Reflections on Ordering the World

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Patrick Porter, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity Press, 2020)


In 1985, the historian William H. McNeil wrote an essay that challenged the idea of history as a means for avoiding the mistakes of the past. According to McNeill, the study of history was imperfect. Its true significance was to provide humanity with a “collective memory.” Without it, states would be deprived of their “best available guide for action.” We can’t use history to avoid the mistakes of the past, McNeill argued, because historical events unfold differently and in isolation across time. What history can provide, apart from it being a vital component of our identities (as memory is), is a way to “make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.” In other words, history is “practical wisdom” — a crafted setting for looking at ways to deal with “ourselves and others.”

I teach this concept on the first day of class. Facts are important. But it is what historians do with facts that makes history interesting and useful. Historians are inventors. They collect information, and then synthesize and reclassify it as a coherent package in order to provide a new understanding of the past.

Another question I ask my students is, “when does history happen?” A common response is: “in the past.” But that is not the right answer. History occurs when historians write about it. To be sure, events occur and have an impact without anyone ever writing about them, but our awareness is empty without historians making sense of what happened and revealing the unknowns. A tree might fall in the woods and force travelers to build a new path. But if historians choose not to write about the fallen tree, we would never fully understand why this path is there, or that it is even new at all.



Like history, the field of international relations has invented traditions that are the result of finding new meaning from the past. Realism, for instance, was a response to 20th-century violence, but it claimed intellectual roots in classical and renaissance works. Suddenly, figures like Thucydides were present at the creation of a smart approach to foreign policy that was based on critical thinking rather than sentimentalism. Hans Morgenthau, seen by some as the godfather of realism, situated himself within this imagined heritage to argue with authority in Politics Among Nations that an “equilibrium” among the most powerful states was the key to international stability after World War II. America’s efforts to build postwar international institutions, on the other hand, was a reversion to the “morality of tribalism, of the Crusades, and of the religious wars.”

In response, sociologist Frank Tannenbaum observed in 1952 that “a great debate on the character and purpose of American foreign policy has been precipitated by those who would persuade our people to abandon their humanitarian and pacific traditions and frankly adopt the doctrine of power politics and of the balance of power as the basis of their foreign policy.” This approach was “not science,” declared Tannenbaum. “It is make-believe.”

Tannenbaum was not starry-eyed about America’s moral character. In 1946, Tannenbaum published Slave and Citizen, an intellectual bomb thrown at American exceptionalism. According to Tannenbaum, the legacy of slavery was worse in North America than South America because the former possessed a colonial heritage that came with a regressive conceptualization of skin color. People with darker skin were deemed without a “moral personality.” As a result, even after legal emancipation, America had significantly more work to do to fix its race relations. “What the law and tradition did was to make the social mobility easy and natural in one place,” Tannenbaum wrote, “difficult and slow and painful in another.”

In this way, there was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to America after 1945. American policymakers sought to build abroad what they had not yet achieved at home: a society that recognized human dignity. From Truman’s message to Congress that, “We believe in the dignity of man. We believe that he was created in the image of the Father of us all,” to Reagan’s warning in his second inaugural address that, “There are those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom,” the foundation of America’s Cold War strategy wasn’t Soviet containment but rather a competing vision of a “free world” based on liberal precepts. It was conceptualized from the best parts of the American ethos — liberty, equality, and justice for all — and it has come to be labelled as the “liberal world order.” In short, it was an aspiration — the product of historical imagination. And historians who refer to it today are fulfilling their role as inventors of public wisdom.

Imperialism and Ordering

Another scholar, Patrick Porter, wants to rebrand the liberal world order. His new book, The False Promise of Liberal Order, is a polemic against historicism — the act of ordering the world on a concept of history. Specifically, he takes aim at those who would determine the course of American foreign policy on the basis “that America [since 1945] exercised hegemony without being imperial; that it oversaw a ‘world historical’ transformation in which rules about sovereignty, human rights and free trade reigned and defined the international system; that the ‘good things’ that the order produced are attributable to liberal behaviour.”

Porter is the modern version of Zosimus Historicus, arguably the first historian to substantively write about the decline and fall of Rome. He is describing the end of an age-defining power — an America that seemingly has lost its postwar prestige and power. Since Donald Trump became a serious contender for the presidency, experts have been sounding the alarm about his approach to foreign policy during a critical transition period in which great-power conflict is set to return after a long absence. According to Kori Schake: “Quite explicitly, the leader of the free world wants to destroy the alliances, trading relationships and international institutions that have characterized the American-led order for 70 years.” Like Zosimus, Porter is on the periphery of this hegemonic collapse. Zosimus, a Greek pagan in Constantinople — the eastern partition of the Roman Empire that continued for another millennium under a Roman identity — was looking into the western empire as a close outsider. An Australian by birth and now residing in England, Porter occupies a similar space as a beneficiary of American hegemony with a vested interest in its future. The two authors have much in common: both of them identify the fall of a hegemon before it’s widely accepted and see attempts to reclaim the past as illusory.

Porter presents an inclusive challenge at the beginning of the book: “If you share these doubts [about the liberal world order], read on. If you are a believer and are already irked, let me try to persuade you, in the spirit of liberal toleration.” Nevertheless, I got the impression that Porter views history-writing as a zero-sum competition rather than an eternal dialogue. For instance, he labels his competitors, believers in the existence of a liberal world order since 1945, as “panegyrics.” The use of the term is ironic given that the 18th-century British chronicler of Roman collapse, Edward Gibbon, identified panegyric literature (effusive writing) as one of the causes of Rome’s decline, mainly because those types of accounts were a “debased … intercourse of pride and flattery” that led to sycophancy and stifled honest political debate. Gibbon used Zosimus as a foil for panegyrics. Yet, Gibbon also sought a balance between the former’s biased pessimism about Christian leaders and the latter’s unrestrained praise.

Porter’s main attack against existing accounts of the liberal world order is that they dress themselves in poorly hid regal (if not imperial) language. For Porter, the liberal world order was a project of American domination: “liberal order has an illiberal tension … liberal expansion is a missionary project that looks to extirpate rival alternatives.”

The works that Porter attacks, though, are not academic histories. They are current events books, written by former U.S. officials or national security figures with the explicit purpose of promoting American interests. At times, Porter takes his polemic too far and lapses into a conspiratorial line of thought that resembles the anti-establishment rhetoric of Marxists and Trump:

Yet talk of liberal order proliferates. It has become the lingua franca of the Atlantic security class. Such is the consistency and unity of their language, and so close is their social network though conclaves in Aspen, Davos, Munich, Harvard, the Brookings Institut[ion] or the Council on Foreign Relations, and the revolving door between think-tanks, government, foundations, universities and media commentary, that the coalition of those who call for a return to a liberal order can be regarded as a class in itself, with its own dialect.

While this characterization of American foreign policy institutions has become more common in recent years — culminating in debates about the existence of an elite foreign policy class called the “blob” — it undervalues the important dialogue that Porter’s book seeks to spark.

Porter’s main arguments can be summarized as follows: Firstly, the liberal in “liberal world order” is a misnomer. Secondly, America’s future foreign standing would be significantly better if it abandoned liberal crusading and started acting like a Machiavellian great power.

Indeed, as several scholars have noted, it shouldn’t be called the liberal world order, but rather the post-1945 order because there was a competing Soviet order that existed until 1991. But it is unclear whether Porter is describing an order or an empire in his overview of American hegemony since 1945. At times he seems to conflate order with imperialism. The Ottomans were the latter but did not have the former. Same with Mughal India. Nazi Germany was a revisionist state seeking to establish itself as an empire. Porter defines orders as “hierarchies created by the strong, to keep the peace on their terms.” An order, however, implies the ability of an empire or hegemon to implement peace (or simply “their terms”) beyond their borders — and make it stick. An empire need only consist of a metropole that establishes direct or indirect rule over a foreign territory. While imperialism might always involve ordering, ordering does not necessarily involve imperialism.

There was a British-led order before the post-1945 American one. That order was established in 1815 at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. It is classifiable as an order because, according to A.G. Hopkins, Britain’s securitization of oceanic navigation expanded “international commerce” and nurtured “a new generation of cosmopolitan elites.” As a former second-rate power that hassled Spanish ships carrying gold and silver from the Americas during the Elizabethan age, it was hypocritical of London to outlaw oceanic piracy. But that’s what hegemons do when ordering. As observed by Porter: “They give themselves permission to pick and choose among rules in ways they would not tolerate from others.” Britain, of course, also was an empire that practiced formal and informal control over faraway territories.

Porter concedes that America is the “least bad hegemon,” but he approvingly cites a recent book that declares America is a “pointillist empire” because of its global network of military bases. This puts his historical views in a long continuum of historians who see America as an empire in denial. This school of thought, which forms a foundation for many of the views found in Porter’s historical account, is not without its critics, one of whom argued that it is “an inverted Whig interpretation of history.” It portrays American policymakers as “too rational,” leaving little room for “the unexpected” in historical outcomes — those accidents of history when American policymakers merely made the best of a situation. Moreover, it can be a “backward approach to history,” meaning that it interprets the past according to the present, and, especially in the case of the late 19th century, “the transformation of a record of almost total lack of accomplishment … into evidence of an overwhelming wave of imperialism.” Nevertheless, here, too, Porter shares with Zosimus a preference for republicanism and the observation that hegemonic overreach leads to decline.

Porter sees constant contradictions in the post-1945 order. He’s correct. America, like Britain, sought to give itself every economic advantage in an international system that it crafted from the ground up. It also intervened in the affairs of sovereign states. And he’s right to point out that the legal cynicism of American hegemony, at times, threatens to undo the order. But he comes to the conclusion that American “liberalism was not very liberal”; therefore, neither is the international system it produced. What Porter is describing, however, is the intersection of America’s liberal aims with the realities of power. As observed by Robert Kagan, “Americans were certainly unready for the moral complexity of wielding such great power. They never reconciled themselves to the tragic reality that it was impossible to wield power, even in the best of causes, with clean hands.”

It is clear that any future works dealing with the concept of the post-1945 order will have to contend with the duality of American history. Porter is correct to point out the many inconsistencies in America’s claim to liberalism. Since the beginning, America botched its race relations: from Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent statement about the evils of slavery being scratched from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s slave, Harry Washington, finding refuge on British soil after the American Revolution, to the abject cruelty of American police towards African-Americans in our own time. But this process already has begun in the historical literature — most notably with Jill Lepore’s recent works, These Truths: A History of the United States and This America: The Case for the Nation. Likewise, Kagan, a target of Porter’s polemic, has been outspoken about the duality of the American system, recently writing that, “White nationalism was never just a fringe phenomenon, and it isn’t today.”

Power and Ordering

Like Zosimus, whom a 19th-century reviewer described as joining “together disconnected subjects” in his history of Roman decline, Porter’s historical account of the liberal world order and the American hegemony that underpins it is monocausal. For him, the explanation for all of its problems boils down to one issue: power. America wields too much of it and flexes it too often. Therefore, the inconsistency of America’s power politics betrays its claim to liberalism.

According to Porter, America is a hypocritical hegemon (aren’t they all?). It invested in its relationships with illiberal regimes like Saudi Arabia, meaning that it betrayed its liberal values abroad as well as at home. In the Middle East, it allowed some dictators to be overthrown during the 2011 uprisings, while propping up others. According to Porter, this was a double standard that revealed the seedy side of the American alliance network. Here, however, Porter is on shaky historical ground. America had little control over these events. While, in his estimation, America “abandoned or toppled dictators” (because of the “turns it supported”), he is falling into a fallacy that is all too common in Middle Eastern studies: assigning too much responsibility to American agency and not enough to the power and decision-making of local actors. Moreover, when it comes to the Middle East in general, America sometimes had valid security concerns. The failure of attending policies should be decoupled from criticism of the post-1945 order itself, lest empirical variation be cast aside. Indeed, this is the danger of a monocausal, birds-eye view of history, which Porter broadly applies to the Cold War and its aftermath.

Moreover, any problems in the 21st century are blamed on the order itself — the result of a sleeping American guard, or its outright failure. The rise of China, the resuscitation of Russia’s foreign policy, and even climate change are described as failures of the liberal world order — “crises that arose on its own watch.”

Now, however, it is a “Machiavellian moment,” Porter claims. Like Florence in the 16th century, America is at a fateful crossroads, watching rising and prodding powers around the globe and wondering how it can maintain the “survival of its institutions and civic virtues.” If it is indeed a “Machiavellian moment,” then whose Machiavelli is it — Bertrand Russell’s or Isaiah Berlin’s? The former viewed Machiavelli as the author of a “handbook for gangsters.” But for Berlin, Machiavelli was “one of the makers of pluralism, and of its — to him — perilous acceptance of toleration.” Berlin considered Machiavelli’s counsel to divorce private values from public practices as an unwitting duality that opened the “bases of the very liberalism that Machiavelli would surely have condemned as feeble and characterless, lacking in single-minded pursuit of power.”

Berlin’s Machiavelli is a lot like Porter’s ideal version of America — a country that doesn’t let its values dictate its policies. Porter desires an America that limits its liberal crusading to domestic ordering and takes up interest-driven strategy abroad. Then America “can return to its original purpose, to secure its interests as a constitutional republic in a plural world.” Porter is not an isolationist. He wants to see America “contain” China, indeed allow its forces to be the end of a tripwire should the Asian hegemon attack smaller states in its region, and even be willing to consider partnering with Russia.

But what Porter essentially wants is a liberal world order 2.0. Having spent the majority of the book decrying American ambition and power, he concludes with a call for the decaying hegemon to, among other things, arm “Taiwan enough to make it a ‘porcupine’” vis-à-vis China. Moreover, he envisions America withdrawing from some conflicts — notably in the Middle East — and empowering regional allies. In the context of Asia, “these efforts can only work with allied cooperation. US protective measures would help shape allies’ choices: resisting the rise of hegemon [sic] in their backyard would make more sense if a larger and more powerful state would help them do so.” Finally, Porter advises “other steps at home to strengthen its own governance, social cohesion and capacity for sound statecraft.” Presumably, America should take steps to revise its flawed liberalism at home, but it shouldn’t seek to reorder the world when it’s done. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is the very vision of the liberal world order 1.0 that Porter painted in his book: a country that betrays its liberal values for the sake of securing power. This time, albeit, Porter advises doing it against China.

I hope that Porter’s book, an international security scholar’s take on history, will prove to be the beginning of a conversation that more historians should enter. The philosophical arguments in this book are creative and compelling (they certainly challenged my views), but historical events are only briefly presented under the rubric of American power and without acknowledgement of the key historiographical debates. Nevertheless, despite the problematic monocausal approach to history, it is an attempt to use history like William H. McNeill suggested: Porter seeks to provide an important corrective to our collective memory. Like Zosimus, who wanted to chronicle how Romans lost their “sovereignty … through their own blind folly within no long period of time,” Porter boldly pushes back against the idea of continuity. For Zosimus, it was the continuity between the western and eastern Roman Empire, leading to his belief that Constantinople could still have a bright future if it avoided the mistakes made in the West. For Porter, it is the continuity between mid-to-late 20th/early 21st-century American history and the turning point (or “Machiavellian moment”) of today. Similarly, Porter sees a bright future for America and those on the periphery, like him, who fear the rise of China, if the declining hegemon breaks with its troubled, ordering-obsessed past and ensures its vitality.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests are a difficult reminder of America’s duality — a powerful nation claiming virtues on the global stage that it systemically tramples at home. A recent sign over the freeway had the words “Destroy and rebuild the system.” The liberal world order provides an intellectual enemy (or system) for Porter and others to destroy. Porter is right that we don’t need romanticized history to guide us into the future. But, as Gibbon realized, neither do we need outright pessimism. Luckily for Americans, Porter’s book, the product of a modern Zosimus, is neither of those things.



Gabriel Glickman is a nonresident associate fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He is writing a history of the liberal world order and is the author of a forthcoming book, US-Egypt Diplomacy Under Johnson: Nasser, Komer, and the Limits of Personal Diplomacy (I.B. Tauris).

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