Liberal International Order and its Discontents

26 Feb, 2019    ·   5563

Dr Lydia Walker reflects on narrative construction in international relations and parallel political discourses based on geographical orientation

In the past two years, in response to the activities and rhetoric of the current US presidential administration, a slew of prominent voices in the study of international relations have bemoaned the demise of an international order, of US power utilised through international institutions and multilateral alliances.An advertisement published in The New York Times in June 2018, and a subsequent petition that continues to circulate online, signed by a broad coalition of well-respected international relations scholars promoted this perspective. These are people whose work has shaped the field of international relations to such a degree that their names bear no small weight. Therefore, the petition became emblematic of a perspective that a liberal international order has been in existence for a significant portion of the 20th century, that its continued existence is under threat, and that this threat creates significant urgency. Due to the stature and number of the scholars signing their names to this point of view, I will call them ‘the consensus’.

In response, as is usual in academic debates, particularly those drawing on real-world events, a group of scholars critiqued the consensus. They pointed out the a-historical elision of post-1945 institutions such as the UN and NATO with post-1990s institutions such as the EU and World Trade Organisation (WTO). They asked, has there ever really been a liberal international order, an international system that was ‘liberal’, ‘international’, and ‘ordered’? Why had the US chosen multilateralism in Europe and bilateral treaties in Asia? Could ‘liberal’ be replaced with ‘American’ in notions of a liberal international order? And see how this international order reflected the projection of US’ economic and military power alongside certain sets of norms and politics? An excellent over-view of this debate is in a recent podcast with Samuel Moyn and Jack Goldsmith.

I presented the debate between the consensus and the critique to a cluster of junior and senior scholars at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi in December 2018. There, there was no debate. From the perspective of Indian foreign relations since independence and Non-Alignment, through to the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, the narrative of a liberal international order had always been, to paraphrase Stephen Wertheim, US nationalism without the name, and US internationalism without solidarity. This was old news for those who studied and participated in international relations from an Indian perspective. It is not accidental that another US critic of the alleged demise of an alleged liberal international order is Paul Staniland, who has extensive research experience in South Asia.

As with many academic debates, this one seems low stakes compared to the urgent global crises of rights, refugees, violence and environmental change—even as the debate is in direct response to these issues. When I presented this debate in Delhi, I expected the discussion would grow heated, and through those sparks to gain illumination. I was drawn to the debate as both a citizen (of the US) and as a scholar of the gaps in institutions of international order and of the peoples these institutions have been designed to exclude. But what was illuminating in Delhi was the agreement, the lack of debate, about a set of issues that on another side of the world merited contestation. In Delhi, the critique of liberal international order was the consensus.

What does it say about the current US debate about liberal international order that there is no debate in Delhi? What other debates in international relations might benefit from greater understanding of how US power has been viewed from those who see (and feel) it from beyond its national borders?These questions are not simply pleas for empathy and awareness, though that would not be misplaced. Rather they are a push for understanding how strategies, and their surrounding discourses—such as notions of a post Second World War liberal international order—reflect a US-centrism both in its consensus and its critique.

In his keynote at the January 2019 All-India International and Area Studies Convention, current international relations scholar and past international relations practitioner Shivshankar Menon made the case for improving the study of international relations in India. He mentioned how most analysts of Indian international relations and Indian international history—Indian and non-Indian—receive their training outside India, mostly in the US and UK. This point also works both ways—study of international relations and its historythat does not take western-oriented debates, theories, and political geographies as its point of departure is as necessary for scholars based in the global north as in the global south. This is not an original proposal. Yet the fact that debate on one side of the world is consensus on the other, shows that it remains an open proposition.

Dr Lydia Walker is Postdoctoral Fellow, Dartmouth College, & Past and Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London