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The ‘Liberal Order’ Myth and Its Critics

Kagan's strident defense of the "liberal order" and his record of supporting repeated U.S. violations of international law serve as a perfect example of the myopia that the critics of "liberal order" mythology are decrying.
Vector map from BlankMap-World6, compact.svg by Canuckguy et al. Information from US military bases in the world 2007.PNG by Tree Sign Combined by Lokal_Profil

Robert Kagan has written an even longer essay ridiculing critics of “liberal international order” mythology, but this one is no more persuasive than his op-ed warning about non-existent “isolationists.” Here is one of his complaints against Patrick Porter, Graham Allison, et al.:

[Trump’s] boasting about American power put the world on notice that the United States was turning from supporter of a liberal order to rogue superpower. This breakdown may be our future, but it seems odd to choose that course as a deliberate strategy, as Allison and others seem to do [bold mine-DL]. Little wonder that they don’t wish to spell out the details of their alternative but prefer to carp at the inevitable failures and imperfections of the liberal world we have.

The claim that the U.S. is only now under Trump turning into a “rogue superpower” is central to Kagan’s criticism of Trump and his defense of the “liberal order.” This is not the first time that Kagan has used this description. He writes this as if the U.S. hasn’t been behaving increasingly like a rogue superpower for at least the better part of the last thirty years. It is not an accident that the Iraq war is referenced only once in passing, and then only as part of the critics’ list of U.S. foreign policy failures. Kagan does not directly address the most egregious and obvious example of U.S. violations of international law in the post-Cold War era, nor does he address his support for that war, but sees fit to lecture others for their supposedly inadequate criticisms of “liberal order.” This is a recurring problem in many contemporary defenses of the “liberal order”: many of the people that are now its loudest champions have been actively undermining and destroying international order for decades.

Kagan’s capacity for misreading the arguments of his targets is remarkable. None of the critics of the “liberal international order” mythology wants the U.S. to be a rogue superpower. On the contrary, these critics tend to agree that one of the big problems with U.S. hegemony in general and with Trump’s foreign policy in particular is that it means that the U.S. tramples on and disregards international law whenever it is expedient. Kagan’s attempt to conflate Trump and some of his loudest foreign policy critics is no more convincing than Hal Brands’ attempt to lump together Trump with antiwar progressives, and it stems from the same flawed assumption that they all want more or less the same things. Kagan writes:

They might not strike quite the same “America First” themes Trump struck during this week’s address to the U.N. General Assembly. But the realism they have in mind is much the same.

This is simply untrue, and any serious engagement with the arguments that these critics make would show just how silly this claim is. For one thing, Trump’s adoption of “realism” as part of his meaningless “principled realism” phrase just proves that the label is the most abused term in our foreign policy debates. These critics are not interested in Trump’s ignorant, militaristic unilateralism, and some of them have denounced it in no uncertain terms. The foreign policy Trump is conducting has little or nothing in common with the foreign policy that these people want to see. For Kagan, everyone that opportunistically claims the realist label must be a realist, and he doesn’t bother with the details of their preferred policies to see if it makes sense to treat them as being “much the same.”

Some of these critics object to the ceaseless paeans to the “liberal international order” because the “order” has often served as an excuse for illiberal behavior and frequent violations of the rules. When they criticize the myth of the “liberal international order,” it is usually because they know that it has never really existed in the way that its boosters claim and because it has not been the reality for most nations in the world. Patrick Porter’s first main objection to “liberal order” nostalgia is that it celebrates something that never was:

They are, however, in the grip of a fiction. Liberalism and liberal projects abounded in the past 70 years. But the dream of a unitary, integrated global system organized around liberalism is ahistorical.

Porter is clearly not saying that the U.S. ought to become a “rogue superpower” or anything of the sort, but he is objecting to the gauzy fairy tale that ignores the real history of the last 70 years. He rejects the nostalgia that offers up a whitewashed, bowdlerized version that makes a real reckoning with the failures of the past practically impossible. That is one of the other major problems with the nostalgic enthusiasts of the “order”: they can’t and won’t grapple with its failings. Stephen Wertheim called out this tendency back in August:

Instead of recognizing past mistakes, the ad holds up the pre-Trump era as its lodestar. The old order, apparently, was not only acceptable but a world-historical triumph. We need to “preserve” it, not to confront its failings or build something better.

Porter notes that nostalgia for the “liberal order” is an attempt to evade responsibility for the consequences of U.S. foreign policy:

By reducing the issue to one of inadequate political will, and by blaming either elites or the public at large for failing to keep the faith, “liberal order” lamentations dodge the painful question of how such an excellent order could produce unsustainable burdens, alienate its own citizenry, and provoke resistance.

Others criticizing the mythology are proposing that we acknowledge the limits and flaws of the so-called order so that we can understand it properly. Paul Staniland wrote this in his article from July of this year:

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.

In other words, don’t make the “liberal order” into an idol, and don’t treat as the answer to new problems that require different solutions that are appropriate to our own time. That sounds eminently realistic and sensible to me, but of course Kagan disagrees.

Kagan grudgingly allows that the “order” has its share of flaws and failings, but this doesn’t seem to have had any effect on how he thinks about the U.S. role in the world. He pays lip service to the idea that there have been failures, but shows no desire to learn anything from them. He admits that “[p]ower, coercion and violence have played a big part,” so he is conceding one the main points that Porter made in his essay. Porter also wrote:

As the ordering superpower, the United States did not bind itself with the rules of the system. It upended, stretched, or broke liberal rules to shape a putatively liberal order.

This is very close to the following admission from Kagan:

This did not mean the United States always played by the rules. When it came to the application of force, in particular, there was a double standard. Whether they admitted it or not, even to themselves, American officials believed the rules-based order occasionally required the exercise of American power in violation of the rules, whether this meant conducting military interventions without U.N. authorization, as in Vietnam and Kosovo, or engaging in covert activities that had no international sanction.

There is agreement that the “order” depends on coercion and that the U.S. has frequently violated the rules of that “order.” Where Kagan differs from the people he is criticizing is that he thinks illegal U.S. wars have been necessary, and he is on record supporting virtually all of them. The “liberal order” critics regard these wars as serious, costly errors that shouldn’t be repeated. Kagan’s strident defense of the “liberal order” and his record of supporting repeated U.S. violations of international law serve as a perfect example of the myopia that the critics of “liberal order” mythology are decrying.



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