Panel Discussion: The Liberal International Order

This week's post is an edited transcript of a panel discussion featuring many of our usual blog and podcast contributors. One contributor requested to remain anonymous and has been assigned the pseudonym "Max." 



Stephen: Can the liberal international order (LIO) survive without U.S. leadership? If the U.S. still continues to represent the LIO and has unprecedented unpopularity, does that also doom the LIO?

World's Approval of U.S. Leadership Drops to New Low


Max: Probably. The Chinese are still two decades out from being able to take over the order.


Matthew: I think Trump is speeding the process up by promoting a reduction in American influence on liberal order. By creating that "liberal vacuum" it also means other countries get to play a bigger role and even modify what the international liberal order looks like.

Liberalism evolving to be more economic, less civic.

Could happen if America decides it hates international trade deals, doesn't like NATO, or NAFTA, thanks to folks like Trump, and in the U.K. folks like UKIP.

Meaning places like China with its trade unions could play a bigger influence.

China has the SCO for example.

Russia has a Eurasian Economic Union as well.

These trade networks could get bigger and stronger if the WTO takes a back seat.


Stephen: If a different anchor takes leadership of the LIO, is it still the LIO? So if China, even in ten years, takes leadership, can we even say the same thing exists? Seems to me that the changes wanted by revisionist states destroy the concept of the LIO


Max: They thrive in the order but also like any great power (us included) they definitely boss around their neighbors

So I see them being like us.

Use it to exert influence flaunt it when they want to.


Valida: Some of those states think that the liberal international order is over so your concept, Stephen may be nonexistent from their perspective.

Just a thought, China or Russia might take leadership in 10 years, but I slightly doubt it because of so many challenges they face internally.

I was listening to this earlier this week. You guys will enjoy it

Niall Ferguson versus Fareed Zakaria: Is the Liberal International Order Over?


Max: The Chinese yes.

Russia is a backwater power that rules through thuggery.

Besides being good at information operations, they represent no real threat to the world order and definitely will never run it.


Valida: Historically they did once, so I wouldn't rule them out again with so much confidence.


Max: Their economy is the size of California.

Structural issues due to crony capitalism further diminishes it.

Their military is still made up largely of conscripts and poorly equipped.

Besides central asia and Belarus, they are kind of just there.

Lol and Serbia, I forgot that mighty regime.


Valida: Good points but I still think they use every tool available to them to test Western Nations and they are defining politics by spheres of influence. Regardless if Russia was ruled out from being a threat there wouldn't be so much talk or literature about it's threat in American politics and even culture. Looking at it from my perspective as a foreigner 🙂


Max: Thats a good point. I am a little biased. I was in Ukraine in 2015 training Ukrainians to kill Russians and everything I could gather from conversations about warfare on the eastern front the Russians were quite incompetent. I have followed their major exercises as a hobby and they just don't have the resources for major land warfare and their navy is a joke when it comes to power projection. My country needs to calm down the red horde died in the 90s.

They did do a wonderful job figuring out our culture is our weak point and exploiting that through social media. So in that regard they are quite the clever foe.


Stephen: That last point is right on the mark. While I also am skeptical about any long or medium term success options for a country with such a warped economy and authoritarian leadership, it's worth noting that Russia has some serious perceived momentum right now, and that can allow it to coast on no gas for quite a distance.


Valida: That's really interesting, I'm not really educated on the military side of countries. But it's always nice to know that perspective on things. Regarding exploitation, I think they figured out quicker that sure legislation and other aspects of politics are important but ruling is done through shaping the culture and minds of people.


Nick: I agree that China is the larger threat to the order long term.  Russia is unstable long term and I think one of the biggest problems will be what happens once Russia starts to decline again and its people realize that Putin's power and prestige was mostly an illusion.  That sort of psychological hit can’t be good for such a proud culture.


Valida: I think that they will have a psychological hit when they elect someone new. There were so many instances when Putin’s power could have declined but they all have increased his approval ratings among his people: Syria, Ukraine and especially the relations with U.S.


Nick: There is actually a great episode of the Lawfare podcast a couple weeks ago that discussed this issue. Putin will naturally want to leave a legacy, but how does he keep up the lie that his policies help more than just his cronies after he is gone?

Lawfare: What Putin Really Wants

Also this:

Mattis: US national security focus no longer terrorism

Its about time.


Stephen: Right!? I can't express how delighted I was when I saw this. I'm even happier with the extension of this, that we will now focus on "Great power competition", which I truly believe is the most important issue we deal with.


Nick: Yes we have had this ridiculous fixation on terrorism at the expense of true national security threats.


Valida: I thought the same thing reading it this morning.


Nick: Maybe the national security sector should read our blog sometime!


Valida: Haha learn a thing or two 😀


Matthew: My two cents? the most important terrorism for anyone to focus on is domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism is often more organic and grassroots.

International Terrorism costs lots of $$$ and is often backed by... you guessed it.... great powers!

So I see the intersection of the two, it doesn't have to be a binary choice.


Stephen: So, Matthew, as I've only disagreed with you thus far, and am about to continue to do so, I can only assume that we are destined to clash (if you can call nuanced and civil debate "clashing") as we move forward, and am hereby unilaterally declaring you my nemesis within this group! 🙂

That being said, I definitely (although respectfully) disagree with you on this topic. First, domestic terrorism, while mildly important, I don't believe comes anywhere near an existential threat worthy of being a U.S. priority, not to mention a military/foreign policy problem. Domestic terrorism is best taken care of by domestic security, mainly the police forces, and definitely by the state in which it occurs.

Second, while some militant non-governmental organizations (MNGO's) receive cursory and sometimes significant state support, their actions are significantly detached from what the state supporters would like them to do. I.e. Iran supports Hizbullah and Houthis because those groups goals help Iran's goals. It's not the common portrayal of the group exists to do the states bidding. The groups are mostly autonomous and make decisions based on the groups best interests, not the state supporters.

Lastly, I do believe that the two are very much separable. As implied by my previous statement, states and MNGO's are not single entities and the separation of the two allows us to interact with states outside of the "terrorism" context which, for the majority of my lifetime, has been the vouge. U.S.-Russian relations are not dependent on ISIS, and should not be treated as such. Same with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other MNGO supporting states. These relationships are (or should be) structural, and if we decide that the two cannot be separated to some extent we will be bound in mutually destructive relationships like that we have with Pakistan.


Nick: I mostly agree with Stephen that physical terrorism is by and large a domestic problem. At least in Western countries, direct physical terror attacks are not nefariously masterminded by enemy nations, they are usually the result of lone bad actors who are "inspired" by an online instigator or idea. However, I think we should distinguish between physical terrorism and psychological terrorism. One could argue that Russia is engaging in a sort of psychological warfare by using democratic free expression to disrupt governmental function and societal cohesion. The atmosphere polarizes to the point where people are terrified of what the "other side" might do.


Valida: I agree with both of you Nick and Stephen. I think it's interesting that Western Nations are more focused on physical terror. However countries like Russia and many more focus on domestic terrorism and try to fight it by engaging in a psychological warfare, by limiting free speech in fear that it might disrupt and brainwash society with foreign "Western" ideas. It was interesting to observe that as slowly relations with America were declining, Russia stopped broadcasting American movies on their channels. It's so fascinating though that free speech and media has had a tremendous impact on the world, especially the Arab world during the Arab spring or mobile revolution.


Nick: So maybe if we can just get the Russians to start watching Die Hard again we can all live in peace!