Is the Liberal World Order Finished?

9 May 2017, 0822 EDT

This is a guest post by Dillon Stone Tatum, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography at Francis Marion University.

If the liberal world order isn’t dead, commentators have killed it. The recent explosion in analysis focusing on what Donald Trump, or broader populist movements, mean for the future of world order have already written both the eulogy and the obituary for liberal internationalism. Robert Kagan makes this argument most bluntly in suggesting “the collapse of the world order, with all that entails, may not be far off.” Kagan is not alone. Others like Stephen Walt express concern with the decline of a liberal order. And, John Ikenberry argues that this new order is already upon us—that “in this new age of international order, the United States will not be able to rule. But it can still lead.”

Rest in Peace, liberalism.


The post-mortems, however, are distracting and misplaced. They are distracting because they focus our attention away from pragmatic solutions to global problems. They are misplaced because such arguments have a narrow understanding of international liberalism, the contents of this “world order,” and its history. These accounts all make presuppositions about: (1) What liberalism is; (2) What its history is; and (3) the effects of a liberal world order. These assumptions do not survived scrutiny.

There is a growing amount of research in political science interested in describing what the liberal international order is made out of—both historically and today. These studies have demonstrated three important facts.

First, liberal world order has a much longer history than it is given credit for. Scholars of liberal empire have traced this idea of global international order to the nineteenth century, and perhaps even earlier. Beate Jahn’s new book on liberal internationalism traces these ideas back to John Locke in the seventeenth century, and Duncan Bell’s impressive new collection of essays on liberal empire shows not just the intellectual development of liberal order in the nineteenth century, but also the way that liberalism was an important component of empire. Liberal order has a long history that is not limited to just the institutions of the post-1945 period.

Second, though liberal world order today looks significantly different from the nineteenth century, many of its central components remain intact. Liberal world order has almost always been constituted around three big themes: civilization and progress, opposition to totalitarianism, and a general concern with global development of underdeveloped societies. While post-1945 institutions often associated with this liberal world order fulfill other important functions, the ideas that underlie them have been a central feature of world politics for centuries. These ideas, and institutions, are not as fragile as analysts might have us believe.

Third, liberal world order has never been based on consensus. Nineteenth century liberal empire hosted a variety of contradictory and competing visions. American visions of liberal order in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well, were in consistent conflict with European understandings—often understandings based on reconsiderations of empire. And, as my own research has shown, the post-1945 period saw big divisions emerge between developmental liberals obsessed with the spread of democracy, and more “minimalist” liberals: who worried that a “crusading” liberalism shared similarities to the very same totalitarianisms that WWII was fought over. The assumption underlying arguments about the decline of liberal world order today depend on the idea that there is one liberal world order, one vision, one framework. This has never been the case.

What this demonstrates, rather conspicuously, is that liberal world order has weathered significant storms. More than that, our praise of the values of a liberal international system often ignores the historical connection between liberalism on the one hand, and empire, war, and racism on the other. Democratic peace theory suggests that democracies do not go to war with each other, but liberal visions of world politics have waged their fair share of violence in the third-world.

These problems with liberal visions of the world are not just an issue facing the Trump administration, but also challenged his predecessor. Dilemmas surrounding intervening in Libya on humanitarian grounds, how to approach the aftermath of revolutionary movements in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, and contradictory—and often uncertain—attempts to simultaneously bring Russia into an American vision of global order, while also practicing a politics of exclusion reflect what is an enduring theme of liberal order: the collision of competing visions.

So, what do we make of Trump’s alleged challenge to the liberal world order? One might be tempted to suggest that a Trumpian foreign policy is a return to liberal empire. After all, nationalism, clientelism, and military muscle were defining components of nineteenth and early-twentieth century visions of a liberal world. Or, it could be argued that Trump is—in many ways—a harbinger of liberalism’s own contradictions. The best answer is likely that Trump shows just how fluid, contingent, and divisive the international liberal project has always been.