Martin Wolf: The liberal international order is sick

Liberal international order

In light of the World Economic Forum kicking off in Davos, Switzerland, Martin Wolf penned an interesting column in The Financial Times in which he discusses the state of the liberal international order.

Rather than go through the specifics of his column, what struck me was not only the dialectic that he drew between the liberal international order and national authoritarianism, but the naivete with which he draws it.

Wolf quotes a professor to characterize the liberal international order this way:

[T]he “US and its partners built a multi-faceted and sprawling international order, organised around economic openness, multilateral institutions, security co-operation and democratic solidarity”. This system won the cold war. That victory, in turn, promoted a global shift towards democratic politics and free-market economics.

Wolf later characterizes the liberal international order as being “rooted in democratic politics” and “the best way to reconcile global co-operation with domestic legitimacy”.

While he believes in such an order, he calls it sick, and Trump’s election, Brexit, and the rise of authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Hungary, are symptoms of that illness. In particular, Wolf points to a study by Freedom House, indicating that Trump shows sympathy for autocrats abroad and violates norms of democratic governance.

I just find the premises behind what the liberal international order is, and the criticisms of the supposedly rising authoritarianism, somewhat baffling.

First, there is the false dichotomy between democracy and authoritarianism. Just because 51 percent of voters decide to take money from the other 49 percent, that does not make the theft legitimate. In far too many instances, interest groups uses democracy to gain resources at the expense of others. Because votes could be used to justify theft, why democracy should be viewed as the highest expression of political action is beyond me.

Second, much like the European Union appears to mostly benefit Germany, the post World War II international order, not surprisingly, mostly benefits the United States. While a whole bunch of countries appear to be in all of these multilateral institutions, the key figure in all of them is Uncle Sam. While participating countries certainly benefit from American largesse, this global framework benefits liberal internationalist policymakers, multinational companies, and the military-industrial complex, all while American taxpayers foot the bill.

Third, to call the current trade system “free trade” is laughable. What we not have is managed trade, primarily through organizations like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and multilateral trade agreements, like NAFTA. Truly free trade would not require the extensive legal and regulatory infrastructure currently in place. Therefore, it should be no surprise if Brexiteers and Trump are able to make headway with communities who have been on the losing end of the managed trade regime.

That’s not to say that Trump actually understands economics. On the contrary, he does not understand the key benefits of trade, particularly with foreigners. Nevertheless, his mercantalist worldview just happens to emphasize different beneficiaries when compared to those that globalists favor.

Finally, the assertion that only Trump has an affinity for authoritarian regimes is completely ignorant of American foreign policy since the end of World War II. The United States has had no problem dealing with nasty regimes, so long as their ideology did not look like those of our enemies at the time. All one has to do is consider the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia to dispel that ridiculous notion.

In the end, Wolf may be onto something about the problems with the liberal international order. However, part of its problem may be the worldview its adherents have in the first place.

While lofty and abstract ideals may help hide otherwise selfish and ruthless interests, that does not mean that those holding such views are not responsible for the very problems in which they find themselves.


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