Is the ‘Liberal World Order’ Worth Saving?

April 4, 2018

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote a column entitled “Liberal World Order, R.I.P.”

Haass sees the post-World War II order succumbing to centrifugal forces. He foresees a fragmented and chaotic world made up of “regional orders” or “disorders”, along with the return of great-power rivalries that some thought had ended with the Cold War.

He’s offering a eulogy, but one he hopes will revive the deceased before the burial is final.

An Inside View

Haass has a distinguished resumé as a diplomat, Defense Department official, presidential advisor, author, and Harvard lecturer. Few people have achieved as much prominence in the current system of international relations. He writes with the authority of an insider who has stood near the epicenter of global power.

But the view from the periphery, where most people live and work, is very different.

It’s true that we are in a period of global change, and the loss of a governing world order brings instability, uncertainty, and risk. But the real causes of today’s political instability lie within the order itself.

That order has served the economic and strategic interests, not of nations, but of certain powerful interests within nations. The contradiction may not have been as apparent in times of relative prosperity, but became more visible after the financial crisis of 2008 – a crisis brought on, in part, by financial deregulation imposed by the order itself.

Haass never offers a critical examination that order. In his telling, the most powerful system of international governance in human history is largely the victim of forces beyond its control.

News From Nowhere

Haas cites “the effects of growing populism” as “parties of the political extremes have gained ground in Europe.” The United Kingdom’s Brexit vote “attested to the loss of elite influence” and notes that “even the US is experiencing unprecedented attacks from its own president on the country’s media, courts, and law-enforcement institutions.”

Why is this happening? Haass acknowledges the role of “stagnating incomes and job loss,” but otherwise treats these events as news from nowhere. The “liberal” world order’s role in creating those conditions is ignored. Instead, Haass says that “new technologies” are “mostly” responsible.

A working paper from the International Monetary Fund contradicts this claim. It concludes, “Among developed countries…the adverse impact of globalization is somewhat larger than that of technological progress.”

Haass’ interpretation ignores the impact of global trade deals on jobs and wages in the United States and other developed countries. The U.S. Department of Labor has identified nearly one million individual American workers who lost their jobs to NAFTA.

Trade between the United States and China after the creation of the World Trade Organization resulted in the loss of an estimated 2 million to 2.4 million American jobsbetween 1999 and 2011.

The pain wasn’t restricted to the U.S., either. A U.N. commission led by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz concluded that international agreements and institutions “prevent them from regulating the operations of financial institutions and instruments or capital flows,” putting them at risk for additional harm.

These treaties have placed corporate interests above emerging nations’ rights to protect their environments, their consumers, and their workers. Studies have shown that their dispute resolution mechanisms heavily favor corporations and the extremely wealthy, and that they have accelerated wealth inequality.

Unequal World Order

Extreme poverty has been reduced worldwide in recent decades, which is something to celebrate. But that reduction in extreme poverty largely occurred in China, and came largely at the expense of working people in the developed world.

The wealthy and influential few continue to benefit from the current order. A recent report concluded that 82 percent of the wealth created last year went to the world’s richest 1 percent. Oxfam calculates that the new wealth obtained by billionaires alone could end world poverty seven times over.

Haass rightly decries Donald Trump’s rise, but ignores the economic conditions that contributed to it. Wealth inequality is reaching new extremes in the United States, Entire portions of the United States are being left behind. In a new paper, economists Benjamin Austin, Edward Glaeser, and Lawrence Summers conclude,

“The economic convergence of American regions has greatly slowed, and rates of long-term non-employment have even been diverging. Simultaneously, the rate of non-employment for working age men has nearly tripled over the last 50 years, generating a terrible social problem that is disproportionately centered in the eastern parts of the American heartland.”

“America,” they write, “appears to be evolving into durable islands of wealth and poverty.”

These disparities, which include the persistent rates of poverty and unemployment in America’s inner cities, make it increasingly clear that entire portions of the United States have been economically abandoned.

A World of Hurting

Economic insecurity is also tied to far-right victories throughout the developed world. Inequality is extremely high in the United Kingdom, where voters rejected the EU. The far-right AfD party recently gained strength in the eastern part of Germany, which is lagging behind the western part of that country economically.

In France, where racist Marine Le Pen had an unexpectedly strong showing in first-round presidential voting, inequality is greater than is commonly believed. In Italy, where the maverick Five Star movement won a string of recent victories, almost one in three people is at risk for poverty or social exclusion (defined as the inability to fully participate economically, politically and socially in the nation or their communities).

We live in a profoundly unequal world. 70 percent of the world’s population owns only 3 percent of its wealth, while 8.6 percent of the population owns more than 85 percent.  Eight men own more wealth than four billion people, making up half the human population. Even as their economies grow, extreme wealth inequality plagues countries like KenyaBrazil, and Nigeria.

And yet, the closest Haass comes to acknowledge the world order’s faults is his admission that “global institutions have failed to adapt to new power balances and technologies.” That leaves out the active role these institutions have played in today’s unjust outcomes. The current order hasn’t just “failed to adapt” to today’s negative changes; in many cases, it has imposed them on unwilling populations.

Violent Planet

Those outcomes have not only been economic. Haass correctly points out that the postwar order has prevented another global conflagration on the scale of World Wars I and II. But the liberal world order, we are told, was to be based on the rule of law and respect for countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Human rights were to be protected.”

Adds Haass: “All this was to be applied to the entire planet.”

And yet, under the “liberal world order,” labor leaders are slaughtered with impunity in Ecuador. The U.S. was complicit, and other developed nations were indifferent, when the Indonesian dictator Suharto terrorized and murdered as many as a million in his country. The brutal exploitation of slave labor in Malaysia was downplayed in an unsuccessful attempt to pass another trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The United States is, as Haass reminds us, “the principal architect of the liberal world order and its principal backer.” It was also, as Haass notes, “a principal beneficiary” of that order. But the real “beneficiaries” were frequently those wealthy and powerful interests who profited from its trade deals and military expenditures.

The U.S.’s role as “principal architect” of the world order didn’t prevent it from engaging in some very disordered wars, especially in Vietnam and Iraq, where its military intervention triggered the ongoing Middle Eastern conflicts that Haass chalks up to “regional disorder.”

The Sheriff and the Preacher

The “liberal world order” hasn’t helped competing nations get along. It has helped a small number of people, representing powerful interests in competing nations, work for their shared self-interest. It has permitted an international system of tax havens that undercuts national sovereignty and accelerates wealth inequality. And it has left most other people behind.

Complaints like these often sound tendentious and preachy to the people who lead our global system of finance and diplomacy. But the lived reality of the world’s majority contradicts the perceptions of the influential few. If they are concerned with the future of the order they have built, they will need to confront that broader reality.

They’ll also need to avoid facile dismissals of “parties of political extremes.” That phrasing obscures the differences between the plutocratic nativism of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the social-democratic vision of Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., or of the neo-fascist Party of the Golden Dawn in Greece and the nonviolent “political revolution” of Bernie Sanders in the U.S.

Revitalize and Reinvigorate

Corbyn wants to revitalize the political movement that built Western Europe. Sanders wants to reinvigorate the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. These ideals – along with those of Spain’s Podemos and other progressive movements – are the world’s best protection against the terrifying prospect of hate-based ultranationalist movements.

The “liberal world order” must own up to its mistakes. They were errors of commission, as well as omission.  Today’s chaos – from Brexit to Trump –  is fallout from a global system that works for the benefit of a privileged few and has failed to offer democratic alternatives to inequality and oligarchy.

Richard Haass once compared the United States to a “reluctant sheriff,” saying it should accept the responsibility of maintaining world order along with a “posse” of cooperating nations. That’s an appealing image for Americans. But life isn’t a western movie, and the American sheriff has been more trigger-happy than Haass may care to admit.

For role models, the country would be better off turning to Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King called that war “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” adding that “if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing … for the next generation … and attending rallies without end …”

Through war after war, in the US and worldwide, people living under the “liberal world order” over the lst 50 years have done exactly that.

Stand or Fall?

Is the “liberal world order” worth saving? Not in its present form. Yes, it has provided some semblance of order. But order without justice is both unfair and unstable. The unfairness has been apparent for many decades. Now we’re seeing the instability.

In a new book, “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” Haass proposes restructuring the world order along globalized lines. Under the principle of “sovereignty as responsibility,” governments would be held accountable for meeting certain obligations to other nations. Haass calls this “realism for an era of globalization.”

He proposes nothi9ng however, that would alter the trajectory of global inequality. When Haass addresses economic issues, in this book or elsewhere, he falls back on the elite financial prescriptions that have repeatedly failed the global majority: a fixation on debt, cuts to social programs like Medicare and Social Security, and an over-reliance on education as a solution for labor displacement.

These errors reflect those of the overall “liberal world order.” For a world population seeking transformation, there are no answers here.

The current world order must fundamentally reform itself along democratic lines, both politically and economically. If it doesn’t, it will fall. Haass fears that, if that happens, “the result will be a world that is less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful, for Americans and others alike.”

He may be right. What follows could either be better – or much, much worse – than what we have today. But today’s global power elite has failed to deliver freedom, prosperity, or peace to billions of people across the world.

The greatest threat to the “liberal world order” lies in its failure to reflect on its own fundamental injustices. It lacks accountability. If those who lead it can’t acknowledge its flaws – if Dr. King’s “revolution of values” can’t turn it into an engine of change for workers, the poor, refugees, and the other victims of its manifold failures – the system that Richard Haass wants to protect and improve will fail. And it will deserve to.


Teaser photo credit: Oxfam calculates that the new wealth obtained by billionaires alone could end world poverty seven times over.” (Photo: Alisdare Hickson/flickr/cc)

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is the host of The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow on Free Speech TV.

Tags: building resilient societies, liberalism, social inequality