Foreign Policy Essay
Misreading the “Liberal Order”: Why We Need New Thinking in American Foreign Policy
Editor’s Note: Critics of Trump's foreign policy, including many of my Brookings colleagues, regularly espouse the virtues of the so-called liberal order and decry Trump's repeated attacks on it. The University of Chicago's Paul Staniland, however, challenges this consensus. He argues critics are romanticizing the liberal order, failing to recognize its flaws and ambiguities.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy grows more destabilizing by the day, whether in embracing tariffs or insulting allies. Previously taken-for-granted assumptions about America’s role in the world are now in question. Witnessing the chaos, critics of the Trump administration have made its damage to the post-1945 “liberal international order” a central part of their criticism. In their view, the United States created and led a post-World War II order—made up of international rules and institutions, free trade, and democracy—that generated enormous benefits now threatened by the Trump administration’s actions. A post-Trump foreign policy, they argue, needs to re-embrace the fundamentals of this order.
Pushing back against Trump’s foreign policy is an important goal. But moving forward requires a more serious analysis than claiming that the “liberal international order” was the centerpiece of past U.S. foreign-policy successes, and thus should be again. Both claims are flawed. We need to understand the limits of the liberal international order, where it previously failed to deliver benefits, and why it offers little guidance for many contemporary questions.
First, advocates of the order tend to skim past the policies pursued under the liberal order that have not worked. These mistakes need to be directly confronted to do better in the future.
Proponents of the order, however, often present a narrow and highly selective reading of history that ignores much of the coercion, violence, and instability that accompanied post-war history. Problematic outcomes are treated as either aberrant exceptions or as not truly characterizing the order. One recent defense of the liberal order by prominent liberal institutionalists Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, for instance, does not mention Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, or Libya. Professors Stephen Chaudoin, Helen Milner, and Dustin Tingley herald the order’s “support for freedom, democracy, human rights, a free press.” Kori Schake writes that Western democracies’ wars are “about enlarging the perimeter of security and prosperity, expanding and consolidating the liberal order.” Historian Hal Brands argues that the order has advocated “political liberalism in the form of representative government and human rights; and other liberal concepts, such as nonaggression, self-determination, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”
Other analysts have persuasively argued that these accounts create an “imagined” picture of post-World War II history. Patrick Porter outlines in detail how coercive, violent, and hypocritical U.S. foreign policy has often been. To the extent an international liberal order ever actually existed beyond a small cluster of countries, writes Nick Danforth, it was recent and short-lived. Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim further argue that “critics exaggerate Mr. Trump’s abnormality,” situating him within a long history of the pursuit of American self-interest. Graham Allison—no bomb-throwing radical—has recently written that the order was a “myth” and that credit for the lack of great power war should instead go to nuclear deterrence. Coercion and disregard for both allies and political liberalism have been entirely compatible with the “liberal” order.
The last two decades have been a bumpy ride for U.S. foreign policy. Since 9/11, we have seen the disintegration of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, a war without end in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Arab Spring, the rise and resurgence of the Islamic State, and the distinctly mixed success of strategies aimed at managing China’s rise. At home, the growth of a national-security state has placed remarkable power in the hands of Donald Trump. Simply returning to the old order is no guarantee of good results. Grappling openly with failure and self-inflicted wounds—while also acknowledging clear benefits of the order—is essential for moving beyond self-congratulatory platitudes.
Second, the liberal order in its idealized form had very limited reach into what are now pivotal areas of U.S. security policy: Asia, the Middle East, and the “developing world” more broadly. The core of the liberal order remains transatlantic, but Asia is now growing dramatically in wealth and military power. What is the record of the order in the region? There was certainly some democracy promotion when authoritarian regimes began to totter, but there was also deep, sustained cooperation with dictators like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos; while there are some regional institutions (such as ASEAN), they are comparatively weak; while there are some rules, they have been deeply contested. Close U.S. allies like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea (the latter two experiencing long bouts of U.S.-allied autocracy) were not integrated into a broad alliance pact like NATO. India and Pakistan were never part of the core order, and China was only very partially integrated (primarily into the economic pillar of the order, and through ad hoc security cooperation from the 1970s). Southeast Asia has been a site of warfare and authoritarianism for much of its post-1945 history.
The United States has long considered the Middle East vital to its security, but the extent to which the United States should invest its own blood and treasure in protecting the area was always up for debate. It was only in the 1970s that the United States decided it was prepared to use force to defend the region; “dual containment” in the 1990s was always controversial, while the invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath revealed deep fissures over how much presence was enough. Meanwhile, liberalism, democracy, human rights, and international institutions have not made much of a mark in the region. Jake Sullivan, in a rather odd defense of the order, suggests that “Middle Eastern instability has been a feature, not a bug, of the system.” This is not reassuring about the order’s ability to structure politics in the area. The same can be said about the order’s history in Africa, with deep Western involvement in civil wars, support for authoritarian regimes, and often-counterproductive demands for economic liberalization contributing to ongoing instability.
The legacy of the “liberal order” is both far more complex and shallower outside of the north Atlantic core than within it. Invocations of the order are seen with greater cynicism and suspicion in these areas than in Washington or Berlin. Yet they are precisely the regions that are increasingly the focus of U.S. security policy.
Finally, and as the preceding already suggests, the idea of “liberal order” is itself frequently too vague a concept, and was too incomplete a phenomenon, to offer guidance on a number of key contemporary questions. Allison goes so far as to call it “conceptual Jell-o.” The extremely abstract principles that experts use to define the order are confronted with a reality of extreme historical variation. This amorphousness undermines its usefulness as an actual guide to future foreign policy.
U.S. alliances in Western Europe since World War II looked dramatically different than those in East Asia. Both have achieved their basic goals, so which should be the model for the future? The United States often applied pressure to coerce its allies into adopting economic and security policies conducive to U.S. interests—going so far as to threaten abandonment of close European allies—even as it simultaneously built key elements of the liberal order. The core of the liberal order was a more tenuous and contested political space than we often remember.
This inconsistency applies to involvement in the domestic politics of other states. The United States has regularly embraced authoritarian leaders (and distanced itself from democratic regimes), while at other times it has helped to push these leaders out in the face of domestic mobilization. Advocates of the order tend to stress the latter and dismiss the former as aberrant, but both strategies contributed to the ultimate victory of the liberal order over the Soviet bloc.
The order’s history offers support for aggressively promoting democracy, accepting democratization when it emerges, and strongly supporting friendly dictators. This makes it unhelpful for grappling with the question of whether and how to promote democracy. The same is true of military interventions and covert operations abroad. U.S. leaders invested heavily in Cold War proxy wars and the overthrow of foreign regimes, while at other times and places they avoided such interventions.
This history carries important implications for addressing today’s policy challenges. Simply appealing to the order does not, for instance, tell us much about how to deal with a rising China: Since the liberal order included highly institutionalized alliances, loose “hub-and-spoke” arrangements, and coalitions of the willing, and was characterized by both preventive wars and containment, it is extremely unclear what the order suggests for America’s China strategy. While “rules-based” order is a term in vogue, it doesn’t tell us what the rules should actually be, or how they should be decided.
Nor does appealing to the liberal order help us understand whether the United States needs to be deeply involved or largely absent from the Middle East, or somewhere in between. Under the order, democracy promotion and assertive liberal intervention sometimes occurred, but so too did restraint and an acceptance of autocracy. There are no answers in the liberal international order for navigating the enormously difficult terrain of the contemporary Middle East.
Ultimately, opposition to Trump must not be the same as a tight embrace of pre-2017 U.S. foreign policy. The time to start seriously engaging in these debates is now; as Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper rightly argue, “Internationalists must thus resist the urge to become absolute defenders of the pre-Trump status quo.” Alongside resistance and critique, the Trump era requires new thinking and choices among difficult trade-offs. As Heather Hurlburt notes, “It seems unlikely that a return to the policy and rhetoric of the mid-2010s will prove more politically sustainable in 2021 than it did in 2016.” Self-reflection and debate about the future of U.S. foreign policy can create a more compelling vision of the future than backward-looking invocations of the past.
We need a different conversation that breaks from intellectual inertia. The elements of the order that should be rebuilt need to be advocated for on their own terms. Which allies are worth dying for? When and how should the United States intervene in other countries’ domestic politics? How expansive should America’s global footprint be? What policies are best suited to managing a rising Asia? Core tenets of the liberal order are certain to be part of the answers to these questions—but they will be insufficient on their own. The old order is gone; the key question is how to most successfully move beyond the dangerous and mercurial worldview of Donald Trump.