When we speak or write about “the liberal order,” what do we mean? Most people use this phrase as if its definition and validity are foregone conclusions. But events force questions upon us—one mark of our moment. Is the liberal order so liberal as commonly assumed? Is it orderly? Such as it may have once been valid, is it any longer? Taking a good look around, a few people now pose the first of these questions, a few more the second, and a very, very few the last. It is the last that is most worth investigating.
The liberal order is also known as “the post-1945 order” or, more flimsily, “the international order.” This was stenciled across the globe very swiftly after the 1945 victories. The Atlantic world, with its historically specific variety of democracy and its market-dominant economic model, was and remains the center, the determinant, the arbiter of this order. Jimmy Carter’s presidency introduced us to “the neoliberal order”—at bottom, merely a more rigorous variant of what had been. The choice for others has always been strictly, not to say viciously, enforced: It is to conform to the imposed order, imitate it as best they can, or assume the status of outsider. In the tent or out: Remarkably, the record indicates not a single exception in the 70-odd years the liberal order has endured.
This order is now in crisis. I am hardly the first with this. Many Americans take this view because their political institutions are in nearly anarchic disarray, because imperial adventure impoverishes them, and because they now stand at the front end of a shocking assault on all that once passed as at least an aspiration to political, social, and economic justice. Europeans face rises in right-wing nationalism, right-wing populism, and religious extremism. Inequality worsens across the West (and even more tragically in much of the non-West, of course). Are those who sustain the prevalent order serious about the climate emergency? The whole world wonders.
Having come to a dangerous global disorder, the liberal order turns out to be incapable of adequate responses to its own creation. It cannot self-correct, to put the point differently. This has been my view for a long time. For whatever reason, the famines sweeping through Africa and into Yemen, combined with an equally shameful indifference among us, noted in a previous column, tip me into a definitive position on this point. All the crises facing our quite illiberal order are epochal, in my view: They challenge its legitimacy. Its failures and frauds—notably its habit of exclusion, of making a “we” and “they” of all humanity—are simply too urgent now. Like the worsening climate, the velocity of deterioration seems fated to increase. Solutions will not arise from the order that produces and reproduces crises such as those just noted, and they are a few among very many. The immensity of this thought is not an excuse not to have it.