It is evidently a result of the distemper of our immediate circumstances – brought on by President-Elect Donald Trump about to become President of the United States – that my colleagues are not unreasonably contemplating alternatives to the current Liberal Order. Being apocalyptic is in; optimism out. As my Cornell colleague and political economist friend, Jonathan Kirshner recently wrote in an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.
We have lost, we are lost. Not an election, but a civilization. Where does that leave us? I think the metaphor is one of (political) resistance.
So what are the alternatives to the Liberal Order that are now being contemplated. Well funny you should you ask. My friend and colleague, Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations in fact has imagined 5 possible alternative orders:
- Concert Redux
- Spheres of Influence
- Fortress America
- A League of Our Own
- Ad Hoc World
Patrick presents, therefore, a fair number of alternatives but is never quite willing to declare for one alternative to the Liberal Order or another. In fact, he admits that, “[i]t is of course, possible that the liberal order will revive and survive” but asks his readers to imagine what alternative orders might succeed the current Liberal Order. As I just mentioned, here Patrick ducks favoring one or another alternative. As he suggests:
So which of these scenarios is most likely? The safest bet is that Trump’s approach to world order will include a measure of all five. His desire for good relations with great powers will push him toward the concert and sphere of influence models, both of which could complement a Fortress America focus on strategic retrenchment, protectionism and border security. The problems of the world will not permit complete insularity, however, and Trump will be drawn by temperament and efficiency to improvisational, ad hoc responses to global dilemmas.
In other words the behavior of others will push and pull him to construct aspects of a number of the alternatives identified. And it is indeed the case that we can imagine watching Trump ‘swinging for fences’ in global affairs in a series of often contradictory ways. And that doesn’t account for the contrasting statements to Trump that his nominees in the security and defense areas have given to several Congressional committees. So the improvisational, not to say possibly the erratic may better describe Trump and his looming Administration when it comes to the global architecture.
That being said let’s take a look at some of the alternatives that Patrick has conjured up. First, there appears to be a sort of, kinda continuum that these alternative orders present. But first these orders are all driven by the United States, and Trump and his Administration. Thus, we are really looking at US foreign policy making as the dominant maker of the Liberal Order. It certainly has often been but the Liberal Order is built and maintained, or diminished or extinguished by more than just US policymaking. But Patrick is describing global governance as do many of our US colleagues – it is about US dominance in global governance – the longstanding perspective by US experts and policy makers alike of the US as the ‘indispensable nation’. As Robert Kagan described it, the United States was:
… the Bill Clinton phrase that encapsulated the thinking of every president from Harry Truman to George W Bush. President Barack Obama was the transitional figure away from that tradition, and Mr Trump’s election is the decisive break. The US is, for now, out of the world order business.
But leaving this rather singular US focus to the side, the continuum here is from the very nationalist (running from isolation to great power collaboration) to a more collaborative though not democracy-driven approach. So “Concert Redux” would appear to encourage, suggests Patrick “a shallower, less institutionalized form of international cooperation”, a kind of remake of 19th century concert diplomacy. “Spheres of Influence” is a regionally fragmented and great power-led set of actors. So there would be China in Asia, Russia in Central Europe, presumably, and possibly India in South Asia. In “Fortress America”, what Patrick describes as, “The most isolationist of the five scenarios”, would lead the US to abdicate “US responsibility for maintaining world order” and the likely “abrogation of major US alliances” and a “weakening of US support for United Nations”. A “League of Our Own” would emphasize reliance on the the advanced market democracies – what Patrick calls – “a sort of “containment lite.” It would be built on the G7 and other current allies. Now Patrick suggests that it is likely also to be driven by the logic of democratic norms and values with traditional allies but also some emerging democracies say South Africa, Brazil or India. But why the norm driven aspect is a part of this alternative is not totally clear. Finally, there is “ad hoc world”. This is, as Patrick describes it, an “improvisational, seat-of-the-pants approach to world order, focused less on overall strategy than on specific reactions to the particular challenge of the day.” If noting else, this approach would limit the institutional foundations of the liberal order.
So you have on the more pointed nationalist side, Fortress America and Spheres of Interest. On the more collaborative possibly even norm-driven side, Concert Redux, possibly, but a League of Our Own for sure and even conceivably Ad Hoc World. On reflection, and laying out the alternative Liberal Orders, the real point here is these approaches are not really alternate Liberal Orders at all. Rather, they suggest various US foreign policy strategies that reinforce, or in some instances undermine the current Liberal Order. But these are not alternatives necessarily to the current Liberal Order.
There is another dimension of some note in Patrick’s various strategies. That is Patrick’s assessment of the impact of these strategies on global institutions and the norms and rules in the Liberal Order. It is evident that Patrick is worried that Trump is unlikely to support principally formal and multilateral institutions. Thus, in Concert Redux the international organizations would continue to exist but real power would be held in the efforts of the major powers. For good measure, and rather oddly, Patrick suggests that humanitarian intervention under the Responsibility to Protect principle would die. I am not sure why this principle is the cited by Patrick. One might well suggest, however, that this is a principle potentially already dead given its perceived use and misuse in the last few years, especially in Libya. In spheres of influence the formal institutions would be likely atrophy.
But institutions are not foresworn completely. In a League of Their Own, Trump would focus on a sort of “containment lite” and would in this alternative actually utilize the existing alliances and even bolster democratic norms. And in Ad Hoc World Trump would put together various coalitions of the willing using not only formal institutions but potentially even using minilateral consultative groups.
So these various alternatives ignore democratic norms and yet in others favor them, allow formal institutions to atrophy but in others utilize formal institutions and possibly use even informal ones. Now it is fair to say that Patrick has in earlier work (see “The New ‘New Multilateralism”: Minilateral Cooperation, but at What Cost”, Global Summitry, Volume 1, Number 2) questioned the value of informal institutions. And it may be this perspective that may have shaped his his description of ‘Concert Redux’. As Patrick sees it, as pointed out earlier, concert diplomacy is a “shallower, less institutionalized form of international cooperation.” And, it abandons any pretense of promoting human rights and democracy. Yet, classic concert diplomacy – this is in the nineteenth century – at its best maintained international stability and yet admitted change. It could acknowledge certain rules and norms. As Richard Elrod described decades ago the European Concert in his seminal review:
One more thing is clear. European relations during the era of concert diplomacy were characterized by a sense of security, a respect for the public law of Europe, a recognition of a commonly accepted standard of conduct, and a willingness to keep one’s own conduct within those limits, that was unknown both to earlier and to later period. … Through concert diplomacy the great powers were reminded of what constituted responsible international conduct. The Concert possessed a surprising capability to persuade sovereign states to observe those limits. (Richard Elrod, “The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System”, World Politics, Vol 28, Number 2 (January, 1976), pp 159-174 at 170)
The point of assessing this strategy is only to suggest that options are possible in a Trump world that, though they may not seem like traditional Liberal Order, may yet provide the prospect of something closer to it than we think, or at least possibly as Stewart Patrick thinks.
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