THE LIBERAL ORDER IS NOT COMING BACK: WHAT NEXT?
Bruce W. Jentleson
Since Donald Trump was elected President with his “America First” foreign policy, we’ve been hearing one invocation after another of the “Liberal International Order.” They’ve come from Democratic and Republican internationalists, foreign policy pundits of a variety of stripes, and academics of various –isms and schools. Part of this has been a chocolate-vanilla reaction supporting free trade against Trump’s protectionism, re-affirming alliances against his anti-NATO potshots, advocating democratic values countering his embrace of authoritarians. I understand the politics of that, the psychology too.
But the debate accentuates a question that was there even before Trump: Is the Liberal International Order (LIO) the optimal system for the twenty-first century world? While it worked well for many decades, the LIO was showing substantial signs of strain pre-Trump. This shouldn’t surprise us as much as it seems to have. Think about it: Why should we expect that a system established more than 70 years ago based on a particular distribution of power and array of threats should have the same effectiveness now? Indeed, there’s been an “end of history” element to all this—just as Francis Fukuyama argued that democracy and capitalism had emerged from centuries of contestation as the optimal political and economic systems to be refined but not fundamentally changed going forward, the LIO is vaunted as the culmination for global peace and prosperity applicable on an ongoing basis.
Forging a viable alternative to Trumpian America First policy requires ideas, policies, and political strategies that build on the LIO’s strengths while addressing weaknesses that had become more evident over time and adapting to the way the world is today more than how it used to be.
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