In different but complementary and insightful ways, Robert D Kaplan, John Gray and Helen Thompson have made a persuasive case for a tragic future of global and regional struggles among great powers and lesser powers alike over security, resources, and values. If they are correct, and I think they are, then the project of liberal internationalism has failed for now and perhaps forever.
Liberal internationalism entranced many elites and citizens in the West and the world three times, following three global conflicts – the two world wars and the Cold War. The promise of liberal internationalism was that zero-sum struggles among countries over power, wealth, and values, in which one country’s gain means losses for others, could be replaced by non-zero-sum collaboration to promote mutual security, mutual prosperity, and common values.
One way to eliminate interstate competition, of course, would be the unification of humanity under a single state, by force or by federation. But liberal internationalists have been committed to a world of national self-determination by many sovereign states, including new ones that emerge by secession or the partition of former multinational empires. Liberal internationalists have sought to reconcile their two goals of national independence with global harmony by replacing competition among states for relative power and relative wealth with global governance rather than with global government.
In the liberal internationalist vision, security would no longer be provided on a self-help basis by individual states or alliances. Instead, a system of collective security would make all states, big and small, powerful and weak, safe from the aggression of others. Interstate aggression would be outlawed by treaties, and outlaw states would be punished by national or global military forces deployed to enforce global law by a global organisation – the League of Nations or the United Nations.
Following the Cold War, many liberal internationalists in the West, including neoconservatives and “humanitarian hawks”, were committed to the dream of a world without interstate conflicts, but realised that the United Nations would never effectively function as global police officer. Many found a substitute in the idea of a “league of democracies” which would oversee the post-Cold War world. Others hoped that a single country, the United States of America, could reduce incentives for interstate competition and provide security for all countries – or at least all deserving countries – by policing the world as the global hegemon. If post-Soviet Russia and post-Maoist China consented willingly to membership of a liberal internationalist order or “rule-based system” policed by the US and regional allies, then great-power politics would vanish. Only small and recalcitrant “rogue states” such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea would threaten the American-led liberal international order.
The strategy of collective security has implications for trade policy. If the League of Nations, the United Nations, or Team America kept the peace, then individual countries would no longer need to try to maximise their control of industries, markets, and natural resources vital to national defence, just as individuals under a common national government are liberated from the need to stockpile arms and supplies as a precaution against attack by their neighbours. Free of the need to provide for national militaries, except perhaps for forces that states would contribute to global collective security campaigns, countries could abandon economic nationalism and join a borderless, rule-governed global market in which individuals and firms were the only participants.
What about conflicting values? Liberal internationalists from the aftermath of the First World War to the aftermath of the Cold War hoped that conflicts of values among countries would simply disappear as the result of the inevitable conversion of all of humanity to liberal democracy, founded on ideas of individual human rights derived from the American and French revolutions during the 18th-century Enlightenment. In place of older distinctions between Christians and pagans and civilised and barbaric countries, mostly-Western liberal internationalists distinguished liberal from illiberal states and democracies from autocracies. In a secular version of post-Christian theodicy, liberal internationalists assumed that the conversion of the heathens to Western liberalism was unavoidable and could be sped up by evangelisation and the occasional coup or war of regime change.
In his war message to Congress on 2 April 1917, the US president Woodrow Wilson declared: “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” Echoing Wilson, in his second inaugural address 0 January 2005, George W Bush asserted: “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world… So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
The millennial hopes of liberal internationalists after the First World War were frustrated by the resumption of great-power rivalries that led to the Second World War. After 1945, the conflicts of the US and its allies with the Soviet Union, China and other members of the communist bloc disappointed and disillusioned those who had high hopes for the United Nations system. Now, the replacement of the US’s fleeting post-Cold War global hegemony with great-power struggles pitting the US and its allies against China and Russia, along with the return of non-alignment as a strategy among many other nations, marks the defeat in our time of the liberal internationalist project.
In the emerging multipolar world, as throughout most of history, states will have to look after their own security, alone or with the help of military allies. This makes it imperative to adopt strategies of self-sufficiency in militarily essential manufacturing, raw materials, energy supplies, workforces, and consumer markets, at the level of blocs or alliances if not of individual countries.
In the realm of values, the project of liberalising the world has failed as decisively as earlier Western attempts to Christianise or “civilise” humanity. Saudi Arabia and Iran and many other Muslim countries, including Afghanistan under the Taliban, have non-liberal religious regimes of a kind liberals hoped would give way to secularism and individualism. In different ways Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey have consolidated postmodern autocracies that can function effectively in the age of computers and rockets.
Nor is liberal democracy healthy in its Western heartlands. In the last generation, real power in the US and European countries has drained from legislatures to increasingly powerful executives, judiciaries, transnational agencies and corporations. The result has been the replacement of the old politics of left and right by conflict between elite technocratic insiders and alienated citizens represented by colourful and often ineffectual and corrupt populist tribunes such as Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump. As the multiple prosecutions of Berlusconi and Trump show, “lawfare” – the weaponisation of the judicial system for partisan purposes as a substitute for elections – is being normalised in North Atlantic democracies, having long weakened democratic institutions in the oligarchic societies of Latin America. Liberal democracy cannot flourish if political factions routinely seek to jail or censor rival politicians.
Military and economic competition, together with ineradicable conflicts of religious and secular values, cannot be eliminated as utopian liberal internationalists have hoped. But inevitable interstate conflicts can be moderated and prevented from escalating into all-out war. Age-old diplomatic expedients such as spheres of influence and neutral zones, along with newer methods such as arms control treaties, summit meetings and hotlines, can limit great-power rivalries and proxy conflicts. Instead of treating free trade as the norm and justifying sanctions and embargos only as punishments of global outlaws, we can acknowledge the legitimacy of selective protectionism and industrial policy by nations and blocs, while engaging in the trade-war equivalents of arms control negotiations. And conflicts among incommensurable values can be managed by what John Gray has called a modus vivendi , or co-existence, in a permanently pluralistic world.
“What audiences want is a tragedy with a happy ending,” an American movie mogul once declared. What the realist thinker John Mearsheimer calls the tragedy of great power politics is a permanent feature of a world without a world government, but that tragedy need not end in universal ruin.
Michael Lind is a professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite” (Atlantic Books)
This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?