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The Real History of the Liberal Order

Neither Myth Nor Accident

The UN Security Council meets at UN Headquarters in New York, July 2015. Mike Segar

For 70 years, U.S. commentators have, by and large, supported the idea of a U.S.-led, rules-based international order. Yet recently, more and more scholars and experts, including the political scientist Graham Allison writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, have started dismissing it as a “myth.” Their argument has more than academic significance: given the accelerating assault on the institutions and practices of the postwar order by politicians around the world, the idea that the system is more mythical than real implies that the United States can get along perfectly well without it.

Yet these critiques typically conflate three different orders: the postwar institutional order, the components of that system that espouse liberal values, and the U.S.-led global military order with its goal of U.S. primacy. Allison rightly worries that a “surge of triumphalism” after 1989 tempted the United States to overreach in promoting liberal

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