Wrestling with fog: on the elusiveness of liberal order

What was life like before the presidency of Donald Trump? And when, or if, his misrule ends, what should the United States and its allies aspire to build?

One answer — simple and powerful — is to restore what has been lost during the Trump administration. Recent, wrenching events in international life have prompted anxious commentators to worry about the demise of what they recall as a “liberal international order,” or a “rules-based international order,” under the United States’ aegis. The resurgence of great-power rivalry, increasing economic protectionism, and war and repression in the Middle East, and now a pandemic, move transatlantic figures to lament the passing of what they considered a good and wise dispensation, built around the principle of human dignity for all, and superintended by a benign and far-sighted hegemon. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden echoes the liberal nostalgia, “America is coming back like we used to be. Ethical, straight, telling the truth … supporting our allies. All those good things.” In an age of turmoil, such appeals invite us into a kind of dream palace, where America before Trump ruled by obeying rules, embraced allies without coercing them, and exercised hegemony without being imperial. What was good for the superpower was good for the world.

This vision has policy implications. Prima facie, it suggests a return to the conditions that preceded the present crisis. Which foreign and economic policy settings that predated Trump’s era would a Biden presidency restore? As the Panama Papers symbolized, the recent lost order was an increasingly inegalitarian one of reckless capitalism, allowing for transnational oligarchic corruption, offshore wealth hoarding, and the stagnation of working-class income and living conditions. Indeed, as some proponents of liberal order recognize, the system was “rigged.” And as the Afghanistan Papers suggest, part of the pre-Trump era included wasteful wars waged for ambitious goals waged at high costs, conducted in a spirit of wishful thinking and self-deception.

Yet aside from re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement and emphasizing the importance of allies, Biden has said little to suggest a fundamental overhaul of American foreign policy, whether in the form of rapprochement with adversaries like Russia, or a review of the extent and nature of American commitments in the Middle East. He has pledged to wind back Trump’s extravagant tax cuts for the super-rich, but beyond that, there is little sign of fundamental economic revision.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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