The End of a Liberal International Order That Never Existed

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Michael N. Barnett
Professor of International Affairs and Political Science
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

Synopsis: The international liberal order is something of a myth that has been built up since the end of the Cold War and by increasingly anxious Western states that worry about a global governance that has favored them. But liberalism was never critical to global governance, and the future of global governance might not depend on liberalism.

The conventional, summarized view of the liberal international order runs something as follows. World War One crippled the international order and then World War Two buried it.  It would be up to the Great Powers, and a cast of minor supporting players, to rebuild it.  Before doing so, they wanted an accurate diagnosis of what caused the order’s demise.  Among the many theories, two dominated.  The first was the absence of American involvement and leadership.  The United States (U.S.) was supposed to accept its starring role on the world stage after World War One, but its isolationist-leaning public had stage fright.  The end of World War Two gave the U.S. a chance to get it right.  The other theory was that the collapse of the international order and the cause of world war owed to the failure of states to protect their societies from the vicissitudes of the world economy.  The rules of the global economy and the gold standard largely prohibited governments from attempting to interfere with the natural working of the world economy, which was fine when times were good but miserable for the most vulnerable when the times were bad.  There were various societal responses, many demanding that the state reduce its vulnerability to external economic forces.  Protectionism rose.  And many of the marginalized and resentful became sympathetic to right-wing, nativist movements, populist ideologies, and strongmen.  These inward-looking responses only inflamed the situation, deepened the consequences of the Great Depression, and created the conditions for world war.  Drawing a causal line from an unregulated world economy, to narrow, self-interested policies, to the collapse of the world economy, to the onset of war, postwar architects created the Bretton Woods institutions that were intended to provide a role for the state in managing the effects of globalization as it moved slowly toward greater openness.

More “order” than “liberal”?

This is the basic origin story of the liberal international order.  But it might be more order than liberal.  Sovereignty and the principle of non-interference was a cornerstone of that order, and while it was routinely violated, almost all states accepted that a world of sovereignty was necessary for stability. To help matters along, the United Nations (UN) established the norm of the use of force only in self-defense; and while it, too, was repeatedly violated, it did cause many states to pause before attacking and to look for nonviolent ways to accomplish their goals.  States and the UN also created institutions and rules to help create a path for peaceful change, but they were hardly liberal.  The UN helped the world make the transition from a world of empires to a world of sovereign states, but liberal (imperial) states can hardly be given credit for hurrying along the decolonization process.  There was broad attachment to multilateralism, which meant more than simply three or more states involved in creating cooperative arrangements.  It meant eschewing unilateralism in favor of mutual accommodation.  It meant steering away from narrow self-interest in recognition of the value of diffuse reciprocity and collective welfare.  It meant operating according to generalized principles of conduct that extended to all.  It meant accepting principles of nondiscrimination.  This form of multilateralism would help maintain international order.  According to some, liberal states were especially critical for creating this multilateral worldview, but multilateralism had principles that were hardly owned and operated by liberalism.

There was a postwar order, but was it liberal?  Like most political orders, it looked much better on paper than it did in practice and to the core members of the order than those on the margins.  Scholars of liberalism disagree about the core attributes of liberalism and how they combine to produce a stable order, but, for the sake of argument, it contains the following.  There is a fundamental belief that all humans are equal and are of equal worth. Liberty is central to liberalism, with an emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom.  These principles translate into the rule of law, private property, and human rights.  Rule-based restraints on the arbitrary exercise of power are critical because they give the weak more protections than they otherwise would have and limit the ability of the powerful to maximize their ability to exploit the system for their individual benefit.  The powerful accept such an arrangement for various reasons, including because it injects the order with legitimacy. Thus, a liberal order is not only a rule-based system but also a consent-based system, and the existence of consent means that order can be maintained without the continued threat and use of force. Additionally, how we see the world, diagnose problems, and render solutions became a product of reason and not superstition, religion, or folk wisdoms.  Because reason is the basis of acting, we are capable of learning from our mistakes and improving the human condition.  Such is the basis for progress.

“Wanting a liberal international order and having an international order governed by liberal principles are two different things.”

These liberal values were only remotely attached to the postwar institutions.  Sovereign equality did not translate into a liberal world order.  The postwar institutions were run by the most powerful countries, with middle and lesser powers either shunted to the back of the room or locked out altogether.  The most “liberal” institutions were committed to the protection and spread of unfettered markets and global trade.  The Washington Consensus fully embraced liberalism, but it was a neoliberal model.  The United States and the Soviet Union made many of the most important order-making decisions, and while each presented themselves as representing universal values, they did their best to not let ideology complicate the more pragmatic search for stability.  The Third World now comprised most of the world’s states, but it was on the outside looking in.  Western states enjoyed democracy and the rule of law, but the U.S. and the former colonial masters undermined rather than supported democracy and human rights elsewhere. Some Western states and analysts presumed that the global order must have some legitimacy because there were no great (or at least successful) revolts by the Third World, but they mistook coercion and the lack of alternative for consent.

When scholars and policymakers attempt to locate the liberal, they tend to narrow their gaze to arrangements established among Western states.  But even here it is worth asking: what made them liberal?  One view is that liberal states adopted liberal foreign policy practices.  There has been a slew of work along these lines, and the democratic peace claim is the most researched.  But this is an argument about how democratic states get along with each other, with a recognition that their pacific-leaning practices do not extend to illiberal states.  As previously noted, when faced to choose between security and human rights, the U.S. and other Western states almost always choose the former.  Another view is that liberal states formed their own exclusive associations.  Many of the most important economic and security institutions either are a club of or are controlled by liberal states.  This is not a liberal world order; instead, it is a world order created by and for liberal states.  A third view is that institutions are run according to liberal principles.  A standard argument is that forward-thinking postwar U.S. leaders created institutional rules that led the U.S. to self-bind, that is, to adopt rules to restrain its power and create more opportunities for the weak to voice their views.  Which view comes closest to the historical mark?  A combination of the second and third view, with the recognition that these principles were limited to those states that recognized each other as having a liberal identity.

Some claim that the international liberal order is under threat. But did it exist to begin with? (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Toward history’s end, or coming back full circle?

Only a few scholars and practitioners referred to the postwar international order as liberal prior to the end of the Cold War.  Instead, the designation seems to have taken off beginning in the 1990s, and mainly among those in the West.  Does the name fit after the end of the Cold War any better than before?  Yes, for several reasons.  Now that the Cold War was over, there was a growing self-consciousness among Western states that they were joined by shared liberal principles – and these principles clearly distinguished them from other kinds of states.  Second, there was an increasingly accepted claim that liberal states were fundamentally superior to illiberal states in all kinds of ways: this is the moment when the democratic peace thesis takes off and advanced democracies are lauded for having qualities that make them more legitimate, peaceful, and prosperous.  Third, many Western states began adopting policies to export the liberal model to non-Western states, especially evident in their post-conflict reconstruction policies, as they attempted to transform war-torn states into liberal states.  Fourth, there were various states in former Eastern bloc and the global South that are expressing an interest in adopting liberal principles.  And, finally, many of the grand proposals for the post-Cold War order are crafted around liberal principles: democracy, markets, and the rule of law.  Human rights became one of the defining anthems at this moment.  Liberal states might not represent the end of history, but the arc of history certainly bends in their direction.  Western, liberal states were feeling pretty good about themselves and fairy confident that they showed the rest of the world its future.

“If it ever existed, the 1990s was the highwater mark of the liberal international order.”

But because more states were envisioning a liberal international order and using liberal principles to define its content and legitimacy, did this mean that a liberal international existed?  Not necessarily.  Wanting a liberal international order and having an international order governed by liberal principles are two different things.  There was clear evidence that many global institutions were under pressure to adopt more liberal principles, especially as they increasingly accepted norms of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion.  Multilateralism and the view that only states count began to yield to multistakeholderism and the view that all those who are affected should have a voice; but the evidence suggests that the latter has become something of a fig leaf for the former.  There were more states holding elections, but in many cases they were hardly free and fair, making U.S. elections look fairly good by comparison.  Western states attempted to use their aid packages to promote liberal reforms, but these were quite piecemeal and patchy, with relatively little evidence that the aid created the conditions for a more inclusive polity and economy.  Some might consider the 1990s as a highwater mark of the liberal international order, but my view is that the international order got closer to having a liberal quality but never quite passed the threshold.

It would give too much credit to al-Qaeda and the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks to claim that the beginning of the end came on September 11th 2001.  But this clearly was a turning point, an event that made liberalism seem like a luxury compared to the dirty business of fighting a global war on terror.  But there were many other contributing factors.  China’s meteoric rise required accommodation, and most of the energy went into turning it into a status quo power and not a liberal polity.  The 2007 financial collapse, coupled with the growing disquiet with globalization, fueled a renewed debate over the virtues of an open economy.  With good reason, scholars began pointing to the interwar period and digging out their copies of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.  The frailer liberal states became, the more insistent they became on the virtue of a liberal international order, suggesting the presence of a romantic nostalgia.  And then came Brexit, the election of U.S. President Trump, and unapologetic authoritarianism.  Whether or not one is a card-carrying liberal, it is quite difficult to hear leaders and followers no longer holding basic norms of decency and dignity for others, subjecting immigrants and others to tremendous cruelty, and boasting of their willingness to use violence to get their way.  The domestic wheels have been coming off the liberal states that were supposed to pull forward the liberal international order. The recent turn of events has caused some scholars to become wistful about liberal international order.  But I am suggesting that the liberal international order was never all that liberal is reinforced by recent scholarship that attempts to identify its core principles for the sake of better measuring what might be lost with its demise.  Many discussions emphasize the possible weakening of sovereignty, self-determination, legal equality, and free trade.  John Ikenberry, who has done more work on the liberal international order than any other scholar, recently identified the following attributes: openness; loosely rule-based relations to generate cooperation; the possibility of reform; a progressive direction toward liberal democracy; self-restraint; and consent and a rule-based order.  Liberal attributes are included, but arguably they take a backseat to cooperation.  And, importantly, most of the other attributes, and especially those that are an anchor, are not exclusively liberal.  Specifically, illiberal states have organized their relations around sovereignty and accepted many of the fundamental institutions of international society.  They have shown the capacity to cooperate when it suits their interests.  Importantly, they also will play by the rules, they just want rules that are to their liking as all states do.  Indeed, at this moment it is liberal United States that is shaking some of the international rules and illiberal China that is coming to the defense of a rule-based order. But always beware those who want to play by (their) rules.

“Global governance might be more difficult, but… the rumored demise of the liberal international order is incidental to its problems”

The suggestion, then, is that if the international order is having greater difficulty creating rule-based governance, it might have less to do with the weakening of liberalism and more to do with the fact that the rules that have been in place for decades were overdue for an overhaul, and especially given a shift in power from the West to the East.  But there is little evidence that there will be an abandonment of the fundamental institutions of international society.  Sovereignty, as an organizing principle of world order, appears to be here to stay.  Indeed, to the extent that liberalism often provided a push toward foreign intervention, the decline of liberalism could help reinforce sovereignty.  Global debates are less likely to reference liberal values, but their impact has been greatly exaggerated.  And because liberalism is so closely associated with a hegemonic West, and thus poisons debate, perhaps fewer explicit references to liberalism might help create a more level-headed negotiating environment.  Will the retreat of liberal states cripple the ability of states to solve big problems in the world, such as climate change?  Perhaps.  But most analyses do not seem to think that liberalism is the answer. Global governance might be more difficult, but it has been difficult for a while and the rumored demise of the liberal international order is incidental to its problems.  Indeed, many believe that global governance is quite alive and well because there is more experimentation, more kinds of actors, including corporations and nongovernmental organizations, and more willingness to develop alternative architectures.  Global governance might not depend wholly on either sovereign states or liberal values.

The West has lived with the myth of a liberal international order for many decades.  Myths are powerful and hard to surrender because they serve important functions.  They helped the West maintain a solidarity and sense of purpose.  They acted as an ideology and helped the powerful feel as if might makes right.  It is not clear that those outside the Western club ever bought into the myth, but they had little success posing a viable alternative.  What makes the contemporary moment so stunning is that the United States and others who were most invested in the myth are now finding it burdensome or even harmful.  But maybe the only real change from the old to the new international order will be the need to add “il” to liberal international order.

This is the first piece for our debate on “Liberalism and global governance.” Read the response by David Sylvan, entitled “Liberalism and Its Discontents.”


7 Replies to “The End of a Liberal International Order That Never Existed”

  1. Excellent piece!!! We are reblogging this on!!! With full credit to the author and the blogsite!!

  2. I just finished reading an article presented by Adam Tooze “Everything You Know About Global Order Is Wrong”
    “If Western elites understood how the postwar liberal system was created, they’d think twice about asking for its renewal” /

    I would say this is something of value that concedes present day economic standing in western corporatism which presents an ideological platform towards liberalization and a moniker of conceptualized thinking.

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