is an empty pretense and, as a system of world hegemony, it isn’t worth defending. It has become nomenklatura by another name.
Perhaps it is the brittleness and inflexibility of this world order that is the problem. Perhaps its defenders need to get out of the 1990s. Perhaps they need to reconcile themselves to democratic publics, who are for the most part registering their minor and quibbling dissents from strict liberal orthodoxies peacefully at the ballot box. Get a hold of yourselves, men.