09 June 2014

The Liberal World Order and its discontents

In The New Republic for June 9 Robert Kagan has written a long essay on "The Allure of Normalcy." Wisely finding this a bit obscure, the editors advertise it on their cover with the catchier title, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." As the cover hints, Kagan's essay is a warning against the U.S. giving up its special role as bulwark of what the author calls a "liberal world order" out of a desire for "normalcy" after generations in crisis mode. The word, popularly credited to President Warren G. Harding, evokes America's retreat from world leadership after World War I, although Kagan scrupulously refuses to characterize those he criticizes as isolationists. He aims at a level of objectivity throughout his essay, of which this passage is typical:

Who is to say that even defense of the liberal world order is necessarily good? The liberal world order was never put to a popular vote. It was not bequeathed by God. It is not the endpoint of human progress, despite what our Enlightenment education tells us. It is the temporary and transient world order that suits the needs, interests, and above all the ideals of a large and powerful collection of people, but it does not necessarily fit the needs and desires of everyone.

All great powers are selfish, Kagan notes, not excluding the U.S., "and the more power a nation has, the more it is likely to act in ways that cannot be squared with a Christian or Enlightenment morality." Yet Kagan accepts that the global benefits of the liberal world order justify at least some of this country's "morally compromised" actions. To be clear, Kagan defines the liberal world order to encompass "an open international economic system," "principles of international behavior," and "democratic governments [with] a minimum of respect for human rights." Commitment to this liberal world order transcended conventional ideas of national interests. It required the U.S., above all, to act, as only it could, as an enforcer of the liberal world order against any disruption, even if it presented no immediate threat to American national interests. For Kagan the golden age of the liberal world order was the administration of George H.W. Bush -- though Bill Clinton made a good showing as well --  and the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq the exemplary act in its defense. It was the supreme moment because it prevented Saddam Hussein from setting what Brent Scowcroft called a "terrible precedent" of acquiescence in aggression. Kagan's liberal world order is virtually synonymous with Bush's "new world order," defined by the President as a world in which "the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations." Kagan's fear is that, should the U.S. abandon its role as guarantor of the liberal world order, the world will revert to a jungle of nations. "Normalcy" is an illusion, he argues. The world was a Hobbesian schoolyard of bullies before the U.S. asserted itself during World War II, he claims, and it will be that again should we "retire."

In fact, the world 'as it is' is a dangerous, often brutal place. There has been no transformation in human behavior or in international relations. In the twenty-first century, no less than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, force remains the ultimata ratio. The question, today as in the past, is not whether nations are willing to resort to force but whether they believe they can get away with it. If there has been less aggression, less ethnic cleansing, less territorial conquest over the past 70 years, it is because the United States and its allies have both punished and deterred aggression, have intervened, sometimes, to prevent ethnic cleansing, and have gone to war to reverse territorial conquest. The restraint showed by other nations has not been a sign of human progress, the strengthening of international institutions, or the triumph of the rule of law. It has been a response to a global configuration of power that, until recently, has made restraint seem the safer course.

This begs a question: if the liberal world order is so great, and its benefits so obvious, why is no one nation or group of nations prepared to play a greater role in shoring it up as the U.S. retrenches? Kagan suggests that the U.S. is uniquely qualified, both by culture and the historical accident of geography -- the long period when the Atlantic and Pacific immunized it from attack from Eurasia -- to play a role no other country can. "American allies have always been less capable and less willing," he writes, "They have lacked the power and the security to see and act beyond their narrow interests. So where they failed before [e.g. 1914, 1939] they will fail again." The annexation of Crimea is the latest warning bell for Kagan, who fears that Putin's actions will embolden other bullies and "autocrats" around the world. All great powers are selfish, as Kagan writes, but somehow the U.S. is less selfish than the others because it has had a vision of world order, while other powers are driven by greed and chauvinism and pursue policies that benefit only themselves. If the U.S. "retires," he warns, we all face "a world in which autocracies make ever more ambitious attempts to control the flow of information, and in which autocratic kleptocracies

Since Kagan himself concedes that liberal world order isn't the "end of history," could it not stand in the way of progress at some point as it stood in its vanguard earlier? Kagan is concerned with the threat of autocrats, but has much less to say about the aspirations of billions of people. Can a liberal world order satisfy them all? Was it ever meant to? It seems not even to satisfy Americans anymore, but the reason for that may prove Kagan at least partially right. He writes that Americans were willing to support a liberal world order first to defeat the Axis, and then to fend off the threat of international communism. But its benefits weren't defensive only; for a time, liberal world order brought unparalleled prosperity to the U.S., so much that capitalists were willing to share more of the bounty with labor. But a liberalization of the world inevitably brought global economic competition, while giving capitalists excuses to take back much of the bounty. As a result, the benefits to ordinary Americans of liberal world order seem far less obvious now, especially to the millions who'll never go anywhere where they have to kiss a local autocrats's ass. For decades now, Americans have wanted the rest of the world to do its fair share to uphold the liberal order -- yet Kagan tells them they can never expect that to happen. Instead, he warns them that the world will revert to a pre-1945 Hobbesian normalcy without them -- yet Americans with any sense of history may question whether the past was as bad for America as Kagan suggests. Unless Kagan and thinkers like him can solve the problem of diminishing returns for Americans, the liberal world order is only going to be a tougher sell over time. If he really believes that human progress isn't finished, that shouldn't worry him as much as it does.

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