FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: What Was the Liberal Order?


The United Nations headquarters, New York. Reuters

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

The central fact about international politics is anarchy, the lack of a common sovereign authority able to settle disputes and establish order. This has meant that throughout history, states have been forced to fend for themselves, protecting and advancing their national interests as they see fit, embracing whatever policies and temporary partnerships seem expedient.

Life in such a self-help system is precarious. As Thomas Hobbes noted, “Without a common power to keep them all in awe,” the players in the game have to worry constantly and make sure the other players aren’t trying to screw them. In such circumstances, he observed,

...there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Over the centuries, this coordination problem has contributed to countless depressions, crises, and wars. Anarchy allows bad leaders and bad regimes to wreak havoc. But it also makes it hard for even not-so-bad regimes to cooperate with one another reliably enough for everyone to stop being so suspicious, relax a bit, and turn their attention to the business of living productively.

In the 1940s, as they suffered through yet another round of destruction and turmoil, policymakers in Washington and other major Western capitals finally decided that enough was enough. They recognized that the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century had emerged because their countries had hunkered down in the face of economic and geopolitical crisis, passing the

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