Can the liberal-internationalist order be saved?

Welcome to 2021! I hope all my readers had a happy and safe New Year celebration.

I have commented, since this blog began, about liberalism, itself, and, just days ago, my fears for it in Justin Trudeau’s Canada. That brings me to an article, by the renowned American political scientist Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs titled ‘The End of the Wilsonian Era ~ Why Liberal Internationalism Failed.’

Woodrow Wilson - Presidency, 14 Points & Accomplishments - Biography

Mr Mead opened his essay by reminding us the cancel culture got Woodrow Wilson, too: “One hundred years after the U.S. Senate humiliated President Woodrow Wilson by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles,” he writes, “Princeton University, which Wilson led as its president before launching his political career, struck his name from its famous school of international affairs. As “cancellations” go, this one is at least arguably deserved. Wilson was an egregious racist even by the standards of his time, and the man behind the persecution of his own political opponents and the abuses of the first Red Scare has been celebrated for far too long and far too uncritically.

But despite his distaste for some of President Wilson’s views, Professor Mead made him and his moral principles one of his four pillars of American strategic policy in his well-known reference: ‘Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World‘ (2002). The other three were Alexander Hamilton (commercialism), Thomas Jefferson (democracy), and Andrew Jackson (populism and military strength).

But, Mr Mead says, “however problematic Wilson’s personal views and domestic policies were, as a statesman and ideologist, he must be counted among the most influential makers of the modern world. He was not a particularly original thinker. More than a century before Wilson proposed the League of Nations, Tsar Alexander I of Russia had alarmed his fellow rulers at the Congress of Vienna by articulating a similar vision: an international system that would rest on a moral consensus upheld by a concert of powers that would operate from a shared set of ideas about legitimate sovereignty. By Wilson’s time, moreover, the belief that democratic institutions contributed to international peace whereas absolute monarchies were inherently warlike and unstable was almost a commonplace observation among educated Americans and Britons. Wilson’s contribution was to synthesize those ideas into a concrete program for a rules-based order grounded in a set of international institutions.” The US Congress, in what we might, now, think of as a Trumpian response, rejected Wilson’s ideas and he died a broken and bitter man, but his ideas lived on and, “During World War II, many Americans came to regret their country’s prewar isolationism, including its refusal to join the League of Nations, and Wilson began to appear less like a martinet hobbled by poor political skills and more like a prophet whose wisdom, had it been heeded, could have prevented the second great global conflagration in 20 years. Inspired by that conclusion, American leaders during and after World War II laid the foundations of what they hoped would be a Wilsonian world order, in which international relations would be guided by the principles put forward in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conducted according to rules established by institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the World Trade Organization.” Now, not everyone, me included, will find all those things useful or valuable. For example, I find the United. Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be abominably silly. But I agree that they all animated the liberal-internationalist order which is now almost dead.

Today, Professor Mead writes, “the most important fact in world politics is that this noble effort has failed. The next stage in world history will not unfold along Wilsonian lines. The nations of the earth will continue to seek some kind of political order, because they must. And human rights activists and others will continue to work toward their goals. But the dream of a universal order, grounded in law, that secures peace between countries and democracy inside them will figure less and less in the work of world leaders … [but, he adds] … To state this truth is not to welcome it. There are many advantages to a Wilsonian world order, even when that order is partial and incomplete. Many analysts, some associated with the presidential campaign of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, think they can put Humpty Dumpty together again. One wishes them every success. But the centrifugal forces tearing at the Wilsonian order are so deeply rooted in the nature of the contemporary world that not even the end of the Trump era can revive the Wilsonian project in its most ambitious form. Although Wilsonian ideals will not disappear and there will be a continuing influence of Wilsonian thought on U.S. foreign policies, the halcyon days of the post–Cold War era, when American presidents organized their foreign policies around the principles of liberal internationalism, are unlikely to return anytime soon.

I find that analysis very, very sad, in part because I suspect that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is a very, very illiberal man, will welcome its demise. He has always seemed, to me, to be someone who has great difficulty accepting that you and I might have certain fundamental rights that are not in accord with his preferences ~ and he is very used to having his own way ~ or of which he does not approve. I have long thought that in many important respects Justin Trudeau is much more like Donald J Trump than he is different from him.

As Walter Russell Mead explains, “Wilsonianism is only one version of a rules-based world order among many. The Westphalian system, which emerged in Europe after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648, and the Congress system, which arose in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, were both rules-based and even law-based; some of the foundational ideas of international law date from those eras. And the Holy Roman Empire – a transnational collection of territories that stretched from France into modern-day Poland and from Hamburg to Milan – was an international system that foreshadowed the European Union, with highly complex rules governing everything from trade to sovereign inheritance among princely houses.

Beyond Europe, the prospects for the Wilsonian order are bleak,” Professor Mead says, and I agree, because “The reasons behind its demise, however, are different from what many assume. Critics of the Wilsonian approach to foreign affairs often decry what they see as its idealism. In fact, as Wilson demonstrated during the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles, he was perfectly capable of the most cynical realpolitik when it suited him. The real problem of Wilsonianism is not a naive faith in good intentions but a simplistic view of the historical process, especially when it comes to the impact of technological progress on human social order. Wilson’s problem was not that he was a prig but that he was a Whig.” Mr Mead explains that “Like early-twentieth-century progressives generally and many American intellectuals to this day, Wilson was a liberal determinist of the Anglo-Saxon school; he shared the optimism of what the scholar Herbert Butterfield called “the Whig historians,” the Victorian-era British thinkers who saw human history as a narrative of inexorable progress and betterment … [I must confess to being very much a part of that tradition] … Wilson believed that the so-called ordered liberty that characterized the Anglo-American countries had opened a path to permanent prosperity and peace. This belief represents a sort of Anglo-Saxon Hegelianism and holds that the mix of free markets, free government, and the rule of law that developed in the United Kingdom and the United States is inevitably transforming the rest of the world—and that as this process continues, the world will slowly and for the most part voluntarily converge on the values that made the Anglo-Saxon world as wealthy, attractive, and free as it has become.” And I still sincerely hope that is true.

On three occasions, Mr Mead says, the end of the First World War, then end of the Second World War and, in1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed yo suggest that the Whiggish Wilson was right, but he says, “each time, like Ulysses, they were blown off course by contrary winds …[and] … Today, those winds are gaining strength. Anyone hoping to reinvigorate the flagging Wilsonian project must contend with a number of obstacles. The most obvious is the return of ideology-fueled geopolitics. China, Russia, and a number of smaller powers aligned with them—Iran, for example—correctly see Wilsonian ideals as a deadly threat to their domestic arrangements. Earlier in the post–Cold War period, U.S. primacy was so thorough that those countries attempted to downplay or disguise their opposition to the prevailing pro-democracy consensus. Beginning in U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, however, and continuing through the Trump era, they have become less inhibited. Seeing Wilsonianism as a cover for American and, to some degree, EU ambitions, Beijing and Moscow have grown increasingly bold about contesting Wilsonian ideas and initiatives inside international institutions such as the UN and on the ground in places from Syria to the South China Sea.

To make matters even worse for we Whigs and Wilsonians (and I suppose I, a 21st-century Canadian Conservative am, of necessity or by heritage, some of each), Professor Mead says that “the torrent of technological innovation and change known as “the information revolution” creates obstacles for Wilsonian goals within countries and in the international system. The irony is that Wilsonians often believe that technological progress will make the world more governable and politics more rational—even if it also adds to the danger of war by making it so much more destructive. Wilson himself believed just that, as did the postwar order builders and the liberals who sought to extend the U.S.-led order after the Cold War. Each time, however, this faith in technological change was misplaced. As seen most recently with the rise of the Internet, although new technologies often contribute to the spread of liberal ideas and practices, they can also undermine democratic systems and aid authoritarian regimes … [but] … Today, as new technologies disrupt entire industries, and as social media upends the news media and election campaigning, politics is becoming more turbulent and polarized in many countries. That makes the victory of populist and antiestablishment candidates from both the left and the right more likely in many places. It also makes it harder for national leaders to pursue the compromises that international cooperation inevitably requires and increases the chances that incoming governments will refuse to be bound by the acts of their predecessors.

Professor Mead says, in an argument that I find very compelling, that Wilsonianism was a particularly European sort of a solution to a very European problem: constant and escalating warfare. Asia, he notes, despite having had many, many wars over the millennia, was, broadly and generally, peaceful for generations at a time. China and India have both recorded centuries of peace ~ something that is extraordinarily rare in Europe. Modern day Chinese and Indian leaders might well wonder, therefore, why an American solution to a European problem should be the model for world governance. It’s a good question and it’s one for which I do not have a good answer.

For states and peoples in much of the world,” he explains, “the problem of modern history that needed to be solved was not the recurrence of great-power conflict. The problem, instead, was figuring out how to drive European powers away, which involved a wrenching cultural and economic adjustment in order to harness natural and industrial resources. Europe’s internecine quarrels struck non-Europeans not as an existential civilizational challenge to be solved … [as Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower saw them, but rather as] … a welcome opportunity to achieve independence.” 

He also explains another more ‘local’ problem: “Even within Europe,” he says, “differences in historical experiences help explain varying levels of commitment to Wilsonian ideals. Countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands came to the EU understanding that they could meet their basic national goals only by pooling their sovereignty. For many former Warsaw Pact members, however, the motive for joining Western clubs such as the EU and NATO was to regain their lost sovereignty. They did not share the feelings of guilt and remorse over the colonial past—and, in Germany, over the Holocaust—that led many in western Europe to embrace the idea of a new approach to international affairs, and they felt no qualms about taking full advantage of the privileges of EU and NATO membership without feeling in any way bound by those organizations’ stated tenets, which many regarded as hypocritical boilerplate.” This certainly explains what we see in some European nations, like Hungary for example.

I the 1910s and 20s Wilson, and Taft, Harding and Coolidge in the USA and Laurier, Borden, Meighen and King in Canada, faced many problems caused by a fast growing but poorly educated population who were easily influenced by corrupt, urban, ‘machine‘ politicians. The solution was to build the modern ‘administrative state,’ what some call the “deep state,” managed by well educated experts. But, today, in the modern wold, we have a generally well educated population and the information age has empowered people and, perhaps contradictorily ~ it is to me, anyway ~ made them less trusting in expert opinion and, therefore, in the state and in the liberal-internationalist order itself. Trump voters are one side of that coin but, I would argue that Trudeau voters, with their seemingly implicit belief in silly ideas like the Great Reset, are the other side of that coin. Populist nonsense has overtaken reason and experience, AKA science.

International institutions, like the United Nations and its many member agencies ~ think of the World Heath Organization last year ~ face even greater challenges, Professor Mead says, because, “Voters skeptical of the value of technocratic rule by fellow citizens are even more skeptical of foreign technocrats with suspiciously cosmopolitan views. Just as the inhabitants of European colonial territories preferred home rule (even when badly administered) to rule by colonial civil servants (even when competent), many people in the West and in the postcolonial world are likely to reject even the best-intentioned plans of global institutions.

For all those reasons, and others, Walter Russell Mead says that “the movement away from the Wilsonian order is likely to continue, and world politics will increasingly be carried out along non-Wilsonian and in some cases even anti-Wilsonian lines. Institutions such as NATO, the UN, and the World Trade Organization may well survive (bureaucratic tenacity should never be discounted), but they will be less able and perhaps less willing to fulfill even their original purposes, much less take on new challenges. Meanwhile, the international order will increasingly be shaped by states that are on diverging paths. This does not mean an inevitable future of civilizational clashes, but it does mean that global institutions will have to accommodate a much wider range of views and values than they have in the past.” Does that mean that Prime Minister Trudeau’s apparent aim of appeasing China is the right way to go? I think not.

There is hope that many of the gains of the Wilsonian order can be preserved,” Mr Mead writes, “and perhaps in a few areas even extended. But fixating on past glories will not help develop the ideas and policies needed in an increasingly dangerous time. Non-Wilsonian orders have existed both in Europe and in other parts of the world in the past, and the nations of the world will likely need to draw on these examples as they seek to cobble together some kind of framework for stability and, if possible, peace under contemporary conditions … [and he suggests that for US (and Canadian) policymakers] … the developing crisis of the Wilsonian order worldwide presents vexing problems that are likely to preoccupy presidential administrations for decades to come.

Professor Mead suggests that “as the Biden administration steers American foreign policy away from the nationalism of the Trump period, it will need to re-adjust the balance between the Wilsonian approach and the ideas of the other schools in light of changed political conditions at home and abroad. Similar adjustments have been made in the past. In the first hopeful years of the postwar era, Wilsonians such as Eleanor Roosevelt wanted the Truman administration to make support of the UN its highest priority. Harry Truman and his team soon saw that opposing the Soviet Union was most important and began to lay the foundations for the Cold War and containment. The shift was wrenching, and Truman only just managed to extract a lukewarm endorsement from Roosevelt during the hard-fought 1948 election. But a critical mass of Wilsonian Democrats accepted the logic that defeating Stalinist communism was an end that justified the questionable means that fighting the Cold War would require. Biden can learn from this example. Saving the planet from a climate catastrophe and building a coalition to counter China are causes that many Wilsonians will agree both require and justify a certain lack of scrupulosity when it comes to the choice of both allies and tactics … [further he says] … The Biden administration can also make use of other techniques that past presidents have used to gain the support of Wilsonians. One is to pressure weak countries well within Washington’s sphere of influence … [that very much includes Canada] … to introduce various hot-button reforms. Another is to offer at least the appearance of support for inspiring initiatives that have little prospect of success … [the whole current approach to climate change comes to mind] … As a group, Wilsonians are accustomed to honorable failure and will often support politicians based on their (presumed) noble intentions without demanding too much in the way of success.

He also says that “There are other, less Machiavellian ways to keep Wilsonians engaged. Even as the ultimate goals of Wilsonian policy become less achievable, there are particular issues on which intelligent and focused American policy can produce results that Wilsonians will like. International cooperation to make money laundering more difficult and to eliminate tax havens is one area where progress is possible … [but China will fight hard against this and Canada, as long as Justin Trudeau heads the government, will likely support it] … Concern for international public health will likely stay strong for some years after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Promoting education for underserved groups in foreign countries – women, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor – is one of the best ways to build a better world, and many governments that reject the overall Wilsonian ideal can accept outside support for such efforts in their territory as long as these are not linked to an explicit political agenda.

For now,” he concludes, “the United States and the world are in something of a Wilsonian recession. But nothing in politics lasts forever, and hope is a hard thing to kill. The Wilsonian vision is too deeply implanted in American political culture, and the values to which it speaks have too much global appeal, to write its obituary just yet.” And that is, for me, anyway, good news.

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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