“Ce corps qui s’appelait et qui s’appelle encore le saint empire romain n’était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire,”* famously wrote Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) in his 1756 book, Essai sur l’histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations. And he was of course correct. The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was utterly temporal, not holy just because the Pope blessed the emperor upon his coronation. It was not Roman but German. And it was not an empire in the ordinary sense of the term, since the emperor’s powers were quite limited amid a crazy quilt of duchies, principalities, “free” states, and heaven-knows-what else; and in the whole very long history of this particular political contraption, which lasted from the time of Charlemagne, crowned in December of the year 800 (or, some persuasively say, Otto I, crowned in 924), until 1806, it never conquered anything. Some empire.
Why dredge up the Holy Roman Empire? Because many fear that we are fast approaching our own “1806,” except that the extravagantly named, soon perhaps to be deceased three-word symbol now to hand, we call the Liberal International Order.
“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare. The answer turns out to be rather a lot. The “Holy Roman Empire” linked the leaders and the peoples of the HRE to the legal, religious, and aesthetic legacy, however distorted and idealized, of the (Christianized) Roman Empire. It provided a symbol of continuity even when reality disappointed hope. Similarly, the name “Liberal International Order” resonates with American values and enables many to persuade themselves that the United States has been a benign power, famously called an “empire by invitation.” Names such as these function as ideological nests, psychologically cozy and generative of new energies.
In any event, there is no mystery about the proximate source of concern: An American President who has scorned U.S. allies, refused to sincerely endorse Article V of the NATO Treaty, and more broadly but more importantly clearly cannot wrap his mind around the concept of a non-zero-sum game. Almost entirely lacking normal impulse control, the man cannot help but exude evidence of his primitive and dark Randian, social Darwinist soul, and that kind of attitude in the President of the United States is, crudely put, going to leave a mark. Indeed, in less than a year it has already left an ugly mark, and no amount of post hoc re-do speechwriter spin is going to change any sensible person’s mind.
As before, however, the name is not for nothing—but in a way few seem to appreciate. The Liberal International Order does not name a circumscribed political contraption as such, like the HRE, but rather a more abstract set of attitudes and correspondingly expansive institutional arrangements and habits. It embodied a striving deemed necessary in the wake of the carnage of the first half of the 20th century, and as a wish can be father to the thought, so the congealing definition of that striving helped to coordinate conceptions, and then efforts, that did indeed bring about a better situation. At one point not so long ago we came close to a Europe whole, free, and at peace nestled in a still larger community of democratic nations. Had we, in the West, been able to decisively seal that deal, it would have been an epochal achievement.
But the term Liberal International Order (LIO) itself does not date from near the inception of what it supposedly names. The phrase “liberal international order”— at first not capitalized but more recently inclined to be capitalized—came into mainstream use only during the past 20 to 25 years or so. Yet it names an arrangement presumably dedicated to freer international trade, democratic government, and collective security—under the leadership of the United States but embodied in an array of international institutions—whose origin dates to Bretton Woods (1944), the United Nations (1945), and the creation of NATO (1949).
This is not a one-off; indeed, examples of post hoc naming abound. The term “American exceptionalism” isn’t nearly as old as most presume: It came into existence only in the mid-1950s and took on its eventual, current meaning even some time after that.1 For that matter, the term Holy Roman Empire did not come into common use (Heiliges Römisches Reich, in German) until the middle of the 13th century, at least three centuries after the fact.
What does this mean? Probably that the cognoscenti of any given epoch only strain to name an abstract thing when it needs protecting, justifying, reforming—or all three. If so, a natural affliction to exaggerate the virtues of what is being named, and to round off any pesky dissonant edges from it, will be present. The process of naming, the communications transactions that produce acceptance of the name, and the name itself all have the function of concentrating collective attention. Taken together it amounts to a circling of the wagons. This is what I meant, above, by the phrase “but in a way few seem to appreciate.”
So why did a collection of concepts and institutional habits we now call the Liberal International Order need a name, that name, except for the fact that as those concepts and habits weakened, some wanted to objectify the “thing” in order to preserve it? From whence the weakening? Several sources are obvious in retrospect.
The American-led postwar order had as its organizing principle opposition to the spread of Soviet Communism. When the USSR went out of business at the end of 1991, that organizing principle disappeared with it. So had, earlier and more gradually, the bipolar nature of the early postwar period: Europe and Japan recovered from the war and discovered their own interests separate sometimes from America’s; China, India, and other countries grew wealthier and more influential, too.
Just as important, the power delta and reputation of the United States as leader suffered multisided attrition. The United States lost its nuclear weapons monopoly early on in the post-World War II period and then in time its overweening advantage in strategic weaponry; it suffered from the disaster that was Vietnam, and then from Watergate; and it suffered also from a series of economic swoons dating to the early 1970s that, more tightly connected to an emerging global economy as time went on, cast doubt on the pocket-book reliability of American leadership.
The sum of it all is that American leadership over time became less trusted, more expensive to manage, less self-assured in Washington, and more openly contested in a variety of ways from both outside and from within the “order.” The less the actual liberal international order resembled the conditions of its early zenith, the greater became the need to name it.
It also dawned eventually on most serious people that the institutional expressions of the postwar world—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the GATT and then the WTO, and NATO as well, to name the main ones—did not really possess a life of their own, but were shadow-like projections of the power and reputations of the states that espoused their purposes and supported their undertakings. If those states ran into trouble, so would the multilateral jerry-riggings they had thrown together. To have expected otherwise would have been to believe that the position of a shadow can be affected by things done to the shadow.
It is worth noting too, at least in passing, that some who in due course wished to contest the LIO, even as others were trying to preserve it, felt obligated to rename it as the International Liberal Economic Order, also known as the Washington Consensus. This pigeonholed the meaning of “liberal” from a suitably ambiguous but nice-sounding general idea about freedom into a materialist critique of globalized capitalism (of which more anon).
And why not? This attempted renaming occurred only after the USSR ceased to exist, and many out in the broad world far from American shores feared what an unbalanced American unipolarity might mean for them. Those fears were not entirely empty, not I think because of any aggressive U.S. malice aforethought, but because of what turned out to be one or two large, generic misjudgments. The critical decisions of the Clinton Administration’s economic managers in the mid- to late-1990s to treat capital the same as goods, services, and labor caused an enormous amount of serial disruption around the world—social and political following economic—and led willy-nilly to the perception, if not also the reality in all cases, that what Edward Luttwak early on named “turbo-capitalism” was causing sharply rising inequality within national economies.
Now, some have claimed in recent years that the only problem with the Liberal International Order is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been trying, with all too much success, to undermine it. Putin certainly has been trying to undermine something, but to conflate the lately named Liberal International Order with the roughly simultaneous geopolitical settlement of the Cold War is a category error.
The Soviet Union was of course never part of the LIO, except insofar as it served as its foil. It and its immediate post-Soviet Russian successor signed on to the post-Cold War settlement at a time of yawning weakness, and hopefulness in the benign future conduct of the victors. Looking at the confluence of traditional Russian attitudes about Russia’s world role and the perceived slights and injuries done to Russia by the West in the early post-Soviet period, it is no great surprise that a Russian government would come to contest the post-Cold War settlement when it believed itself able to do so.
Does that subsume also Russian opposition to the LIO as it has existed since 1991? I think not. The Putin regime no doubt finds the marquee democratic values structure of the LIO to be something of a threat, but many of its attendant institutions that have evolved over the years are confluent with Russian interests—for example, the UN Security Council, given Russia’s position within it; and certain WTO rules, to the extent they are enforced, that constrain Russia’s economic competitors.
Far be it from me to put myself in the same class of inspired wits as Voltaire, but there is a sense in which the Liberal International Order, for all its virtues, has never been liberal, fully international, or an order. That we eventually found it necessary to claim as much, even for a worthy purpose, does not change that. Let’s take a closer look at these three words matched against reality.
The word “liberal” has to rank as one of the most fungible, shape-shifting, locutions around. It began life as a 19th-century term for anti-mercantilist politics. The rising British bourgeoisie had wished to be free of the state’s long restrictive arm, first with respect to religion and later also with respect to commerce; so yes, the older word “liberty” and the newer one “liberal” do share a common etymology.
Europeans still use the locution “neo-liberal” to refer to arguments for less government intrusion into markets, a perspective usually identified with right-of-center politics today. This confuses a lot of Americans, who have long since understood “liberal” to mean pretty much the opposite: a larger state role in the economy in the interest, variously in the minds of its supporters, of fairness, equality of opportunity, egalitarianism, a larger social idea, or an array of specially plead meliorist projects. Americans are rarely troubled by etymological incoherence, so they manage to live with the use of “liberal” as an adjective meaning simultaneously “anti-authoritarian” when it comes to politics in general and “more statist” when it comes to politics in the United States.
So when we plunk the word “liberal” into a phrase followed by “international order” we get a cornucopia of likely confusion. Some will think it means an order defined by free trade, and others will think it means an order defined by political democracy joined to Whiggish good works such as fighting poverty or advancing “human rights,” however defined. Since the post-World War II arrangement was decidedly American in emphasis, Americans have tended to think the latter as the phrase “liberal international order” came into common currency, and that is what worried Americans emphasize today: the threat to a system of collective security ultimately founded on shared democratic political values. The stuff about the money is secondary, but that’s partly because we have a lot it and a lot of others don’t.
It also bears passing mention that during the heyday of the liberal international order, before it was named and before it was routinely capitalized, the collective security arrangements brokered by successive U.S. administrations included states that were in no way liberal—Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, for example, not to speak of a host of other “friendly tyrants” scattered hither and yon around the planet. More glaring, perhaps, in its first fifteen years, at least, that order included by association the colonial appendages of the fast-faltering European empires. What was liberal about that, either in terms of economics or politics? No wonder, then, that the citizens of these new polities tend to think about the phase “liberal international order” from a somewhat jaundiced perspective, and no wonder that the broad-brushed phrase “free world” never sounded exactly accurate even to many Westerners.
International? That sounds very encompassing, especially since its (questionable) graduation to employment as a synonym for global. But the LIO never included the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries, or China, or India before it abandoned its London School of Economics inheritance, and one could go on. It included before the age of decolonization only the United States and Canada, the countries of Western Europe, post-occupation Japan and some then much smaller East Asian economies (South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines), the scatterings of the Anglosphere in Australia and New Zealand, and more or less by default, and as an afterthought most of the time, the rest of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba after 1959). This was, then, a roughly Atlantic-centered grouping that contained way less than half the world’s population, but that, because it was so wealthy, simply tucked the rest of the world away in a miscellaneous folder.
Order? If by order one means a Kissingerian, grand-strategic arrangement that prevents hegemonic war, then yes: The post-World War II LIO has done that, if barely. And even if barely, that is no small thing.
But if by order we mean a less demanding condition of general peace and progress, then, once again, it sort of depends on who you are and where you live. As for peace, plenty of orders—Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and so on—populate the history books, and most of them have entailed almost constant warfighting by the hegemon on the periphery of empire. This was a “good enough” setup, or not, depending on which side of the battle-lines you and yours stood.
As for progress, it is well known that since the end of the Cold War many millions have been lifted from abject poverty, not by foreign aid, but by freer trade and the settling in of a sober macroeconomic orthodoxy in places where it had never before existed. But absolute gains in living standards do not satisfy everyone; relative position matters too, for deeply engrained psychological reasons. Affluence does not subsume dignity, after all. Can a person be “better off” by someone else’s reckoning if he doesn’t feel that way himself? Can an affluent Westerner who has a positive take on the Liberal International Order pronounce a recent poverty escapee in Tanzania “better off” on account of that order? It depends, but not just on cold numbers. As R.H. Tawney once put it, “No increase in material wealth will compensate…for arrangements which insult their self-respect and impair their freedom.”2
Whatever we call it, the headlong erosion of the collective security and commercial arrangements the world inherited from the Cold War era would be a big deal, were it now to accelerate in earnest. That erosion did not start with the onset of the Trump Administration, but it does seem to have been accelerated by it. Are things by now tumbling out of control, so that there is no way for men and women of sober temperament to preserve what is benign about that inheritance?
A good question; I know not the answer. But we can know this: We live at a time when for a variety of reasons the state-centric character of the modern Westphalian system is under great stress, and it happens to be a time, too, when technological change has enabled violent revisionist, and sometimes apocalyptically minded, non-state actors to cause great disruption and destruction.
The combination could portend great trouble ahead, such that even rescuing the cooperative habits of mind, and the institutions that have arisen from them, that have stood us in fairly good stead for the past seventy years might not be enough to guarantee any kind of decent order at all. But without those habits and institutions at least as a basis for a habitable future, it seems to me that we are at significantly greater disadvantage. All the same, let us not through the warped psychology of retrospective naming distort the past. Nostalgia, in any form, is an indulgence. And as any clergyman worth his salt will tell you, indulgences come with a price tag.
*“That entity which was called, and which is still called, the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor empire.”
1See Walter A. McDougall, “The Unlikely History of American Exceptionalism,” The American Interest (March/April 2013.)
2Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Penguin, 1969), p. 28.