The world is going into a transition which is not happy times for liberal internationalists. No one can say with certainty how this crisis of liberal international will unfold. However, in this article I argue that despite the troubles, liberal internationalism will have a future in the shape of ‘Post-Liberal Internationalism’. There is no setback to ‘Anti-Liberalism’. Instead it will be Liberalism with a Human Face.
Let us remind ourselves that for the last seven decades the world has been dominated by a euro-centric Western liberal order. Today this era, which was orchestrated by the USA, looks increasingly beleaguered. For the first time since the doom days of the 1930s, the United States has an administration which is actively hostile to liberal internationalism. On all issues of trade agreements, alliances, rule-based international law, multilateralism, environment, torture and human rights, the new administration has made statements that, if acted upon, would effectively bring to an end America’s role as leader of the liberal world order. Simultaneously, on the other side of the Atlantic, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and a myriad other troubles besetting Europe, appear to mark a pose in the long post-war project of building a greater union. The uncertainties of Europe, as the quiet bulwark of the wider liberal international order, have global significance. Meanwhile, liberal democracy itself appears to be in retreat, as varieties of ‘new authoritarianism’ rise to new salience in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Across the liberal democratic world, populist, nationalist and xenophobic strands of backlash politics have proliferated.
The crisis of the American-led international order would seem to open up new opportunities for rising states — notably China, India, and other non-Western emerging developing countries — to reshape the global order. After the 2008 financial crisis this trend became very clear. The crisis which wiped out trillions of dollars from Americans’ wallets, let aside the trillions spent on the invasion of Iraq, has weakened and discredited aspects of the continuation of the costly American-led liberal international policy. The Obama administration that inherited the crisis was cognizant of this fact. It placed the challenge of integrating rising states at the centre of its foreign policy. The American goal at that time was rational. In the words of Obama, the post-liberal world calls for the creation not of a “multi -polar” world order only but a “multi-partner” one.
But in what ways this multi-partner post-liberal order can be constructed? Are rising non-Western states seeking to reform or reorganise the rules and institutions of the post-war era? Do they seek to rise up and integrate into the existing international order or do they seek to transform it? Are they “stakeholder” or “revisionist” states?
These questions, over the past decade, have stood at the centre of debates about the future of the global system. Classic transition theories see a tight link between international order — its emergence, stability, and decline — and the rise and fall of great powers. It is a perspective that sees history as a sequence of cycles in which powerful or hegemonic states rise up and build order and dominate the global system until their power declines, leading to a new cycle of crisis and order building.
Political scientist and historians who belong to the hegemonic realists school such as, Paul Kennedy, EH Carr, Robert Gilpin, and William Wolfforth argue that international order is a by-product of the concentration of power. Order is created by a powerful state, and when that state declines and power diffuses, international order weakens or breaks apart.
In contrast, the other school of thought pioneered by political scientists like John Ekenberry of Princeton University offer a more evolutionary perspective. In the deliberations of a recent roundtable on rising powers and the international order, he put emphasis on the lineage and continuities in modern international order. More specifically, he argues that although America’s hegemonic position is declining and the world is shaping as multi polar, the post-liberal international characteristics of order will maintain the deeply rooted liberal values — openness, rules, multilateral co-operation. They are likely to persist. I share with Ekenberry the same opinion. I made this emphasis in a previous article published in Gulf Times when I was discussing the emergence of the multi polar world order.
This line of thinking holds true even though the orientation and actions of the Trump administration have raised serious questions about the US commitment to liberal internationalism. Just as importantly, rising states (led by China) are not engaged in a frontal attack on the American-led order. While struggles do exist over orientations, agendas, and leadership, the non-Western developing countries remain tied to the architecture and principles of a liberal-oriented global order. And even as China seeks in various ways to build rival regional institutions, there are stubborn limits on what it can do.
But that does not mean post-liberalism will not witness combined concepts of Western and non-Western reflexive thoughts. America’s ‘brand’— as seen in parts of the non-western world — is perceived to be neo-liberal, that is, single-minded in its commitment to capital and markets. Outside the West — and indeed in most parts of Europe — this is not the core of the liberal democratic vision of modern society. If there is an ideological ‘centre of gravity’ in the wider world of democracies, it is more social democratic, solidarist and post-liberal than neo-liberal.
Inside the United States itself there is a heated debate going on right now on the future of liberalism and about the confines of post-liberalism. Political scientist MT Steiner identified in a recent article he wrote for the Quillett, three strands — one on the Right, one on the Centre, and one in the Left. All the three are united by their shared divergence from the core tenets of liberalism to varying degrees and all agree that Pax Americana liberalism cannot afford to continue.
Right-wing post-liberals believe that humans are, by nature, relational beings who are better suited to pursuing virtue within their own communities than falling prey to the false promise of universal progress. Post-liberals in this category say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. They believe that liberalism has failed to live up to its principles. Personal freedom has ended up in social disintegration: the mainstreaming of drug, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience. Clinging to the past, they have a tendency to employ authoritarian state power as a moral instrument of right-wing causes in society.
Centrist post-liberals on the other side are less anti-liberal than those on the Right. But the two agree that liberalism has fallen short of its promises. However, the Centrists leave a larger space for individualism and egalitarianism by balancing rights and duties in society — even if they do not fully embrace either of these liberal principles. Centrist post-liberals also put society above the state and the market. For this reason, they depart from the universal and meliorist tenets of liberalism and believe that true social progress emerges from one’s local context rather than one’s abstract principles or one’s faith in the government and the economy. Both the right and the centrist wings are anti universalism.
Left-wing post-liberals believe that individualist, egalitarian societies based on rights and liberties can thrive — so long as these rights and liberties are guaranteed by the state and contribute to a shared notion of the common good. In this sense, left-wing post-liberals, sometimes labelled socialists by the right wing rivalries, believe that rights precede duties — even if social duties are still essential for a vibrant society. Similarly, left-wing post-liberals acknowledge that humanity does have some universal and meliorist tendencies that expand wealth and freedom for all — provided that these tendencies do not outweigh the social and relational virtues that make us human.
One can easily notice that this left-wing form of post-liberal politics is now surfacing in America’s Democratic presidential primary, especially in the discourse of Bernie Sanders.
One can easily deduct from the above that the USA seems to be asleep at the wheel. Post-liberalism perspectives which will shape the multi-polar world order is more than these quick fixes and piecemeal reforms for the liberal order. Post-liberalism cannot be understood as a policy or political programme. In my opinion, it is more like an ideology or worldview — it tells a story about what the world looks like today, where it has gone wrong and the attitudes, assumptions and principles that should guide reformers in a multi-polar world order.
Put in a more clear way, post-liberalism is a story of grand shifts in the distribution of power and the consequences that follow. It is harder today than in the past to see the US-led liberal order as a source of economic security and protection. Meanwhile, the world’s global and national institutions are increasingly incapable of managing stresses in the ailing liberal system. Democracies, it turns out, lack the incentive systems to address higher-order and longer-term imperatives.
Such uncertainty that looms large in this cross section of history, calls for new theory building in international politics. More importantly, the call is for new political philosophy which in historical periods of global transformation can be the natural home base for new ideals. Conventional liberal philosophy that lived with us for decades stresses the great variation in human values and goals but remained rather shy, even relativist, about what constitutes the just and good life.
Post-liberal ideals will provoke our imagination and function as guiding ideas in the transition from the status quo towards an ideal state of the world. Indeed, especially within political philosophy, ideals are helpful tools because they transcend concrete formulation and implementation by way of principles and rules, they are open to continuous reformulation in the light of new circumstances.
The post-liberal paradigm that I envisage will be multi-cultural and witnesses multi-concepts of Western and non-Western reflexive thoughts. But we should always put in mind that it will never be anti-liberal. Global governance cannot afford to go through that path. The new paradigm will certainly stand against neo-liberalism which is based on the Washington-Consensus Doctrine. This America’s brand is perceived by the non-Western world as single-minded in its commitment to capital and markets. Outside the West — and indeed in most parts of Europe — this is not the core of the liberal democratic vision of modern society. If there is an ideological ‘centre of gravity’ in the wider world of democracies, it is more social democratic, solidarist and post-liberal than neo-liberal. Therefore, in their challenge to mainstream liberalism, post-liberals want to combine ideas from left and right in new ways and challenge some of the tired polarities that clutter contemporary political debate: left v right; state v market; individual v collective; self-interest v altruism; open v closed. It shares with the left, and the moderate right, an antipathy to the increase in income inequality of recent decades.
In the economy, the new post-liberal thinking signals a shift from unfettered liberal market capitalism to economic justice and a greater reciprocity of profit and social purpose. In society, it signals a shift from rampant individualism and top-down state-enforced egalitarianism to social solidarity and more fraternal, reciprocal relations. And politically, it signals a shift from the minority politics of vested interests and exclusive group identity to a majority politics based on a balance of interests and shared social identity. Linking post-liberalism together is an emphasis on the embedding of state and market in the intermediary institutions of civil society that give people agency.
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