More on liberalism

Professor Graham Allison of Harvard has been an influential (and occasionally controversial) academic in America for some years. In an article in Foreign Affairs he gives another view of liberalism that challenges my own views. He begins by saying that “Among the debates that have swept the U.S. foreign policy community since the beginning of the Trump administration, alarm about the fate of the liberal international rules-based order has emerged as one of the few fixed points. From the international relations scholar G. John Ikenberry’s claim that “for seven decades the world has been dominated by a western liberal order” to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s call in the final days of the Obama administration to “act urgently to defend the liberal international order,” this banner waves atop most discussions of the United States’ role in the world … [and] … About this order, the reigning consensus makes three core claims. First, that the liberal order has been the principal cause of the so-called long peace among great powers for the past seven decades. Second, that constructing this order has been the main driver of U.S. engagement in the world over that period. And third, that U.S. President Donald Trump is the primary threat to the liberal order—and thus to world peace. The political scientist Joseph Nye, for example, has written, “The demonstrable success of the order in helping secure and stabilize the world over the past seven decades has led to a strong consensus that defending, deepening, and extending this system has been and continues to be the central task of U.S. foreign policy.” Nye has gone so far as to assert: “I am not worried by the rise of China. I am more worried by the rise of Trump” … [but, he says] … Although all these propositions contain some truth, each is more wrong than right. The “long peace” was the not the result of a liberal order but the byproduct of the dangerous balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States during the four and a half decades of the Cold War and then of a brief period of U.S. dominance. U.S. engagement in the world has been driven not by the desire to advance liberalism abroad or to build an international order but by the need to do what was necessary to preserve liberal democracy at home. And although Trump is undermining key elements of the current order, he is far from the biggest threat to global stability.

These misconceptions about the liberal order’s causes and consequences,” he says, “lead its advocates to call for the United States to strengthen the order by clinging to pillars from the past and rolling back authoritarianism around the globe.

I, of course, am ‘guilty’ on all counts, but, as I said just the other day, and as Professor Allison conforms, I’m in good company.

But, Professor Allison says, I’m incorrect and “rather than seek to return to an imagined past in which the United States molded the world in its image, Washington should limit its efforts to ensuring sufficient order abroad to allow it to concentrate on reconstructing a viable liberal democracy at home.” I actually do not disagree with that. I think American liberalism is in dire need of reconstruction because I think America has been on an essentially illiberal course since about 1960.

Graham Allison describes the ‘liberal world order‘ as “conceptual jello” and explains that “The ambiguity of each of the terms in the phrase “liberal international rules-based order” creates a slipperiness that allows the concept to be applied to almost any situation. When, in 2017, members of the World Economic Forum in Davos crowned Chinese President Xi Jinping the leader of the liberal economic order—even though he heads the most protectionist, mercantilist, and predatory major economy in the world—they revealed that, at least in this context, the word “liberal” has come unhinged .. [and] … What is more, “rules-based order” is redundant. Order is a condition created by rules and regularity. What proponents of the liberal international rules-based order really mean is an order that embodies good rules, ones that are equal or fair. The United States is said to have designed an order that others willingly embrace and sustain … [but, he says that] … Many forget, however, that even the UN Charter, which prohibits nations from using military force against other nations or intervening in their internal affairs, privileges the strong over the weak. Enforcement of the charter’s prohibitions is the preserve of the UN Security Council, on which each of the five great powers has a permanent seat—and a veto. As the Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan has observed, superpowers are “exceptional”; that is, when they decide it suits their purpose, they make exceptions for themselves. The fact that in the first 17 years of this century, the self-proclaimed leader of the liberal order invaded two countries, conducted air strikes and Special Forces raids to kill hundreds of people it unilaterally deemed to be terrorists, and subjected scores of others to “extraordinary rendition,” often without any international legal authority (and sometimes without even national legal authority), speaks for itself.” That’s all true, of course.

Professor Allison spends some time describing the Cold War but I think he oversimplifies and tries too hard to make a case that America was acting mainly in response to a Soviet threat. In fact some of the institutions ~ IMF, World Bank and GATT (now the WTO) ~ that he says were put in place to act as a barricade against Russian expansionism were done by Roosevelt, in 1944 at Breton Woods, and I think he makes too much of the Soviet nuclear threat (1949) when the key decisions to ‘contain’ the USSR, including the Marshall Plan (1948) were taken in 1946 and ’47 (after George Kennan’s famous ‘long telegram’ on Soviet policy. Those quibbles aside, I do agree with Graham Allison that, mostly, America has, properly, acted in its own self interest ~ even, perhaps especially, when it created international organizations and alliances to support its socio-economic aims.

But then we got into the 1990s and 2000s an a “new world order” and Professor Allison says that “Writing about the power of ideas, the economist John Maynard Keynes noted, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” In this case, American politicians were following a script offered by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his best-selling 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that millennia of conflict among ideologies were over. From this point on, all nations would embrace free-market economics to make their citizens rich and democratic governments to make them free. “What we may be witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In 1996, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went even further by proclaiming the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”: “When a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s, it becomes a McDonald’s country, and people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers” … [but] … This vision led to an odd coupling of neoconservative crusaders on the right and liberal interventionists on the left. Together, they persuaded a succession of U.S. presidents to try to advance the spread of capitalism and liberal democracy through the barrel of a gun. In 1999, Bill Clinton bombed Belgrade to force it to free Kosovo. In 2003, George W. Bush invaded Iraq to topple its president, Saddam Hussein. When his stated rationale for the invasion collapsed after U.S. forces were unable to find weapons of mass destruction, Bush declared a new mission: “to build a lasting democracy that is peaceful and prosperous.” In the words of Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser at the time, “Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.” And in 2011, Barack Obama embraced the Arab Spring’s promise to bring democracy to the nations of the Middle East and sought to advance it by bombing Libya and deposing its brutal leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. Few in Washington paused to note that in each case, the unipolar power was using military force to impose liberalism on countries whose governments could not strike back. Since the world had entered a new chapter of history, lessons from the past about the likely consequences of such behavior were ignored.” And so to the “conceptual jello” of the 1950s and ’60s we can add something we might call the “distilled delusion” of the 1990s and 2000s.

Graham Allison explains, and I agree fully, that “the end of the Cold War produced a unipolar moment, not a unipolar era. Today, foreign policy elites have woken up to the meteoric rise of an authoritarian China, which now rivals or even surpasses the United States in many domains, and the resurgence of an assertive, illiberal Russian nuclear superpower, which is willing to use its military to change both borders in Europe and the balance of power in the Middle East. More slowly and more painfully, they are discovering that the United States’ share of global power has shrunk. When measured by the yardstick of purchasing power parity, the U.S. economy, which accounted for half of the world’s GDP after World War II, had fallen to less than a quarter of global GDP by the end of the Cold War and stands at just one-seventh today. For a nation whose core strategy has been to overwhelm challenges with resources, this decline calls into question the terms of U.S. leadership.” The universe did not unfold as many, myself included, thought it would: Russia was not an anemic second world country and China did not follow the ‘plan’ that so many Western thinkers drew for it … it modernized and became a major capitalist trading nation but it stubbornly refuses to accept that democracy is the ‘natural order’ of things.

Professor Allison offers a shot but vital lesson in American history: “During most of the nation’s 242 years,” he explains “Americans have recognized the necessity to give priority to ensuring freedom at home over advancing aspirations abroad. The Founding Fathers were acutely aware that constructing a government in which free citizens would govern themselves was an uncertain, hazardous undertaking. Among the hardest questions they confronted was how to create a government powerful enough to ensure Americans’ rights at home and protect them from enemies abroad without making it so powerful that it would abuse its strength …[and] … Their solution, as the presidential scholar Richard Neustadt wrote, was not just a “separation of powers” among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches but “separated institutions sharing power.” The Constitution was an “invitation to struggle.” And presidents, members of Congress, judges, and even journalists have been struggling ever since. The process was not meant to be pretty. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained to those frustrated by the delays, gridlock, and even idiocy these checks and balances sometimes produce, the founders’ purpose was “not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power” … [but] … From this beginning, the American experiment in self-government has always been a work in progress. It has lurched toward failure on more than one occasion. When Abraham Lincoln asked “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, . . . can long endure,” it was not a rhetorical question. But repeatedly and almost miraculously, it has demonstrated a capacity for renewal and reinvention. Throughout this ordeal, the recurring imperative for American leaders has been to show that liberalism can survive in at least one country … [and] … For nearly two centuries, that meant warding off foreign intervention and leaving others to their fates. Individual Americans may have sympathized with French revolutionary cries of “Liberty, equality, fraternity!”; American traders may have spanned the globe; and American missionaries may have sought to win converts on all continents. But in choosing when and where to spend its blood and treasure, the U.S. government focused on the United States … [but] … Only in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II did American strategists conclude that the United States’ survival required greater entanglement abroad. Only when they perceived a Soviet attempt to create an empire that would pose an unacceptable threat did they develop and sustain the alliances and institutions that fought the Cold War. Throughout that effort, as NSC-68, a Truman administration national security policy paper that summarized U.S. Cold War strategy, stated, the mission was “to preserve the United States as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact.”” I think we have to concede this point. Until 1941 America did, indeed, try to ‘stand aloof’ from the world and worry, almost exclusively, about its own problems and it looks like President Tump want to return to that model.

Professor Allison concludes that: “Among the current, potentially mortal threats to the global order, Trump is one, but not the most important. His withdrawal from initiatives championed by earlier administrations aimed at constraining greenhouse gas emissions and promoting trade has been unsettling, and his misunderstanding of the strength that comes from unity with allies is troubling. Yet the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, and the decline of the United States’ share of global power each present much larger challenges than Trump. Moreover, it is impossible to duck the question: Is Trump more a symptom or a cause? … [and, he says, by way of example] … While I was on a recent trip to Beijing, a high-level Chinese official posed an uncomfortable question to me. Imagine, he said, that as much of the American elite believes, Trump’s character and experience make him unfit to serve as the leader of a great nation. Who would be to blame for his being president? Trump, for his opportunism in seizing victory, or the political system that allowed him to do so? … [he says, and I agree that] … No one denies that in its current form, the U.S. government is failing. Long before Trump, the political class that brought unending, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as well as the financial crisis and Great Recession, had discredited itself. These disasters have done more to diminish confidence in liberal self-government than Trump could do in his critics’ wildest imaginings, short of a mistake that leads to a catastrophic war. The overriding challenge for American believers in democratic governance is thus nothing less than to reconstruct a working democracy at home … [but, he concludes] … Fortunately, that does not require converting the Chinese, the Russians, or anyone else to American beliefs about liberty. Nor does it necessitate changing foreign regimes into democracies. Instead, as Kennedy put it in his American University commencement speech, in 1963, it will be enough to sustain a world order “safe for diversity”—liberal and illiberal alike. That will mean adapting U.S. efforts abroad to the reality that other countries have contrary views about governance and seek to establish their own international orders governed by their own rules. Achieving even a minimal order that can accommodate that diversity will take a surge of strategic imagination as far beyond the current conventional wisdom as the Cold War strategy that emerged over the four years after Kennan’s Long Telegram was from the Washington consensus in 1946.” I agree that a “surge of strategic imagination” is needed in Washington … and in Berlin, Canberra, London, Ottawa, Paris, Rome, Tokyo and in Brussels, too. But IF Americans decide, as they might, to withdraw back into their long traditional of isolationism then China will, rapidly, take over as THE dominant global superpower, the indispensable nation and America in 2050 will look a lot like Britain did in 1950.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

4 thoughts on “More on liberalism

  1. Sweet Fanny Adams.

    British fannies are not the same as American fannies. Nor are British liberals (and liberalists) the same as American liberals. The French can be excused for having a completely different view of what a word might mean.

    Or as Churchill put it: two people divided by a common language. And as Lewis Carroll had it :“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    I am sure that the Reverend Dobson would have recognised the tug of war over liberalism and it meaning.

    I saw that some in today’s demonstrations in Britain, while asking for another referendum, were touting the EU as the arbiter of peace for the last 65 years in Europe.

    Presumably that refers to the opening of the European common market for coal and steel in 1953.

    If, by keeping the peace in Europe, the protesters mean stopping the Francs and the Germans from continuing their two millennia long frivolities then I suppose they have a point (although Clausewitz watching the activities of Merkel and Macron might disagree).

    But Europe has not been at peace for 65 years. It was explicitly at war until 1989 when the Berlin wall came down and officially until 1991 when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved.

    So Europe has seen peace only since 1991, or 27 years ago…. And that is if you disregard the Yugoslavian situation … which has yet to be resolved.

    As for the EU’s role – the EU did not exist until 1993. After the Balkan imbroglio commenced.

    Meanwhile, the lack of bullets and missiles flying over Volkswagen’s factories, arguably, was the result of American troops and dollars supplying a rigid skeleton to the NATO alliance. An alliance from which France, under de Gaulle, departed in 1966 and which it did not rejoin until 2009 – 9 years ago.

    de Gaulle, him of “Vive le Quebec libre!”, opponent of British membership in the EEC in 1972 and otherwise vehement French nationalist.

    New World Order ….. liberal or otherwise …. in my view there has been precious little of that. Just because the casualty rate and losses to the public treasury have been kept to an “acceptable” rate for most of the last 70 years, judging by the lack of rebellions in western streets, doesn’t mean to me that the world has been any more ordered than it has ever been.

    The dogs do bark, but the caravan carries on.

    Cheers Sir 🙂

  2. Another interesting article, and follow-on commentary by Mr Pook. Thank you both for again provoking thought.

  3. Further to the definition of liberalism and its association with tolerance – this article:

    “The enduring triumph of liberalism was not the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, open borders, or even Obergefell v. Hodges. Something more fundamental happened long ago that made those changes possible. Liberalism began when a space was carved out in society wherein people of different beliefs and backgrounds could go about their business without tensions arising.

    They might loath one another’s religion, abhor their politics, and find their respective mores and customs odd or distasteful, but in the public square they kept their judgments in check as long as others minded their manners and didn’t push their differences too hard. At home and in church, in the government and in what counted as media at the time, differences and partisanship could have full expression. But on the streets and in the parks, in shops and restaurants, liberalism demanded that citizens lower their tribal instincts and mingle without open antipathy.”

    I have many points of contention with the rest of the article – notably the specific referencing of parties and factions and assumptions on attitudes in an article discussing the merits of toleration – I have difficulties with the “intolerant of intolerance” argument – but I believe that these two opening paragraphs have it right.

    The defining difference for liberalism is toleration of the other. The opposite of liberalism then becomes absolutism. And that presents a problem if your world view demands order.

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