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Liberal international order, yet again

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A recent episode of bloggingheads.tv features John Ikenberry and Patrick Porter. They discuss the Biden administration, liberal international order, and the “Rooseveltian Internationalism” article that I wrote about a few weeks back.

If this kind of stuff interests you, then I suggest giving the video a try. Ikenberry is perhaps the foremost theorist of “liberal international order.” His most recent book has purportedly influenced the thinking of Biden’s foreign policy team. Porter wrote an excellent and accessible critique of the “liberal international order” construct.

As Emma Ashford noted on Twitter, Ikenberry and Porter force “the other to confront their own assumptions.” That, along with the nuance that emerges as a result, makes this discussion pretty unusual. The debate that plays out in the international-affairs “public sphere” tends to trade in caricatures.

One of the themes running through the discussion is the wisdom of constructing foreign policy around the defense of liberal democracy – especially in a world that isn’t currently divided between authoritarian and democratic states. Ikenberry obviously thinks so, Porter is skeptical that it’s possible. What that means in practice gets pretty thorny, of course, given that the most serious threats to the established liberal democracies come from inside – usually in the form of reactionary populism and conservative authoritarianism.

The question, which is addressed mostly in indirect ways, is if that threat can be treated as entirely, or even largely, separate from foreign policy. If there’s a leitmotif to my blogging on the subject, it’s that the US doesn’t stand outside of the international system, and that the fate of U.S. democratic institutions is intertwined with its foreign policy. We see this in a wide variety of dynamics, including the development of the national-security state, the distinct possibility that the rise of American reactionary populism – and Trump himself – traces back to the debacle of the Iraq War, and the acute danger that the globalization of kleptocracy poses to liberal democracy. Furthermore, it is far from obvious whether a foreign policy that focuses on shoring up liberal democracy against rising autocracies will actually do anything of the sort. It could wind up further eroding democratic institutions through the usual mechanisms: increased militarism, xenophobia, and national-security exceptions to individual rights.

What is, I think, clear is we should talk less about “liberal international order” and more about “liberal orders” that have subnational, national, transnational, and international dimensions.

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