The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion, and the Rise of Trump
By Patrick Porter
Polity, 2020, 224 pp.
An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest For Twenty-First-Century Order
By Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper
Yale University Press, 2020, 216 pp.
Can the U.S.-led liberal international order be saved—and should it? These two books offer sharply opposing views. Bringing the contrarian sensibilities of a classical realist to the debate, Porter argues that the liberal order never really was all that liberal, and that it is an exercise in nostalgia to long for a post-Trump return to the imagined golden era of the postwar decades of American primacy. In Porter’s narrative, the postwar order was built more on old-fashioned coercion—and, at times, the brutal exercise of power—than on benign and enlightened U.S. leadership and cooperative rule-making. Porter sees military interventionism, covert action, and hegemonic bullying as a feature and not a flaw of the liberal order. In his view, the United States has rarely let rules and principles get in the way of the pursuit of its expansive geopolitical interests; the 2003 invasion of Iraq offers a particularly searing case in point. The danger of liberal internationalist thinking, Porter explains, is that it gets the United States in trouble by inspiring idealistic crusades to remake the world. He ends his book worrying about China’s revisionist challenges to the Western world. Ironically, a vigorous response to the rise of China would surely entail building on, rather than dismissing, the U.S.-led postwar coalition of democracies and multilateral frameworks of cooperation.
Lissner and Rapp-Hooper, who acknowledge that the liberal international order is fraying, make the case for renewed U.S. leadership. In their view, the postwar decades of U.S. hegemony were remarkably successful in generating prosperity and security across large parts of the global system. It was certainly not perfect. Wealth gains have been radically unequal within and across societies, and the underlying aspirations of liberal universalism have led to costly and failed military interventions. If those trends continue, the United States and other liberal democracies will find themselves in an increasingly fractured and closed world without the tools or the capacities to tackle twenty-first-century problems. But it is not too late. Lissner and Rapp-Hooper argue that the United States can still tip the balance in favor of an open and rules-based order. They advocate a U.S. strategy of building coalitions of like-minded states around core liberal principles: free access to the global commons, free trade, information flows, and security cooperation. Washington cannot re-create the old liberal order, but a chastened United States can reengage with the world, up its diplomatic game, and find a path to a new cooperative, U.S.-friendly international order.