Response To "On the Liberal International Order"


The world-changing events of 2016 (Brexit, the US Election) and beyond have sparked intense debate within the foreign policy community about the death of the "Liberal International Order." This American-led order, founded in the ruins of the Second World War, emphasizes democratic governance and economic openness as the cornerstones of peace and prosperity throughout the world. In Stephen Howard's "On the Liberal International Order," a compelling case is made that this global order has seen its end following the election of Trump and his attacks on critical institutions of the order such as the United Nations, the NATO alliance, and the World Trade Organization. Though I do not dispute that the order is in decline, I do not yet believe the Liberal International Order is over.

As one of the foundational elements of the LIO, the NATO alliance remains strong. Though Trump attacked this alliance (whose primary goal is to counter Russian aggression) throughout his campaign, he quickly reversed course after it became clear that such a stance would be unacceptable for the United States. More recently, his calls for other nations to spend the required two percent of GDP on defense is no different than the pledge that was already made by all NATO nations to do the same back in 2014. The only difference is his rhetoric on the issue. NATO has actually been emboldened by Russian aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. The nations of the alliance are upgrading equipment and conducting multiple joint military exercises to demonstrate their continued resolve.


As part of this, the American military and navy remain the most powerful forces in the world. If the LIO and America's power were truly crumbling, we would see the United States retrenching completely from global defense by closing foreign military bases and halting its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea. What has taken a hit is America's ability to project its power and influence throughout the world. As Stephen rightfully points out, one of the most important features of the LIO is that it allows the United States to amplify its reach as the head of critical global institutions. When the United States attacks these institutions, it is essentially attacking itself.

The European Union, though strained, remains intact despite rising authoritarianism. Yes, some nations like Hungary and Poland seem to be on the path towards dictatorship, but nearly all of Eastern Europe was once under an authoritarian regime while other nations remained democratic. Furthermore, democracy is not a black and white concept. There are varying degrees of republican-style representation that exist throughout the world. Many of the Western European nations also remain strongly allied with each other, while their internal politics are shoring up their defenses against continued Russian election meddling.

Remember when hanging chads were the worst election problem?

Remember when hanging chads were the worst election problem?

Finally, the LIO is also about economic interdependence. It is well known in international relations circles that nations which have very strong trade relationships are less likely to go to war with each other. The president's tariffs are not likely to remain in place for long as they completely (and unnecessarily) isolate the Untied States from global markets. Eventually, American stock markets will react accordingly. Other nations are not rushing to adopt the same protectionist trade policies (because they have a basic understanding of how economic markets work). So the close economic ties that the LIO helped create will remain.

Sure, other nations and our current allies are hitting back and discussing plans for a post-American world. But this is the natural reaction that other nations will have when they are verbally attacked, while others are just hedging against American retrenchment. Others are still acknowledging the reality of America's continued power (as witnessed by France effectively reimposing sanctions on  Iran). Yes, the prestige of the US is taking a hit (and the LIO with it), but the same could have been said during the Iraq invasion.

Still can't live that one down.

Still can't live that one down.

The decline of the United States relative to the rest of the world is not a shortcoming of the LIO, it may actually be a feature. The LIO was created to lift other nations out of poverty and create interdependence as a means to prevent global war. And at this point, removing itself from the LIO will cause far more damage to American global influence than attempting to undermine and destroy the system. Where other nations and other systems of power would have sought to destroy competitors, the nations that created the LIO sought to redirect the power and ascendancy of other nations away from military conquests and towards economic interdependence.

Ultimately, it comes down to who the next president will be and when. I certainly agree with Stephen that there are ways in which the United States can regain much of its lost prestige and reinvent the LIO into something more appropriate for the modern day. But if Trump remains in office for another six years, it may certainly spell the end of the LIO. Other presidents would likely have been able to manage the rise of other nations without jeopardizing America's core national security. His rhetorical attacks against American power have been bad enough, but his actions are increasingly becoming threatening. What's even more concerning is the closeness with which his recent statements and policy positions mirror those of Russia. Make no mistake, the Russian Federation does not want to see America or the LIO succeed and will do everything it can to tear down this order. If the president is truly compromised by an adversarial foreign nation, then this could help explain to our allies the causes of our recent intransigence. If he isn't, then his actions are disturbingly similar to what the Russian government would like to see anyway. Either way, it's not an exaggeration to say that what's happening is a threat to global security. When a powerful nation abdicates its role on the world stage, it invites a power struggle. And when this happens, the likelihood of conflict increases dramatically.