In 1945 the US agreed to compromise its unfettered freedom of action in international affairs in the belief that engagement with allies and adversaries through multilateral agencies would avoid the pitfalls of the interwar period while rendering US power more legitimate, and thereby more effective. This bargain between power and legitimacy proved remarkably effective, and helped the political West survive and triumph in the Cold War. However, the tension between the autonomy of the Charter (Yalta-Potsdam) international system and the institutions of liberal hegemony were evident, although disguised during the Cold War.
As Soviet power waned, from the 1970s a more assertive liberal hegemony emerged, initially eroding the Keynesian domestic bargain and then from the late 1970s challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet Union itself, a process aided by catastrophic Soviet mistakes, notably the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and demonstrated by the rise of Solidarity in Poland the following year. The demise of the Soviet Union removed checks on international liberalism, and its radicalisation in the form of the expansive ambitions of liberal hegemony is at the heart of post-1989 international politics.
The liberal international order combines military, economic and political (normative) sub-orders, each operating according to a specific dynamic but coalescing to create a polymorphic and energetic model of global order. Liberal hegemony has been the most vigorous international order of the postwar era, transforming much of the world in its image.
After the Cold War these features were projected globally and at the same time assumed a more radical form. Without a peer competitor, the expansive US-led liberal order adopted the characteristics of liberal hegemony – the idea that US power needed indefinitely to maintain its primacy and to ensure that no competitor could challenge its power and ideas. The distinction between a liberal and non-liberal world was eroded, on the assumption that liberal internationalism, and the domestic social order with which it was associated, would inevitably spread – either by organic or forceful means.
After the Cold War its expansive ambitions sought to transform China by making it a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the system, while Russia was encouraged to become a free-market economy and a liberal democracy as part of an expanded Atlantic community. The elimination of outsiders by converting them into insiders would have made the liberal order indistinguishable from the international system in which it is embedded. However, democratic internationalism inevitably ran into resistance, with the crisis arcing back to raise questions about the over-ambitious foreign policy agenda and its effect on domestic jobs and welfare. Populist movements identified liberal internationalism as the cause of the problem. Outsider powers challenged this self-identification and is one of the proximate causes of the Second Cold War.
The post-communist era to 2014 was characterised by the apparently limitless opportunities opened by unipolarity. Liberal institutionalism gave way to liberal hegemony. In the US this was embraced by both Democrats and Republicans and sought to expand and deepen the liberal world order, based on free markets, democracy, human rights, and strong international institutions, under benevolent American leadership. The absence of external constraints allowed American ambitions to run unchecked. Stephen Walt argues that this gave rise to a revisionist foreign policy, including the intensification of US security commitments in Europe, Asia, and the middle East, overthrowing dictatorships, and using military force and economic coercion to force others to conform to US values and preferences.
After 1989 liberal internationalism assumed more of the character of liberal hegemony. In the absence of serious external competition, its primacy assumed a more radical character. Economic liberalism was now presented in the format of globalisation, a term that had barely been used earlier, giving rise to a boom in the literature on the subject. The military side had earlier focused on containment but now also had more expansive ambitions. This took the form of a more extensive series of so-called humanitarian interventions, and liberal interventionism in general sought to reshape the world on the Western model. At the same time, the Atlantic power system expanded into what was perceived as a security vacuum in the East, provoking a monumental security dilemma with Russia.
The liberal international order became radicalised in at least five ways: the Hegelian, associated with the discourse of the ‘end of history’; the Kantian, with the extreme emphasis on human rights; the Hobbesian, with numerous ill-judged military interventions intended, among other things, to advance democracy in the world; the Hayekian, which represented the triumph of neo-liberal thinking and the disembedding of market from social relations; and the Marcusean cultural victory of social liberalism accompanied by the societal fragmentation associated with identity politics.
Some of this radicalisation was the natural result of the absence of a viable competitor, allowing the inherent character of the liberal international order to advance unchecked. However, some of it was hubristic, exposing a dark exclusivity and intolerance of other social orders and traditional life patterns.
As the only surviving system with genuinely universal aspirations, the liberal order assumed more ambitious characteristics, including a radical version of globalisation, democracy promotion and regime change. Graham Allison notes that during the Cold War the US ‘never promoted liberalism abroad when it believed that doing so would pose a significant threat to its vital interests at home’. In the unipolar era the teleology of the ‘end of history’ predominated. ‘An odd coupling’, Allison writes, ‘of neoconservative crusaders on the right and liberal interventionists on the left’ convinced successive American presidents ‘to try to advance the spread of capitalism and liberal democracy through the barrel of a gun’.
The prohibition on the use of force except with the sanction of the UN was weakened, and Responsibility to Protect represented a move away from sovereign internationalism towards the validation of humanitarian interventionism. The language of international law gave way to the idea of a ‘rules-based order’. Moscow was quick to point out the double standard involved, with the rules open to interpretation and selective implementation.
Not only was the radicalised liberal international order less tolerant of states with different cultural backgrounds, but it was also less forbearing when it came to alternative power centres. This was especially the case if this was combined with resistance to the changes towards social liberalism and neoliberal capitalism taking place within liberal order. If postwar liberalism was based on state consent, the post-Cold War version asserted a universal agenda that was more ready to transcend state sovereignty and cultural specificity.
Democratic internationalism promoted by post-Cold War liberal internationalism is based on the expansionist logic of an order that essentially claims to have ready-made solutions to problems of peace, governance, development and human community. This represents an unprecedented cultural revolution that shapes international politics today.