Home/Daniel Larison/Americans Aren’t Buying the ‘Liberal Order’ Myth

Americans Aren’t Buying the ‘Liberal Order’ Myth

Screenshot: PBS Newshour

David Brooks looks down from his second mountain to tell Americans that their foreign policy views are horrible:

Over all, this history should be a source of pride for all Americans, but it is not. Researchers from the Center for American Progress recently completed a survey of American foreign policy views. They write: “When asked what the phrase ‘maintaining the liberal international order’ indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases … meant or implied.”

That by itself is not a problem. The liberal order was built by foreign policy elites, from George Marshall to Madeleine Albright. The problem is that voters are now actively hostile to the project. Instead of widening the circle of concern, most Americans want the U.S. to simply look after itself.

The C.A.P. researchers asked 2,000 registered voters what America’s foreign policy priorities should be. The top priorities were protecting against terrorist threats, protecting jobs for American workers and reducing illegal immigration. These are all negative aspirations: preventing bad things from hostile outsiders.

The things that Brooks derides as “negative aspirations” are fairly normal national security concerns that most people in most nations would have. Most Americans have this crazy notion that the U.S. government’s primary responsibility is to the security and welfare of the United States, and Brooks wants you to know that he does not like it. He notes that there aren’t many Americans that identify with what he calls traditional internationalism:

The C.A.P. study estimates that less than a fifth of voters are traditional internationalists. The Eurasia Group study estimates that only 9.5 percent are.

Those numbers are probably right, and they are probably not that different from the past. Why is this a problem? If very few Americans identify with a “traditional internationalism” that flourished in previous decades, that is because it is a view of the world made by elites for elites. It is also a view that belongs to another era, and it is natural that this will tend to fade as time goes by.

The U.S. does not face anything like the threat it did during the Cold War, the rest of the world has recovered from the devastation of WWII, and more countries than ever before are democratic, prosperous, and independent. If this is not the time when the U.S. should spend more of our time and resources on looking after ourselves, when will that time ever come? To the extent that the U.S. deserves credit for helping to usher in a better postwar world, the U.S. should also be freed of some of the burdens that it took on in the immediate aftermath of WWII that it no longer needs to bear. The U.S. took on those burdens because the other industrialized nations of the world were in ruins or bankrupt after the war, but that is no longer the case. If “liberal international order” maintenance conflicts with reducing our burdens, why shouldn’t most Americans reject it?

The assumption embedded in Brooks’ complaint is that the “liberal international order” is so fragile that it cannot survive if the U.S. devotes more of our resources to our own country. It is not at all obvious that’s true. Scores of nations value and uphold the international institutions and laws created after WWII (many of them are much more respectful of both than the U.S. is), and they do so for their own reasons and because it serves their own interests. The U.S. gets credit for helping to build these structures, but we should not assume that they are so dependent on the U.S. that they will fall apart if we do not maintain the foreign policy status quo.

Brooks’ account of the postwar order is remarkable, and not in a good way:

Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.

Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order.

This is a very flattering explanation for why there has not been another global conflagration as bad as or worse than WWII, but I doubt very much that it is a true one. Great power conflict disappeared after 1945 in part because the cost of WWII was so high and horrific that the nations of the world were determined not to repeat that disastrous error, and it disappeared in part because the proliferation of nuclear weapons made the costs of a future great power conflict so much worse that the superpowers settled for fighting each other through proxies and clients instead. The “world order” Brooks mythologizes did not include most of the nations of the world. The majority of independent states remained non-aligned and wanted no part of the rivalry that still caused so much bloodshed and destruction across much of Asia and Africa. U.S. leadership played an important role in preserving the security and independence of our European and Asian allies, but let’s not get carried away about how broad and inclusive the U.S.-led “community of nations” was.

Perhaps Brooks’ biggest mistake is in thinking that the U.S. is still capable of and competent at “preserving liberal world order.” Brooks berates non-interventionists on the right and the left with equal disdain:

The America Firsters and the New Doves may think of themselves as opposites, but they wind up in the same place. America should not be abroad preserving the liberal world order.

The reality is that the U.S. does a terrible job of “preserving the liberal world order” and frequently undermines and attacks that very order in the name of “leading” it. The people that Brooks criticizes here are almost certainly more likely to oppose unnecessary and illegal wars of choice and other violations of international law than the supposed “internationalists” that he valorizes. To the extent that the “liberal world order” isn’t just a convenient and self-serving myth for proponents of U.S. hegemony, its critics are more likely to respect the rules and limitations contained in international law than its loudest supporters. Fetishists of “liberal international order” or “liberal world order” are happy to talk about the importance of a global order based on rules, but they are typically among the first to advocate breaking them when they get in the way of exercising American power. Many of these same people back illegal invasions and bombing campaigns, endorse regime change, and justify interference in the internal affairs of other states all the time. They like to use “liberal world order” rhetoric as a bludgeon against their political opponents, just as Brooks is doing in his column, but they suddenly lose interest in that order when it conflicts with their desire to intervene against this or that regime.

The argument today is not between those who want to uphold this imagined “world order” and those that don’t care what happens to everyone else, but between those who still possess the hubris to think that the U.S. can and should “lead” the world as hegemon and those of us who believe the costs of this are too high and conclude that the task is beyond the competence of any government.

Brooks makes another set of shaky assertions:

America is withdrawing from the world; the results are there for all to see. China is cracking down on democratic rights in Hong Kong. Russia launches cyberattacks everywhere. Iran is destabilizing the Middle East. The era of great power rivalry is coming back.

If the U.S. were actually “withdrawing” anywhere, this would be a potentially interesting point, but there is no evidence to support this. Brooks says it is happening and then lists a number of actions by other governments that most or all of them would have been taking anyway. There are two problems here. First, U.S. withdrawal hasn’t happened. If anything, the U.S. remains as thoroughly mired in the conflicts and rivalries of other regions as ever. Second, other states have agency and are going to act in certain ways whether the U.S. is “withdrawing” or not. If “great power rivalry is coming back,” would an even more activist U.S. foreign policy actually be desirable? Wouldn’t that run the risk of triggering the very great power conflict Brooks claimed that U.S. “leadership” had made a thing of the past?

For that matter, does anyone think that Beijing would not be tightening its grip on Hong Kong, just as it has been doing for the last 22 years, if the U.S. were somehow even more activist overseas? If Iran is “destabilizing the Middle East,” what is it doing that it wouldn’t be doing if the U.S. were even more involved in the region? Brooks apparently hasn’t considered these questions, and so he settles for the predictable, false “U.S. withdrawal causes chaos” argument that was tired when it was trotted out ten years ago to bash Obama.

Brooks warns:

We’re in a dark spiral. Americans take a dark view of human nature and withdraw from the world.

It is curious that the advocate for optimism has such a bleak view of the present and the future, but Brooks also gets something important wrong here. One of the biggest failings of American foreign policy is that American policymakers don’t usually have “a dark view of human nature.” They accept the idea that “most people are basically good.” American policymakers are so susceptible to hubris and overreach because they often fail to take account of human passions, vices, and destructive impulses. They assume that everyone wants to be like us. More than that, they think that everyone should want to be like us and that there is something wrong with them if they don’t. They overestimate U.S. capabilities and competence, and they underestimate the difficulties in dealing with other governments and other cultures. The first 20 years of U.S. foreign policy in this century have been marked by an insouciant stupidity about how other nations view the world, and part of the problem is that our policymakers are far too ambitious and optimistic in the worst way possible. It is that ambition and deranged optimism that have kept U.S. troops fighting pointlessly in Afghanistan for 18 years, and that is also what motivates elite pundits to look down on the majority of their countrymen simply because they think that U.S. foreign policy should have some discernible connection to America.

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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