The Truth About the Liberal Order

Why It Didn't Make the Modern World

Aboard the USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea, June 2014. REUTERS

Few ideas have gained more widespread currency within the U.S. foreign policy community in the last few years than that of the liberal international order. In my recent essay, “The Myth of the Liberal Order,” I identified three core claims made by advocates of the order about its significance: “First, that the liberal order has been the principal cause of the so-called long peace among great powers for the past seven decades. Second, that constructing this order has been the main driver of U.S. engagement in the world over that period. And third, that U.S. President Donald Trump is the primary threat to the liberal order—and thus to world peace.” Each claim contains grains of truth, I argued, but each is more wrong than right.  

Since the article was published, several scholars have pushed back. Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper argue that the “liberal order is more than a myth.” And Michael J. Mazarr suggests that I have misread the order’s history and purpose. Their responses are serious and thoughtful, but they do little to undermine my argument.


The most inconvenient fact for those who argue that the liberal order has played a major role in the long peace since World War II is that more than 40 of the 70 peaceful years took place during the Cold War. The absence of major power conflict, as I wrote, “was not the result of a liberal order but the byproduct of the dangerous balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States.” On this point, I quoted the historian John Lewis Gaddis in his definitive article on the long peace: “Without anyone’s having designed it,” he wrote, “and without any attempt whatever to consider the requirements of justice, the nations of the postwar era lucked into a system of international relations that, because it has been based upon realities of power, has served the cause of order—if not justice—better than one might have

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