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Book review: Protecting the international order from Trump trauma

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9 January 2019 16:00

Book review: America vs the West, by Kori Schake (Lowy Institute Paper, Penguin, 2018)

In a chaotic spectacle that is shaking the world, the Trump administration is putting a wrecking ball to the American-led international order. For 70 years, the United States has been the leader and linchpin of the liberal world order, assuming the role of “first citizen” in upholding a far-flung system of alliances, trade and economic ties, and multilateral rules and institutions. The United States has played a functional role as a system organiser and rule maker.

There is nothing irresistible or inevitable about an open and rules-based international order, organised around thriving liberal democracies.

Large parts of the world accommodated themselves to this US-led order. Many states became allies and partners. Some found ways to take advantage of it, and others worked around it, but almost all of the world premised their foreign policies on its continued existence. Today, as the American president whirls and spins, the world can no longer make this assumption.

The “enlightenment” behind American foreign policy seems to have flickered and gone out.

So the US-led liberal order is in crisis, but is it doomed to fail? This is the question Kori Schake explores in this inspired and inspiring short book. 

Her answer is that there is still life left in the liberal order, but for it to survive it will need to be rebuilt and defended. Schake argues that there is nothing irresistible or inevitable about an open and rules-based international order, organised around thriving liberal democracies. History has not stacked the deck in their favor. She cites with agreement the claim of Azar Gat that the Western liberal democracies triumphed in the 20th century not because of superior values and institutions but because of greater material capabilities and a few lucky breaks. 

What the liberal international order has going for it are the “bases of support” that it has around the world and the fact that the alternatives are even less appealing. 

In Asia, the alternative is some sort of Chinese-centered illiberal order, and in Europe, Russia is an unwelcome looming presence. Middle-power countries, such as Canada and Australia, can also lend a hand in providing leadership, along with Japan and Germany. Indeed, by the end of the book, Schake seemingly finds herself parting company with Gat in arguing that open societies actually are more adaptive and cooperative in solving problems. But it is going to take a new generation of leaders and new coalitions of the willing to work through the traumas of the Trump assault on the postwar order.

Can Western nations preserve the liberal order without the US? (Photo: Jesco Denzel via Getty)

The book is a masterful survey of the contemporary global landscape and grand strategic debate. At each turn, Schake offers incisive judgements on the challenges and opportunities that today’s fraught geopolitical moment presents. 

To start, there is the question: what precisely is the liberal international order – and indeed, does it in fact exist? Schake makes quick work of the claims of realist skeptics, such as John Mearsheimer and Patrick Porter, who argue that the liberal order is a myth, an advertising slogan designed to hide America’s imperial dominance. It is an “imperfect order,” Schake concedes, and the United States has frequently broken and escaped its rules and commitments. But the postwar order has been a working system of cooperation, organised around alliances, multilateral rules and institutions, and shared political values. It is not an American empire nor a simple balance of power arrangement. In Schake’s terms, it is a “consensual order,” one that creates a political space for cooperation and security. 

The proof of the liberal international order’s existence – and its enduring value – can be seen in dramatic terms today, as American allies and partners around the world scramble to preserve it.

The return of great power politics also endangers the liberal order. Russia may be too weak to offer an alternative to the American-led system, but it has mastered the tools and strategies for degrading and undermining it.  For Russia, as Schake astutely notes, “their definition of success is our failure.” Open societies have found their institutions and democratic processes newly vulnerable to Russian information operations and grey zone warfare.  

Photo: duncan c/Flickr

In a less dramatic fashion, but perhaps more profoundly threatening over the long term, China is also seeking to undermine the liberal international order. Schake notes that for liberal internationalists, this has come as a surprise. At least for “end of history” liberals, the great expectation has been that as China modernised and integrated itself into the liberal order, it would slowly liberalise and become a responsible stakeholder. 

This has not happened. 

Schake argues that liberal internationalists have got to recalibrate their theories. The deep workings of modernity and political development will not inevitably push and pull China in the direction of liberal democracy.  The great question is whether China can move up the value chain without liberalising. If it can, the Western world truly will have a peer competitor on its hands. Regardless, Schake makes the important point that in the years ahead, China and the United States will increasingly find themselves at the center of alternative “eco-systems,” one liberal and one illiberal, each with its own distinctive organising principles, rules, values, and modes of operation. 

Many states, certainly in East Asia, will not want to choose between Beijing and Washington, so these eco-systems may not fully develop as hard and fixed Cold War-style blocs. But the competition is on.

Photo: United Nations Photo/ Flickr

Schake’s book is a wake-up call for supporters of the postwar liberal international order. The tragedy is that there is no easy substitute for American leadership, and the current occupant of the Oval Office simply does not grasp what is at stake for the democratic way of life. He is the anti-Churchill and anti-FDR, precisely when the Western world needs a modern version of these old world-weary champions of liberal political values. The European Union, itself in crisis, will not be able to step in. 

Schake argues that the key is to play for time, to keep as much of the liberal order in place until leadership and alignments swing back in place. Schake’s sober and clear-eyed analysis punctures both the naysaying of realist skeptics and the illusions of liberal triumphalists. 

Schake ends the book with questions. What are the alternatives to a US-led international order? Can liberal internationalism remain the basic organising logic in a world where the United States has pulled back and declined? Are the forces that brought Trump and other illiberal nationalists to office a new permanent reality or a passing phase? 

Schake seems to bet that the constituencies for liberal international order are stronger than today’s headlines reveal. But there is great work to be done because, as the book makes clear, liberal order is not self-sustaining. Perhaps today’s crisis will allow people in the United States and elsewhere to peer over the abyss and see the dangerous and chaotic world that awaits the unraveling of liberal international order. Ideally, the Owl of Minerva will take flight before we all fall over the cliff.

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