The liberal world order is taking a beating these days, and not just at the hands of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. In recent months a bevy of American political scientists from the progressive left to the libertarian right has launched attacks on the very idea of the liberal order, as well as on the conduct of American foreign policy over the past seven decades. These critics argue that the liberal order was a “myth,” a cover for American hegemony and “imperialism.” To the degree there was an order, it was characterized by “coercion, violence, and instability,” and also by hypocrisy. The United States did not always support democracy, but often backed dictatorships, and in the name of shaping a “putatively liberal order,” it often “upended, stretched, or broke liberal rules.” The celebrated achievements of the liberal order, they therefore claim, are either overblown—the “long peace” was due to the Cold War balance of nuclear terror not the American-led order, Graham Allison argues, for instance. Or the order’s benefits are outweighed by its many failures—Vietnam, Iraq, McCarthyism—and by the costs of sustaining it. Indeed, if the liberal order is failing today, they argue, it has been “complicit in its own undoing.” In this, at least, the critics sound much like the president—he, too, believes the liberal order has been a bad deal for Americans.
Trump calls himself a “realist,” and the critics also insist on a new “realism,” a Trumpian pulling back from decades-old alliances that they believe have outlived their usefulness. They might not strike quite the same “America First” themes Trump struck during this week’s address to the U.N. General Assembly. But the realism they have in mind is much the same. They would have us abandon what they regard as the utopian ambitions of remaking the world in America’s image and instead urge us to accept the world “as it is,” to use the Obama administration’s favorite mantra.
But is this, in fact, realism? The founders of this liberal world order during World War II and in the years that followed—people like Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and George Kennan—also regarded themselves as realists, and perhaps with greater justification. For they had seen firsthand what a world not shaped by American power, the world “as it is,” really looks like. It was the world of two catastrophic global wars, the Holocaust, man-made famines that killed tens of millions, the rise of fascism and communism, and the near death of liberalism and democracy in Europe.
The liberal world order American leaders established in the wake of World War II aimed at addressing the causes of those horrors and preventing their return. It was not based on naïve optimism about human existence, but on pessimism born of hard experience, earned on the battlefields of Europe and the beaches of the Pacific islands. While there were many Americans who did want to put their trust in the United Nations and international law—the “rules-based order” we often hear about—these men had a different view. The world was an international jungle, Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, argued, with no “rules, no umpire, no prizes for good boys.” Nor would there be any escape from this brutal reality: no self-sustaining international balance of power to preserve peace, no self-regulating legal order, no end to international struggle and competition. Such security as was possible, both physical security and the security of liberal ideals, could be preserved only by meeting power with greater power. And in the world as it was configured, the only guarantee of peace, Acheson insisted, was “the continued moral, military and economic power of the United States.” As he would later put it, the United States had to become “the locomotive at the head of mankind.” And the Truman administration put this philosophy into action, deploying troops permanently in Europe, creating the NATO alliance and putting in place the architecture of a relatively free economic system for the world.