This article was first published by Geopolitical Futures and is reprinted here with permission.
Two concepts have been constantly used in discussions of international relations of late. One is a liberal international order and the second is a rules-based system. In the former, the term “liberal” does not have much to do with what Americans call liberalism. Rather, it describes an international system that is committed to human rights, free trade and related principles. The second is the idea that there is an agreed-upon system of rules governing the relationship between nations. Together, these notions are thought to create predictability and decency in the way nations interact with each other.
This issue came up during the administration of former President Donald Trump, who was accused of undermining these principles by, for example, imposing tariffs on China and questioning the value of NATO. The question is emerging again because the Biden administration, having come to power criticizing the policies of its predecessor, has made it clear that it intends to return to these principles.
The most important question is whether there ever was a rules-based international order or whether it was an illusion. There has long been a vision that the relationship between nations should not be a war of everyone against each other, but rather harmonious cooperation between states. Philosophers and theologians have dreamt of bringing this vision to life, and at various times attempts were made to institutionalize it.
In the 20th century, two attempts were made to create a rules-based, liberal system of international governance. The first was the League of Nations, which was founded after World War I and became defunct well before World War II broke out. It had rules, but no way to enforce them, both because the very nations violating its rules were members and, more important, because there were no means of enforcement. Adolf Hitler was not created by the liberal and rules-based order, but neither was he in any way inconvenienced by it.
The second attempt was the United Nations, which was created to be a more forceful League of Nations. The major powers that won World War II were recognized to be a special class of nations and given special powers on the Security Council. The problem with the Security Council was that both the United States and Soviet Union were permanent members, and the Soviet Union demanded that permanent members be allowed to veto actions that they opposed. As the world was then divided between the United States and the Soviet Union, opposed to each other in every way possible, the result was that nothing could get done. The United Nations was unable to enforce rules and sank into a complex bureaucracy of humanitarian actions designed to mitigate the pain caused by its failure to fulfill its mission. That mitigation was not trivial, but it did not constitute a rules-based system.
The Cold War was a chaotic mixture of subversion, civil wars, interventions and threats of nuclear exchange. The world was hardly liberal, with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China living under communist rules, and the Third World, freeing itself from European imperialism, caught between U.S. and Soviet manipulation.
It is difficult to understand what rules-based liberal system we are expected to return to. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a momentary thrill that we were seeing the age of Aquarius rising. But it was the same illusion that followed the Napoleonic wars, World War I and World War II. The Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations and the United Nations all had rules but few of them were followed. The Maastricht Treaty was signed as the Soviet Union collapsed, and it did bring the rule of law to what had been one of the most lawless places in the world: Europe. But the rule of law was for Europe, and the rules were never as clear as was the sheer power of some of its members – namely, Germany. It’s liberal but not liberal enough to encompass the whole of European experience. The European Union has rules galore and some liberalism to boot, but Europe is just an idiosyncratic fragment of a global system it once ruled.
The post-Cold War era gave rise to Islamic radicalism, endless American wars and the rise of China, which had long followed its own rules, only some of which could be considered liberal. Accompanying this era was a sense that what mattered was the interests of the nation-state. What a state needed was its primary consideration, how to get it its obsession. Each nation determined how much liberalism it tolerated, and when instructed by outsiders as to how they should live, they often answered with insurrections.
There can be no rule of law, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, without a Leviathan, an overwhelming power imposing it and administering it. For a time after the Soviet collapse, there was hope that the U.S. would helm a multilateral order rather than become the Leviathan. The U.S. had neither the interest nor the ability to rule the world, but right or wrong, it couldn’t always escape trying – dominant powers tend to act in certain ways if they want to continue to be dominant powers.
And without the rule of law, liberalism was always impossible. There were international agreements followed to the extent it benefited nations, and there were some international organizations that were useful to be a part of. But the rule of law was invoked when the law supported a nation’s position, and liberalism could not rule a world that was a vast mixture of beliefs, all passionately embraced as the only truth. The liberal international order, in other words, existed when it was convenient. In some places, it never existed at all.
The idea that we must return to a glorious age in which nations were ruled by laws and liberalism is a fantasy, a fantasy that allows us to believe that we can return to it. It is a nostalgia for things that never were. The human condition binds humans to communities large and small that think of themselves as free. They do not submit to rules they have not made, nor to political principles they did not craft. The Greeks did not accept the rules of the Persians or their political order. So it was then, and so it is now. The world doesn’t change that much, and the only place we can return to is ourselves.