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A Case for Liberal International Order

US President Donald Trump, https://www.bbc.co.uk

“I want to look at who drew it. You know, which group drew it. I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that aren’t so good” (CNN). So answered the United States President when asked about the recent, alarming IPCC reports concerning climate change. These reports warn that the planet is only half a degree centigrade below “the crucial [temperature] threshold,” a threshold we will reach by 2030, at which point our inaction will yield imminent disaster (CNN). Preventing this calamity would “require widespread changes in energy, industry, buildings, transportation and cities,” says the report, calling for governments “around the world to take ‘rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’” (CNN). The reality of today’s day and age is that climate change, arguably the world’s most pressing threat, can only be solved by multinational cooperation, and by this alone. This isn’t only true of global warming; in an ever-globalizing world, numerous other issues have arisen that transcend national borders and necessitate worldwide, unified action, including global terrorism, human trafficking, and the propriety and further exploration of space. And yet, notwithstanding this undeniable need for global collaboration, the world is now witnessing a deterioration in the faith in and image of liberal international order en masse:

[It has] become increasingly apparent that support for the liberal international order in Europe and the United States is declining, as well [as in revisionist states like China and Russia,]… since the British vote to the leave the European Union last June and the U.S. presidential election last November — not least because the United Kingdom and the United States are two of the countries historically most associated with liberalism and were generally thought to be most committed to it. (German Marshall Fund)

Though today’s political field seems to be more polarized than ever, this deterioration spans both liberal and conservative factions.

UN General Assembly Hall, http://www.gmfus.org

The recent, aggressive rise in populism comes in tandem with the worldwide alt-right’s stark rejection of liberal international order, global governance necessitating a degree of multinational collaboration that threatens extreme conservatives’ perception of national sovereignty. In the States, alt-right news platforms attack the United Nations as a liberal-loving, anti-American institution, while conservative propaganda paints “global management” as a once-secret scheme to “control” the whole world via dangerous “regulation” (Blaze TV). One article from Breitbart News Media, entitled “New United Nations Boss Unveils Plan to Promote Global Mass Migration,” expresses the extreme right’s outrage at Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ recent brief:

[Guterres] made the contentious claim that migrants “take jobs” that local workers “cannot” fill, and asserted that this is a positive thing. He also attempted to spin the fact that migrants send huge sums of money straight out of their host countries and back to their countries of origin as a kind of supplement to foreign aid. (Breitbart)

The elections of populist politicians like Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Italy’s Salvini, who tout their unapologetic nationalist policies, are an unmitigated indication of how deep-seated the fear of globalization runs among the alt-right. Trump’s “withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the trans-pacific partnership, his goal of renegotiating [NAFTA],  his threats to undo the US-South Korea trade deal and the Iran Nuclear Deal, as well as his criticism of our NATO allies and alliances” remind us that such figures really do have the power to hinder liberal international order (CNN).

Ironically, the far-left’s disapproval of global governance also stems, in part, from a fear that it encroaches on nations’ sovereignty. Liberals who dislike liberal order tend to view it as an anachronistic system driven by the self-interest and power-hunger of the West, a dynamic entrenched in the structures of its most vital institutions. That the UN’s most powerful branch – the Security Council – is permanently home to the five western victors of WWII seems malapropos to many, especially since recent efforts to grow its permanent membership have been “stymied” (New York Times). The most extreme of liberal order’s critics hold that this and other realities of global governance reek of neocolonialism; that, in pushing for worldwide democratic ideals, these institutions promote “foreign economic exploitation or coercive political domination” of weaker states by superpower nations, especially through “forcible exportation of democracy throughout the world,” the implication of which “is infringement upon others’ sovereignty and self-determination” (Jackson, 162). To many, this proves a satisfactory explanation for the numerous failures of global order’s past; such hegemonic policy must inevitably miscarry. An example that many point to is Responsibility to Protect, or “R2P,” a UN doctrine that came about after the terrible failing on the part of the world to help the Rwandan people during the genocide, a doctrine some see as “guided by fables of moral innocence and righteousness” that was ultimately a “threat to the legitimacy [of the international system]” after it was faulted for the disaster in post-Qaddafi Libya (New York Times).

My intent with this article is not to defend the failures of liberal international order, but to defend the concept. While criticisms of liberal order are absolutely valid and must be acknowledged, they do not excuse the abandonment of global governance. When you denounce liberal world order, you denounce all that it stands for – not just its perceived connotations of western hegemony. At its core, liberal international order is a principle, not an institution to be dissolved. It is a principle of multinational collaboration and fellowship, a principle intended to represent and fulfill our reformist aspirations. Its triumphs – the UN’s 172 successful regional peace settlements, their role in the standardization of human rights, their unprecedented environmentalist work – should not be taken lightly (PBS). The faults and the failures of liberal international order, and there are many, have had grave consequences. However, that one should reduce humanitarianism to an excuse for complacency – an alibi – is a gross generalization and a shocking oversimplification, especially given that this same skeptic would be first to cry “neo-imperialism” at the implementation of interventionist policies (Barnett, 180). The mitigation of international conflict is ipso facto a complex and difficult task, something that I find many critics of liberal order willingly look past. It is easy to criticize, especially if it’s deserved; what is missing is the afterthought, the constructive deliberation over how to fix what’s wrong. In the absence of a proposed alternative, such denunciations of liberal international order come from a place of privilege. To me, this says you’ll never be victim to chemical warfare, you’ll never fear that your government might massacre your family – it makes no difference to you whether there is an imperfect safety net in place or none at all. Only the privileged can afford to be so nihilistic. Perfection is the enemy of good, and it is simply ahistorical to expect a worldwide framework of peace to be perfect; such a world where justice was executed faultlessly has simply never existed.

UN Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, http://www.gmfus.org

“In many countries, things are moving in the right direction, sometimes not quickly enough, sometimes it’s not perfect, but nevertheless, they are moving and the broader impact is clear,” said Chilean UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at a recent UN event in New York City (UN News). While this may seem rather dispirited, what she says is true. Global governance is imperfect, humanitarianism has too often served the self-interests of the powerful, and interventionist policies have, in some cases, caused irreparable damage to regions in conflict. And yet, in place of liberal order, what do we have? Are we willing to surrender the fate of our world to the Trumpian demagogues of our time? That world would certainly not be any less self-servicing than the one we live in today. As we progress through the 21st century, an era of unavoidable multinational interrelatedness, we must look to those with vision and good intent to reform global governance systems – not to abandon them. Perhaps we shift the focus of global governance from democratic ideals to those less-partisan. Perhaps we restructure the UN bodies in an attempt to change archaic power dynamics therein. But one thing is certain: in the face of transnational threats, including climate change, it is the reformation – and not the rejection – of liberal international order that will be our salvation.

Written by Anya Bégué


Agenda 21: U.N. Global Governance. Blaze TV.

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Does the ICC Have a Bias against Africa? | Conflict Zone. DW News, 2016.

ICC Dismissed Accusations of Being Biased against Africa. SABC Digital News, 2014.

Jackson, Marissa. “Neo-Colonialism, Same Old Racism: A Critical Analysis of the United States’ Shi toward Colorblindness as a Tool for the Protection of the American Colonial Empire and White Supremacy.” Berkeley Journal of African-American Law and Policy 11, no. 1 (January 2009): 156-92.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “What Is Donald Trump’s Response to the U.N.’s Dire Climate Report?” The New Yorker.

Kundnani, Hans. “What Is the Liberal International Order?” The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Last modified May 3, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://www.gmfus.org/publications/what-liberal-international-order.

Liptak, Kevin. “Trump Expresses Suspicion about UN Climate Report, but Says He Will Look at It.” CNN.com.

Miller, Brandon. “Planet Has Only until 2030 to Stem Catastrophic Climate Change, Experts Warn.” CNN.com. Last modified October 8, 2018. Accessed December 11, 2018.

Montgomery, Jack. “New United Nations Boss Unveils Plan to Promote Global Mass Migration.” Breitbart.com. Last modified January 12, 2018.

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Rieff, David. “R2P, R.I.P.” New York Times (New York, NY), November 7, 2011. Accessed December 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/opinion/r2p-rip.html.

Sengupta, Somini. “The United Nations Explained: Its Purpose, Power and Problems.” The New York Times (New York, NY), September 17, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/17/world/americas/united-nations-un-explainer.html.

Sinclair, Timothy J. “Emergence.” In Global Governance, 15-30. Cambridge [u.a.]: Polity Press, 2012.

United Nations. “Human Rights ‘Success Stories’ Shared at the UN to Serve as Example, and Inspire Others.” UN News. Last modified September 27, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/09/1021172

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