November 13, 2020

The False Promise of Liberal Order

The false promise of liberal order and longing for a rules-based global framework are at the heart of the critique of Patrick Porter’s book of the same name.

The question of the recession from a rules-based structure has been discussed at length and lamented by political commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. Porter claims that people yearn for an order which has never been, and that all the cases of rule-breaking—as well as the readiness of one country (the US) to overlook them if necessary—have been conveniently forgotten. America’s hegemony was softer than the alternatives, but it was still one country’s clear supremacy over others, reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: all countries are equal, but the US is more equal than others.

Patrick Porter. The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump. Polity Press, 2020. 224 pp.

For years, opinion leaders have expressed unease on the op-ed pages and social media about Donald Trump and Brexit, and have started searching for reasons why the earlier rules-based ideal has fallen, as well as decrying the shameless characters responsible for the decline.

Still, the liberal world order was an ideal that we strove towards but never really existed. One can argue whether this endeavour guaranteed a more civilised world or if seeing the power relations out in the open was for the best. Porter claims that doctoring elections in other countries, propaganda and fake news (from respected people, too), bribe-taking politicians, and rarely and selectively applied international agreements are nothing new. What has changed is that, in recent decades, the number of cases of these and other malicious acts being revealed (and, maybe, committed) has risen substantially in the countries that often appear in the media and are connected to us by existentially important security ties. It is doubtful whether it is possible to destroy something as abstract as the liberal rules-based world order, which has mainly existed only in rhetoric, with the aim of hiding clear hierarchical power relations and uncomfortable realpolitik.

It is sobering to look at certain developments based on data and events. The US has arranged or supported several revolutions against democratically elected governments: Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and Egypt in 2013 (?). Between 1946 and 2000, Washington supported one of the parties competing in another country’s elections on 81 occasions (partisan electoral intervention); the favoured candidates were financed, supported and advised directly or indirectly on 16 occasions. Between 1947 and 1989, there were 72 US-backed attempts to overthrow the government of another country. In many countries and over a long period, the suppression and overthrow of democracy was undertaken under the label of safeguarding it.

There was also the issue of the rhetoric of spreading democracy. The contradiction between words and actions became clear when president George W. Bush spoke of the need to promote global democracy in his second inauguration speech. Afterwards, he had to reassure the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf with a simple message: they were allies and democracy would not be forced upon them. Years later, the Arab Spring confirmed that democracy cannot be established anywhere overnight, and when it is, the result might not correlate with the political goals of the Western world (mainly the US).

During Bill Clinton’s time in office, the US helped found the International Criminal Court (ICC), but in 2002 decided against participating in it. If it seems scandalous now for US senators to threaten to impose sanctions on a small town in Germany where the construction of Nord Stream 2 is coordinated from the German side, it is worth noting that in 2002 the US adopted a law that stopped military aid to all countries that had not concluded an agreement with Washington to ensure immunity for its troops. (This was mainly targeted at countries that were members of the ICC, so that US soldiers could not be convicted of war crimes.) The message was simple, and it still is: the rules of international criminal law apply to second- and third-order powers, not to the hegemon. The same law granted the right to use military force to free US citizens should they be arrested by the ICC. In the media this was known as the “Hague Invasion Act”. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden voted for it, even though the last of these is talking during his current presidential campaign about “restoring normalcy”, which is not far from the rhetoric of restoring the rules-based world order.

I found one of Porter’s metaphors striking: like a spider’s web, the international order is strong enough to catch the weak, yet too weak to catch the strong. It was created to strengthen the existing hierarchy, not to make all countries equal.

Many of the aspects we consider the characteristics of the “liberal rules-based world order”, such as the Common Market of the EU, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, now replaced by the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)), the long-deliberated Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, and several other international agreements to break down protectionist economic barriers, are utterly new in terms of the historical big picture and have attracted harsh criticism in their short existence. On the other hand, it speaks volumes that, before the events of 2016, the US and the EU were the largest appliers of protectionist measures in the world, both with over 1,000 measures in place, according to Reuters. Reagan, Clinton and Bush Jr imposed many tariffs, all talking about the benefits of free trade while doggedly protecting the US market against competitors. Trump’s upside has been that his words and actions are in correlation; the gap between praise for free trade and international norms and reality is no longer that wide. The current US president and his tariffs represent not a deviation from American political tradition but, rather, its culmination in several respects.

The author considers Trump’s upside to be that his words and actions are in correlation; the gap between praise for free trade and international norms and reality is no longer that wide. ZUMAPress .com/Scanpix

I like the tough and cynical main thesis of the book, although it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has even cursorily looked into the history of the Western world and the Cold War. Nevertheless, I think the presentation of the arguments leaves something to be desired: almost every chapter and myth-busting argument includes several historical examples whose number and somewhat lacking textual coherence create the impression of the book being more of a mosaic of isolated thoughts, notes and opinions than an elaborate work where legibility and clarity of argument have been taken into consideration. As a result, I feel compelled to paraphrase Alan Bennett: American dominance is just one fucking thing after another.[i]

On the other hand, I believe, as does the author, that—regardless of all the bad things that the US and its allies have done since World War II in the name of peace, freedom and democracy (some of which have been utterly horrible)—the West can be considered the better half of the world, both during the Cold War and since. This security architecture was the best of all the available options to which Estonia and the whole of free Europe could tie their fate. An alliance with the imperfect US is good enough. It does not release us from endeavouring to achieve our ideals (should we want to), but blindness to history is not to our benefit either, if we really want to comprehend past and current events, even if it is just to understand the (sometimes justified) wrath of some countries against the US and the West in general.

Porter presents an uncomfortable fact: for the US and its allies to create and maintain a coalition against China or some other opponent, the alliance must consist of liberal democracies (some of whom must be compelled to join it), illiberal democracies and clearly undemocratic states. This focus would mean disregarding some national security obligations—not necessarily leaving NATO, but the author does not approve of its further enlargement. In addition, there is a need to revise current security guarantees; can all of them be enforced in a crisis? Probably not, and this means making decisions (especially downsizing the presence in the Middle East).

In the end, I started to wonder who was this book’s intended reader. The main thesis did not surprise me, and the phrase “rules-based world order” does not seem to appear much in the public rhetoric of Estonian foreign policy; it has been mentioned a few times by Urmas Reinsalu as foreign minister, and rather more often by his predecessor, Sven Mikser. Rather than anything else, this book will help readers to understand the debates between the Americans themselves in an academic and political context. At the end of the day, whether our alliance rests on common values (which should be honoured, even if just for show) or merely on maintaining a partnership against someone else and recognising the Americans’ supremacy without questioning the price affects us too.


[i] Alan Bennett, The History Boys: “History is just one fucking thing after another”.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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