The Mythical Liberal Order

March 1, 2013 Topic: Global Governance

The Mythical Liberal Order

Mini Teaser: A cooperative, law-based international system remains an aspiration, not a reality.

by Author(s): Naazneen BarmaEly RatnerSteven Weber

The real threat of disruptive innovation is the gradual siphoning of power, influence, resources and confidence from the West. This is in some sense a more insidious challenge because, in its subtlety, it is harder for leaders of liberal political systems to understand and deal with strategically. It fails to fit neatly into familiar solution categories for American foreign policy. The practical questions become how can and should the West respond.

THE PROJECT of advancing liberal values is what matters, and it is too important to be yoked to a set of weakening, almost inert institutions. The obsession with world order is not helping the United States formulate foreign-policy objectives. We should stop trying to shore up an order that has failed to deliver on its promises and will only continue to disappoint.

Widening the reach of liberalism in human lives around the world deserves an approach that is oriented toward solving real problems and seeks to build liberal order from the ground up. Instead of defending the remit of universal multilateral institutions on the basis of chimerical advancements, let them give way, for the time being, to smaller coalitions that address specific challenges. The process of cobbling together coalitions and hammering out shared objectives—what we call “bargaining toward liberalism”—can provide a much more coherent source of collective action on international challenges and lay the foundations for a multigenerational liberal project.

Liberal internationalists like to say that “global problems require global solutions,” but that’s just not true. On most of the issues that matter, a solution worthy of the effort is possible through the cooperation of only a few countries, generally fewer than ten. The world doesn’t need big institutions to support that kind of bargaining. And foreign-policy makers don’t need concepts like a “concert of democracies” that constrain the bargaining game on the basis of regime type, or anything else.

Solving global challenges requires a hardheaded assessment of which players really matter in getting to an acceptable answer and a process of bargaining to get them aligned. And, on different issues, different countries will matter more than others.

In some and perhaps many instances, this “coalition of the relevant” will need to find ways of legitimating the bargaining outcome to others. This can be tricky, but one thing is for sure—today’s big, multilateral global-governance institutions are not the right place to try to do that, since they are just not good at it anymore (if they ever were). It may be that performance and effective problem solving themselves serve as sufficient legitimation for a younger generation, outside the United States in particular, that is all too ready to jettison the irrelevant baggage of the postwar international system as it used to be and as only aging Americans and Europeans could be nostalgic about.

The core policy challenge within this new approach will probably be less about legitimation and more about how to minimize the losses, costs and damage done by countries that cheat and free ride, because some certainly will. Part of the answer is that the process of bargaining will factor this into the equation, so that any gains worthy of a consensus will have to outweigh the costs of free riding. We simply must let go of the dysfunctional assumption that mostly everyone has to be on board to make a solution work and stick. That mind-set gives spoilers more leverage than they deserve. Instead, we should build the coalitions that demonstrate results and effectiveness, entice the reluctant to sign up for selective benefits and let them go if they won’t.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement is a reasonable example of what bargaining toward liberalism looks like in practice. The pact, albeit a work in progress, has brought together nearly a dozen countries to devise a “gold standard” trade agreement for the twenty-first century. It is open to all who are willing to commit to a series of liberal economic and trade principles, and it holds the best promise for advancing a liberal trade agenda.

The TPP should stand not just as a model for future trade agreements but more broadly as a model for partial global governance. The relevant question for U.S. foreign-policy makers now is: Where can similar coalitions be constructed across the full spectrum of foreign-policy challenges, whether they are designed to address human rights, maritime safety, development or nonproliferation? Piecing together issue-by-issue solutions from the bottom up is a practical means by which committed partners can make visible progress on global challenges. Short-term but palpable results are needed now and in some instances can be leveraged to tackle more difficult issues and possibly build broader coalitions. For example, nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, trafficking in persons, counternarcotics and illegal fishing are ripe for delivering tangible benefits to participants and practicing the habits of collective action.

This, we believe, is the most effective way to advance liberal objectives and values at present. Can it work with America’s domestic politics? We think so, because an ad hoc, problem-solving approach to global governance does not have to be postideological. Instead, it aims to deliver upon the goals that liberalism seeks to realize and to meet its aspirations through the pursuit of tangible results, not the pursuit of institutions or world-order solutions.

In this alternative framework, getting to a solution drives the form of collaboration rather than the other way around. We are advocating the pursuit of a multigenerational liberal project that can and should be advanced without the anxiety of trying to lock in interim gains through global institutions. Let’s focus instead on laying the material foundations for a future liberal order—let the ideology follow, and the institutions after that.

Naazneen Barma is an assistant professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Ely Ratner is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Steven Weber is a professor of political science and at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. The views in this essay are their own.

Image: Pullquote: International cooperation on security matters has been relegated to things like second-tier peacekeeping operations and efforts to ward off pirates equipped with machine guns and speedboats.Essay Types: Essay