I, and many others, have been worrying about the fate of the liberal international order, which I would argue began 202 years ago when, on June 18th 1815 the Duke of Welllington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. I suppose that most people don’t, automatically, associate Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington with liberal values but he did support some liberal causes (see the Catholic Relief Act (1829) and opposed others (like the Reform Act of 1832). What is undeniable is that he made Europe “safe” for the propagation of liberal values at Waterloo by defeating the arch illiberal: Napoleon whose influence is still felt in the hearts of all those who believe that a “great man on a white horse” can come and put all social and political issues right.
Just 50 years after Wellington and his Prussian colleague Blücher put paid to Bonaparte another Prussian, Bismarck (another name we rarely associate with liberalism), laid the foundations for the modern, progressive, liberal welfare state. Now, once again,
Germany finds itself in the spotlight as nations that want to preserve the liberal international order which was put in place, largely ~ with active Canadian support, by US President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, the great soldier-statesman General George C Marshall, appears to be crumbling under the heel of President Donald Trump. The BBC News reports that Chancellor Angela Merkel “wants a “strong German army able to take international responsibility”. But her difficulty is that “the German people are against the army”.” The BBC article goes into some detail about why the 21st century Germans have a deeply ingrained mistrust of the military and of military spending but the end result is that Germany (population 80 million vs 145 million for Russia and 325 million for the USA) which has the world’s 4th largest GDP (Russia, with almost twice Germany;’s population is 11th, with a smaller GDP than Canada) is still a “feeble’ global power because it does not have the military “hard power” to assert itself in Europe and around the world.
This is the same position in which Canada has found itself, more often than not, since about 1970. For 20 years, under both Conservative and Liberal governments accepted the wisdom and necessity of Louis St Laurent’s broad policy of Canada being a leader amongst the “middle powers.” But it was a difficult and expensive proposition. Prime Minister St Laurent bought, wholly, into the allied “trip wire” strategy and, perforce, the “come as you are war” that would result if an aggressor did “trip” the “wire” in Europe or, for thatmatter, anywhere. The BBC notes that “Germany has abolished conscription ad is concentrating, like other modern armies, on smaller specialist forces.” This is something Canada pioneered in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Defence Minister Brooke Claxton and his Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Guy Simmonds, seeking to give effect to Prime Minister St Laurent’s strategic vision recast the Canadian Army into an entirely new model: a large(ish), combat ready, permanent force of “regulars” backed up by a smaller reserve force that would provide platoons, at best, but mostly individual trained soldiers to “backfill” behind the regulars. This was in sharp contrast to decades, even centuries of Canadian (and European and American) experience and tradition and, I was taught ~ back in the 1960s ~ it was not universally supported by the admirals and generals of the day. But St Laurent, Pearson, Claxton and Simmonds prevailed and Canada had, by 1957, a fighting force that could face the Russians and East Germans in NorthWest Europe with full confidence in their ability to fight well and win, and, beginning, in the late 1950s, deploy large peacekeeping forces ~ sometimes combat troops, often more scarce specialist (signals, aviation and logistics) units to the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean ~ supporting several missions at the same time. But Canada, circa 1950, could do this: we did not have Germany’s history ~ quite the opposite, in fact, we had just fought and won a “good war,” a “just war” and now we were standing up to aggressors of all sorts: securing the liberal international order for all.
But Canada tossed it all aside: we, most of us, anyway, a large plurality at the very least, grew tired of being “leaders” and we didn’t want to pay the price any more. That, it seems to me, is how Germany looks today: able to be a global leader but unwilling to spend the blood and treasure that is required of leaders. So, who else can take “leadership” of the liberal international order?
- Britain? It is, after all, the fifth largest economy in thew world and it might be able to form a strategic “coalition” with, say, Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand to offer the world a leadership team …
- But why not India, on its own? It may not be quite ready yet but it is a liberal democracy, has a HUGE population, a massive and very good military and a fast growing economy.
- Japan? It is starting to consider re-arming (it has some similar reservations to Germany’s) in the face of Chinese bullying and North Korean sabre rattling.
- What about China? Xi Jinping has been out and about “selling”China as a reliable partner for free(er) trade and environmental management. Could China, amongst the most conservative of societies and possessed of a most illiberal political regime take the reigns of the liberal international order from which it benefits more than most?
- Or can and will America regain its socio-political senses and, once again, take up the task of leading?
I don’t know which is most likely. I have a personal preference that the Anglosphere, which includes e.g. Fiji, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa as well as America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand will continue, as it has for 200 years to be a beacon of ever growing, ever changing, ever adapting liberalism.