The ‘Liberal International Order’ Is Neither Universal nor Exceptional

The ‘Liberal International Order’ Is Neither Universal nor Exceptional

What is exceptional about the last seventy-five years is not America or the liberal order it has forged to serve its interests, but the sheer power that the United States was able to amass owing to its favorable geographic position and relative distance from bloody and costly conflicts across the oceans that guard its borders.

History is a compendium of transience. After all, nothing real and concrete is ever perfect, absolute, or permanent. The inevitability of decline and impermanence that defines life per se has an especial bearing on international affairs. It entails viewing international politics through the lens of tragic realism and abandoning the idealistic attempt to ground geopolitics in notions of exceptionalism, moral universalism, or missionary zeal. The impossibility of absoluteness in the real world means that sensible statesmen could dispose of the idea of the international system as a zero-sum Manichean prize to be won for all time.

As the primordial realist Thucydides observed millennia ago, fear, interest, and honor are the three central drivers of man, with hubris the source of his eventual downfall. As states are composed of men, they too anchor their behavior on these three motivators as they navigate the anarchic waters of the international system, where the most powerful states often drown not by other competitors but by hubris and overreach all their own. The key lesson here is that a state that overextends itself out of over-confidence in its own beliefs and norms, moral narcissism, and a disregard for the limitations of its own power eventually turns millenarian and self-destructs—missing various opportunities for diplomatic engagement and rapprochement and risking unnecessary escalation with strategic rivals. It would be tragic indeed if the North Atlantic bloc follows in this Manichean path, compelling allied nations to filter their grand strategy through liberal ideals and sacrifice their national interests at the altar of the alliance’s self-righteousness and its rather choleric compulsion to interventionism and war.

Arta Moeini is the Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a postdoc fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. Dr. Moeini’s latest project advances a theory of cultural realism as a cornerstone to a new understanding of foreign policy.

Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Dr. Mott is an international relations scholar and author of The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.

Image: Reuters.