What makes international order, liberal?

29 October 2018, 1340 EDT

Over the weekend IR Twitter was abuzz with both the Red Sox winning the world series and a multi-threaded discussion on liberal international order. Regarding the former I have very little to say except that I think Boston baseball might be overrepresented in academe (not just in political science), and that this over representation likely tracks with the clustering of elite schools in New England. But on the latter, there is much more still to be said about international order. Paul Post (@profpaulpoast) has the master summary for the twitter scholars. While I enjoyed reading up on the debate this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice something unsatisfying about too.

For readers, I’ll begin with just a few highlights. Josh Shifrinson kicked it off with a challenge that liberal order as we are discussing today is not a post-WWII phenomenon. Paul Post added that it is, at best, a feature of George H.W. Bush’s New World Order, i.e., a post-Cold War phenomenon. Others, discussed below, challenged whether the aforementioned order is not, actually, realist because it was built with, and maintained by, power—notably American power. Others challenged the terminology and the origin of the term—is it constructivist or liberal?—while still others diagressed into the liberal/illiberal debate. i.e., maybe what they mean is what Dan Nexon and Paul Musgrave call liberal empire. Paul Musgrave, in challenging the utility of twitter, still provided a wonderful extended reading list.

Although thought provoking in important ways, many of these debates seem to talk past each other. My own sense is that, as Alexander Lanoszka (@ALanoszka) framed the question, it is worth asking "whether all the Twitter exchanges about liberal international order … reflect a ‘deep disagreement’ among us scholars that is fundamentally unbridgeable. For instance, Dan Nexon’s thread on the topic reminds us that “order” has really just become a substitute for “structure” without, as he adds, an awareness of the relevant social theory. So, while some contributions rely on Hedly Bull’s notion of order, others on John Ikenberry. The result:

“It didn’t take long for that to →”is behavior X or arrangement X consistent with principles of liberalism OR realism?" So we’re basically talking about Parsons-esque pattern variables (PVs)—but in a wooly way because no one is specifying the relevant dimensions."

In other words, because there exists a multiplicity of terminologies in use, and because we lack specificity and, more importantly, few scholars have a strong familiarity with all the competing theories, much of our scholarly discourse ends up muted and intellectual progress, dampened.

Consider William Winecoff’s response to Elizabeth Saunder’s question that maybe what we’re talking about is actually “realist” international order. He writes,

“No. Realism is billiard balls bouncing off each other. LIO starts with the idea of complex interdependence, eg systems-as-networks.”

Although I think both Saunders’s and Winecoff’s contributions fall short in the final analysis, the suggestion that realism’s contribution to international order has stronger merits than many seem to grant. Let’s take them in reverse order.

Is that really true that realism is just billiard balls and power? Sure, the billiard ball metaphor has long described realist theory and realist approaches to international politics, but that is hardly a comprehensive description of realism. It is, however, a common view of a narrow reading of Neorealist theory, but one I do no think even many Neorealists would say is accurate. Still, Saunders raises an interesting question worth reflection. If international order is just “realist network of alliances,” then why are we not talking about realism as the adjective for international order? Moreover, William Scheuerman’s 2010 article, “The (classical) Realist vision of global reform,” argues that mid-20th century thinkers like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Neibuhr (among others) provide ways for thinking through global reform, even a path toward a world state, and that these visions have been under appreciated. Arguing against the modern Neorealists who contend that any effort to transcend the tragedy of great power politics is a utopian illusion.

There is a much richer and varied intellectual tradition to realism. One worth teaching and reading, even if we shouldn’t teach it to an intro class. But, why then, do I think Saunders also misses the point about international order? For many of the same reasons that much of the debate over the weekend did: it conflated accidents with essences. (Yes, I just brought Thomas Aquinas to an IR Twitter debate. Don’t @ me.)

Thomistic philosophy distinguishes between essences (essential attributes) and accidents (non-essential attributes). My hand is non-essential to what makes me “human” or, more precisely “Luke”. Ok, easy enough. But what about a concept like “democracy”? Is it essential that a democracy have full enfranchisement or just for property holders? What about women’s suffrage? (Was the United States any less or any more a democracy before or after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment? Unequivocal affirmations of either proposition will almost immediately snag on the empirical analysis to say nothing of the theoretical.)

Most of this weekend’s debate centered on an entirely different question, whether the features we observe are sufficient to declare international order liberal. Pointing to the creation of the U.N. or patterns of post-Cold War behavior are not, by themselves, an argument for saying if and when international order is liberal. What we really should be asking are slightly different questions.

  1. Is liberalism an essential attribute of international order?
  2. What are the essential attributes of liberal international order?

I cannot answer these adequately in a blog post, but suffice it say (or write, as the case may be), few would disagree that for (1) liberalism is not essential to international order. Bentley Allan (@bentleyballan) adds, many of liberal elements to international order can be found in the 19th century, and they were bound up with colonialism. Indeed, if we dig even further to the 18th, 17th, or even 16th centuries, we find elements of liberal international order even before we find modern liberalism as we understand it today. As Garrett mattingly showed, the networks of international politics were already well estabished in Christendom by the 15th century. Many of these practices would look strikingly liberal even today, even if they were decided aliberal/illiberal/pre-liberal.

This brings us to (2). The presence of imperfect liberalism does not mean the order itself is non-liberal. As Ken Schultz added, “The US didn’t set out to create a liberal order and then fail to follow through consistently. It set out to contain communism, which led to liberal policies in some areas and illiberal ones elsewhere.” (Though, read the replies, especially between Musgrave and Schultz beginning here.) I make a similar argument in my forthcoming paper to ISS-IS conference at Purdue and ISA-Midwest, namely that Eisenhower’s implimentation of containment grand strategy relied on religious freedom, a very liberal idea, in regions where the stakes were highest and the freedom of movement for military options was the most constrained (i.e., SE Asia and E. Europe). This is the more revised view proferred by Saunders, and seems to capture my own sense.

If the dialogue shifts to the more meaningful questions about what are the essential characteristics of liberal international order, then the answers we might find might surprise us. I may not be as bullish on liberal international order as Steve Saideman, who is ready to die on the hill defending LIO, but I am much more sympathetic to proposition that the order we have is liberal in its core, essential attributes, and that those such an order is perhaps bound for renewal.

While we’re talking Liberal International Order, I’d like to draw readers’s attention to this call for papers, “The Fate of the Liberal International Order and Rising Powers,” from Rising Powers Quarterly.