America’s return as the reluctant defender of the liberal order

The US cultivated a garden that it grew weary of the burdens of sustaining but, once all other alternatives have been exhausted, the US will be pushed back into defending its liberal world order.

'Young America rescues Europe!', declares a French cartoon from 1918. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
'Young America rescues Europe!', declares a French cartoon from 1918. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘The Liberal International Order and its Discontents‘ in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

Triumphalism about the inevitable success of Western values has been leeched out by the mistakes of our own creation: the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis. Richard Wilke and Janell Fetterof summarise it as follows: ‘liberal democracy was experiencing a crisis of confidence.’

Not only are the peoples of the West questioning both the need for and the prospects of the Western-conceived post-war international order, but states that would establish different values and practices are challenging it. In particular, China’s success in increasing prosperity while rejecting political liberalisation has called into question what has been an article of faith and the basis of Western policy for the past seventy years, which was that as people become more prosperous, they become more demanding political consumers.

It was this Hegelian dynamic that undergirds the post-Second World War order in the West, what was referred to by political scientists as the liberal international order. Its constituent elements are: sovereign states voluntarily limiting their power by agreeing rules of comportment; embedding those rules in institutions empowered to adjudicate disputes; increasing openness to investment, technology transfer, and trade; defence commitments provided by the strongest powers to tamp down insecurity and potential conflicts while also reducing defence spending requirements for individual states; encouragement of common values that prejudice individual liberty.

These mutually-reinforcing elements have created a dense web of connectivity among democratic states — so much so that they have become permeable to each others’ politics and also the activism of non-governmental civil society groups. This porousness was a source of concern for governments, since it erodes their sovereignty. But it also stabilises relations among the democratic states, buffering them against radical departures from consensual international policies and creating the space for governmental compromise in crises.

The paramount example of the way democratic societies grow together was Great Britain and the United States in the 19th century. We think of them now as so similar, but the two countries began the 19th century as adversaries, Britain considering America an unruly challenger to the existing order, and the US defining itself in opposition to Britain — more democratic, more virtuous in its international relations, and freer in its economic practices. The US kept chipping away at an international order of great powers suppressing self-determination and granting themselves imperial economic preferences (while, it must be acknowledged, becoming an empire itself, with its westward expansion on the North American continent and beyond). When the friction between the British-dominated order and American challenges came to a head during a crisis over Venezuela in 1895, the British government was restrained by civil society reaching across the Atlantic. Newspaper editorials, appeals by Parliamentarians to their Congressional counterparts, church groups claiming fraternal kinship all contributed to an acknowledgement that war between Britain and the United States had come to be seen as fratricide.

The sense of sameness between Britain and the United States would prove the genesis of the twentieth century’s international order. First postulated by Woodrow Wilson as an order characterised by political self-determination and institutional mediation of conflict, it would be advanced by his successors and come to fruition being built out of the ashes of the Second World War. International orders have not only to be created (as Robert Kagan so nicely puts it, the post-war order was an unnatural act), they have to be enforced and defended. The United States performed that function.

It is fashionable to believe there was a time when American statesmen stood astride the world like Colossuses: visionary, principled, untrammelled by the grubby practicality of domestic politics. I assure you there was never such a time. Americans were not, are not, natural internationalists or natural multilateralists. We revel in our exceptionalism, and we have the exquisite good fortune to have as neighbours two of the best countries in the world. The men who shaped the world were not ambitious to be architects constructing an elegant model for the ages. They were doing the least they thought possible to let Americans go back to ignoring the world.

My favourite description of my own sweet provincial country comes from a British historian Bertha Anne Reuter in 1924; she wrote ‘Americans are a people so extreme in politics, or religion, or both, that they cannot live in peace anywhere else.’

We are a disputatious society — we have an adversarial government, an adversarial legal system. So, we’re not the natural leader of a rules-based, stable international order.

The liberal international order comes seriatim, sequentially, created grudgingly by an American leadership that had fought two wars in Europe — two wars in the span of these peoples’ lifetimes — and didn’t want to do it again. They wanted to create a better means of signalling when something was going wrong, to create a means by which countries could bind together and prevent the emergence of threats to the international order like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But they wanted to do the minimum necessary to achieve those aims, because their societies were recoiling from the burdens and still suffering the effects of the war.

The port of first resort was the creation of the United Nations. Countries committed not to wage war other than for their defence, a Security Council comprised of the strongest powers and rotating participation to represent also the interests of middle and lesser powers would arbitrate disputes. This was Woodrow Wilson’s dream but improved upon, and these guys really thought, Harry Truman really thought, that we’ll create the United Nations, governments will cooperate there, and — voila! We’re at peace! The United States could then go back to its domestic pursuits. But by 1948 with the Soviet constriction of West Berlin, it was already clear that institutions weren’t going to be adequate to this.

The next grudging step in creation of the liberal international order was the realisation that unless you could get the economies of Western Europe moving again and create prosperity that made people hopeful about the future, you were never going to get the kind of political stability that the founders of the order believed was essential to create peace. That was the genesis of the Marshall Plan and subsequent bilateral assistance. But that also wasn’t good enough, as evidenced by the Greek civil war and the prospect of a German Sonderweg. Germany having been the generator of both world wars, the founders of the liberal order believed a neutral Germany would be inherently destabilising; it had to be anchored in the West.

Which brings us to the need for an institutional peace of the order that can both anchor Germany and satisfy its neighbours Germany will not again become dominant. The founders realised that the economic peace was insufficiently stabilising because there remained concerns about security. And so you began to have the extension of the American security guarantees to countries. At Britain’s instigation came the foundation of the NATO alliance, which the Americans thought was such a good idea that they wanted to create one in the Middle East and one in Asia. The US envisioned CENTO, SEATO, all these other alliances, but none of the other ones work.

And that’s what takes us to the fourth essential element of the international order that the United States created after 1945, which was the core of common values. Values glued the Western countries together and helped generate public support for onerous defence burdens by clarifying the difference between the West and its adversaries. This proved particularly important for the United States, because of the difficulty of pulling the United States out into the world.

The values piece of the liberal international order wasn’t a grand, sweeping ideology on the part of the Americans — it was instead a fundamental understanding that the natural restraint on America’s activism in the world was the American public. They had to be persuaded to go out in the world, and they best way to go out in the world was to say ‘the truths we hold to be self-evident need to be supported where they are growing.’ Even if you look at the quotidian example of the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, the hard-nosed, realist argument that the global economy rides on oil from the middle east didn’t resonate with the American public — for example, my mother was not there for that argument. But when you said ‘but these people deserve the opportunity to live in freedom’ — that’s, if you track the polling on it (and I did because I was the director for defence strategy in the Bush White House) that’s when attitudes started to shift.

The values piece of the liberal order was crucial for Americans being willing to deliver the other pieces. By the early 1950s, the order was largely in place. It grew incrementally, driven by halting steps and the realisation that more would be needed to produce an order that gave greater confidence of peace and increased prospects for prosperity.

I checked recently when we started to use that language, ‘liberal international order’, because language tells you about culture. We in the West started using this kind of terminology only when Tony Blair and Bill Clinton wanted to bring China into the World Trade Organisation in the late 1990s. Those two leaders calmed concerns about imperilling the order by emphasising that economic engagement with China was going to produce a liberal China. We have now had several decades of data on that, and it’s not true, or at least it’s not true yet.

The durable peace among democratic states and their economic dynamism compared to other political models provides the magnetic appeal of the liberal international order. While many states opt out of the order, preferring less prosperity in order to retain illiberal practices for religious or historical reasons, there hasn’t been a repressive society that’s been economically successful. Until China.

Countries of the West anchored their policies toward China on Hegel’s premise that as people become more prosperous, they become more demanding political consumers. So we encouraged, enabled, and celebrated China’s rise. We believed it would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the order, to use Robert Zoellick’s memorable phrase.

It has not. Partly because we allowed it accession into the liberal order without liberalising — without meeting the rules that bind other participants.

China is now openly contesting those rules. What seems to be happening instead is that having grown more powerful and prosperous because of the liberal international order, China wants to change the rules to benefit itself to the exclusion of others. That is, it wants to assert a different order.

The first argument for sustaining the liberal international order is that orders tend not to emerge organically: they are imposed. The transition from British to American hegemony is the only peaceful transition in all of history between an established, dominant power and a rising challenger. It happened peacefully because those two societies had become so similar they viewed war between them as fratricide. The United States and China have no such cultural or political harmony. If the order changes, it is likely to be by force.

The second reason to sustain the order is that great powers once dominant reshape the international order in their image. It is not surprising that Woodrow Wilson’s view of what the international order should be was self-determination and voluntary restraints on a state’s power, with rules that get embedded in institutions, because that’s the nature of American domestic political order. If you think you want a different order, realise that it is going to be shaped by the domestic politics of whoever creates it, and if that’s China, you’re probably going to like it even less than you like us tiresome Americans running the order. So, it’s probably worth preserving because you’re going to like what comes next even less.

But even if the liberal international order is in our interests to preserve, is that possible? My country is behaving in a reckless and destructive manner just now, but this is not a novel experience — as America’s allies know, the United States very often behaves in a reckless and occasionally even destructive way. We’re not a natural status quo power — we are a natural insurgency, naturally argumentative. In many ways the post-1945 order was an unnatural act by the United States. We cultivated a garden that we grew weary of the burdens of sustaining. But I would suggest to you three things that make me incredibly optimistic that the order can be sustained and will be sustained.

The first is that my country, as Churchill famously said, eventually does the right thing once we exhaust the other alternatives. We’re in a period of testing the other alternatives, but you can already see Americans making judgements that they don’t like the alternatives. As evidence of that, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs does an annual poll of public attitudes, and you can see in the data large shifts back toward support for defending the liberal international order.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe it is best for the future of our country to take an active role in the world — that’s among the highest rates ever recorded by the Chicago Council. As the Council’s report states

Solid majorities of Americans say that preserving US military alliances with other countries (74%), maintaining US military superiority (69%), and stationing US troops in allied countries (51%) contribute to US safety.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans — the highest ever recorded —consider trade good for the American economy. We’re a volatile body-politic, and we’re thinking our way through these issues, but it’s likelier than not we’re already seeing a return to the answer that we had before, because it’s a better answer than other answers.

The second thing that makes me optimistic was that because we have a constant argument about America’s allies doing enough to sustain the order, we sometimes lose perspective of (a) how much they are doing but (b) how much they can do. And, as was previously mentioned, you begin to see the middle powers who are liberal states stepping forward to pre- serve and sustain the order. So, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia and Mexico, brought the Transpacific Trade Partnership into being without American participation. Britain, France and Australia are policing freedom of navigation in the South-China Sea. And so, the institutional order and the middle powers that helped create an added benefit from it make it a lot more robust than we currently are fearing. The third reason to be optimistic is that the traditional powers of the state are weakening, being supplanted in some ways by activist civil societies that are transnational in the free world. And that leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by foreign powers, but it also creates the basis for transnational civil society cooperation. My favourite example is that Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, announced in 2019 that the first country to meet its Paris Climate Accord standards would be, counterintuitively, the United States of America. Despite withdrawing from the treaty, despite the hostility of the Trump administration, despite the rollback of the regulatory and administrative state at the federal level in the United States, my great golden home state of California, and Michael Bloomberg’s money, and sanctimonious Tim Cook and Apple Computers, and my Mom wanting there to be an ozone layer for her great-grandchildren so she will thereby drive an electric car — all of those things are actually propelling the United States into compliance with the treaty we withdrew from. And that, my friends, is going to be the salvation of the liberal order.


Kori Schake