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The ‘Liberal Order’ That Never Was

The post-Cold War liberal hegemony isn't breaking down. It never existed in the first place.

Victorious North Vietnamese troops wash in the fountain of Saigon's Presidential Palace (Getty Images)

There is a story that members of the foreign policy establishment tell us and themselves when they need to ward off criticisms of the current U.S. role in the world and suppress doubts about the wisdom of current U.S. strategy. The story is a triumphalist one that describes how a high-minded superpower benevolently shaped and “led” the world for seventy years, and how, despite a few minor deviations here and there, it brought peace and stability. It is a story of how the world needs U.S. “leadership” now and forever, and if the U.S. should “abdicate” the “throne” the world will fall into chaos.

This is the myth that defenders of the status quo have used to dismiss serious changes to the way that the U.S. acts in the world. It is not a true story. Most dangerous of all, it is a half-truth that credits the U.S. and the “liberal order” for every good thing that has happened since 1945 while discounting every past crime and blunder as having no bearing on what our foreign policy should be today.

What if the liberal international order lionized by our foreign policy establishment never really existed? More than that, what if it isn’t possible to have a liberal order at all? Those are some of the questions that Patrick Porter asks and answers in his extraordinary new book, The False Promise of Liberal Order. It is not only an incisive critique of the failures of modern U.S. foreign policy, but it is also a much-needed dispelling of the central myth that “foreign policy traditionalists” cling to.

“Not only did a liberal order never truly exist. Such an order cannot exist,” Porter writes in the first few pages of his book. It is a provocative thesis, and one that he defends admirably. The “liberal order” is a euphemism for U.S. hegemony and the use of American power in the world, and it is used to tout the virtues of American armed supremacy while overlooking the enormous harm that U.S. policies have done in many parts of the world. “For every order, including America’s, has a shadow,” he says, and we are deluding ourselves if we try to deny that the shadow is there. More than that, by ignoring the shadow, we are more likely to experience similar or worse disasters in the future. Porter’s argument is not just that the U.S. did not abide by the rules that it imposed on others, but that by assuming the mantle of world-ordering colossus it inevitably set itself on the path to failure. The story that Porter tells is that of a superpower that believed its own self-justifying propaganda and thus set itself up for a mighty fall.

Defining the “liberal order” is difficult, because it will often mean different things depending on who is using the phrase. As Porter notes, the concept is a “slippery one.” He continues: “Looking to express an aspiration, it projects it back into history. Like the order it valorizes, it is a moving target that ducks and weaves against close scrutiny.” (p.30) But, at its core, what the defenders of the order mean when they invoke it is a celebration of U.S. hegemony and the near-sanctification of its security commitments around the world.

In its most extreme forms, it takes the political and military arrangements of the last seventy years and turns them into something close to an unquestionable edifice that must be preserved for its own sake. To suggest changing or renovating part of the structure amounts to sacrilege. The defenders of the structure “celebrate orthodoxies—free trade, expanding alliances, order-enforcing military action, American global leadership—and denounce heresies, such as protectionism, military restraint, non-intervention, and détente with enemies.” (p.11) Porter’s book is guaranteed to spoil their celebration.

The flaw at the heart of defenses of “liberal order,” Porter explains, is that they necessarily exclude the uglier, destructive parts of the story that were part and parcel of the ordering that took place. On the one hand, defenders of “liberal order” accept the imperial role that the U.S. has assumed in the last seventy years, and they “desire what amounts to a world monarch,” but they separate out the history of violence and devastation from their account of the “liberal order” to make it seem more appealing. As Porter says, “they write out large swathes of history.”

When the defenders do grudgingly acknowledge the worse parts of the U.S. record, such as Vietnam and Iraq, it is by way of explaining that these were aberrations rather than outgrowths of the very same order that they applaud. But as Porter perceptively notes, both Vietnam and Iraq were promoted by the leading defenders of the “order” as being essential to its preservation. Regarding Vietnam, he writes, “That war was one of the most significant attempts at world-ordering undertaken by an American government. The architects of the conflict sincerely believed it was a necessary act in protecting the U.S.-led free world.” (p.110) The would-be order-builders were profoundly wrong then and later, and we have good reason to believe that they are wrong again now.

One problem with the “liberal order” myth is not just that it erases and sanitizes the record of U.S. foreign policy, but that it does so in order to facilitate more of the same costly errors in the future. If the story that U.S. policymakers and politicians tell themselves is that a meddlesome, hegemonic foreign policy is basically good and successful, and they deliberately conceal or ignore all of the evidence to the contrary, they will repeat the same kinds of terrible errors that they and their predecessors made in the past. Beyond that, they are liable to lead the U.S. into many avoidable conflicts out of a misguided sense of mission and obligation. This missionary drive is inherent in the nature of the “liberal order” project that “looks to extirpate rival alternatives.” That in turn tends to make U.S. foreign policy inflexible and uncompromising in the face of resistance, and it contributes to the stifling of criticism of that policy here at home.

Porter correctly observes that defenders of “liberal order” are themselves quite hostile to dissent. “Assuming the rightness of their cause, they regard dissidents as not merely wrong, but as psychologically disordered or morally defective.” (p.63) We can see this in the dismissive descriptions of antiwar activism as evidence of a “syndrome” and in the tendency to write off popular skepticism about an activist U.S. foreign policy as simple ignorance and “isolationism.” That hostility to dissent has real costs for the U.S. This constant policing of the boundaries of foreign policy debate has blinded U.S. policymakers to their own failings and to the alternative paths they could take. It has convinced them that they have no choice but to continue with the same costly and unsuccessful strategy. Having set up the stark choice between domination and isolation, they have trapped themselves into vainly pursuing the former.

When applied to the wars that the U.S. is currently fighting, “liberal order” rhetoric serves as the license for keeping them going indefinitely. Porter responds to the argument for staying in Afghanistan this way:

It could also be self-perpetuating, given that the very force of Islamic militancy feeds on a foreign armed presence. Not only does this promise permanent war, but permanent war becomes the objective of the campaign as well as the means. Liberal order in this context becomes upholding liberal values through continued armed pacification of the frontier, permanent war for permanent peace. (p. 118)

Porter’s dissection of the “liberal order” mythology is as thorough and effective as one could want, but he does more than simply explode myths. In the last part of his book, he also outlines what the U.S. can and should do to avoid additional disasters in the future. To begin with, he advises that we abandon “the core historical claim of liberal order…as well as the idea that the USA or any one power can dominate the globe.” If the U.S. does that, it “can return to its original purpose, to secure its interests as a constitutional republic in a plural world.” (p.156)

What would that look like in practice? For one thing, the U.S. “should cease trying to expand democratic capitalism and regime change abroad.” Continued pursuit of hegemony will exhaust the U.S., so Porter proposes instead the U.S. must prioritize those regions where it has the most important interests, namely Europe and East Asia, and sharply reduce its role in the Middle East. To that end, the U.S. will have to reduce tensions with at least some of the states that it has considered to be its adversaries for the last several decades, and then “try to reduce the number of adversaries by limiting the terms of competition.” Rather than driving all adversaries to cooperate with each other against the U.S., Washington should look for ways to drive wedges between them. “To attempt to suppress every adversary simultaneously would drive the enemies to operate together, creating hostile coalitions.” (p.194) If we would avoid this, we will have to accept accommodations in some parts of the world. To do that, we will first have to give up on the flattering myth of the “liberal order.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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