Princeton University Professor John Ikenberry, one of the most articulate defenders of the open, rules-based system that dominates international politics today, claims that the past two centuries should be remembered as “the liberal ascendancy.” In this narrative, conservatives have become economic liberals, socialists have become social liberals, the institutions that regulate international affairs have proliferated and strengthened, and liberal values have been promoted across the globe with increasing vigor.
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have led many to conclude that this liberal order is in crisis. The likes of Ikenberry would disagree: They claim that crises only serve to provide greater incentives to cooperate in rules-based ways. In other words, we are simply living through the “growing pains” of liberalism.
An examination of liberalism’s conceptual foundations, however, may lend credence to a more pessimistic outlook.
Liberalism is a philosophy that originated at the domestic level, gaining its full form as a political movement during the Enlightenment. Although it has made numerous important contributions toward advancing the rights of individuals, nations, women and minorities in the centuries since, it can be faulted for possessing several inherent contradictions and shaky assumptions.
Chief among them is the idea that society is composed solely of rational individuals, primarily concerned with the advancement of their own material well-being. This is a notion that has become particularly mainstream in Western politics since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution. Mediating institutions between the individual and the state—such as families, religious organizations and civic associations—are often downplayed.
This liberal hypothesis is easy to criticize. For example, after the election that brought Trump to the Oval Office, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat explained that “liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs—meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality […] People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.”
Perhaps one of liberalism’s more profound contradictions lies in the fact that, although it professes a commitment to enhancing individual freedom and agency, it has a deeply structuralist view of the world. That is to say, if only the right institutions are designed and the right values are promoted, then humans will exhibit predictable behaviour, and cultural and class differences can be overcome.
This is manifested most clearly by liberals at the domestic level, who in many countries have had difficulty grappling with questions ranging from immigration to income inequality. But it is also true of liberal internationalism: As the norms it promotes and the institutions it upholds begin to grapple with the more persistent realities of history and geography, the inconsistencies of liberal world order have been brought clearly to the fore.
Liberal internationalists believe in both the self-determination of nations and the inviolability of states’ territorial integrity, in both human rights and state sovereignty, in both international integration and democratic accountability, and in both global leadership by a concert of democracies and representative international institutions that feature non-democratic members. Inevitably, then, liberals have been selective in the application of their principles, as has become painfully evident in recent decades.
Playing somewhat fast and loose with the rules, Western countries intervened in Yugoslavia and Iraq without UN sanction in 1999 and 2003 respectively, recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence over Moscow’s objections in 2008, and used a mandate to protect civilians to force regime change in Libya in 2011. These moves have helped to harden Russia’s resolve to protect its national sovereignty and great-power status. And indeed, it is not coincidental that liberalism appears to be in crisis in the West at the same moment as the international order to which it gave birth has encountered a major roadblock.
Liberalism is by its very definition a universalizing ideology, resolved to promote democracy and human rights across the world. Having failed to remake the Middle East in its image and subsume Russia into its orbit, the liberal-international sphere of states appears no longer able to expand its borders in any significant fashion. This has produced a crisis of confidence for the West, which, since the dawn of the Age of Exploration more than five centuries ago, has believed that the rest of the world would one day come to resemble it.
This dual crisis of liberalism—domestic and international—brings with it at least two important lessons for the West.
First, functional repairs to liberal economic and political projects (e.g., the Eurozone) are necessary but insufficient remedies for what plagues the West today. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. What liberalism needs to succeed over the long term is a wholesale reconceptualization, a move away from its present hyper-materialist, consumerist character and toward a greater focus on human dignity, mutual obligations, and the common good. Liberals celebrating recent populist setbacks in France, Austria, and the Netherlands should keep this need for reform in mind.
And second, liberal states may have to prepare for a world featuring multiple overlapping international orders, rather than a single-tier liberal system. Further attempts by the West to impose its values on non-Western major powers stand only to strengthen anti-Western voices within those countries. A more cautious, realist approach is the most reliable way to transition peacefully toward a world in which the West may eventually no longer be ideologically or materially dominant.
The proverbial cat may be out of the bag. Liberal aims may have already morphed into uncontrollable structural forces, taking on a life of their own. Under ideological siege, Western states may grow increasingly inflexible in their conduct of foreign policy. The shift toward a potentially post-liberal, post-Western world is thus likely to be fraught with difficulty. But without decisive action, the contemporary international order will continue to disintegrate and domestic political consensus will continue to erode.
Today, the ultimate triumph of liberalism no longer appears certain. What this realization bodes for the West remains to be seen.
Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom, researching Russian conceptions of state sovereignty and their impact on the contemporary international order.