Paeans to the ‘Postwar Order’ Won’t Save Us


Quite a specimen appeared in the New York Times two Saturdays ago, though you could be forgiven if you passed it by.

In a paid ad, 43 professors of international relations lent their signatures to an open letter entitled “Why We Should Preserve International Institutions and Order.” Not every day do such personages — Harvard’s Joseph Nye, Princeton’s Robert Keohane, and Stanford’s Stephen Krasner, to name a few — go before the public to voice political concerns. But clearly they think the Trumpian times demand it because the president of the United States seems to threaten the very international order that America designed. “Today,” they warn, “the international institutions supporting the postwar order are under attack by President Donald J. Trump.”

Since the ad ran, an online version has amassed more than 500 signatures, and counting. It reads like a who’s who of international relations scholars and international political economists, with some notable holdouts. The quantity and pedigree of the signatories suggests that a new expert foreign-policy consensus has formed in the Trump era — a consensus in favor of defending “the international order formed after World War II,” as the ad calls it.

Whom do these professors hope to persuade? In three short paragraphs, their ad lists four postwar institutions, asserts that the United States benefitted from them, and urges “U.S. leadership” to sustain them in the future. For readers previously unaware of international institutions, the insipid prose (“Although the United States has paid a significant share of the costs of this order since its inception, it has greatly benefitted from its rewards”) is unlikely to earn their enthusiasm or fire their curiosity. On the other hand, readers who know a bit are given little of substance, not even a reference to further reading. (Readers may also wonder why half of the “postwar institutions” the ad names — the World Trade Organization and European Union — came into being in the 1990s.)

Presentation aside, the pitch itself is too capacious to be meaningful. Institutions, in general, have done good things, the ad claims. Perhaps so. But that insight does nothing to address actual questions about actual institutions, such as the point Trump actually makes about NATO: Shouldn’t America’s allies pay more for their defense? As Paul Staniland argues, to pine for the so-called postwar international order implies little for policy, since the “order” has contained drastic variations in time and space, spanning the gamut, for example, from intimate institutions in Europe to bilateral arrangements in East Asia to sporadic, more overtly coercive alliances in the global South.

When scholars take a public stand, they ought to elevate public debate. This latest effort, a fair representation of the anti-Trump consensus, does the opposite. Instead of crystallizing alternatives, it proselytizes the one true path, deviants be damned. More than advancing reasoned arguments, it relies on assertion and appeals to authority. Rather than clarify, it mystifies.

The effort resembles one deployed to no effect in the last election, when dozens of bipartisan national-security experts penned open letters blasting Trump as unfit for the presidency. Those letters were, if anything, superior to the latest offering. At least they spoke a language comprehensible to most people, calling Trump “erratic,” “dangerous,” and “reckless.” Yet what they mainly achieved was to prove that their target was an outsider, burnishing Trump’s image as the candidate who recognized the country’s “long history of failed policies and continued losses” and pledged to act differently.

The election delivered a stunning rebuke to the people who have made U.S. foreign policy and steered the public debate. One might have expected them to change — to make a determined effort to repair their legitimacy with millions of their fellow citizens. They could have begun by acknowledging that the past two decades, marked by the 9/11 attack in America and endless, fruitless war abroad, have been unacceptable. They could have continued by launching ambitious efforts to understand and channel public sentiment. And they could have tried to inform the public about current challenges, talking concretely about the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.

On each count, foreign policy experts have possibly gotten worse, not better, as the Times advertisement succinctly illustrates. Instead of recognizing past mistakes, the ad holds up the pre-Trump era as its lodestar. The old order, apparently, was not only acceptable but a world-historical triumph. We need to “preserve” it, not to confront its failings or build something better. Toward the end, the ad concedes the need for “major changes,” but whatever they are remains a mystery. (Elsewhere Jeff Colgan, Robert Keohane, and Bruce Jentleson, among others, have been more specific.) The nostalgia is as unmistakable as it is out of step with recent and ongoing problems. As Stephen Walt writes in his dissent from the letter, “We should be spending less time looking backward and defending a troubled status quo, and spend more time thinking about how the current situation can be improved.”

Most important, “international order” talk stifles rather than sharpens debate. As the politics of foreign policy intensifies, paeans to the order smother real choices. They fold vital issues into a massive abstraction (whose coherence even its proponents struggle to defend, as Patrick Porter demonstrates). “The order” diverts our gaze away from concrete choices, which have tangible costs and benefits. That is the ground Trump prowls. It’s also the ground where foreign policy debates typically take place, including during the heyday of the postwar order. To cede this ground to Trump is political and intellectual malpractice. Confronted with a choice between “America First” and “the postwar international order,” voters will opt for what they understand and identify with, what evokes a better future. Does anyone really think “the order” will win?

By making a slogan of the “liberal international order” — a term that has entered into general usage only in our current moment — Trump’s critics increasingly sound like the “globalists” whom Trump caricatured in the campaign and loves to position himself against. They submerge American interests into the world’s, allowing Trump to stand out by recognizing conflicts between the two. Nor do “order” advocates compensate by advancing a robust international solidarity to counter Trump’s xenophobia. Their timid internationalism summons Americans to cooperate only with a faceless, agentless order, and on the condition that the United States be its leader and set its rules. As the ad states, “the United States has gained disproportionate influence on setting the rules of international exchange and security cooperation in ways that reflect its interests around the globe.” Despite claiming a seven-decade pedigree, the defense of the “liberal order” is surprisingly vulnerable to attack from each side, for it offers a nationalism that dares not to speak its name, and an internationalism afraid to walk the talk.

International order is a question, not an answer. What kind of world do we want? How are we to get there? The Trump presidency probably augurs the reopening of fundamental questions more than it points toward any particular shape of things to come. So be it. Fellow citizens, in a democratic society, should be welcomed into the debate about their nation’s world role. Yet I can’t help but read elegies to the postwar order as a form of wishing politics away. The postwar order, to the extent it existed then, won’t save us now, and longing for it only elevates the forces of movement — those who, for better or worse, identify new challenges and propose creative ways to meet them.

Which makes the backward-facing stance of so many admirable and intelligent people a revealing phenomenon. If they wished only to preserve the status quo ante Trump, they ought to heed the words of Tancredi Falconeri, the 19th-century Sicilian aristocrat from Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” Yet too many academics and think-tankers are acting otherwise, staying the same while complaining that everything around them is changing.

Breaking the ossification will require the emergence of new thinkers, leaders, and institutions willing to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the American people. Citizens and experts undertook such efforts after the Vietnam war, yet the last two decades’ calamity in the Middle East has not prompted a comparable reckoning. As a result, public anger has been left to stew and then boil over in national elections, helping to bring two unorthodox candidates, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, to their parties’ nominations and then the presidency.

If Trump can bring a mostly old, white demographic around to an unconventional foreign policy, imagine what the rising generation might contemplate. Already, according to a recent survey, less than half of millennials deem U.S. military superiority to be very important. They also doubt American exceptionalism, becoming the first age group on record to split evenly on whether the United States is the greatest country in the world or no greater than other nations. These instincts, heterodox though they are, should come as no surprise for a generation raised after the Cold War and maturing in the war on terror and the crash. The question is whether current experts will engage them, giving form to their instincts. If not, the future will belong to others.


Stephen Wertheim is a lecturer in history at Birkbeck, University of London. He is writing a book on the birth of U.S. global supremacy in World War II. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwertheim.

Image: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons