A World Imagined: Nostalgia and Liberal Order

Summary of Study

Bottom LineThe exaggerated notion of the “liberal order” and its imminent collapse is a myth of the foreign policy establishment and leads America to overstretch. In reality, efforts to spread liberalism often contained the seeds of illiberalism. The pursuit of “liberal order" is not just an antidote to the current difficulties suffered by the international system but a source of them. If Washington can be liberated from the burdensome historical fantasy that hegemonic nostalgists impose upon it, then it can gain a clearer-sighted appreciation of the choices now before it.

Recent political tumult and the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency have driven anxious commentators to lament the collapse of a post-1945 “liberal world order.” Nostalgic for the institution building and multilateral moment of the early postwar era, they counsel Washington to restore a battered tradition, uphold economic and security commitments, and promote liberal values. 

On closer inspection, while it is true that the postwar world was more prosperous and peaceful than what came before, the claim that a unitary “liberal order” prevailed and defined international relations is both ahistorical and harmful. It is ahistorical because it is blind to the process of “ordering” the world and erases the memory of violence, coercion, and compromise that also marked postwar diplomatic history. 

It loses sight of the realities and limits of the exercise of power abroad, the multiplicity of orders that arose, and the conflicted and contradictory nature of liberalism itself. While liberalism and liberal projects existed, such “order” as existed rested on the imperial prerogatives of a superpower that attempted to impose order by stepping outside rules and accommodating illiberal forces. 

“Liberal order” also conflates intentions and outcomes: some of the most doctrinaire liberal projects produced illiberal results. This nostalgia is harmful because framing the world before Trump in absolute moral terms as a “liberal order” makes it harder to consider measures that are needed to adapt to change: the retrenchment of security commitments, the redistribution of burdens among allies, prudent war-avoidance, and the limitation of foreign policy ambitions. It also impedes the United States from performing an increasingly important task: to reappraise its grand strategy in order to bring its power and commitments into balance. 

Nostalgists do not deny that the American superpower upheld it partly through overwhelming military strength. However, they emphasize the non-bloody uses of force, for example, deterring and dissuading adversaries, reassuring and uniting allies, and preventing conflict. And they stress the consensual, attractive quality of American hegemony. 

The charge that Washington is abandoning a noble Trumanite diplomatic past is less an observation than a political predisposition, substantively shallow yet part of the framework within which debate is conducted. International history after 1945 is more fraught. During the postwar era, the United States persistently flouted liberal economic principles and imposed restrictive measures when it suited.

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