On the Liberal International Order


This week's post was written by renowned Orientalist Express contributor Stephen Howard.

For the last 20-30 years the world has existed in an unusual state – one of a single paradigm that had absolute preeminence governed and enforced by one controlling power creating a standard of uniformity around the world. This uniformity was said to be self-reinforcing, creating stabilizing norms which in turn made the paradigm more powerful which in turn allowed the world to make more stabilizing norms. Then suddenly the LIO found itself not cheered by crowds for its promise of peace and absolute economic growth, but demonized for the globalization it was based on. This globalization was said[1] to have wrought cultural conflict between and within states, great wealth disparity, and the debasing of state sovereignty across the globe. In the wake of this such a powerful force, the citizens of the United States, the single state which governed and enforced, decided it was time to leave. They elected Donald Trump to achieve such a task, and he has thus pursued a de facto exit from the LIO[2].

I’m not here to re-litigate or examine the specific case of the US’s abrogation of leadership in the LIO, if you want to read about that there are copious articles on this[3] and other platforms that do so in detail. Instead, what I’d like to examine is the effects of this withdrawal on the premise of the Liberal International Order (LIO), and what those effects say about the order. Indeed, from a dispassionate regard it is very interesting to be able to have such an anomaly that allows for the examination of the LIO, and to examine if it was fundamentally embraced, or merely accepted, around the world. There are 3 different lenses I want to examine this through: first, what was the LIO in the first place? Second, how did the LIO interact with the world, and how will its removal effect the world? Third, how did the LIO interact with the US specifically, and how will its removal effect the US?


As Dr. Kori Schake, deputy-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former professor at Stanford, recently wrote in the New York Times: “Beginning in the wreckage of World War II, America established a set of global norms that solidified its position atop a rules based international system. These included promoting democracy, making enduring commitments to countries that share its values, protecting allies, advancing free trade and building institutions and patters on behavior that legitimize American power by giver the less power countries a say.”[4] Contrary to what Dr. Schake implies, two systems existed between the end of WWII and 1989, that which America established and that which the Soviet Union attempted to establish. Both systems competed against each other, and it is disingenuous to say that the point of the agreements the United States made at the end of WWII were made to foster global growth (indeed they were intended to combat the growing influence of the USSR)[5], but her points remain valid in regards to the LIO later on. In 1989 John Williamson described 10 economic policy recommendations, now known as the “Washington Consensus”[6], which formally defined the generally accepted US policy positions in the world, and then in 1992 Dr. Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history”[7] between the US governed system and the Soviet one. For many this progress was an inevitable chain of logic, heralding a new world order – one that emphasized democracy, individual rights, pacific resolution of disputes, and collective action against global threats: a Liberal International Order.

Dictatorships still received funding, bastions of free trade still embargoed states for political purposes, human rights abuses went overlooked if they didn’t threaten the broader international order or white population of the world, but on the whole, the LIO created a different climate internationally. Liberal rights interventions superseded the predecessor of intervention based on the national interest of a state[8]. State sovereignty was, while not exceeded by, certainly diminished relative to collective action and human rights. Foreign direct investment into all but a few countries exploded, lowering the cost of both labor and goods across the world[9]. Each of these global transformations was enabled by global institutions, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization being just a few of such institutions, and behind each the United States wielded immense power.

Without US support though, these institutions could not function properly. An institution that shows just how important US support was to the strength of these multitude comes in the form of the International Criminal Court, a court that the US participated in only obliquely and never fully supported, because it might go against US interest to do so if a US citizen committed a war crime (like Abu Ghraib)[10]. Due to this lack of support though, the ICC is regularly seen of as a joke, a place to convict the losers of war crimes while allowing the winners or other parties to do as they wish. The ICC has no other means to enforce itself other than the magnanimity of states, and when the enforcer of the superstructure refuses to fully enforce it, it has no real power whatsoever. Thus, the LIO’s institutions seem to function as a result of US power, instead of being separate from it.

These global institutions and standards persisted from George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to George W Bush, to Barack Obama in different forms, and while was sometimes strained, they existed none the less. This is what the LIO really was, institutions that magnified and intensified western view of the world, anchored by the United States. Here lies the first lesson of the LIO – it was fundamentally an American order, and without American in that order it cannot exist. Pax-Americana was the same as Pax-Britannia, just with a different state in command. Further, because the order is based on power projection by a single hegemonically powerful state, once abandoned it cannot be picked back up again.

Liberal International Order and the World

The removal of the United States, even temporarily, from the Liberal International Order has shown just how much influence the United States held of the order, bearing the question, if the order can only exist under the influence and power of the US then is it truly Liberal, International, or even an order? As stated, one of the main focuses of the LIO was to magnify US power across a spectrum of theaters by creation of institutions which formalized its power outside its boarders, but if this order was nothing more than power projection it can be amounted to begin hegemonic control over world affairs – nothing truly institutional. The World Bank, once a major tool of US foreign policy, can be replaced by the Asian Investment Bank, which does much the same thing without the political strings. The WTO seems to have little to no real power, where state driven multilateral free trade organizations with explicit political goals proliferate.

The withdrawal of the US from the LIO has greatly reduced the LIO’s appeal worldwide. As we in the Orientalist Express have discussed ourselves, the US has not just left the LIO but is actively attacking it. While it is not tearing at the very fibers of the order, it is instead attacking its façade for the sake of a studio audience, which in no way should be fatal – just demoralizing. Yet still there is a global movement away from the international and toward more regional power structures like Shanghai Cooperation Association, the Eurasian Economic Community, the African Union, and the Gulf Council. Why? If countries still saw themselves as benefiting from the LIO even without a US presence in it, the LIO would remain strong across the entire world. But it is not – instead a rise of regional powers inviting multipolarity and multiple regional orders seems to be taking its place. Only in Europe is a push afoot to save the LIO, and even that is under threat from its own countries. Further, the fact that only Europe is truly pushing to keep the order as is lends itself to the idea that the LIO was in fact a Western regional pact extended to cover the world.

What does this mean for the world today though? It means that the LIO was in some sense unnatural, and bound to be broken eventually. It was, as stated, arbitrarily imposed by a single hegemonically powerful state which everyone just hoped would always act in good faith. Even with the moderating force of democracy, a state cannot hope to always make good decisions. If there is little to no allowance for the most powerful state to make mistakes, then the system will fail. After this break comes the multipolarity that has been noted, as the world power system re-adjusts to the current realities.

To say that a global multipolarity is the natural way of the world itself would be to stretch the truth. In ancient, classical, and medieval times it is true that global multipolarity was a fact. But this was more as a result of the technological difficulty to project power over long distances than it was any natural balance. Starting in the renaissance, a consolidation of power began to take place due to the caravel’s ability to project power across oceans, and the gun’s ability to kill with little to no know how. From this time, successive hegemons competed to control all of Europe, and Europe to control colonies around the world. Phillip’s Spain, Louis XIV’s France, Elizabeth’s Great Britain, each in turn sought to create their own world order through empire in their time. But each empire has failed, if not after one generation or two, then after three or four. None have lasted as real uncontested international empire for longer than two or three generations. When Pax-Britannia gave way to Pax-Americana, we believed everything had changed, that history was at an end. Now we find ourselves at the end of that Pax-Americana. It remains to be seen what the future will shape up to be, another order or some form of a multipolar world.

LIO and the US

What the fall of the LIO also shows is the still great, if no longer hegemonic, power the United States wields. Regardless of how strong the amplification power of the LIO were for US power before the US decided to forsake it, it required monumental amounts of power to just create the institutions it did, and further to keep them politically viable for over 70 years after they were created. As many have written, it must bear in the calculations that the other powers after WWII were so dramatically reduced in power that, with US power growing still, this was very much a singular moment in history and the relative power of one state compared to the rest of the world will never be quite the same. Europe has rebuilt, China has fulfilled its potential, India and other colonized states took self-rule for themselves and despite the challenges that all new states encounter, have grown and matured in power. While the US has grown too, simple economics of convergence declares that it is easier to catch up than it is to hack through the unknown, and that while US power has not diminished when compared to itself, relative to other states it is diminishing.

Further, it shows the pool of talent and potential that the United States still has. The abandoning of the LIO was not a forgone conclusion, and the “swamp” of DC should be recognized in having had the ability to dominate it. These people may leave government service in the short run, but (hopefully!) will find there ways back into US diplomatic, economic, and military institutions. Once back, while they will not have the same scope they were once able to work with, they will still be working with the most powerful state in this part of the globe, if not still the entire globe. Much of their potential can be channeled into re-building regional agreements such as NAFTA, and furthering the cause of integration between the Caribbean and other Latin American states in the US near abroad.

Lastly, the United States was the main enforcer of the world. While the US will have diminished ability to project power across massive areas of land, it should be recognized that the US Navy is still the single largest in the world, and the projection power of American aircraft carriers will still allow it to dominate large tracts of oceans. If, though, the United States military is replaced by more regional powers in the coming years, the US should be able to scale down the amount of military personnel it has, withdrawing to a more overseas position.

This all does bear the question: if the US still has the same military power it had before, why not take what it wants to keep its order alive? The answer to that question is that it fundamentally redefines the LIO in a way that no state will be willing to accept. This would be Napoleon sending his armies to Moscow to protect the Continental System, or Atlee sending allied troops to take the Suez for the sake of the current world order. Sure, in the short term it can be done, but the effects, physical or psychological, when the enterprise falls apart due to sustained and universal resistance are catastrophic for the state that tries to do so. Overreach in pursuit of bygone glory is more dangerous than any withdraw to a more manageable position, if history councils anything.


[1] https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/13/how-globalization-went-bad/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37982000

[3] http://orientalistexpress.com/blog/liopanel

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/opinion/sunday/trump-china-america-first.html

[5] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-06-14/myth-liberal-order

[6] https://piie.com/publications/papers/williamson0904-2.pdf

[7] “The Last Man and the End of History”, Francis Fukuyama, 1992

[8] http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0199267219.001.0001/acprof-9780199267217-chapter-5

[9] https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/foreign-direct-investment

[10] https://www.state.gov/j/gcj/icc/