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The Mythical Liberal Order: A Reply and Response

March 12, 2013

Naazneen Barma, one of the authors of the “Mythical Liberal Order,” responded to my post of last week with a reply to my critique. With her permission, I’m posting her message here and my response. Readers, we’d love for you to weigh in with your views.

Naazneen had this to say about my original post:

I’d push back, in particular, on your straw man point. We started by defining the aspirations / ideal of the liberal order precisely because that’s what so many turn to in defending it. Our goal was to separate the aspirations from the reality — and then to ask, very concretely, whether it is the liberal order itself (manifested in institutions of global governance) that has been responsible for achieving liberal outcomes.

So, as I mentioned to Dan Drezner in response to his post, I think a big element of where we differ is in what precisely “commitment to a liberal economic order” around the world means. It’s one thing for opinion polls to express consensus that free markets/trade are generally the best way to run an economy; and it’s quite another for proponents of the liberal economic order to claim that the order itself was the mechanism for achieving that consensus. In our view, in other words, the key question is not whether the world is more “free,” or even whether people want it to be. Instead, the question is whether anything identifiable as a liberal order is really responsible for that. If it isn’t (which, we think is at least a plausible conclusion), then what’s really the point of all of it’s consensus-building, collective preference for multilateralism, normative convergence, etc.? If the goal is liberal outcomes, then why not bargain towards those with coalitions of the relevant, instead of saddling ourselves with cumbersome multilateral processes that don’t seem to be able to achieve secular progress in the advancement of liberalism?

The Liberal Order is not Equal to Universalist Multilateralism
Here is my tentative reply that I sent to Naazneen with a little bit of elaboration. For me, it’s hard to distinguish the liberal order from the bargaining process that helped create it. I also don’t equate the liberal order with universalist forms of multilateralism.

I think it is possible to have the liberal order develop on the basis of relevant stakeholder direction; that’s how it began. The challenge has and remains accommodating a different set of relevant actors, particularly as those with rising aspirations may not share the same attachment to all facets of the liberal order (particularly on the security side).

There is a tension between legitimacy and effectiveness in the international arena, but I think to equate the practice of liberal order maintenance with consensus-based rule-making would saddle it with baggage that isn’t inherent to the liberal order. I suppose the question is how much rule-making by relevant states is allowable before the order is no longer seen as liberal? Does liberal mean democratic in the one country, one vote sense? I don’t think so.

Coalitions of the Relevant 2000s Style - Copenhagen Basic Countries 2009

Coalitions of the Relevant 2000s Style – Copenhagen Basic Countries 2009

Maybe that means that the process is more akin to a liberal club that defends freer trade and commerce and liberal norms associated with individual freedoms of life, conscience and political participation. I’m okay with that, though recognize that the insiders, the relevant, won’t always look out for the interests of the outsiders. That’s where civil society groups from insiders representing the views of outsiders can and do play a useful role, making the concerns of the outsiders politically salient on occasion (think Bono for better or worse).

Does Public or Elite Opinion Matter?
One other question Naazneen raises is how much do people have to believe in the liberal order for it to have effects. In Naazneen’s view, people can, for example, believe in freer trade and bargain for better deals, but the order itself doesn’t have much power.

In my view, people may not be as supportive of free trade, but the liberal order may still bind and constrain them. Here, we have to be clear about whose opinion matters. As my work with Jon Monten has shown (and I think Dan Drezner’s work in this space is relevant here too), the mass American public is not as committed to free trade as the elite are (and this extends to other aspects of internationalism as well). I imagine that this may be true of other countries that have impulses to at least protect pieces of their cherished national industries or sectors (i.e French farmers).

I think it is absolutely true that some key members of the elite need to have had the vision to create aspects of the liberal order in the first place. It’s hard to imagine order building entirely by accident and accretion without foresight, though as Winston Churchill was reported to have said, “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” And, there may be more to the story than John Ikenberry’s After Victory suggests (or at least is remembered for) of the liberal order coming in to being after the Americans wanted to do something perhaps more narrowly self-serving (on this or at least a related point, I would commend reading Thomas Wright’s dissertation).

That said, now that we have had pieces of the order for more than sixty years, it may be less necessary to have elite buy-in to the extent one believes that pieces (like the trade regime) are relatively locked-in. The challenge is whether or not rising powers believe their interests are served are by joining these institutions like the WTO and whether the order is fundamentally transformed should they decide to join. China made the strategic choice to join, and I don’t think its participation has vitiated that regime, even if further progress remains stalled.

In other domains like security, here too elite opinion matters more than public opinion, but given the weakness of the liberal order in this space, it’s harder to talk about the gravitational pull. Broader structural features like anarchy, the balance of power, and nuclear weapons may be more relevant. The task for those who support extending the liberal order is altogether more complex since countries like China and Russia remain undemocratic, so extending liberal norms abroad is hard if they are not practiced at home. And indeed, with the terrorism threat, liberal norms have been tested within countries who are part of the order.

Perhaps the more relevant question is how other rising democratic powers like Brazil, India, and South Africa are being accommodated into the liberal security sphere, if at all. There was some discussion several years ago of a concert of democracies which didn’t exactly go anywhere. Bilaterally, the United States does seem to have done more particularly with India and to a lesser extent Brazil to pull them in to the wider liberal security orbit. The tension in the security sphere is how to support processes of liberal expansion (like EU enlargement, the color revolutions, and the Arab Spring) without engendering a backlash from the non-liberal order and without ushering in chaos in countries that are transitioning from authoritarianism (an ugly process that may end badly in a number of places).

Revisiting the Straw Man
Naazneen suggested that they posed the ideal to separate the ideal from the aspirational, but I want to go back to how they framed that ideal that I suggested was a straw man. Here they described it as “What would a meaningful liberal world order actually look like if it were operating in practice?” They then went on to depict a maximalist vision of a liberal order, which, to me, suggests that anything not approaching that level of full-throated embrace is not meaningful. Here, I’m respectfully sticking to my guns. I think the order we have, partial and creaky as it is, is still meaningful.


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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.