Discussion Report

Liberal International Disorder

27 Dec, 2018    ·   5539

Report of the discussion held on 13 December 2018

On 13 December 2018, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) hosted Dr Lydia Walker, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dartmouth College, and Past and Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, for a discussion titled, Liberal International Disorder’. It was chaired by Ambassador TCA Rangachari, Member, Governing Council, IPCS, and former ambassador of India to Algeria, France and Germany.

The discussion explored several elements of the discourse built across the so-called liberal international order: the chronology of events - whether it came into existence post-1945 or 1991; the relevance of international liberal institutions; an assessment of whether President Donald Trump’s policies are exceptional when measured against his predecessors, the role of the UN, and finally, Indian perspectives on the interpretation of the liberal international order.

Dr Lydia Walker

A petition about preserving alliances, signed by a host of well-known political scientists, published in The New York Times in July 2018 stated:

“The international order formed after World War II provides important benefits to the United States (US) as well as other countries. The UN, NATO, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Union (EU) and other postwar institutions all help to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. US leadership helped to create this system and US leadership has long been critical for its success. Although the US has paid a significant share of the costs of this order since its inception, it has greatly benefited from its rewards. Indeed, the US has gained disproportionate influence on setting the rules of international exchange and security cooperation in ways that reflect its interests around the globe. All this is at stake and is dangerously threatened by President Donald Trump.”

It is significant to note the periodisation of this advertisement: it classified, for example, the WTO and EU as post WWII institutions whereas they were in fact formulated post-Cold War. The US was given significant prominence in the advertisement, given the number of times it was mentioned. The petition was written by those referred to as 'globalists' (in Trump’s language) who are characterised as having friends across the world, opportunities to travel, are beneficiaries of good education, and utlimately, contradict the ideas of those called nationalists.

Yet, several questions loom large over this discourse: how many people were actually part of this so-called international liberal order? How ‘international’ was it really; and how ordered?

An excerpt from another article highlights a similar discourse from the petition. It was written by a woman named Nina Schick, who has worked for an anti-Brexit think-tank. She wrote:

“At a time when the liberal, rules-based world order crafted in the ashes of WWII seem to be crumbling, the certainty of the 20th century, that open market and liberal democracy go hand-in-hand, and that history is now a linear story of progress, especially after the fall of Soviet Union, is being challenged.”

This has holes from a historical point of view. She goes on to say:

“We see all around the world a return to nativism with a politics of exclusion and fear, rise of autocrats, and the very questioning of democracy as a form of government as trust is eroded in fundamental processes.”

These two statements by the author attack and criticise the present by harping on nostalgia of a world that never really existed for most people. In this view therefore there is a critical gap.

The multilateral treaty alliances that the current 'liberal international order' consists of project US power and its supremacy. Clearly, there is a need to examine whether this order is inclined more towards an Atlantic world order and less towards one oriented to the Pacific.

Further, Donald Trump is unexceptional is his rejection of 'globalism' given that many of his predecessors did the same but with better window dressing, as it were. As Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim have argued, President George W Bush "broke" the international order by invading Iraq on fabricated grounds; he even imposed steel tariffs in 2002 in a foreshadowing of what Trump has recently undertaken under his own administration and Ronald Reagan as president pulled out of UNESCO 34 years ago. President Eisenhower went so far as to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in the South China Sea in the early 1960s.

The notion of the 'liberal international order' can be read as a successful experiment of nationalism in disguise. It also portrays an order of internationalism that does not truly seek solidarity between countries, or a pursuit of equal allies.


· An important question to ask is whether there is a new, ground-up backlash to the neoliberal world order which is marked by greater infusion of capital by a free market, leading to greater marginalisation of the already disenfranchised. As formerly public goods get privatised, a small number of people do get rich at the cost of a vast majority of others. For example, current generations of young working professionals in the US do not have access to jobs that pay as well as those available to their generational predecessors. But, generally, people are not as economically worse off now as they were a decade ago.

· One narrative within the liberal world order is that economic growth brings liberal values that in turn brings more democracy. But, that progression does not hold ground: they are three separate baskets. This was evident, for example, in the inability of US foreign policy to deal with the Arab Spring.

· It is important to unpack the usage of the word ‘liberal’. Noam Chomsky has lucidly described the semantics of the word 'liberal' and its actual use. In reality, it has mostly been used as the liberal international economic order (LIEO), which gained more currency post the end of the Cold War. Its actual usage is a Trojan horse, suggesting that if a country is powerful, it can choose to adopt policies that corresponds with its interest. Post-1945, the word 'liberal' was utilised in a dressed-up, normative way: it translated as freedom and liberty. However, in its real understanding, it may be considered equivalent to US interests. Of course, in the same vein, it can also be argued that every country pursues interests that are to its own benefit. In that case, why is the world so aggrieved with the US for acting as most individual countries would if they had the capability? The criticism, thus, of the liberal international order is not so much so-called a US hegemony of ideas as it is a collective reminiscing of a past in which the US led an equitable world order, which is historically inaccurate.  

· When seen from an Indian perspective, the liberal international economic order (LIEO) is far from liberal given its prioritisation of the dominant interest. It could in fact be argued that President Donald Trump has not made US foreign policy suddenly 'illiberal', but merely unmasked the Washington DC foreign policy elite.

· Liberalism and social justice are not two sides of the same coin. Liberalism is about increasing access to goods, while social justice seeks to redistribute the goods.

· Could the current refugee crisis be could be considered a critical crossover point in the evolution of the liberal international order, just as the advent of social media was? Denmark, for instance, which is viewed as a 'liberal' haven, has taken the decision to ensconce refugees to a remote island.

· In the Indian context, the backlash to the international liberal order can be seen as in terms of resurgence of ethnic nationalism and sociopolitical fascism. This is however is not a new phenomenon. It existed even in the 1930s and 1940s—in domestic politics, and in national movements.

· When it comes to the Indian vision of the international order, emphasis is laid on inclusiveness and responsiveness. The idea is to look at a situation objectively, fairly, and through a solutions-based approach. The diplomatic intent is to ensure that all parties reach consensus harmoniously. These are ideals that India is and should continue working towards, despite the fact that the world today presents a different reality.

Rapporteured by Varalika Mishra, Assistant, Operations and Outreach, IPCS