I’m going to return to a subject that has been on my mind for the last couple of years: the fate or future of the “international liberal order” in the age of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Justin Trudeau.
I am going to quote from an article in Foreign Affairs by Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper. They assert, and many others agree, that “Among the most common refrains from the foreign policy cognoscenti is the warning that Trump has imperiled the liberal international order—the norms, rules, laws, and institutions that have supported U.S. power since 1945. The president’s vengeful unilateralism, we are told, is dismantling a cherished system that has brought peace and stability to the world … [but] … In his recent Foreign Affairs article (“The Myth of the Liberal Order,” July/August 2018), Graham Allison provides a useful corrective to this baleful narrative, joining a chorus of contrarian foreign policy thinkers who decry the “myth of the liberal order.” Defenders of the myth, Allison argues, mistakenly credit the liberal order with 70 years of great power peace and misattribute the motivations behind U.S. overseas engagement. The post–World War II system led by the United States was never fully liberal, international, rules based, or orderly. At its core, it was driven by a struggle for global dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the balance of power between these two nuclear behemoths—and U.S. hegemony in more recent decades—that prevented another world war. For Allison, Trump’s disregard for liberal values may be worrisome, but rather than dreaming of a bygone era of unrivaled liberal hegemony, the United States should focus on rebuilding a robust democracy at home.” But, they caution, “Although a welcome antidote to the many reverent paeans to the liberal international order and attendant calls for its pristine preservation, Allison’s critique does not fully rhyme with his conclusions. Liberal order may not have been the sole determinant of 70 years of geopolitics, but that does not warrant a wholesale dismissal of the concept as a matter of statecraft or scholarship. And although a restoration of the same liberal system propped up by an indispensable United States is a fantasy, U.S. grand strategy should not discard altogether the notion of international order, even if the world becomes more multipolar and the United States focuses on the defense of democracy at home,” and they conclude that “The liberal international order may be less foundational than often argued, but it serves more than just narrative purposes. In its hour of duress, a new vision for U.S. strategy must assess threats and advantages at home and abroad and adapt the institutions that have been the foundation of American power. If successful, the United States will navigate an epoch of disruptive change, both domestic and international, in a manner that is peaceful and redounds to U.S. interests. It is a formidable task to be sure, but this moment demands no less.“
It seems abundantly clear to me that President Trump has no knowledge of, little interest in and scant regard for the “international order,” liberal or not. Informed opinion also seems to suggest that the Trump Party and the notion of America First will live on, for years even decades, after Donald J Trump is out of office. He is not making new policy, he is just reflecting a load of long standing, deep seated American fears about its place in the world.
I do not share all of the emerging view that “the post–World War II system led by the United States was never fully liberal, international, rules based, or orderly.” My own reading of modern history suggests that the “Wise Men” (Walter Isaacson’s and Evan Thomas’ description of Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett and John McCloy) were certainly in pursuit of America’s interests, as they saw them, but they were also informed and guided by two men who were classical, John Stuart Mill type, American liberals of the old school: General George C Marshall and Colonel Henry L Stimson. Marshal and Stimson are best remembered for having a profound influence, certainly as great as Churchill and Roosevelt, on the conduct and consequences of World War II. They were both extraordinarily influential, globally, before, during and after the war … the men who built the US led liberal international order were ALL working under the influence of Marshal and Stimson who were very American models of 19th century English liberalism.
There were two competing visions of the post-war world in the Roosevelt cabinet room: one, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr which wanted to create, in effect, a series small, weak states, de facto American colonies, that could no longer threaten the peace, and the other, led by Stimson, that wanted to recreate the pre-war world but this times under liberal Anglo-American “rules.” Stimson’s view prevailed and the modern world, as we know it ~ including the long Cold War, peaceful, prosperous Germany and Japan, the United Nations, NATO, the WTO, peacekeeping and the World Bank and the IMF and so on and so forth, and the peaceful (thus far) rise of China ~ resulted from the Stimson-Marshal liberal vision of a world in which everyone, even America, “played by the rules” … even though they were America’s rules.
But, as Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper posit, the 70 years old “liberal international order” has just about run its course ~ that’s not Donald Trump’s fault; he’s not powerful enough or forceful enough and certainly not smart enough to change the world … it is just the nature of the continuously evolving world. Pax Romana lasted for about 200 years, Pax Britannica only endured for 100, we should not be surprised that Pax Americana, at 70, cannot survive much longer. It isn’t Donald Trump who caused this, but it is (and was) Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump and Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and dozens and dozens of other, lesser disruptors.
The Trump Party seems, to me, to want to return to some dark, America First roots; the notion of America First has a long, but not often proud tradition in American politics …
… and I think its persists, driven by fear of outsiders, again, today.
Xi Jinping is offering a seductive alternative to the “liberal international order” even as he poses as its last defender. But, as I have said before, we, in the liberal West, will not find it comfortable. Xi wants China to be, at least, the coequal of the US led West, not just of America, in the world. He wants a new international order but it will serve China’s best interests, much as the fading liberal international order served America’s.
But, as Misses Lissner and Rapp-Hoopersay, “When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, and other U.S. allies invoke the beleaguered liberal order today, it is because they want to preserve those advantages. Far from dismissing the order as a mere euphemism for U.S. hegemony, they see their own national interests at stake in it. They also recognize that those interests cannot be protected without a powerful—and committed—United States. Even China, the order’s most formidable challenger-in-waiting, finds value in selectively embracing its tenets.“
Canada, certainly, wants ~ needs ~ some sort of new, rules based, agreed (by most major players) international order, and, I would suggest we really want that new international order to be, broadly, liberal, too. And liberal has a meaning; it is not the same as, in fact it is not even remotely like, progressive as the Trudeau Liberals use that term. A liberal international order, for example, put the fundamental rights of individuals first, not of groups, like organized labour, First Nations or even women. A liberal order says that the rules apply to everyone, great and small, alike … no special rights, no discrimination based on sex or religion or skin tone. The genius of the American crafted liberal international order was that it applied to Australia and Bangladesh, and China and Djibouti, equally.
If Canada wants some sort of new liberal international order to prevail, somehow, for the next 75 years then it, Canada, will have to step up, again, as it did in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, and play a leadership role … the role that Pierre Trudeau saw fit to abandon in about 1970 when his government declared ~ in the White Paper, A Foreign Policy for Canadians ~ that Canadian national unity and a harmonious natural environment in Canada were our key priorities, rather than global peace and order. Canada has a lot to undo before it can resume leading … it has to start by pushing aside the influences of Pierre Trudeau which have dominated Canadian politics for nearly a half century. But that will be very hard to do.
We can already see that Justin Trudeau is anything but a classical liberal in the mould of Mill, Stimson and Marshall, and both he, like his father did, favours modern progressive ideas over time tested liberal ones, and both Trudeaus remain very popular in the minds of Canadians. It will take a full scale revolution in Canadians’ perceptions of their values before we can, once again, lead countries like the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway in the world.
The world needs a new, rules, based international order that serves America, Australia and Bangladesh, and Canada, China and Chile, too. The world wants (but doesn’t need) Canada to help shape that order; Canada needs to change before it can take a seat at the leader’s table, again …
… we need to change that.