“The False Promise of Liberal Order” and “Tomorrow, the World” provide a useful two-dose vaccine against the now-viral view that something ambitious must be done to repair and revitalize the fraying liberal international order. Both books counsel against doubling down on a postwar order that was more imperial than liberal.
The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump by Partick Porter (224 pages, Polity, 2020)
Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy by Stephen Wertheim (272 pages, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2020)
Was the international order built by the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War truly liberal? The conventional wisdom, of course, is yes. The postwar order was built on firmly liberal foundations by a benign liberal hegemon, the United States, that only reluctantly accepted this role and did so at considerable cost to itself. Building better than they knew, the American architects of the liberal international order then bequeathed to subsequent generations a set of norms, institutions, and rules that promoted not only peace and prosperity, but freedom as well. They did so, or so the conventional wisdom would have it, by avoiding both the Scylla of naïve idealism and the Charybdis of hardnosed realpolitik. They did so by building on the enlightened and altruistic self-interest of the United States. They built so well in fact that the liberal order is with us yet, if only we can keep it.
Bringing the sensibilities of a classical realist to bear, in his book The False Promise of Liberal Order, Patrick Porter challenges this conventional wisdom, arguing that the postwar order was not particularly liberal and that the demiurge that shaped it not particularly benign. In Dr. Porter’s account, the postwar order was built more on old-fashioned power politics—great power competition, imperial logic, and mercantilism—than on benign and enlightened U.S. leadership. Moreover, he argues, once in place, the liberal international order rarely constrained the United States’ pursuit of its expansive geopolitical interests. Indeed, quite the opposite: liberal internationalist thinking and the need to sustain, and even perfect, the liberal order inspired idealistic crusades to remake the world. The result, Dr. Porter argues, has been a genetic disposition to military interventionism, covert action, nuclear brinkmanship, economic coercion, and diplomatic bullying—all in the service of a greater, liberal good. Tellingly, Dr. Porter reminds us, these “dark parts” were not flaws in the liberal order. Rather, they were features of it.
Dr. Porter goes on to argue that efforts to portray the postwar decades as the golden age of the liberal international order are grounded in a kind of geopolitical nostalgia—a politics of restoration, a “false memory,” a “mytho-history.” More than that, he argues that such thinking is not merely an exercise in harmless, if self-indulgent, nostalgia. It is, Dr. Porter argues, downright dangerous to pine for a post-Trump return to the imagined golden era of an American-led liberal international order. Such thinking, he suggests, amounts to a doubling down on a failed strategy—one that has saddled the U.S. with unsustainable debt, excessive state power, and the tragic consequences of failed wars.
Stephen Wertheim makes a similar case in Tomorrow, the World. Diving even more deeply into the history of the founding moment of what we still insist on mislabeling the liberal international order, Dr. Wertheim charts the evolution of the vision of the postwar order that would ultimately triumph. He argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that vision was not forged in reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S., he argues, did not reluctantly enter onto the road of global supremacy when shaken out of its isolationist slumber on that fateful December day in 1941. Rather, that journey had begun in the summer of 1940 when the fall of France had sent shock waves through the U.S. foreign policy establishment. It was then, and in direct response to the Nazi triumph over France, Dr. Wertheim argues, that a small coterie of American foreign policy experts began to develop its vision for a postwar global order. And what was that vision? Simply put, it was a vision of American primacy: a world dominated by America power, shaped by American values, and sustained by American-led institutions. This vision—shaped by a belief in America’s inherent virtue and its natural vocation to bring the blessings of the American way of life to the world—was to be achieved, sustained, and defended through American military might. The United Nations and other multilateral fora would both facilitate the exercise of U.S. hegemony and legitimize it. But such institutions were not envisioned as having any real capacity to restrain it. In this vision, Dr. Wertheim argues, internationalism-as-military dominance was framed not only as the only viable path to American security, but also as a policy representing the highest and most noble American ideals. In order to make this vision palatable to the American people, Dr. Wertheim argues, the advocates of U.S. primacy juxtaposed it to the only other option: isolationism. But this alternative, Dr. Wertheim argues, was actually advocated by no one. It was instead a boogeyman concocted to demonize those who favored a more restrained, less imperial, postwar American grand strategy.
While perhaps understating the gravity of the threat posed to the U.S. both during the war and in its immediate aftermath, Dr. Wertheim usefully draws our attention to the actual motives and aspirations of the American architects of the liberal order. And while the book does tend to paint a somewhat Panglossian portrait of those who challenged the ultimately triumphant, liberal-imperial vision, it largely succeeds in highlighting the fact that the U.S. was not reluctantly compelled to assume the role of global Leviathan. Its foreign policy establishment envisioned an American-dominated, liberal postwar order long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor supposedly dragged America into a war over the future of world order. American self-interest was always the motive, American primacy always (at least from the moment France fell in 1940) the means, American-constructed institutions always the cover.
Taken together, these two eminently readable and painstakingly researched books provide a useful two-dose vaccine against the now viral view that something ambitious must be done to repair and revitalize the fraying liberal international order. Reflecting a line of realist thinking that calls for restraint and cautions against imperial overreach, both books counsel against giving into liberal geopolitical nostalgia—against doubling down on a postwar order that was more imperial than liberal. At a moment when the liberal imperialists are back in power in Washington, this is sound counsel indeed.
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