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Yes, Liberalism (as an International System) Is in Decline

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

The definition of insanity is mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior. It’s not, as far too many people repeat (and as Einstein almost certainly never said) doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. (That’s why you shouldn’t rely on bumper stickers for legal or mental health advice.)

And frankly, is the opposite a better definition of insanity? Couldn’t insanity be “when things are going great, deciding to do something different”. Like say, electing an unqualified failed businessman disrupt international institutions during a time of peace?

Yesterday, I wrote that, contrary to the conventional narrative, democracy was not under threat. Well, to be fair, it is always under threat. Autocrats or dictators or military juntas will always try to seize power. It has been that way since Athens in antiquity. Yet the idea of democracy is NOT under threat. Only the most fringe-y of fringe elements in America and Europe (and the government of China) would honestly make that argument.

But I will make the argument that the “liberal world order”--what I call “liberalism in foreign relations or IR”--is under threat. Others have made this argument, but it is important enough to say again. To prevent future global disasters--like World War II--and to reinforce human rights--in opposition to the Soviet Union--and to spearhead the greatest improvement in quality of life in history, the United States and Europe created a liberal international system, featuring:

- The spread of democracy as the ideal form of government

- The spread of market capitalism as the ideal economic system

- The spread of free trade between states

- The rise of international institutions to prevent war and support free trade

- The spread of human rights as a legal and moral norm

The last 70 years have been the most successful in human history and we’re about to screw it all up.

The liberal world order that defeated the Soviet Union has led to the spread of democracy and free trade around the globe. Yet the democratic underpinnings of the order have now sown its own demise. Despite decades of peace and prosperity in Europe, Britain voted to leave one of the biggest international organizations, the EU, which could affect both defense and free trade. Donald Trump is notably hostile to free trade deals and alliances, like NATO. President Trump has also expressed a disdain for democracies and an admiration for strongmen leaders. Other European countries appear poised to also leave or change their relationship with the EU, and Donald Trump is goading nations into making this disastrous choice.

This threatens all that we have built.

Why is this so dangerous? Yesterday, I referenced Kenneth Waltz' Man the State and War, one of the foundational texts of international relations theory. In it, Waltz describes three “images” to discuss the causes of war. Roughly, they are people (as in individuals), states (as in the type of governments) and the international system (how the states interact with one another). Yesterday, covered the second image, the type of states; in general, the more democracies we have, the less wars are fought.

(We never discussed the first image, the “personal level” or individual leaders. If Al Gore had become President, I doubt America goes to war in Iraq. Since Trump is President instead of Hillary Clinton, we do think war is more likely. We will have an entire series on Trump related to his foreign policy.)

But Waltz argues that the third image is really the most important. The conduct of states towards one another--the concert of states--can either make a beautiful symphony (peace!) or a ruinous cacophony (war). And while realists can argue against this, the run of the liberal world order for the last 70+ years has been the most successful eras at averting international crisis and interstate war in human history.

The previous system hit its high point after the Thirty Years War. By high point, I mean the most number of wars for the most sustained period of time. The “balance of power” so treasured by realists that was created after the Thirty Years War culminated in the second Thirty Years War between WWI and WWII (and too many wars to count in the interim), with regular continental wars (Napoleonic, Seven Years, Franco-Prussian, Spanish Wars of Succession, and more). Yeah, I’m not a realist but even realists have to admit that the global hegemony of the liberal world order during the Cold War has been more successful than their system.

The liberal world order is self-reinforcing: more democracies leads to more free trade which leads to more international organizations to manage it, all of which discourages war, which promotes more free trade, which makes more democracies and makes war less likely and so on. Yet the system can go in reverse as wars cause dictatorships in their aftermath that discourages free trade which removes the need for international institutions and so on.

What worries me about the liberal world order isn’t just the rebukes in the form of Brexit votes, Donald Trump’s election, or far right candidates winning elections across the Western world: it is what is to come. I can see a world where we have two great autocracies--Russia and China--buttressed by a democratically elected leader who allies with them, Donald Trump. I worry that if he erodes the international institutions and global trade system that have undergirded the system, it could take decades to bring them back.

But the biggest worry is war. The best way to relearn our deep appreciation of the liberal world order is in the ashes of war. As the rubble clears from a disastrous inter-state war between first world powers, we will all know why we worked so hard to prevent it.

Let’s not let it come to that.