The Liberal Order Is More Than a Myth

But It Must Adapt to the New Balance of Power

Flags outside the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, August 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Eighteen months into U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, domestic and foreign policy analysts alike are in the midst of a bitter awakening: U.S. policy, whether social, economic, or international, may never be the same again. Among the most common refrains from the foreign policy cognoscenti is the warning that Trump has imperiled the liberal international order—the norms, rules, laws, and institutions that have supported U.S. power since 1945. The president’s vengeful unilateralism, we are told, is dismantling a cherished system that has brought peace and stability to the world.

In his recent Foreign Affairs article (“The Myth of the Liberal Order,” July/August 2018), Graham Allison provides a useful corrective to this baleful narrative, joining a chorus of contrarian foreign policy thinkers who decry the “myth of the liberal order.” Defenders of the myth, Allison argues, mistakenly credit the liberal order with 70 years of great power peace and misattribute the motivations behind U.S. overseas engagement. The post–World War II system led by the United States was never fully liberal, international, rules based, or orderly. At its core, it was driven by a struggle for global dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the balance of power between these two nuclear behemoths—and U.S. hegemony in more recent decades—that prevented another world war. For Allison, Trump’s disregard for liberal values may be worrisome, but rather than dreaming of a bygone era of unrivaled liberal hegemony, the United States should focus on rebuilding a robust democracy at home.

Although a welcome antidote to the many reverent paeans to the liberal international order and attendant calls for its pristine preservation, Allison’s critique does not fully rhyme with his conclusions. Liberal order may not have been the sole determinant of 70 years of geopolitics, but that does not warrant a wholesale dismissal of the concept as a matter of statecraft or scholarship. And although a restoration of the same liberal system propped

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