The pre-Trump establishment is anxiously discussing among themselves such questions as ‘is this the end game of liberalism’ and ‘how best to revive liberalism under present conditions?’ The contrary question I pose is the one assumed by the Washington/New York elites, that is, whether liberalism in its present and recent forms is worth saving. There is an embedded language problem. The mainstream arbiters of ‘political correctness’ here in the United States treat being liberal as a kind of leftist orientation associated with Democrats, being soft of crime, beholden to minorities, and friendly toward gay marriage and trans people, but such a designation is highly misleading when used to depict international policy positions. In these contexts, liberal is used synonymously with contemporary capitalism as currently ideologized as neoliberal globalization. True, ‘liberal’ in American political discourse is often used domestically to identify those who support civil liberties, a suspicion of state power, rights of suspected criminals, regulation of the police, the abolition of capital punishment, are suspicious of the military industrial complex, pro-UN and pro-human rights, and sometimes dislike military adventures abroad, but far from always. These ‘liberal’ positions tends to be situated left of center. These kinds of liberals overlap to a considerable degree with those on the right who champion market forces as protected by the American global state as the foundation of world order, and laud the achievements and benefits of international liberalism. That is, many Republican conservatives have long been collaborated international liberals, while decrying the social damage that they attribute to domestic liberalism.
Almost twenty years ago I published a small book, Predatory Globalization: A Critique (Polity, 1999), and although it needs updating, its central argument about the failings of international liberalism continue to seem relevant, perhaps, more so than when published. In the interim, these failings have given rise to an angry backlash that currently imperils the post-Cold War rule-based liberal international order, more popularly known as ‘the Washington consensus.’ The defining feature of this approach is its economistic view of the world, which contrasts with the outlook associated with old-fashioned European-schooled realists such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, and such American-oriented counterparts as George Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington who interpret the world through a predominantly geopolitical optic.
Perhaps, John Ikenberry is the most articulate, informed, and humane exponent of international liberalism, initially emergent after 1945 at the end of World War II, and then revamped significantly, in the Reagan/Thatcher years in the 1980s in ways that accentuated the autonomy of transnational capital flows in the 1990s in the triumphalist period after the end of the Cold War. [For a full presentation of Ikenberry’s views see his Liberal Leviathan (2011)] In two recent issues of Foreign Affairs several articles set forth the normative case for liberalism, insisting that compared to all past “imperial and anarchic systems..the liberal order stands alone.” [G. John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9 (2017). Ikenberry goes on to explain his affirmation: “..in terms of wealth creation, the provision of physical security and economic stability, and the promotion of human rights and political protections, no other order in history comes close.” In other words, so far as human experience is concerned, the world has never had as good as under liberalism. Gideon Rose, editor of this prestigious and influential organ of the American liberal establishment, echoes this mood of liberalism under imminent siege due to Trumpism, by observing that “if the new administration tries to put [its anti-liberal] vision into practice, it will call into question the crucial role of the United States as the defender of the liberal international order as a whole, not just the country’s own national interests.” [Foreign Affairs 96:1 (2017)] One doesn’t need to be a cryptographer to read such an admonition as celebrating the marriage of capitalism and militarism under the banner of the liberal internatonal order, which could be more transparently labeled as the American ‘global domination project.’ Rose is hopeful that once Trump starts governing he will see the light, and avoid a damaging retreat from its global leadership role. Some commentators regard Trump’s retreat from his most confrontational campaign positions on trade and economic nationalism as already vindicating this expectation.
For Ikenberry also, the demonic forces threatening the downfall of this best of all possible worlds are associated with the worldview of Donald Trump as he articulated it throughout his presidential campaign and in inaugural address, further reinforced by his extremist cabinet appointments and the issuance of several early policy directives emanating from the White House. In sum, Ikenberry regards early Trumpism as “a frontal attack on the core convictions of the postwar U.S. global project,” although after 100 days seems to be moving toward an embrace of the national security consensus, although it is too soon to tell which way the tree will fall.
Ikenberry explains what he means by setting forth the beneficial elements of the liberal economic order that he believes threatened by Trump’s feared nationalist approach. First, comes ‘internationalism,’ the commitment to a robust international engagement based on “rules, institutions, partners, and relationships,” and concretized in the form of security alliances. Trump clearly draws this bedrock approach into question by his ‘America First’ rhetoric and his apparent demand that close allies begin to pay their fair share or even act to uphold their security by developing their own needed military capabilities, even possibly nuclear weapons, without hovering any longer under America’s nuclear umbrella. Again, the evidence of whether Trump really intends to follow through on such departures from American foreign policy orthodoxy is difficult to assess at this point.
A second feature of international liberalism is the dependence upon a closely related open international trading and investment framework, including mechanisms for involving disputes with foreign governments arising over contested economic policies. Trump is criticized by liberals for adopting a transactional approach to trade and investment issues, an approach that looks for favorable deals rather than for the establishment of mutual beneficial cooperative frameworks, and capriciously risks the revival of protectionist regimes, imposing high tariffs, border taxes, and other burdens on imports that would invite retaliation by adversely affected trading partners.
The third pillar of Ikenberry’s version of liberalism is the network of institutions and rules that allegedly lent stability to a market-based world economy. It remains anchored in the so-called Bretton Woods institutions established after World War II, as well as the World Trade Organization and the UN. For Ikenberry this was a system that bound states together in mutually beneficial webs of interdependence and cooperation designed to deal effectively with both routine and crisis situations as these arose in the world economy. Ikenberry regards Trump’s stress on nationalist priorities as a serious threat to multilateralism in general, and thus as undermining America’s credibility as global leader.
The fourth pillar of the liberal edifice endangered by Trump is the challenge directed as America’s traditional support for receptivity to immigrants and societal openness. The crusade against illegal immigrants, constructing a massive wall on the Mexican border, and a general espousal of nationalist priorities adds up to an embrace of exclusionary nationalism, which again weakens the legitimacy of American global leadership, giving a nationalist edge to hostile populist backlashes against globalization already evident around the world.
Fifth and finally, Trump is derided by international liberals because he is seen as abandoning the bonding of likeminded liberal democracies as the basis for an extra-national ‘security community.’ Ikenberry notes with derision that Trump “trusts Merkel and Putin equally,” which implicitly repudiates the relationship between domestic liberalism and international cooperation. It is contended that such a leveling of relationship tempts America’s former closest friends to hedge their bets by forging more diverse alignments that could be better trusted to uphold their security and contribute to their prosperity under conditions of diplomatic uncertainty.
In the end Ikenberry is convinced that Trump, unless restrained (or self-restrained), will damage the liberal approach to world order, but Trump is not able to destroy the liberal edifice all by himself. Ikenberry hopes that other forces at home and abroad will create sufficient resistance to lead Trump to revise his policy agenda in ways compatible with the liberal agenda. He ends his article with these words: “If the liberal democratic world is to survive, its champions will have to find their voice and act with more conviction.” Such an expectation is rather opaque with respect to specifics as we do not know exactly who are these ‘champions’ or what they might do unless Ikenberry is hoping for the mobilization and intervention of the ‘deep state.’ If this is the case he should be mildly reassured by recent developments, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield and the bellicose diplomatic response to North Korea’s nuclear program.
Joseph Nye, the doyen of celebrants of the benign effects of US global leadership also exhibits similar concerns about the Trump threat to the postwar global liberal order that Ikenberry seeks to sustain. [See Nye, “Will the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:10-16 (2017)] For Nye “[t]he liberal international order that emerged after 1945 was a loose array of multilateral institutions in which the United States provided global public goods such as freer trade and freedom of the seas and weaker states were given access to the exercise of American power.” This strikes me as a peculiarly elliptical formulation, which presupposes that it is beneficial for weaker states to be given “access’’ to American power, whatever that access might mean as a practical matter! And we know what it meant for countries whose governments were perceived as moving left such as Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Vietnam (1963-1975). Nye does acknowledge that in the past there were “bitter debates and partisan differences over military interventions” but concludes by affirming “the demonstrable success of the order in helping to 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.” There is revealingly no reference to the various failed American interventions in Muslim majority states or the rise of Islamophobia in the West. Nye considers the threat to international liberalism posed by the rise of China, the general diffusion of power internationally, and the rise of non-state transnational forces, yet he exhibits confidence that the liberal order can effectively cope with these challenges. What worries Nye most are not these challenges from without, but the challenge from within.
In this regard, Nye like Ikenberry, and the American national security establishment worry most about the rise of an illiberal populism within the United States that is hostile to economic globalization and its frameworks of multilateral rules and institution. Without mentioning Trump by name, Nye believes that polarization at home will diminish the effectiveness of a liberal order that he believes depends upon a continuation of a central American role in global policymaking and security arenas with respect to both hard and soft power. Nye believes that this role is imperiled by “[p]olitical fragmentation and demagoguery,” which undermine the ability of the U.S. “to provide responsible political leadership.” Nye ends his essay on a forlorn note, suggesting that “Americans and others may not notice the security and prosperity that the liberal order provides until they are gone—but by then it may be too late.” In effect, Nye is of the opinion that a danger is the tendency for Americans to take the benefits of liberalism for granted, and thus be complacent about its protection.
A more European perspective, more nuanced and less U.S.-centric, is provided by Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House (the British counterpart to the Council on Foreign Relations) [Niblett, “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream,” Foreign Affairs 96:17-24(2017). Although agreeing with Nye that the main threat is internal as well as sharing the view of both Ikenberry and Nye that populism is challenging the liberal order, Niblett points out that the limitations of American-led global leadership preceded Trump. Niblett believes that the effort to spread the values and institutions of liberalism in the post-colonial world were not generally successful, failing most spectacularly in the Middle East, exemplified by the tragic fate of Syria. Niblett also stresses the innovative contributions to liberalism by way of the pooled sovereignty that characterized the European Union, which he believed to be the cutting edge of “a new liberalism” exhibiting many capabilities that exceeded those of states acting on their own, but he regards this promising past to be in deep trouble in the post-Brexit era. In this regard, Niblett is implicitly critical of those American intellectuals who think that liberalism is essentially an American contribution to world order, and do not properly acknowledge the co-equal European role.
Niblett is not optimistic about restoring the kind of liberalism that Ikenberry and Nye believe produced a long period of relative security and rapid economic growth and stability. Instead he sees things falling apart: “..over the past decade, buffeted by financial crises, populist insurgencies, and the resurgence of authoritarian powers, the liberal international order has stumbled.” He attributes this downward spiral to “deep unease with globalization,” which is not likely to be soon reversed, and certainly not merely by reining in Trump. In Niblett’s view the liberal order has been decisively weakened in the West and can no longer serve as the basis of a coherent world order. Despite Niblett’s sensitivity to the weakness of liberalism his hopes for the future rest on the willingness to work out a kind of pragmatic coexistence between liberal and illiberal states reinforced by a continued realization that “a liberal international economic order” is indispensable for the maintenance of the “prosperity and internal security of both types of states.” Note that this kind of diversely constituted community of states challenges the Ikenberry/Nye emphasis on domestic constitutionalism as an essential element of the international liberal approach to world order. In effect, Niblett detaches domestic public order considerations from the viability of international liberalism.
Despite this, Niblett sees the future as shaped by a new phase of ideological competition for hearts and minds, this time between liberalism and authoritarianism (fueled by right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism) as alternative internal public order systems. He concludes by observing “[i]f history is any guide, liberal democracy is the best bet.”
I can only wonder whether history is a trustworthy guide in the twenty-first century, given the radical and unprecedented challenges confronting a state-centric system with very little capacity to generate global public goods, or to promote global interests as distinct from aggregating national interests. It is questionable whether the affirmation of the past American role as global leader during a period when the liberal consensus prevailed internally, at least in the West, can withstand critical scrutiny, given the degrees of inequality, persisting poverty, refusals to work toward nuclear disarmament, marginalization of the UN and international law with respect to war/peace issues, and patterns of militarism and interventionary diplomacy. What seems beyond serious question is that the collapse of this internal liberal consensus here in the United States, which long preceded Trump’s shattering of any illusions about the continuity of American foreign policy, makes impossible any reasonable expectation of responsible U.S. leadership in the near future. Although Obama was a dedicated domestic and international liberal, efforts to promote his policy agenda were increasingly stymied by a right-leaning Republican Congress, and when it came to counter-terrorism, his approach did not depart very significantly from the preferences of his illiberal critics. Whether it is any longer even accurate to locate the United States on the liberal side of the geopolitical balance sheet is an open question.
Other liberal heavyweights were also participants in this debate about the future of world order, which centered on offering prescriptive suggestions to offset the advent of Trump. For instance, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, the publisher of Foreign Affairs, has his own way of trying to adapt to the challenges of the present. [Haass, “World Order 2.0: The Case for Soverign Obligation,” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9] He accurately avoids putting all the blame on Trump, and considers the problem of change in the global policy agenda to be at the root of the challenge to international liberalism, and seems to suggest that a response requires recasting the Westphalian state in rather fundamental ways. He rests his hopes for the future on states accepting a new identity that gives central importance to what he calls ‘sovereign obligation,’ the responsibility that each state should accept to gear its policies toward the provision of global public goods, a move so fundamental as to give rise to ‘World Order 2.0.’ We are never told how at a time of resurgent and inward looking nationalism almost everywhere, the political energy will come for such a deep change in the approach of governments to the balancing of national interests against the wider claims of global wellbeing. Underneath this call by Haass for reform is an affirmation similar to that of Ikenberry, regarding globalization, benign U.S. leadership, and mutually beneficial international cooperation as indispensable.
What is most missing from this debate, aside from self-scrutiny, is the failure to appreciate that Trump and the populist surge, are trivial distractions from addressing the more fundamental challenges to the very survival of the human species. There seemed absent from the Foreign Affairs symposium any awareness that nuclear weaponry and climate change are generating a biopolitical moment that is testing whether the human species has a sufficient collective will to survive to surmount the current array of global challenges. Whether we realize it or not, we may be living in end-times, meaning that the christening of this age as ‘the anthropocene’ is nothing more than an indirect acknowledgement of human responsibility for the ascendance of negativity.
Liberalism is an intergovernmental structure maintained and enforced by geopolitical actors, chiefly the United States. What is required to address the challenges of the biopolitical moment are globally constituted problem-solving mechanisms. Such mechanisms can alone provide enough support to achieve global public goods under current conditions, but are prevented from coming into being by the interacting resistance of global market forces and state-centrism. Only civil society militancy on an unprecedented scale can create a mandate for the kind of global transformation in ideas and structures are necessary to enable a sustainable future resting on the values of eco-humanism. If this analysis is correct, Trumpism and liberalism are nothing but sideshows.