Pessimism and the Liberal Order

| September 2016
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Is the pessimism that I expressed about the sustainability of the liberal order at the close of the recent Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs panel (“U.S. Elections and Brexit: Can Liberalism Survive?”) justified? I wanted to add a short codicil to my remarks at the panel.

The liberal world order–and here, in response to some after the event queries, I will offer this short definition: an order defined by freer trade, freer movement of goods, services, people and ideas across national borders; a preference to see open societies lightly defended emerge rather than closed societies highly militarized; the emergence of some degree of universally-binding and enforceable standards with regards to the rights of individuals; the shift to settling international affairs (and disputes) via institutions and rules. The liberal world order requires its constituent nations to be prepared to give up or share some of their sovereignty, to accept limits on their absolute freedom of action, and to be prepared to make sacrifices without any immediate expectation of reward or gain (although, in the long run, the quality of life of all should improve under such conditions).

Ranged against the traditional Western “liberal” view is the neo-Westphalian view often embraced by the rising states of the south and east. This view of world order is more contractual and limited in scope; places, as the name implies, a greater deal of importance on maintaining protective lines around the nation to enjoy greater freedom of action. It does not reject connectivity–certainly the Chinese vision of the One Road/One Belt system is proof of that–but wants connectivity to be regulated. It is leery about enshrining universal standards or transferring authority to international bodies.

So my pessimism for the liberal order is rooted in two things: 1) whether the populations of the main countries which have served as its underwriters are still convinced that the sacrifice is worth it; and 2) the fact that a breakdown of the liberal order does not mean an end to all international connectivity or connection. What we have seen over the last several years in many Western countries is a growing resistance to paying the costs of maintaining the liberal order–combined with a realization that some of the positive aspects of globalization might still remain intact.


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  1. Nikolas Gvosdev says:

    I’ve just cross-posted this on the CCEIA interview with Robert Kaplan …

    It is fascinating how this discussion with ,a href=”″>Robert Kaplan overlaps with and informs the “U.S. Elections and BREXIT: Can Liberalism Survive” panel. In particular, Kaplan’s ending comments (“It means that the United States is going to face a moderately anarchic world in the greater Middle East while at the same time dealing with aggressive large powers in Russia and China. The United States has more power than any other individual state. But though it has considerable power, it does not have dominating power. It cannot fix the world’s problems. It cannot dominate the whole Earth. It has to be very cautious where it chooses to intervene, because in an era of nonstop crises, getting bogged down in one place undermines your performance and your ability to deal with crises in other places because there are going to be more of them.”) dovetails with comments by Steve Walt (“If you look around the world, there are hardly any possible interventions, particularly military interventions, that look really promising. Instead, they all look like potential quagmires, and you would have to be a real enthusiastic liberal humanitarian to want to do a lot of them.”). And the conditions that Kaplan describes as drivers of conflict then feed into this observation from that panel that politics is being driven by a sense that: “There are winners and losers, and I want to certainly make sure I’m a winner and not being a loser, and I want to use the power of government to keep me a winner or make me a winner and punish those who I think are illegitimate winners and turn them into losers.” Ideological, geographic, economic, political and environmental trends seem to be converging …