Friday, February 15, 2019

A Strategy to Save the Liberal International Order

A great piece, from Jennifer Lind and William Wohlforth, at Foreign Affairs, "The Future of the Liberal Order Is Conservative: A Strategy to Save the System":

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.

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.

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. Instead of expanding it to new places and new domains, the United States and its partners should consolidate the gains the order has reaped.

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 or, at the other extreme, further extending American power and spreading American values—represent dangerous experiments. 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.

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.


Since World War II, the United States has pursued its interests in part by creating and maintaining the web of institutions, norms, and rules that make up the U.S.-led liberal order. This order is not a myth, as some allege, but a living, breathing framework that shapes much of international politics. It is U.S.-led because it is built on a foundation of American 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.

This order has expanded over time. In the years after World War II, it grew both geographically and functionally, successfully integrating two rising powers, West Germany and Japan. Supporting liberalism and interweaving their security policies with the United States’, these countries accepted the order, acting as “responsible stakeholders” well before the term was optimistically applied to China. As the Cold War played out, NATO added not just West Germany but also Greece, Turkey, and Spain. The European Economic Community (the EU’s predecessor) doubled its membership. And core economic institutions, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), broadened their remits...
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