Liberal World Order in a Transitional Age
Conservative writers in the media spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the demise of the “Liberal World Order”. Given the pushback we get these days if we even mention the word “liberal,” you have to accept that these conservatives are using the term differently in this particular sense. For decades following World War II America held back communism and the rule of “strong men” by using the powerful position they held after that war to exert considerable control over Europe. We established military bases in every key location that would allow it. We formed economic partnerships to try to rebuild devastated nations all over Europe. We pushed back when the USSR tried to increase its power base. We held our hegemony through an image in the world as the most successful nation, the nation with the best economy, a manufacturing giant. We held it through our hustle and our bustle and our schools and the serious thinkers we sent out into the world. Rather than punish Germany we befriended them (occupied them) and helped them rebuild. A nation that was allowed to continue to exist and thrive became a powerful ally.
But we are now seeing authoritarian tendencies among an increasing number of nations redefining the balance of power in the world. We are even seeing this in once-stalwart democracies like our own America and in the UK. How did this reversal happen? How have we slipped so far on the world stage? Well we all know some of the reasons. All you had to do was listen to Tulsi Gabbard in last night’s debate. We did get a bit high-handed. We did try things like regime change to hold the line on democracy. It’s a flaw we have, thinking that the ends justify the means and that using authoritarian tactics will not taint the end results. We did that; we did that many times. I am not endorsing Tulsi Gabbard in any way. In fact I would never vote for her. But she recounts a sin that we have already sort of owned up to; that we betrayed our values because winning became too important.
Regime change failure probably did not do us in all by itself. We began to lose wars. We were attacked on 9/11 and we staggered, although we did not fall. The world power balance changed. Authoritarian nations did not buy our form of government, but they did buy the argument that capitalism brought the greatest prosperity. They did not buy free markets but they were happy to be “invaded” and educated by our corporate leaders. As our economy dipped, the economies of these authoritarian nations rose. We began to lose our clout on the world stage. Money is at the root of this decline. Our economy, while still strong was not the only strong economy on the planet. Our schools were no longer number one due to our refusal to deal with our diversity for so long, especially because our racist roots let portions of our population lag far behind the opportunity curve (if there is such a thing).
And we lost our arrogance. We looked inward and confessed our sins. We took an honest look at some of the less-than-stellar tools in the toolbox of our postwar tinkering. We began to see that we had been using some fairly dictatorial practices to win hearts and minds for democracy. We began to see how obsessed we are with money and with business. We began to see what our obsession with industry, an industry based in fossil fuels was doing to our planet, although we know that many do not accept that we “wee” humans could ruin a whole planet.
Of course not everyone sees the same thing when we look back and forward. Do our sins mean we have to change our ways? What will become of us? Many don’t want to change. They liked the old us and our position in the world. They think we are the cause of our own slippage. They think we have a choice in the matter. But it seems that the old Liberal World Order is dead. It was not without value. It brought us 75 years of peace in Europe. It brought prosperity to Europe and that prosperity is spreading.
It may have brought tempting whiffs of freedom too, which may eventually spread and push those strong men out, ushering in a new age of enlightenment that it is difficult for us to imagine from where we are right now, on a path to the depths of decline and upheaval (change) with no foreign policy beyond the simply transactional. We could just as easily lose all that we have gained and retreat into a primitivism we believed we had left behind. But I don’t think that is what will happen. We will figure out what we need to do next, how we will replace the Liberal World Order with something more appropriate to addressing the new challenges the world faces how we will replace the Liberal World Order with something more appropriate to addressing the new challenges the world faces as soon as we “rid” ourselves of this “meddlesome” crook in our White House. There are already people working on this, some older, some younger. Perhaps our new world order will involve just being sort of laissez-faire for a while, just more hand’s-off while we get a better grasp on the forces at play on this amazing and frightening little planet of ours, hurtling through space.
David Brooks had some things to say on this topic in the NYT’s for 11.21.19:
“The working classes who have been supporting populists need a way to thrive in the modern economy and a sense they are respected contributors to their national project. The educated elites want their democratic freedoms protected and to live in ethnically diverse pluralistic societies.Whoever can write that social bargain wins the future.”