Liberalism and Its Discontents

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series


By David Sylvan
Professor, International Relations/Political Science
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies


Synopsis: Liberalism may yet need to be in our future, despite claims we are moving toward an illiberal international order.


Michael Barnett has done a splendid demolition job on the inconsistencies, the one-sidedness, and the sheer hypocrisy of claims about the liberalism of the post-1945 international order. He has recalled to us just how little many states ever exemplified liberal values and how rarely those states that did exemplify those values ever concerned themselves with taking costly action so that other states would respect those same values. He has also pointed out the extremely limited overlap between key features of international cooperation, on the one hand, and norms associated with liberalism, such as self-restraint or openness. Nonetheless, his conclusion that “maybe the only real change from the old to the new international order will be the need to add ‘il’ to liberal international order” is, I think, not as evident as he suggests. Let me pose three questions, in expanding order of scope.

First, just how liberal or illiberal are states today? To answer this question, we need to have some idea about the domains in which liberalism, understood crudely as a principled limitation on states’ restrictions on individuals’ liberties, operates. Barnett refers to two such domains, “private property” and “human rights,” as well as a procedural principle, “the rule of law.” If “human rights” concerns norms such as freedom of speech, of movement, of religion; of freedom from torture or arbitrary arrest; and, somewhat more distantly, of freedom to participate in elections on an equal footing with others, then there is no doubt that many, if not most, states fall short by quite a bit. Indeed, even many supposedly liberal states only began quite recently to satisfy these criteria.

However, if we expand Barnett’s somewhat elliptical allusion to “private property,” the story is different. The last few centuries have seen movements around the world against state monopolies, against restrictions on freedom of entry, and against forced labor. Those movements certainly did  not occur in lockstep, nor did they conform in most cases to Karl Polanyi’s famous “double movement” (self-regulating market, then reaction against it), but the space of “actually existing” alternatives to market transactions has continued to shrink. Whether François Quesnay, or John Stuart Mill, or Louis Brandeis would be content, the end of the Cold War clearly represented the triumph of economic liberalism.


“States can well be liberal or illiberal; if one wants to use the term for the international order, it might be best to refer to it as ‘a-liberal’.”


Second, can any international order be understood as, in principle, liberal or illiberal? The core notion of liberalism, as per the above comment, is a limitation on what states can do to individuals. The international order, though, is concerned with how states interact mostly outside of their own borders: individuals are mostly absent as subjects of that order, making only shy and furtive appearances akin to mammals in the age of dinosaurs. Certainly, human rights law and, less directly, humanitarian law, place limitations on states’ actions toward individuals, but for the most part, the range of political and economic freedoms associated with liberalism are absent from the substantive agreements and actions with which international order is concerned. The question then would be whether limitations on state actions outside of their borders are in some sense akin to liberal limitations on states’ actions toward individuals.

Barnett, citing John Ikenberry’s work on the liberal international order, lists “openness,” “loosely rule-based relations,” “the possibility of reform,” “a progressive direction toward liberal democracy,” “self-restraint,” and “consent and a rule-based order.” Except for the fourth of these elements, it is difficult to see how they might be analogous to limitations on how states act toward individuals. For example, if a powerful state restrains itself in dealing with a weaker state, or a corporation, or an NGO, would we really say that this is something like a prohibition on torture or an abolition of serfdom? Turn the issue around: is a legal bar on race-based voting restrictions really a matter of consent? Instead of asking whether the international order was ever liberal or is now illiberal, it might be better to treat it as a solecism. States can well be liberal or illiberal; if one wants to use the term for the international order, it might be best to refer to it as “a-liberal.”

Third, just how ordered is international order in the first place? Barnett refers to states playing “by the rules,” to the persistence of sovereignty “as an organizing principle of world order,” to the “negotiating environment” and “the ability of states to solve big problems in the world,” and, more generally, to “global governance.” These phrases seem to point to written rules (as in treaties) and to explicit attempts to negotiate solutions to problems, perhaps by creating task-specific organizations, perhaps by involving “more types of actors.” To stylize the point (and I may well be pushing Barnett’s point further than he intended), international order would then be a matter of states and other actors negotiating to solve problems, abiding by their deal for some time to come, and building on that deal to solve future problems. Those arrangements may in turn bind other states, whether by formal treaty accession or by de facto policy adjustments.

As ordering arrangements go, this is a relatively flat structure. Every expansion, for any combination of state A and issue area B, has to involve A making a conscious and deliberate choice to extend the arrangement to B. But that is not how ordering arrangements operate for individuals. When someone gets on a bus, or takes out a loan, or writes an exam, or looks for work, or marries another person, she is performing a reasonably well-defined role, a role which pre-exists her, which interlocks with other roles, and which cannot be avoided. Émile Durkheim famously called this type of interlocking “organic solidarity,” and it is one of the features of modern society which led to the downfall of both laissez-faire and of state socialism. Compared to it, international order is woefully undeveloped (I’m not sure Durkheim would have even qualified it as “mechanical solidarity”), and it is difficult to imagine a path by which proliferating bilateral and multilateral agreements will somehow transform into a dense and interlocking set of roles. Perhaps what we need, in the end, is for states to negotiate less and individuals to constrain them more. Liberalism may yet be in our future.


This is the second piece for our debate on “Liberalism and global governance.” It is written in response to “The End of a Liberal International Order That Never Existed” by Michael N. Barnett.

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