Is the future of the liberal world order conservative?

A week or so ago I wrote about an excellent article by Dr Richard Haass which explained how the liberal world order might end and why, if we want to avoid a Chinese dominated world order, which I suggest is not in our best interests, then the US led West must restore itself.

Now, in Foreign Affairs, I see an interesting counterpoint by Professors Jennifer Lind and William C Wohlforth, both of Dartmouth College, which suggests that “The Future of the Liberal Order Is Conservative … [and, they say] … The liberal world order is in peril. Seventy-five years after the United States helped found it, this global system of alliances, institutions, and norms is under attack like never before. From within, the order is contending with growing populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. Externally, it faces mounting pressure from a pugnacious Russia and a rising China. At stake is the survival of not just the order itself but also the unprecedented economic prosperity and peace it has nurtured … [but, they explain] … The order is clearly worth saving, but the question is how. Keep calm and carry on, some of its defenders argue; today’s difficulties will pass, and the order is resilient enough to survive them. Others appreciate the gravity of the crisis but insist that the best response is to vigorously reaffirm the order’s virtues and confront its external challengers. Bold Churchillian moves—sending more American troops to Syria, offering Ukraine more help to kick out pro-Russian forces—would help make the liberal international order great again. Only by doubling down on the norms and institutions that made the liberal world order so successful, they say, can that order be saved …. [and they contend that] … Such defenders of the order tend to portray the challenge as a struggle between liberal countries trying to sustain the status quo and dissatisfied authoritarians seeking to revise it. What they miss, however, is that for the past 25 years, the international order crafted by and for liberal states has itself been profoundly revisionist, aggressively exporting democracy and expanding in both depth and breadth. The scale of the current problems means that more of the same is not viable; the best response is to make the liberal order more conservative … [and, with my emphasis added] … Instead of expanding it to new places and new domains, the United States and its partners should consolidate the gains the order has reaped.

Professors Lind and Wohlforth explain that “The debate over U.S. grand strategy has traditionally been portrayed as a choice between retrenchment and ambitious expansionism. Conservatism offers a third way: it is a prudent option that seeks to preserve what has been won and minimize the chances that more will be lost. From a conservative vantage point, the United States’ other choices—at one extreme, undoing long-standing alliances and institutions … [as, it seems to me (and to Dr Thomas Wright of the Brooking Institution) President Trump is inclined to do] … or, at the other extreme, further extending American power and spreading American values—represent dangerous experiments … [as, it seemed to me that President George W Bush and the Project for the New American Century believed, and they say that] …  This is especially so in an era when great-power politics has returned and the relative might of the countries upholding the order has shrunk … [instead, they propose that] … It is time for Washington and its liberal allies to gird themselves for a prolonged period of competitive coexistence with illiberal great powers, time to shore up existing alliances rather than add new ones, and time to get out of the democracy-promotion business. Supporters of the order may protest this shift, deeming it capitulation. On the contrary, conservatism is the best way to preserve the global position of the United States and its allies—and save the order they built.

The authors provide us with a very useful definition of the US led, liberal world order: “It is U.S.-led … [they explain] … because it is built on a foundation of SCS_0American hegemony: the United States provides security guarantees to its allies in order to restrain regional competition, and the U.S. military ensures an open global commons so that trade can flow uninterrupted. It is liberal because the governments that support it have generally tried to infuse it with liberal norms about economics, human rights, and politics. And it is an order—something bigger than Washington and its policies—because the United States has partnered with a posse of like-minded and influential countries and because its rules and norms have gradually assumed a degree of independent influence.

Jennifer Lind and William C Wohlforth offer a brief history of the Us-led, liberal world order and then go on to explain why it may be going off the rails: “For liberals,” they say all that history was “simply what progress looks like. And to be sure, much of the order’s dynamism—say, the GATT’s transformation into the more permanent and institutional World Trade Organization, or the UN’s increasingly ambitious peacekeeping agenda—met with broad support among liberal and authoritarian countries alike. But some key additions to the order clearly constituted revisionism by liberal countries, which, tellingly, were the only states that wanted themaxworthy-lloyd-aspen2[including, most controversially] … the changes that challenged the principle of sovereignty. Under the banner of “the responsibility to protect” … [for which Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy and Jean Chrétien campaigned, very hard, in the corridors of the United Nations] … governments, nongovernmental organizations, and activists began pushing a major strengthening of international law with the goal of holding states accountable for how they treated their own people … [and then] … Potent security alliances such as NATO and powerful economic institutions such as the IMF joined the game, too, adding their muscle to the campaign to spread liberal conceptions of human rights, freedom of information, markets, and politics … [and] … Democracy promotion assumed a newly prominent role in U.S. grand strategy, with President Bill Clinton speaking of “democratic enlargement” and President George W. Bush championing his “freedom agenda.” The United States and its allies increasingly funded nongovernmental organizations to build civil society and spread democracy around the world, blurring the line between public and private efforts. U.S. taxpayers, for example, have footed the bill for the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights in China, Russia, and elsewhere. Meddling in other states’ domestic affairs is old hat, but what was new was the overt and institutionalized nature of these activities, a sign of the order’s post–Cold War mojo. As Allen Weinstein, the co-founder of the National Endowment for Democracy, admitted in a 1991 interview, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

As never before,” the authors say “state power, legal norms, and public-private partnerships were harnessed together to expand the order’s—and Washington’s—geopolitical reach. Perhaps the clearest example of these heightened ambitions came in the Balkans, where, in 1999, NATO harnessed its military power to the emerging “responsibility to protect” norm and coerced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to acquiesce to Kosovo’s de facto independence—after which the United States and its allies openly joined forces with local civil society groups to topple him from power. It was a remarkably bold move. In just a few months, the major_general_lewis_mackenzieUnited States and its allies transformed the politics of an entire region that had traditionally been considered peripheral, priming it for incorporation into the Trumpeter-1-35-01505-M1129-Canadian-Grizzly-6X6-APC-Improved-Version.jpg_640x640security and economic structures dominated by the liberal West.” Canadians were deeply and vey actively involved, often in leadership roles, in the United Nations and NATO (KFOR and SFOR) forces that operated in the Balkans in the 1990s.

To say that all of this represented revisionism,” Professors Lind and Wohlforth say, “is not to equate it morally with, say, Beijing’s militarization in the South China Sea or Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and electoral meddling in the United States and Europe. Rather, the point is that the order’s horizons have expanded dramatically, with state power, new legal norms, overt and covert actions, and public-private partnerships together stretching the order wider and pushing it deeper. No country these days is consistently interested in maintaining the status quo; we are all revisionists now… [and they make the key point that] … Revisionism undertaken by illiberal states is often seen as mere power grabbing, but revisionism undertaken by liberal states has also resulted in geopolitical rewards: expanded alliances, increased influence, and more perquisites for the chief sponsors of the order, the United States above all.

But that’s all history and while it explains how we got to the point where the US-led, liberal world order is on the brink of collapse, the situation, in the here and now, is described by the authors as one in which, while “the liberal order is still backed by a powerful coalition of states, that coalition’s margin of superiority has narrowed markedly … [thus] … In 1995, the United States and its major allies produced some 60 percent of global output (in terms of purchasing power parity) …[but] … now, that figure stands at 40 percent … [and] … Back then, they were responsible for 80 percent of global defense expenditures … [but] … today, they account for just 52 percent .. [therefore] … It is becoming more difficult to maintain the order, let alone expand it. All the while, the order is suffering from an internal crisis of legitimacy that is already proving to be a constraint, as war-weary Americans, Euroskeptical Britons, and others across the West have taken to the polls to decry so-called globalist elites.

One solution, which the authors explain cannot, realistically, be expected to happen, was to bring the illiberal states in to the US-led, liberal world order but Jennifer Lind and William C Wohlforth explain “As long as the security commitments,” which are central to the survival of the liberal world order, “remain in place and the expansionist project continues, illiberal states will never fully integrate into the order.

The authors also explain that the major illiberal powers, especially China, are not paper tigers, and they are growing more, not less, authoritarian as they also grow in wealth and power.

A conservative approach

Professors Lind and Wohlforth suggest that “A more conservative order would recognize that both internal and external circumstances have changed and would adjust accordingly. First and most important, this demands a shift to a status quo mindset in Washington and allied capitals. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s occasional bluster about withdrawing from the world, his administration has retained all of the United States’ existing commitments while adding ambitious new ones, notably an effort to radically scale back Iran’s influence. And although the Obama administration was often accused of retrenchment, it, too, kept U.S. commitments in place and even tried its hand at regime change in Libya. Under a conservative approach, Washington would set aside such revisionist projects in order to concentrate its attention and resources on managing great-power rivalries … [and they add] … As part of this, the United States should reduce the expectation that it will take on new allies. At the very least, any prospective ally should bring more capabilities than costs—a litmus test that has not been applied in recent years. Because the liberal order is in dire need of consolidation rather than expansion, it makes no sense to add small and weak states facing internal problems, especially if including them will exacerbate tensions among existing allies or, worse, with great-power rivals. In July 2018, NATO, with U.S. support, formally invited Macedonia to join the alliance (reviving a dispute with Greece over the name of the country), and the Trump administration has backed NATO membership for Bosnia, too (over the objections of the Serbian minority there). These straws may not break the camel’s back, but the principle of limitless expansion might.” I agree with the authors, especially on the issue of NATO expansion which, as I have said before, is one of the causes of Russian dissatisfaction with its place in the world.

The case of Taiwan,” they say “shows what a successful conservative approach looks like in practice, demonstrating how the United States can deter a rival great power from expanding while preventing a partner from provoking it. For decades, Washington has declared that the island’s future should be resolved peacefully. Leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have sometimes sought to overturn the status quo, as when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian began making pro-independence moves after he was elected in 2000. In response, U.S. President George W. Bush publicly warned Chen against unilaterally changing the status quo—a tough stance toward a longtime U.S. partner that helped keep the peace. This policy may be tested again, as demographic and economic trends strengthen the Taiwanese people’s sense of national identity, as China grows more assertive, and as voices in the United States call for an unambiguously pro-Taiwan policy. But Washington should hold fast: for decades, conservatism has served it, and the region, well.

The authors contend that “A conservative order would also entail drawing clearer lines between official efforts to promote democracy and those undertaken independently by civil society groups. By example and activism, vibrant civil societies in the United States and other liberal countries can do much to further democracy abroad. When governments get in the game, however, the results tend to backfire. As the political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke found in their comprehensive study, foreign-imposed regime change rarely leads to improved relations and frequently has the opposite effect. Liberal states should stand ready to help when a foreign government itself seeks assistance. But when one resists help, it is best to stay out. Meddling will only aggravate that government’s concerns about violations of sovereignty and tar opposition forces with the charge of being foreign pawns.” There is a clear message for the Trudeau regime here: except for official, state-to-state matters, let civil society do its best; keep the prime minister, Chrystia Freeland and the bureaucrats close to home and chained to their desks.

Jennifer Lind and William C Wohlforth conclude that “One might wonder whether an order grounded in liberal principles can in fact practice restraint. In the mid-eighteenth century, the philosopher David Hume warned that the United Kingdom was prosecuting its wars against illiberal adversaries with “imprudent vehemence,” contradicting the dictates of the balance of power and risking national bankruptcy. Perhaps such imprudence is part and parcel of the foundational ideology and domestic politics of liberal powers. As the political scientist John Mearsheimer has put it, “Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them” … [but they say] … the principles of liberalism apply to all individuals, not just those who happen to be citizens of a liberal country. On what basis, then, can a country committed to liberal ideals stand idly by when they are trampled abroad—especially when that country is powerful enough to do something about it? In the United States, leaders often try to square the circle by contending that spreading democracy actually serves the national interest, but the truth is that power and principle don’t always go together … [but, again] … Because liberal convictions are part of their identity, Americans often feel they should support those who rise up against tyranny. Perhaps in the abstract one can promise restraint, but when demonstrators take to Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan in Kiev, or Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, many Americans want their government to stand with those flying freedom’s flag. And when countries want to join the order’s key security and economic institutions, Americans want the United States to say yes, even when there is scant strategic sense in it. Political incentives encourage this impulse, since politicians in the United States know that they can score points by bashing any leader who sells out lovers of liberty.” All that, it seems to me, applies to Canadians, too, and often in spades to Canadians who subscribe to the so called Laurentian Consensus.

But they note that “There is evidence, however, that liberal countries can check their appetite for spreading virtue. Nineteenth-century British statesmen liked to think that liberal principles and imperial interests often coincided, but when the two clashed, they almost always chose realism over idealism—as when the United Kingdom backed the Ottoman Empire for reasons of realpolitik despite domestic pressure to take action on behalf of persecuted Christians in the empire. The United States in the twentieth century had idealistic presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, but it also had more pragmatic ones, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon … [and they observe that] … The period of détente in U.S.-Soviet relations, which lasted throughout the 1970s, exemplifies the possibility of a liberal order going on the defensive. During this period, the West largely followed a live-and-let-live strategy informed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s controversial maxim to not hold détente hostage to improvements in Moscow’s human rights record. Washington negotiated with Moscow on arms control and a range of other security issues and held frequent summits symbolizing its acceptance of the Soviet Union as a superpower equal. In the 1975 Helsinki Accords, aimed at reducing East-West tensions, the United States effectively accommodated itself to the reality of Soviet suzerainty in Eastern Europe … [and] … The essence of the deal was that the United States would render unto the Soviets roughly a third of the world—while making it clear that they should not dare come after its two-thirds. To be sure, super-power competition never truly ceased, and in the 1980s, détente died out altogether. But while it was in place, the strategy worked to limit U.S.-Soviet rivalry and facilitate rapprochement with China. This gave the United States and its allies the breathing room they needed to get their own houses in order and patch up alliances torn apart by domestic upheavals, the Vietnam War, and wrangling over trade and monetary policy. What this history suggests is that today’s liberal order, for a time at least, can be conservative … [but] … Liberal countries can never be thoroughly status quo actors, for they foster relatively free economies and civil societies presided over by governments committed to giving those vibrant forces free rein. Left to their own devices, those forces will always be revisionist—such is the nature of liberalism. But that inherent revisionism need not prevent leaders of liberal states, responsible for dealing with the world as it is, from recognizing that conditions have changed and deciding to trim their sails and tack away from expansion. That is what those leaders must do now: to protect an order based on liberalism, they must embrace conservatism.

It will, I hope, not surprise anyone to learn that I sympathize, broadly and generally, with what Professors Lind and Wohlfort propose: a return to a much more conservative 0ca45992687091633a4f25e3878b5a3e--us-presidents-american-presidentsforeign policy for America and for its (mainly) liberal StLaurentKarsh001allies, including Canada. I believed that the world was safer when Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush (41) were in power than when Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Bush (43), Obama and now Trump occupy the oval office. I felt, similarly, much more confident about Canada when Prime Ministers St Laurent, Diefenbaker, Pearson and Harper were in office than when Jean Chrétien or either of the Trudeaus were at 24 Sussex Drive. The sort of conservatism that Jennifer Lind and William C Wohlfort espouse is not about party labels, it is about attitudes … Ike and Louis St Laurent were, natural, instinctive conservatives who believed in peace through strength. They believed in facing enemies, resolutely, but not in going out to look for new ones.

I agree with Professor John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago,  who is cited, above, as saying that “Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them” But having that “crusader mentality,” as he puts it, “hardwired” into a state’s very nature doesn’t mean that all leaders have to share it. It is very possible to be, as noted above, a believer in the fundamental right of every individual, everywhere, to life, liberty, property and privacy and still practice restraint in international relations and to abjure interference in the internal affairs of every other state, no matter how vile one may find their policies and practices.
For America this might be a real problem because it has vital interests in so many, many illiberal, failing and failed states and good policy is always all about managing one’s interests:

For middle powers, like Canada, the challenge is both more and less difficult. The middle powers, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark and so on, may not have as many global vital interests but they do have populations with deeply held liberal instincts and their peoples, just like the American people, may want them display some of that “crusader mentality” that causes so many problems. In Canada’s case, even though most people still respond favourably to Pierre Trudeau’s clarion call to disengage from the woes of the world and, instead, become a greedy, selfish, self-entitled little nation, there is, in the like of Lloyd Axworthy and many others, a burning desire to spread progressive illiberalism around the world.

America will still need to protect its interests and that will mean that it will have to intervene,  now and again, and sometimes militarily, in the affairs of others. The others, including middle power allies like Canada, will object, sometimes, but their voice will not matter. The correct, conservative choice is to intervene as seldom as possible and to get in, get ‘er done and get out, quickly.

For Canada, and many others, there will be a need to protect their own interests, too and, sometimes, perhaps more often than has been the case since, say, the Reagan era, they will find that America is unlikely to be willing to support them unless their vital interests and America’s coincide.

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.

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