Law & Liberty

Rethinking the Liberal World Order

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels
Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels

With the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, a chorus of voices in the national security establishment have decried the collapse of the “liberal international order.” America no longer leads, they say, and the benevolent order is in freefall. In The False Promise of Liberal Order, Patrick Porter dishes up bad news to the distressed panegyrists of the order that America made, then proffers suggestions for the way forward.

Porter sketches his view of the global state of play: China is threatening its neighbors and expanding its territorial claims; Russia is engaged in its own revanchism, slicing off chunks of sovereign nations and engaging in campaigns of subversion; wars in the Middle East rage and in the absence of order, collapsed states unleash refugee crises; and North Korea has acquired a nuclear weapon it can deliver. All this would be bad enough. But then Porter throws into this toxic cauldron Brexit, national populist movements across the world, and climate change. Moreover, to Porter, President Trump is “more authoritarian, corrupt, bigoted, mendacious and erratic than his predecessors.”

Porter’s object in The False Promise is to dispel a “mytho-historical” account of what brought us to the current situation. Euphemisms obscure the reality about what it took to bring about this liberal order, which, to Porter, was never liberal at all.

Was There Ever a “Liberal” World Order?

At the start of Porter’s provocative tome, he intones:

Even America’s most glorious achievements— with liberal ‘ends’—were not clean pluses on the balance sheet made by liberal ‘means.’ They relied on a preponderance of power that had brutal foundations. America’s most beneficial achievements are partly wrought by illiberal means, through dark deals, harsh coercion and wars gone wrong that killed millions.

To Porter, because achieving and maintaining ascendency requires illiberal tactics, it is therefore a myth that a liberal order was ever really achieved. “Orders are warlike things,” Porter prods.

The issue, however, is not whether the Pax Americana was more liberal than its predecessors—it clearly was—but whether calling it ‘liberal’ adequately describes its working and whether in fact it works.

But to Porter, even this American-led, only relatively liberal order came at the price of death and misery, unreasonable military spending, an enormous human carbon footprint, and a global market capitalism that resulted in a financial crisis and an eroding civil society surrounded by crumbling infrastructure.

To make matters worse, Porter adds in relentless opprobrium, America is a hypocrite. To remain ascendant, the United States exempted itself from the rules and norms it espoused.

He concludes by proffering an alternative to the U.S. aim of maintaining global leadership. The proper aim, he says, is much more modest: to secure America’s interests as a constitutional republic. Unlike some of his fellow travelers equally unimpressed with American foreign policy, he wisely warns against pulling up the drawbridge and “coming home” altogether.

Instead, he wants the United States to spend far less money on national security, to act less unilaterally, and to intervene militarily less frequently. For Porter, the U.S. should take steps “to constrain a rising China, to divide China and Russia, and to reduce its footprint in the Middle East.” Compared to some of the controversial claims throughout the book, these ultimate goals seem conventional.

I profited from Porter’s bold assertions and provocations. I depart with his thinking on the questions of where U.S. foreign policy lost its way, how to carry out a more realistic and successful foreign policy, and the effect of the more pugnacious Trump administration.

The “Cynical Calculus of Power Politics"

When George H.W. Bush handed the baton to President Bill Clinton, America sat atop our post-war apex. As Bob Gates describes in his new book, Exercise of Power, at the time of Clinton’s inaugurations, “The United States singularly dominated the world militarily and economically, politically and culturally in every dimension of power. Not since the apogee of the Roman empire had one country been in that position.”

It was the Clinton presidency that turned the country down a naïve and idealistic path. The last three administrations squandered unprecedented American military and economic supremacy, not because they were overly preoccupied with devising moral foreign policies or maintaining our Pax America, but because they had wrong notions of a moral foreign policy and a naïve view of the behavior of nation-states. Clinton asserted in a 1992 campaign speech, “In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” A foreign policy rooted in this delusion was doomed to have devastating consequences.

The United States could have behaved like a responsible superpower, guarding its preeminence, defending its gains, engaging militarily only when necessary and with clear and achievable objectives, while investing in new technologies and adapting its military forces to compete with future peers. Instead, it presumed upon the future and counted on a sustained peace, coasting on the world’s “evolution” towards democracy and a peaceful “global community.”

We can trace this naïveté to Clinton’s decision to welcome China’s integration into the global economic system, which led to its entrance into the WTO. China’s economic rise was also cheered on by Bush and Obama and the bipartisan national security and business classes. China grew wealthy frighteningly quickly, and rather than being influenced by American (and Western) principles, the Chinese Communist Party breathed new life. Instead of politically liberating, it stretched its authoritarian tentacles across continents through coercion and by the sleepy acquiescence of its victims. The United States and our allies became dependent on Chinese supply chains, educated members of the People’s Liberation Army in our universities, and enriched the CCP as the Party invested in key military technologies to expand its illegal territorial claims and to hold at risk U.S. forces, preventing the U.S. from making good on its security commitments to its allies.

Even so, in Barack Obama’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he declared:

When Truman, Acheson, Kennan, and Marshall sat down to design the architecture of the post-World War II order, their frame of reference was the competition between the great powers that had dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . . . That world no longer exists.

But that is the only world that will ever exist.

Trump’s Foreign Policy

Even though unipolarity is dead, we need not eschew American military preeminence; we should return to and defend it with vigor.

Rather than adding to the global challenges, Trump’s election and populist phenomena are antidotes to the infatuation with a globalized world that had blurred borders, weakened national sovereignty, and erased national identity and purpose.

The Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the World Health Organizations were not the pins that kept the “rules-based order” in place. International institutions and treaties and agreements are mere tools to further our national objectives, and while they may make sense at their inception, when the facts change and they harm more than they help the United States, we should amend them or withdraw.

Moreover, Trump’s willingness to use military force ferociously and with limited objectives, combined with his clear desire to avoid further entanglements in the Middle East, has kept the United States from getting bogged down and has put adversaries on notice, dissuading further escalation. Furthermore, by clearly defending allies and recognizing Iran as the prominent regional threat, he has created conditions for better relations between Arab states and Israel.

Still, we should be wary of potential excesses of the necessary correction Mr. Trump offers. His approach, if overdone, runs the real risk of blowing out rather than enflaming the embers of those alliances.

Power and Principle

Thankfully, we have such allies because of the sacrifices and statecraft of our forebears during and after the World Wars and the Cold War. It would be impossible to carry out the very off-shore balancing strategies realists offer to us now if it were not for the American-led order created by war and maintained through state power.

Ultimately, it is American military preeminence, in cooperation with our allies, that can credibly deter China (or Russia or rogue states). Credible deterrence requires the United States maintain the right mix of nuclear, conventional, and defensive weapons and deploy them in such a way that major powers are perpetually faced with complex calculations about how the United States might respond if they act out against U.S. interests. That is not cheap, but it is worth the price of relative peace.

Importantly, if America minimizes moral calculations in foreign affairs, it will make an admittedly harsh and dangerous world far worse, not better. In a similar vein, Porter’s judgements about America’s “hypocrisy” in warfighting stand out as problematic, as some of his examples in his litany could only be considered hypocritical if one believed the nature of the American regime and its character and the intent of the conflict were no better or worse than the regimes/actors they sought to vanquish or compel. Of course, American engagement abroad has at times failed to live up to its own principles, but to present those incidents as the rule rather than the exception is specious.

The United States has sometimes militarily intervened under the banner of advancing “democracy and human rights,” especially during the previous three administrations, in ways that have unintentionally contributed to greater human suffering and instability. But the answer is not to exchange moral reasoning for a cold realpolitik. The answer is to reexamine the principles on which our moral reasoning has led to greater suffering and harm. We must have a more prudent, principled statecraft.

Call it principled realism, or moral realism. American mores are shaped by the justice of the Christian tradition, and we cannot and should not act in the world contrary to those principles that distinguish our national identity.

A moral realism recognizes that nations will continue to pursue their interests, and at times run directly against those of the United States. Customs, ideologies, geography, varying risk calculations, and national objectives drive countries to act differently, and there is no mechanistic formula that can reliably predict with a high degree of probability how nations will behave. And of critical importance, open, more humane democratic systems will not organically form if an autocratic regime is overthrown. As such, we should be extremely reluctant to topple regimes, except in necessary circumstances and with the political will to establish new leadership.

A moral realism sees clearly that despite an American-wrought relative global peace, there is endless human suffering across the world and many governments violate the natural rights of their people. But the regimes that the United States should be most concerned with are those with the will and capacity to cause grave harm to Americans and our core interests.

For example, roughly 16 years after the United States achieved our initial military objectives in Afghanistan, it is foolish to maintain a substantial military presence there or to tie troop withdrawals to whether the Afghan government, along with the Taliban, can meet standards we set that are conducive to democratic and just governance. But I do not shrink from making both a strategic and a moral case for abandoning these considerations. Keeping troops there, risking their lives, for the sake of, for example, protecting women’s rights, is immoral. We do wish that the Afghan government would protect the natural rights of Afghan women. But I reject the claim that it is morally upright to ask American wives and mothers to risk losing their husbands and sons for a dubious connection to American security, and for the protection of people whose government, by lack of will or ability, fails to protect them.

Above all, the U.S. government is morally and constitutionally obligated to provide for the common defense of its own people. Moral realism holds that war is grave, a blunt instrument, and must be a last resort when America’s core interests are at risk. Moreover, any military mission must have a reasonable chance of success, and when we do send our warriors to battle, we only do so while optimizing their chance of coming home safely and never targeting noncombatants.

The United States does compel and coerce, but it also attracts allies to our cause who generally share our view of what is right, or at least prefer our power and influence over that of, say, the Chinese Communist Party. There is a contest of great powers due to the nature of regime systems, power, and national ambition. The United States has now established a firmer footing to confront and compete with a major national power that is devoted to and guided by atheistic CCP ideals. Even when the goals are to deter and contain and not ultimately replace the regime, it is impossible to ignore the character of regimes when engaging in power politics, however much the realists insist.

Porter’s book persuades me to drop the title “liberal world order,” but I would replace it with an “American-led order.” And I agree on the need to end democracy crusades, but I would exchange it for a humbler policy of defending democratic sovereign partners and allies—and no nation above our own. This calls for a return to the well of prudent American statecraft.

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