Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform?

Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform?
Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest's Keleti railway station in Hungary on 3 September 2015. Hungary is now debating the “Stop Soros” bill, which (among other things) targets those who assist illegal migrants.Mstyslav Chernov

Rita AbrahamsenProfessor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, and Director of CIPS

When President Donald Trump reneged on his commitment to the G7 Communiqué after the Charlevoix Summit in June, it was but one of many recent blows to liberal internationalism and multilateralism. In Europe, the rise of far right movements and populism — and of course, Brexit — are shaking the foundations of the EU. Hungary is likely to pass a law that makes any help extended to migrants punishable by imprisonment. Anti-immigration sentiments in countries like Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Italy, and Germany are pushing the EU towards ever-harsher immigration policies. NATO survived a tense summit. Trade wars are looming, and the increasingly isolationist foreign policies of the United States are matched by the growing strength and global alliance building of illiberal powers such as China and Russia.

Worldwide, democracy is in decline, its basic tenets of freedom of the press, guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law under siege. The liberal international order is not yet dead, but there is ample evidence that the institutions and values that have governed global politics since the Second World War may no longer be taken for granted.

Against this background, CIPS brought together a group of scholars from Canada, the UK, Denmark, and Norway to revisit the notion of “middle power liberal internationalism” in a 2-day workshop followed by a public event, “Making Liberal Internationalism Great Again: What Role for Middle Powers in the New World Order?

Small and middle-powers have traditionally benefitted from liberal internationalism, and countries like Canada, Denmark, and Norway have been among the main defenders of a rule-governed, multilateral world order. It might be tempting to see this as merely expressions of “good international citizenship,” as measured by support for the United Nations, human rights, peacekeeping, and foreign aid. But moral commitment alone cannot explain these countries’ foreign policy behaviour. Middle power liberal internationalism is also a strategy born of necessity and a relative lack of power in the international system. It has been a way for these states to augment their power and security. By punching above their weight in some areas of world politics, they have sought to ensure enhanced co-operation, influence, and security in others. Their foreign policies, in other words, are premised on the assumption that investing in multilateral co-operation and the spread of liberal values will make the world a better place, while simultaneously advancing their core national interests.

At the same time, it must be admitted that liberal internationalism is a woolly and imprecise concept. The absence of a clear definition means that it can be (and has been) invoked for multiple purposes to create public support for foreign policies that may ultimately lack much concrete commitment or moral content. In the years since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, for example, liberal internationalism has been used to legitimize interventionist wars or regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well the increasing merger of development and security policies. Arguably, such policies have more to do with national defence than with “good international citizenship.”

Such interventions have strengthened critiques that liberal internationalism is but another form of universalism, seeking to export a moralistic, paternalistic, Western-centric model to the rest of the world. From the perspective of many countries in the global South, the so-called liberal world order is not so much “liberal” as profoundly hierarchical and unequal. While it has sustained institutions like the UN General Assembly, where states have one vote regardless of economic or military power, it has also facilitated great power domination through the Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, to mention but a few. Hierarchy and inequality, in short, are constitutive features of the post-war world order.

Any anxiety about the passing of liberal world order must therefore be balanced by recognizing its shortcomings and injustices. This is not the time for an unconditional celebration of liberal internationalism, nor a love-fest for “Canadian values” or the “Nordic model.” But neither is it a time for complacency!

In 1937, as fascism was taking hold in Europe, the Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland implored the world “Dare not to sleep!” Close your eyes to the mounting incarcerations, the barbed wire fences, the injustices inflicted on others, he warned, and before you know it “Our era is over — Europe is burning.”

But 2018 is not 1937. The liberal world order has not come to an end. But in a period of rising populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism in many parts of the world, much of what is worth admiring and valuing about world politics since 1945 is at greater risk than it has been for many years. Amidst anger over inequality, immigration, and cultural change, multilateral co-operation is assailed from both right and left. It needs defenders, and it needs debate. Recognizing the limitations and criticisms of liberal internationalism, in other words, should not lead us to give up on the idea of responsible state behaviour and efforts to make the world a better place. It should instead lead to us ask what elements of the liberal world order should be preserved, what should be ditched, and what should be reformed?

The workshop convened by CIPS was a first step in this direction, and the blogs produced following the event continue the conversation. Further research will also be published — watch this space!

* This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on “Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World,” hosted by CIPS and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For other blogs in this series, click here:

Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era by Louise Riis Andersen

How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism by Heidi Tworek

The View from MARS: American Populism and the Liberal World Order by Jean-François Drolet and Michael C. Williams

In Defence of Liberal Internationalism? by Alexandra Gheciu

Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference? by Njord Wegge

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