Wrestling with Fog: On the Elusiveness of Liberal Order

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What was life like before the presidency of Donald Trump? And when, or if, his misrule ends, what should the United States and its allies aspire to build?

One answer — simple and powerful — is to restore what has been lost during the Trump administration. Recent, wrenching events in international life have prompted anxious commentators to worry about the demise of what they recall as a “liberal international order,” or a “rules-based international order,” under the United States’ aegis. The resurgence of great-power rivalry, increasing economic protectionism, and war and repression in the Middle East, and now a pandemic, move transatlantic figures to lament the passing of what they considered a good and wise dispensation, built around the principle of human dignity for all, and superintended by a benign and far-sighted hegemon. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden echoes the liberal nostalgia, “America is coming back like we used to be. Ethical, straight, telling the truth … supporting our allies. All those good things.” In an age of turmoil, such appeals invite us into a kind of dream palace, where America before Trump ruled by obeying rules, embraced allies without coercing them, and exercised hegemony without being imperial. What was good for the superpower was good for the world.



This vision has policy implications. Prima facie, it suggests a return to the conditions that preceded the present crisis. Which foreign and economic policy settings that predated Trump’s era would a Biden presidency restore? As the Panama Papers symbolized, the recent lost order was an increasingly inegalitarian one of reckless capitalism, allowing for transnational oligarchic corruption, offshore wealth hoarding, and the stagnation of working-class income and living conditions. Indeed, as some proponents of liberal order recognize, the system was “rigged.” And as the Afghanistan Papers suggest, part of the pre-Trump era included wasteful wars waged for ambitious goals waged at high costs, conducted in a spirit of wishful thinking and self-deception.

Yet aside from re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement and emphasizing the importance of allies, Biden has said little to suggest a fundamental overhaul of American foreign policy, whether in the form of rapprochement with adversaries like Russia, or a review of the extent and nature of American commitments in the Middle East. He has pledged to wind back Trump’s extravagant tax cuts for the super-rich, but beyond that, there is little sign of fundamental economic revision.

Those at the commanding heights of the Democratic party show little intent to reduce America’s military footprint, and indeed on some questions seek to outflank Trump to the right on national security. Around Biden are apparently gathered the heirs of “Cold War liberals,” who want the United States to mobilize and lead the world’s democracies to confront kleptocracy and authoritarianism abroad, potentially entering security competitions all at once with regimes seen to be threatening liberal order: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. This stance would once again lead to overstretch, driving disparate adversaries into one another’s arms. Visions of restoration, then, may lead the republic into more avoidable self-harm.

My purpose here is not to relitigate these questions. Debate is joined elsewhere, and my book The False Promise of Liberal Order lays out a case for why over-striving to spread liberalism abroad will not succeed, but may destroy the republic at home.

The focus here is on the nature of the disagreement itself. It is difficult to conduct a debate about international order in the first place, because the subject is elusive. For, as Gabriel Glickman’s intriguing review of my book demonstrates, the “liberal order” is a moving target for its proponents. Glickman poses valuable provocations to my argument. But his critique also illustrates that arguing the issue is like wrestling with fog. The idea of the “order” is amorphous, a belief system without a stable shape. It moves between platonic ideal and historical claim. Its arguments shift. Its geographic horizons widen and contract. It plays down policy trade-offs, offering “support for aggressively promoting democracy, accepting democratization when it emerges, and strongly supporting friendly dictators,” with the only real criterion being success or failure after the fact. Insisting by turns on Westphalian sovereignty or benevolent regime-change as convenience dictates, it operates like the politics of empire itself.

To summarize my book: False Promise argues that the world is intrinsically an illiberal place — insecure and anarchic. If “orders” are hierarchies created by the strong to keep the peace on their terms, and if “liberalism” looks to liberate individuals from oppression, then the world is too dangerous and conflicted to be ordered liberally. “Ordering” the world is rough and often violent work, even in the hands of America, the gentlest hegemon the world has seen. The book is not primarily a critique of the United States abroad or its power. Rather, it is an observation about the tragic ways of international life in an illiberal world, and a warning against hubristic delusion and the imprudent misuse of power.

American foreign policy since 1945 has been a mixed bag. In general, it has been wisest when conducted through a pragmatic realpolitik in which Washington accepted the constraints and limits on power and bargained with illiberal forces. This approach was reflected in the measures to limit dangerous competition, such as arms control and tacitly acknowledging the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, the opening to China in 1972, or the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

Conversely, American statecraft has been most imprudent when doctrinaire ambitions about liberal transformation or dominance ran amok, and when the United States was seduced by an image of itself as the all-seeing bringer of light into chaos, pursuing armed supremacy while under-estimating resistance or blowback: NATO enlargement, economic “shock therapy” in post-Soviet Russia, or military campaigns of “regime change” in Iraq or Libya. Recent events, too, underscore the fatal linkage between militarized overstretch abroad and brutal disarray in the metropole. America will be better off cultivating and protecting its democratic liberty by practicing focused, more restrained power politics abroad, more mindful of avoiding excess, and learning to live with some disorder. I argue for balancing China in Asia, seeking a bilateral accommodation with Russia, ceasing alliance expansion in Europe, and drawing down from the Middle East.

We now turn to Glickman’s offerings. He defines the “order” in a striking way. It is the ideal of a free world based on liberal precepts, and above all “an aspiration — the product of historical imagination. And historians who refer to it today are fulfilling their role as inventors of public wisdom.”

Yet elsewhere, Glickman suggested the order was a real thing, more than a noble dream, a form of enlightened leadership that must not be abdicated: “The liberal world order [U.S. policymakers] and others helped build was one in which self-government and all it stands for — property rights, due process of law, universal suffrage — reign supreme over the desires of autocrats and their imperial and kleptocratic tendencies.” It was an order, he says, that was innocent of “imperialism,” as though annexationist land-hunger is the only mode of empire.

I step lightly over the other parts of that history, often unmentioned in tributes to liberal order, from American-backed coups and election interference to indiscriminate bombing campaigns and protectionism to complicity in others’ atrocities, to observe Glickman’s argument. What he first discerned, a dispensation that reigned “supreme,” a real, achieved thing that needed rescuing, now evaporates into the vapor of a daydream, making it unfalsifiable.

In other words, the liberal order is an excellent idea, according to its advocates — it just hasn’t properly been tried. And so flexible is the idea that any attack can be said to be a straw man, missing the point, firing at the wrong target. Or the wrong literature: “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.” This does not capture the full extent of my critique. Firstly, my book is not just for historians. The first chapter lays out in detail the claims, derived from liberal international relations theory, made by those like John Ikenberry, Daniel Deudney, Paul Miller, Robert O. Keohane, Doug Stokes and Joseph S. Nye Jr, who believe in the historical reality and future possibility of liberal order. The book also discusses arguments made by scholars and national security commentators who have written distinguished histories, all of whom have drawn upon their historical writing to intervene in contemporary debate: Margaret MacMillan , Jeremy Suri, James Goldgeier, Kori Schake, and Hal Brands.

Glickman presents this author as “the modern version” of the Byzantine historian Zosimus Historicus. Both of us do write from the empire’s periphery — I live in Britain and write about the United States, while Zosimus wrote about Rome while living in Constantinople. Moreover, we both seek to explain the fall of the hegemonic empires of our day, and warn against attempts to restore a mythologized past. But note a major difference. Zosimus as a pagan blamed Rome’s collapse on the dangerous new faith of Christianity, attributing a systemic breakdown to a group of agents with an alien creed — in his case, Christians. This is contrary to the argument of False Promise, which blames America’s crisis not primarily on newly arrived wreckers (whether red-hatted populists at home or sinister foreign tyrants), but a set of ideas and policies long in the making, and cherished by a foreign policy establishment.

But while the suggestion of a long-term “order” is agreeable, the suggestion that an elite group kept the flame burning is not. By arguing, as I do, that a foreign policy establishment – a “blob” – defines the parameters of U.S. foreign policy, and 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,” I allegedly go “too far.” This, allegedly, is “conspiratorial” talk, that “resembles the anti-establishment rhetoric of Marxists and Trump.” How so? While I do criticize key institutions in the American foreign policy establishment, I make no allegation of anything secret or malign. Moreover, I emphasize that those who preach the lost order’s virtues have decent, patriotic intentions. Members of the U.S. national security elite are not sinister — they’re simply wrong on key issues of grand strategy. Moreover, Marxists and Trumpians will be disappointed that the book’s main suggestion is a return to classical realpolitik, not political revolution or nativist supremacism. To identify a cohesive body of people with common interests who work together to promote them, with a privileged access to power and intimacy with government — the academy, foundations, think tanks and punditry — is a defensible insight, one that’s made by respected academic historians. A history without class, or without sociological observation of power relations, is a naïve history.

When I show that as a hegemon, the United States did what hegemons tend to do, and set rules for others that it violated, ignored or stretched at will, again the cloud morphs: “According to Porter, America is a hypocritical hegemon (aren’t they all?).” Indeed they are. But isn’t it a core claim that American hegemony is fundamentally rule-bound, and that America devised a “rule-based” order in which it willingly constrained itself with laws and agreements? The simple point, that Washington in fact flouted such constraints when it wanted, or avoided scrutiny, and insisted on special exemptions, in order to remain in the ascendancy and in the conviction that it “sees further” is met with a mere shrug. While proponents of the liberal order will concede that the United States and its allies has committed hugely consequential blunders, and excess atrocities, they ought to go beyond cursory acknowledgements and truly grapple with the implications of what that means for their version of history.

The issue of “rules” remains a problem for liberal order arguments, because it is supposed to distinguish American order from empire. As G. John Ikenberry, the order’s principal theorist, framed it in during the presidency of George W. Bush, “The contradiction in the Bush foreign policy is that it offered the world a system in which America rules the world but does not abide by rules. This is in effect, empire.” So it was. That also, however, describes U.S. hegemony since its inception in 1945.

But the fog rolls onward. We learn that, in resisting claims made about the Pax Americana, it is I who am overstating America’s role in recent history. In the Middle East, Glickman insists, “America had little control over these events,” and I “even” give some of the blame for Russia’s aggression or climate change to the order, which somehow must be separated from the hegemon’s missteps. It’s true that these events have had multiple causes, and the liberal order did not, on its own, create these problems. However, these events occurred while the order was “operational” and should not be wished away so dismissively. Those who advocate for a liberal order seem to like it both ways. They swiftly claim credit for good things, while claiming that the order is exonerated over events that end badly.

In the Middle East, though Washington claims the prerogative of hegemon, waging a two-decade Global War on Terror and taking up the burden of taming frontiers and suppressing threats, it turns out that revolt, despotism, and conflict are events beyond its command, after all. When trouble strikes, at the first whiff of grapeshot, the supposedly far-reaching order melts into the thin air of abstraction. It turns out that other actors have agency, that the order is causally innocent, its writ limited, and its knowledge and power circumscribed.

Glickman also tries to demarcate “order” from “empire,” arguing that while “order” projects power beyond one’s domain, “empire” does not necessarily do so. He selects two examples to demonstrate this claim, both of which miss the mark. Firstly, the Ottoman empire, which, like the Byzantine empire, was not known for leaving those outside its territories alone. Recall that in 1452, Sultan Mehmet II constructed on Byzantine territory a fortress with batteries, the “Throat Cutter”, gaining the ability to control the Bosphorus strait, demand toll payments and strangle the supply of grain from Greek colonies, so that “not even a bird could fly from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.”

We then read of the “British” order birthed in 1815 and its outlawing of piracy. But Britain exerted itself as part of a four-party conservative coalition that toppled regimes and installed new ones, altered territories by fiat and suppressed revolutionary movements within other countries. Moreover, the Royal Navy’s maritime supremacy that guaranteed freedom of the seas also enabled the predatory Opium Wars against China. Once again, it was hard to have ordering without imperialism.

History is primarily a history of empires — the rule over others directly or indirectly, where larger states exercise an ultimate veto over other sovereign states. Ordering and imperialism are historically intertwined, and that is one historical reason it is hard for rival powers with long memories to accept assurances of good intentions. Ordering is done by empires not only sustaining power over their own conquered domain, but projecting power outside it. They do so in many ways — demanding deference or tribute, setting the terms of trade, waging “pacification” campaigns to pre-empt or suppress threats, or appointing themselves as guardians of the commons. Borders historically have not usually marked a strict outer limit, but a springboard for further acts of power-projection or aggrandizement — or in the empire’s eyes, “taming” the zones of chaos. As Charles Maier notes,

there will always be a restless frontier: stabilised only as a truce or an expedient, apparently defensible only by patrolling beyond its markers and fortifications, not to govern, but, if need be, to destroy. The Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, the coca fields of Columbia, the chemical factories of Libya, the mosques of Qum and the madrassas of Peshawar, the unguarded nuclear stockpiles of Central Asia, the reactors of North Korea … they will always be dangerous, always beyond normal negotiation, always within imagined military possibility.

Then once more, the mist turns and descends. That I am critical of American overstretch, favor drawing down in the Middle East and oppose attempting to liberalize adversaries, while still making the case for balancing and checking against China’s rise, allegedly puts me in the restorationists’ column: “what Porter essentially wants is a liberal world order 2.0.” Claiming to know, better than ourselves, what we want, or presenting particular interests as universal, may be audacious. But it is how empires talk.

Which leads to a pessimistic conclusion. There will be no dispelling this cloud. The notion that America can only secure itself by spreading its model and remaining on a semi-war footing — and that this was its pathway to success — is too hard-wired into its collective diplomatic “mind” to be argued away. The best one can hope for is that the next administration at least regards the nostalgia with a discerning eye, as Biden has done occasionally, pausing to peer through the fog.



Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, and a Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump, was published by Polity Press in June 2020.


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