In the late 1700s, the philosopher Immanuel Kant put forth a vision of universal peace in which nations would subordinate themselves to principles and entities that would make this possible. Many shared this vision, with good reason. It was believed to have “norms, rules and institutions” that were respected, creating a system that was stable, predictable and able to manage disagreements without creating conflict. Many believe we had achieved that order, which they called the liberal international order, and that it’s now dying. They mourn the loss.
The problem is that the liberal order never really existed. And their nostalgia is dangerous if what they pine for is a fiction.
Not that there weren’t attempts to create such an order. There were three tries in the past century. The first came after the end of World War I. Europe was horrified by what it had done to itself. The United States introduced the idea of a League of Nations that would manage international friction to prevent future self-destructive efforts. Except no nation was prepared to surrender its interests to an international organization, and in any case the organization had no real power to impose its will. The United States turned out to be the most honest among all nations in this regard, declining to join it in spite of the fact that its architect was the American president, Woodrow Wilson. Other nations joined; joining was easy, since none of them had any intention of obeying the league’s edicts anyway. What made the entire idea absurd was that most of the members were imperial powers with colonies, and their interest was in creating “norms, rules and institutions” for ruling and exploiting those colonies. The League of Nations was primarily but not exclusively a European club, and it lasted only as long as it took European powers who opposed the post-war peace to recover and reassert themselves.
The second attempt came after World War II with a more ambitious entity, the United Nations. The League of Nations made clear that no country would really abide by an international organization, so the U.N. created the Security Council, comprising the United States, the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom and China, which could block anything its members didn’t like. And since there was always at least one country at the table that didn’t like something, the U.N. could never really achieve its purpose: stopping wars. (Only once did it do so, in Korea, when the Soviets boycotted the Security Council.)
The United Nations created some tools that major powers might use, things like the World Health Organization and UNICEF and so forth. But the international order, to the extent that it existed, was formed primarily from alliances created in preparation for war against the other. One half of the structure was the Warsaw Pact, an international institution with rules and norms that were not especially liberal.
The other half comprised the allies of the United States, bundled together in a variety of international institutions. There was, of course, NATO. There was the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There was U.S.- and U.K.-supported economic integration, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, which in turn ultimately became the European Union. They were all liberal institutions with rules and norms.
But Europe was not the world. Most of the world belonged to what was inexplicably called the Third World, into which the European imperial system was collapsing. And yes, this world too had norms, rules and institutions. The United States and Soviet Union fought a cold war to absorb these vestiges of empire, or at least to prevent the other side from absorbing them. No one observing the Cold War in real time believed there was much of an order to things, apart from the utter bifurcation of Europe.
All the while, the prospect of nuclear holocaust hung over the world like a cloud of smoke. The Cold War didn’t bring about the end of the world, of course, but its failure to do so wasn’t the result of the strength of our international institutions. It was because the United States and the Soviet Union tried very hard not to engage in nuclear war. As always, with the end of the Cold War, the victors believed two things. The first thing was that they would be able to reshape the world as they chose. The second was that all reasonable people would want to be just like them.
After 1992, it appeared that war had become impossible, and that the international systems that had won the Cold War would remain in place and ensure the peace. NATO would deal with the rogues, and the international financial and trading system, designed for the Cold War, would expand to encompass the world. The problem of the world was now management, and a technocracy able to solve global problems would come together in the various remnants of the Cold War and preside over Kant’s perpetual peace.
Perhaps no entity embodied this dream more than the European Union, the absolute paragon of rules, norms and institutions. The EU saw itself as the civilizing force of the newly liberated nations, there to teach them the civility of technocracy. NATO no longer had a clear purpose and was given the abstract task of providing security, although who was being secured from what was never made clear.
The illusion began to fade after 9/11. It faded further after 2008. But that hasn’t prevented some from mythologizing a system that had failed them. First comes a war, and then comes a pledge for there to never be one again. The defeated, devastated by their loss and with their people living in misery, pull themselves together and rebuild. They create, more or less, what came before them. And with that resurrection, and the rise of other powers, the history of humanity continues.
The problem wasn’t that no one had thought to create something that could mitigate the risk of war. The U.S. and Soviet Union, for all their faults, avoided annihilating the world during the Cold War. The problem is in the vast ambition of the victors, who believe they can defy history with the administration of an unruly world. This is not liberalism. This was the hubris of the victors.