Analysis & Opinions - Global Times

The Myth of the Liberal International Order

| Jan. 11, 2018

The phrase international order reminds me of the phrase Western civilization. As Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi wittily replied when asked about Western civilization, "It would be a good idea." The notion that international order exists or has ever existed seems highly questionable to me. The notion of a liberal international order is even more questionable because it is neither liberal, nor international, nor very orderly.

It is often claimed by political scientists that the liberal international order came into existence in 1945. The argument goes that American and British statesmen, having learned from the terrible mistakes of the 1930s and 1940s, decided to make the world anew by creating a series of remarkable international institutions: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and later the World Bank. According to this narrative, Donald Trump's election as US president in 2016 was a wrecking ball directed at the liberal international order created by the generation of 1945.

Yet this is a fairy tale. For one thing, there was nothing very liberal about the economic order that was established in 1945. It was devised by people - notably John Maynard Keynes - who had repudiated classical liberal economics and believed that international trade should be limited and capital movements controlled.

It was also not a truly international order. After 1945, it very quickly became a bipolar order that divided the world. There was nothing international about the Cold War. It was a battle between two empires and two ideologies, and the rest of the world's nations had to choose sides.

In short, the notion of a liberal international order, born in 1945, is a historical fantasy. The reality is that it was only in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended that it was possible to create a liberal international order. The era of truly free trade, truly free capital flows and large-scale migration across borders did not begin until the 1990s.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall.“The Myth of the Liberal International Order.” Global Times, January 11, 2018.

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