Home / foreign policy / On American Hegemony, Part II: Liberal Order, What is the Concept Good For?

On American Hegemony, Part II: Liberal Order, What is the Concept Good For?


Cornell University Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
People have been handwringing about the impending demise of the liberal international order for over a decade. But, since 2016, that handwringing has given way, at least in some circles, to full-scale panic. First the British voted to leave the European Union. Then Donald Trump campaigned—and won—on a promise to renegotiate the basic terms of America’s relationship with the world. In the summer of 2018, Kori Schake, wrote in The New York Times that: “Decades from now, we may look back at the first weeks of June 2018 as a turning point in world history: the end of the liberal order.”

The primary purpose of the book is not to defend liberal order. Rather, it concern processes that unravel hegemonic orders short of war. Still, arguments about liberal order are inextricably intertwined with debates about the character of American hegemony. No discussion of American hegemony can avoid the subject of liberal order.

What, then, is ‘the liberal order’? Schake’s description provides a good starting point:

Beginning in the wreckage of World War II, America established a set of global norms that solidified its position atop a rules-based international system. These included promoting democracy, making enduring commitments to countries that share its values, protecting allies, advancing free trade and building institutions and patterns of behavior that legitimize American power by giving less powerful countries a say.

Most proponents of liberal order recognize this as a simplification—one that highlights the bright side of American hegemony. In response, critics rightly ask any number of questions: Was the United States upholding liberal order when, in 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a coup against the democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán? During its long history of backing right-wing authoritarian governments that imprisoned, tortured, and murdered political dissidents? That regularly intervened in elections to back its preferred side, including in NATO member-states? I mentioned in the prior post that it took time for NATO to evolve into the more equitable alliance that exists today. As Victor Cha documents, in East Asia the United States opted for bilateral alliances to divide-and-control its allies, most notably South Korea and Taiwan. Is that liberal order? Indeed, Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey describe the liberal peace as an imperial one. They stress that much of American behavior reflected concern about its own economic interests, as well as maintaining political control over clients.

Defenders of such illiberal activities often argue that it is unrealistic to suppose that a great power will completely abandon its more parochial economic and security concerns. They also note that, for example, policymakers often saw covert interventions in support of repressive authoritarian regimes as necessary expedients, or even measures that ultimately were better for democratization than the alternatives. For the United States and its allies to prevail in the struggle with Soviet communism, one argument goes, required backing some rather unsavory, but anti-communist, regimes.

This line of reasoning found its most famous defense in the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine,” developed by future United States ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick in a 1979 article in Commentary. Kirkpatrick, reacting to President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human-rights in foreign policy, argued that the United States should support anti-communist dictators not only out of national-security imperatives, but for two additional reasons. First, those dictators, despite their faults, generally prove more benign than totalitarian communist regimes. Second, the United States can always nudge its authoritarian clients toward democratization once the threat of revolutionary takeover recedes. However, she argued, “the history of this century provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves.”

Indeed, one could argue that developments in the 1980s vindicated Kirkpatrick. In 1986, the Reagan administration cut support for Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos in thus enabled a democratic transition. In 1987, the Reagan administration helped convince Chun Doo Hwan to step aside and make way for South Korea’s now highly successful democracy. On the other hand, the rapid collapse of many communist regimes from 1989 onwards raises questions about Kirkpatrick’s view that right-wing autocracy is potentially temporary, but totalitarian communism is forever.

Faced with these kinds of controversies, we might be tempted to try to resolve them by identifying ‘the essence’ of liberal order. I view this as a misguided, even counterproductive, approach. Since its emergence in the seventeenth century, liberalism has developed into many different flavors. Strains of liberalism embrace radical free markets, extensive welfare states, or outright mixed economies. Some root their argument in social-contract theory, others utilitarianism, others pragmatism. While almost all liberals support representative democracy, and all argue for systems of government based on the rule of law, the ideology is compatible with a wide range of ways of organizing politics.

This ambiguity extends to international liberal order. For example, in one of the best-developed, and most influential, attempts to specify a theory of liberal order, Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry describe its principle of identity as “civic,” as opposed to realist images of international order, where “national identity” predominates. They clarify that the former refers to a common, and distinctly western, transnational identity—notably, basically what contemporary right-wing movements deride as “globalism.” But  national self-determination—the claim that every nation deserves a state and every state should be a nation—was a major liberal principle of the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries. Their understanding of the “nature” of liberal order emphasizes a particular variant of possible liberal orders. Similarly, many British metropolitans of the later nineteenth century saw themselves as promoting liberal order through empire, but now most definitions of liberal order stress multilateral cooperation among sovereign, and thus at least formally equal, states.

As Patrick Porter argues, “Liberalism and liberal projects abounded in the past 70 years. But the dream of a unitary, integrated global system organized around liberalism is ahistorical.” The post-1945 period was marked by multiple orders, which often came into conflict with one another—most famously in the division of Europe between American and Soviet spheres. As noted earlier, even what almost all analysts agree constitutes the ‘core’ of post-1945 liberal order—the transatlantic relationship among the United States, Canada, and most of non-communist Europe—changed markedly between 1945 and the present. On the economic side, the Bretton Woods system, founded in 1944, essentially collapsed in the 1970s. It was replaced with a different kind of liberal economic order marked by, for example, floating exchange rates. The 1980s and 1990s saw, according to some, a decisive shift from more “embedded” forms of liberalism that operated in the spirit of welfare-state liberalism and social democracy toward “neoliberalism” with a renewed focus on market deregulation, capital mobility, and independent central banks.

I’ve sat in workshops with extremely knowledgeable and smart academics who cannot come to any consensus on the nature of liberal order. Some even wind up describing just about every feature of contemporary world politics—including the principle of state sovereignty—as liberal. Does this mean we should entirely give up on talking about liberal order? Paul Staniland comes close to endorsing this position when he argues that:

The idea of “liberal order” is itself frequently too vague a concept, and was too incomplete a phenomenon, to offer guidance on a number of key contemporary questions. Allison goes so far as to call it “conceptual Jell-o.” The extremely abstract principles that experts use to define the order are confronted with a reality of extreme historical variation. This amorphousness undermines its usefulness as an actual guide to future foreign policy.

U.S. alliances in Western Europe since World War II looked dramatically different than those in East Asia. Both have achieved their basic goals, so which should be the model for the future? The United States often applied pressure to coerce its allies into adopting economic and security policies conducive to U.S. interests—going so far as to threaten abandonment of close European allies—even as it simultaneously built key elements of the liberal order. The core of the liberal order was a more tenuous and contested political space than we often remember.

I think the question of liberal order remains valuable. In fact, some of its very flexibility helps us to understand important aspects of American hegemonic ordering and, ultimately, pathways of its transformation or outright unravelling.

Let’s focus on one of the core documents of liberal international thought: Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In it, Kant concerned himself with the conditions that, he thought, would consign war to the dustbin of history. Simplified, and updated a bit to reflect modern interpretations, he identified three factors: a world of republics based on the rule of law that represented the interests of the middle class, robust international trade among those republics, and the formation of a federation of republics: a “league of nations.”

These conditions, for Kant, are self-reinforcing once they come into being—at least given specific articles of law that he laid out in the essay. Moreover, the development of each reinforces one another, pushing the world toward the possibility of realizing perpetual peace.

  • Because liberal republics resolve disputes via the rule of law, rather than the whims of autocrats, they externalize those principles in dealing with other liberal republics; they are disposed toward international law.
  • Because the middle classes suffer from war—unlike aristocrats, who reap wealth and glory from military conflict—they are, all things being equal, more prudent in matters of war and peace.
  • Trade reinforces both these impulses, and creates the necessary political conditions for closer cooperation: “In this way the peoples would be at first brought into peaceful relation with one another, and so come to an understanding and the enjoyment of friendly intercourse, even with their most distant neighbours.”

(These arguments should be familiar to some readers. They show up in President Woodrow Wilson’s principles for European peace and are present, at least to some degree, in the actual League of Nations. They also find reflection in major post-1945 international institutions, most notably the United Nations.)

But, as Paul Musgrave and I argue (regular readers have seen this already):

We should distinguish between two extreme positions on the proper character of “liberal order”: one that exclusively focuses on the liberal character of the states that populate the international system, and another that overwhelmingly privileges the existence of a liberal order among states. We might term the first liberal enlargement and the second intergovernmental liberalism. The former concerns itself most with state-society liberal practices, while the latter with inter-state liberal practices. Whatever Kantians might think about the direction of historical processes, in practice these two extremes generate tensions with one another. For example, a commitment to intergovernmental liberalism—in the form of such principles as the recognition of sovereign equality, mutual self-restraint, and multilateral decision-making—effectively shields autocratic regimes against international pressure to liberalize their policies and institutions. A robust commitment to liberal enlargement, on the other hand, implies a relaxation of state sovereignty.

In stark terms, a world with a hegemon that prioritizes liberal enlargement over liberal intergovernmentalism will see a lot of imperialism—that is, will see hegemony often take the form of imperial ordering. This is the case regardless of whether the hegemon cares most about open markets, liberal political regimes, or both. At the very least, we should expect the much more active use of carrots and sticks to push governments to adopt liberal policies.

On the flip side, it should not prove difficult to imagine the machinery of liberal intergovernmentalism adapted by authoritarian states. This remains a common criticism of international institutions, such as among those who point to the absurdity of brutal authoritarian regimes helping to set policy on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Liberal intergovernmentalism might prove particularly attractive to authoritarian capitalists, as it provides them with ways of shielding their own political conduct at home while maintaining mechanisms that facilitate international trade.

Regardless, I do not think these tensions can be wished away. This matters. It means that before we even start to consider differences in substantive kinds of liberalism, or how power-political and parochial factors might condition real-world commitments to liberalism, we can generate significant variation in the texture of international liberal order. Once we do introduce those considerations, it becomes simply implausible to think that the world would ever be characterized by something called the international liberal order.

At the same time, we should cut some slack to those who use it as a shorthand for the patchwork of different principles of order generated by the actual practice of American hegemony. Not only because shorthands help us to navigate a complex world. For all these caveats and mutations, we see a lot of liberalism in contemporary international orders. Casting off the notion of an America-led liberal order risk missing the proverbial (and clichéd) forest for the trees. There are a lot of different ways to do liberalism, and different ways of being liberal.

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing unique or unusual about the patchwork character of American hegemonic ordering. The Spanish Monarchy was a hodgepodge of different kingdoms, counties, duchies, allies, followers, and subordinatesAs a new wave of scholarship of the British Empire emphasizes, there was also no such thing as “the British Empire.” There was a British system, constituted by a wide variety of different kinds of political relationships. Across time and space, governance within the British system might more resemble those of a colonial empire, a protectorate, a patron-client relationship, or a federation.

Indeed, this post is already too long and I have not even addressed some questions that should, if we think about it, come before a discussion of liberal order. Most notably: What is international order? What are hegemonic orders? In the next post I’ll use those as a springboard for discussing the meat of this series: the processes that erode and transform hegemonic orders short of war, and how they bear on American-led liberal order.

So let me close on this note: Graham Allison writes that “U.S. engagement in the world has been driven not by the desire to advance liberalism abroad or to build an international order but by the need to do what was necessary to preserve liberal democracy at home.” But, for some policymakers, the latter implied the former. More importantly, international orders, at least as they actually exist, are never the product of a grand vision. They are bricolages composed of the flotsam and jetsam of existing arrangements, improvisation, designs gone wrong, and the ecological forces that leaders confront as they pursue policy.

Note: You can read Part 1 here.

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