The problems of the West well predate the rise of China, the Brexit and the national-populist surge. Actually, most of these are consequences, and not causes, of liberalism’s own failure. Worrisomely for some, and excitingly for others, the fact is that we are witnessing signs of civilizational decline, where suicide is the road follow by the latter whereas agony seems to be what is left for the former. To stop the bleeding, however, conservatism may be a very useful tool.
Over the past few years, we have often listened or read that the liberal world order is in peril. Such order is defined in international relations theory as a set of rule-based global relationships founded on political liberalism, open markets, security and cooperation through a complex system of alliances and international and regional institutions, and the promotion of liberal democracy.
Whatever the right definition might be, provided we, Westerners, live (or have lived) under such a paradigm over the past seventy-five years, it is then clear that this world order is undergoing major transformations that challenge its very survival, both from outer forces as well as from internal cleavages such as populism and nationalism. A transformation that is not only profound but also rapid, as attested by the fact that only a decade ago, the consensus among experts and the overall population impression was, without a shred of doubt that the so-called international liberal order would remain victorious after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the sign of an era of liberalism’s hegemony. This post-Cold War paradigm would prevail, and more and more regional powers would largely adhere to it. The economic growth of China and the increase of its middle class would turn the Asian giant into a large-scale Japan, Russia would continue in its authoritarian drift but, little by little, it would accept its new role into to a certain regional or international order, to the beat of Europe, and Iran would finally experience an enlightenment that would transform much of the Muslim world.
However, as the reader can tell, this belongs to fictional history but not reality. This speaks of a story that could be but was not. Russia invaded Crimea and increasingly threatens the Baltic countries, China militarized the South China Sea and removed Hong Kong status, and Iran is still one of the least secularized countries on the planet. Therefore, as a geostrategic level, the growing assertiveness of Russia, China and Iran, all of them revisionist powers, has been established as the dominant trend in international politics.
This external pressure into the world order that emerged after World War II is also aggravated by internal fault lines within our liberal democracies and a quasi-suicidal revolutionary sentiment that intends to break away from all that we are today. The enemy was then at the gates. Today is well within the citadel. That being said, this goes beyond the scope of this short piece and I plan to devote a full piece to this issue so I will say no more about this matter here. May this merely serve to raise the alarm.
Going back to the international landscape, suffice it to say that even Fukuyama knows already that there was not any End of History in the 1990s, and that the liberal order, as well as liberal democracy, far from victorious is in retreat today. We must not despair, however, insofar as the paradigm we now see changing so much and so rapidly perhaps never had such strong foundations as we might think. On the contrary, it seems that today’s multipolar system never truly ceased to exist at a global scale. The Cold War is a good example of this over the fifty years that followed the end of World War II and, after the demise of the USSR, China has done nothing but to challenge the West and now others follow the dragon’s lead. The same goes for the philosophical underpinnings of such liberal system, which have never been truly international but merely regional in their reach. Moreover, they have hardly been liberal in their application —which has often been branded as a new fashion of cultural imperialism—, insofar as this international order, “crafted by and for liberal states, has itself been profoundly revisionist, aggressively exporting democracy and expanding in both depth and breadth”, and hence turning into anti-liberal liberalism. Finally, we tend to approach the Cold War as a very tense but nonetheless peaceful and ordered period of our recent history. But that is a caricature of reality, which shows us a rather Hot War across the globe, to which conflicts and full-on wars in Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia can attest. In other words, the international liberal order was never really international —but rather regional—, nor liberal, and not very orderly either, as Niall Ferguson holds.
Nevertheless, as mentioned before, the imperfect nature of this world order (or attempt of it) should not prevent us from valuing what is good about it. At this point, let us work under the hypothesis that this system is clearly worth preserving —something not so obvious anymore for a good number of Westerners, again to be expanded on in another piece. The question remains as to how to accomplish this deed. And the answer, as some leading experts put forward, is conservatism.
This may come as a surprise to some, especially those who envision conservatism as antagonistic to liberalism and not as a necessary ally. As a foe rather than a friend. However, it is a quite obvious conclusion if you come to think of it. Contrary to those who would prefer to double down on the path the West has followed over the past two decades, I would argue that liberalism is in dire need of more conservatism, and not more liberalism. The reason is that international realism shows that we find ourselves in a time of competitive coexistence with competing great powers, in Mearsheimer terms, whether we like it or not. And empirical evidence shows that liberalism promotion efforts have proven to be rather counterproductive as of lately. As a result, we must give way to an era of consolidation, rather than expansion. This is not capitulation, as supporters of the status quo claim. Quite the contrary, it is self-preservation, as I will argue in the next piece.
Ferguson, N. (2018). ‘The Myth of the Liberal International Order’. Global Times, (January 11). Available at: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1084413.shtml
Marlowe, M., McGrath, B. & Preble, C. (2019). ‘Can Conservatism Save the Liberal Order? And What are we Conserving?’, Podcasts - Net Assessment. Available at: https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/net-assessment-can-conservatism-save-the-liberal-order-and-what-are-we-conserving/
Lind, J. & Wohlforth, W.C. (2019). ‘The Future of the Liberal Order Is Conservative: A Strategy to Save the System’, Foreign Affairs, March/April. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-02-12/future-liberal-order-conservative