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The liberal order isn't dying...we've never had one

Vladimir Putin thinks liberalism has become ‘obsolete’. There are many who would agree. But whatever the purveyors of doom might think, we are not living through the dying days of a peace-giving liberal rules-based world order. There was never any such thing. Step outside the bubble of mostly American security analysts, some of whom wistfully lament the decline of liberal rules-based order and others of a more realist hue whom decry America’s post-Cold War pursuit of ‘liberal hegemony’ as the cause of our current predicament, and it becomes quickly obvious that the 1945 order was not very ‘liberal’ (the rights of individuals never matched the rights of states, for instance), nor was it ‘rules-based’ (the superpowers routinely violated international law, including the law prohibiting armed aggression). Indeed, for much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it was not very ‘orderly’ either.

International wars, proxy wars, civil wars, and violent coups – many of them aided and abetted by the great powers – were more common in the heyday of the so-called ‘rules-based order’ than they are today. During the 1970s, the ‘rules-based order’ saw the US government drop more tonnage of munitions on Laos and Cambodia than it had employed during the entirety of the Second World War to support campaigns that not only violated international law but were waged without the knowledge and approval of the legislative arms of the US government itself. US bombing caused utter devastation in Cambodia, helping propel the radical Khmer Rouge to power. More than a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population died in the Khmer Rouge genocide. The ‘rules-based order’ stood for nothing. Amidst all this violence, over the course of close to a decade, the United Nations Security Council – the body primarily responsible managing that order – did not bother to even discuss the carnage in Cambodia, let alone act to stop it.


To understand our troubled world today, we need to see it in its proper context. That partly involves getting a proper sense of just how bad things used to be and being careful not to romanticise the recent past. But it also means having a clear and accurate picture of where things are today. We need to put our sense of crisis into perspective. There are already signs that the escalatory trends that emerged after 2010 have begun to taper off. Since 2017, the overall number of wars has started to decline again. So too the number of fatalities caused by wars and by ‘one-sided’ violence, despite the wave of genocidal violence unleashed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s army in 2017. In broader perspective, for all our gloominess and sense of crisis, civilian killing in 2017 was about where it was in 2005 -- a time when, despite the carnage being experienced in Darfur, we had little sense of there being a global crisis.


It is telling that two of America’s leading realist thinkers – John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt – decided to write books on this topic of liberal order and specifically America’s place within it at more or less the same time. Telling too that they make a similar, even complementary, set of arguments. Both argue that successive US administrations squandered opportunities presented by the end of the Cold War by pursuing liberal hegemony as a grand strategy – one based on using military power to spread democracy and defend human rights, reinforcing multilateralism, and championing world trade. Both maintain that liberal hegemony is fundamentally flawed as a concept and gave rise to equally flawed foreign policy. Both insist that America has paid a high price and is less secure because of its pursuit of liberal hegemony. Both call for a return to realist foreign policy characterised by ‘restraint’ by Mearsheimer and ‘off-shore balancing’ by Walt.

Liberal hegemony was always destined to fail, they tell us. In a global anarchy with no world government, liberal order inevitably loses out to nationalism (the pull of the group) and realism (the inevitable clash of values, interests, and power between groups). According to to the realists, America's pursuit of liberal hegemony poisoned relations with Russia (triumph of realism), caused deadly and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and inspired opposition from terror groups and extremists around the world (power of nationalism). The truth, I think, is somewhat different. No only have we never had a liberal world order, we have also never had a superpower bent on supporting one.


The liberal hegemony thesis exaggerates just how liberal US foreign policy ever was and downplays the decidedly illiberal currents that it sponsored.


The idea that post-Cold War US foreign policy was driven by the doctrine of liberal hegemony is not well supported by the evidence. In sharp contrast to what we might expect a ‘liberal hegemon’ to do, the US consistently supported illiberal regimes in the Middle East (notably Saudi Arabia), Central Asia (notably Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), sub-Saharan Africa (notably Ethiopia and Uganda) and elsewhere. US foreign assistance to Kenya almost doubled in size between 2007 and 2013, despite election violence and the Kenyan government’s refusal to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC). And whilst it is true that the US did launch humanitarian interventions in Somalia and (very reluctantly) the Balkans, the era yields a much longer list of examples of inaction in the face of the problem from hell, notably the Rwanda genocide in 1994, the Darfur genocide a decade later, the destruction of Syria, and the killing of civilians by Saudi forces in Yemen more recently. And when Russia flattened Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, posing the dilemma of whether to prioritise liberal values or hard-nosed realism, the US chose the latter unequivocally. So much for a liberal grand strategy.


Moreover, Mearsheimer’s claim that liberal hegemony meant strengthening multilateral institutions, especially the UN, is squarely contradicted by US practice. Clinton operated outside UN command and control in Somalia and outside the UN altogether in the Balkans; George W. Bush violated basic UN rules and principles, actively challenged the UN, and blocked US financing; the Obama administration was more constructive but hardly expansive in its support for multilateralism. When it came to UN reform, the ICC, the Arms Trade Treaty, nuclear disarmament, and the UN’s human rights architecture, US policy tended to swing between ambivalence and hostility. Hardly what one would expect from a liberal hegemon.

What is more, the liberal hegemony thesis downplays significant policy differences between administrations. It sees no sharp break between Bush Jnr and Obama. John Bolton and Ben Rhodes have basically similar views of the world, according to this view. Yet in practice there were pronounced differences on crucial areas of policy. Senator Obama opposed the Iraq war and as President Obama kept the US out of Syria’s civil war. It is difficult to detect much sign at all of liberal hegemony in Obama’s approach to Syria, or Yemen for that matter. Whereas Bush pursued confrontation with Iran and Cuba, Obama looked for compromise. Though they agreed on the need to use force in Afghanistan, Obama focused on creating a context for exit. Intervention in Libya was done on the cheap and on the condition that the US keep well away from liberal statebuilding. Whatever one thinks of that decision, it is hard to see how it fits with a grand strategy of liberal hegemony.


It is reputed that when he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi replied ‘I think it is a good idea’. The same might be said of the ‘liberal rules-based international order’. We kid ourselves if we think there was a halcyon time of benign superpower hegemony where action was guided by shared rules, a time that is now passing. The truth is that building a world order based on liberal values, shared rules, and common institutions remains just that, ‘a good idea’.

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