What International Liberal Order?

2018 was the year our international liberal order died and US President Donald Trump killed it. Several times. So we are told.

From reinstating tough economic sanctions on Iran and announcing plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, to the weaponisation of the dollar, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and any number of attacks on allies, the climate and human rights; for many it is behaviour that confirms a president bent on erasing the rules, norms and institutions that have defined US leadership since the end of WWII. Obituaries for the international liberal order have become a mainstay of political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

But if Trump is tearing up an international order it is one that has been neither all that liberal or orderly. In fact, in a rush to legitimately criticise the US president many have donned some rather thick, rose-tinted spectacles to examine our world and America’s role in it. “Seventy years after US President Truman sketched the blueprint for a rules-based international order to prevent the geopolitical competition that triggered World War II, President Trump has upended it.”, said two well respected members of the US foreign policy establishment in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. You will find similar laments for a time that never really was within the UK commentariat, too. It may be well-meaning, but romanticising what came before Trump is tantamount to dangerous nostalgia. The reality is much messier.

There were indeed genuine and ambitious, if not sometimes naïve, attempts to build a global community in the aftermath of WW2. Washington saw a duty in pushing for the creation of institutions to better prepare the world for tackling nationalism and protectionism, even if the American public didn’t. The result was the formation of everything from the United Nations and Bretton Woods to the Marshall Plan and NATO. These were tools to not just project US power, but keep at bay whatever might drag the country back into another costly war. They saw significant success. The world became, and remains, healthier, wealthier and safer.

But over time the US abused its role and neglected the norms and values it once championed. The dynamics of Cold War balancing – with all its proxy wars, assassination attempts and coups d’etat – would quickly become a better indicator of state behaviour. It was a time of little order, even if the emerging optimism from the falling Berlin Wall and The End of History suggested otherwise. As for the halcyon days of the late 1990s, they did not last long either; 2003 saw the invasion of Iraq and the failure to intervene in the Darfur genocide. The George W Bush presidency can be easily forgotten in the current chaos.

It may be hard for some to admit but the US has often behaved illiberally, affording itself privileges it does not offer others to maintain its malleable and contradictory interests. Washington has propped up dictators, coerced and bullied allies, tortured prisoners, and cultivated a selective interpretation of international law. If the US has been a vocal leader of the ‘rules-based system’, it has also been a serial offender in undermining it. This makes drilling down past abstract platitudes to define what people really mean by the international liberal order a tricky task. Is it explained by geography? A specific time-period? Certain institutions? Shared norms and values? If so, which ones, and how committed must one be to them? It is never clear; always fuzzy.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the idea of such an order has always been more aspirational than a reflection of reality. This allows for a pretty broad creative licence when it comes to interpreting what it is to be international, liberal and orderly. And it would, of course, be naïve to assume that great power politics could function without certain trade-offs and tensions. But this makes the romanticisation of what came before Trump’s presidency all the more baffling. One only has to look to parts of the US foreign policy establishment – stubbornly resistant to self-criticism but publicly redeeming itself thanks to its opposition to the current presidency – to find a fixation with preserving the pre-Trump era; like it is one to be held up as a model or template.

But rather than rallying a defence we should be scrutinising what came before. The absence of large state-on-state conflict cannot hide that, for all its good – and there is much of it, no doubt – the status quo has been inadequate at dealing with some of the world’s most pressing problems. Those who have grown-up over the last 20 years will associate much of the current ‘rules-based system’ with two never-ending wars in the Middle East, the collective inability to take action in Syria and Yemen, the unchecked capitalism of the financial crash, and the abdication of responsibility to take care of our climate.

None of this takes away from the fact that Trump is doing incredible harm at home and abroad. The president does not appear to be particularly interested in any order, even a contradictory one. That is surely a new kind of danger in itself. But nostalgically idealising a past international liberal order is not a helpful narrative. Nor is seeing the Trump presidency as a mere aberration, a temporary roadblock to America reassuming leadership of this ‘rules-based system’, a helpful one either. Both stymie debate and self-reflection. Both avoid confronting the most pressing foreign policy questions facing the US about its role in the world.

At a time when American influence begins to wane and competition amongst major and emerging powers intensifies, those who seek solutions to current crises, as well as those who wish for the future to be defined by a better alternative order, need to be honest about the past. That is to say, cling to a selective interpretation of history at your peril.


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  1. SleepingDog says:

    The United Nations interactive map indicating which nations have ratified the least human rights protocols show a pattern stretching back decades. As this article says, there is nothing to indicate that the current USAmerican administration is breaking with tradition:
    It may be illuminating to consider why they haven’t ratified so many of them, especially as valid treaty status would automatically override domestic, including state, laws.

    For a light but penetrating look at fake USAmerican history, American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley is still available on iPlayer:
    There’s a particularly relevant focus in episode 3 on cold war myths of apparently unbudging presidential brinkmanship. Of course, global nuclear war might have tarnished the image of the USA somewhat.

    Howard Zinn’s people’s histories of the USA come in various formats now, including a graphic novel adaptation for younger readers.

    What has changed under Trump, it seems, is that it now culturally mainstream-acceptable to cast a sceptical eye on USAmerican politics in the UK. When I made such criticisms many decades ago as a Scottish school pupil, classmates accused me (somewhat strangely) of being ‘anti-American’. I guess these days we have permission.

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