the radical critique of the international liberal order

The international liberal order is in the news again. In late July, a group of eminent international relations scholars led by David A. Lake and Peter Gourevitch published an open letter in the New York Times defending the order and condemning Donald Trump for his sustained attacks on its institutions:

The international order formed after World War II provides important benefits to the United States as well as to other countries. The United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and other postwar institutions all help to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.

The open letter capped off a summer of healthy academic and policy debate about the state of international power relations and the institutions that embody them. Criticisms of the statement’s main arguments have been an important part of this discussion. In a Lawfare forum on the future of a post-Trump foreign policy, Heather Hurlburt described “[t]he U.N. and Bretton Woods institutions”—the organizations responsible for international security and economic governance, respectively—as “a mixed bag of good function, poor function and near non-function.” In a separate Lawfare post in response to the Times statement, Paul Staniland criticized “[p]roponents of the order” for “a narrow and highly selective reading of history that ignores much of the coercion, violence, and instability that accompanied post-war history.” And so on.

As is common in these debates, a relatively narrow consensus limits the range of the most prominent objections to the international order and its institutions. In their Monkey Cage post defending the Times statement, Lake and Gourevitch sort their critics, perhaps over-simplistically, into three ideological categories: (1) nationalists, who broadly agree with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric on topics like international trade and NATO burden-sharing; (2) “anti-globalists”—not a term I’m especially fond of, as a Jew—who embrace the left-wing critique of globalization and its discontents; and (3) neo-realists, whose main quibble concerns the order’s limited benefits for US economic and security interests.

This circumscribed consensus in foreign policy theorizing about the international order is non-accidental. As Robert Vitalis convincingly documents in his book on the role of race in the early intellectual history of the academic international relations sub-field, the century-long project of achieving US hegemony in the international system gave way to a foundational body of foreign policy thinking that choked out radical critiques of that same system. Vitalis terms these critical scholars—whose principle target was the early 20th century system of imperial white supremacy—the “Howard school of international relations theory,” after the historically black university in Washington, DC, where many such scholars studied or taught. A combination of McCarthy-era attacks on academic freedom, Cold War funding incentives, and the institutional consequences of desegregation in American higher education diminished the Howard school’s academic influence in the postwar American field of international relations and, therefore, its contributions to postwar debates about the international order that the Allied powers were stitching together in San Francisco, Bretton Woods, and Washington, DC.

It’s not that the Howard school’s radical—that is, system-questioning—ideas about the new international order were nowhere to be found in the postwar United States. It’s just that they migrated outside the international relations discipline. The result is that, with few exceptions, these extra-disciplinary and social-movements critiques of international order are not taken seriously—studied, debated, or referenced in major newspaper op-eds or policy papers by prominent think tanks—by the order’s leading theorists.

As Vitalis observes, the problems of US hegemony, especially in the post-Cold War era, have been a central focus of American academic disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology to all manner of race, ethnicity, and gender studies. Historians of the Cold War, for example, have pointed to the myriad intersections between the US black freedom movement, Cold War foreign policy dynamics, and decolonization movements of various stripes. Additionally, different types of US social movements—many of them led by or comprised of students and scholars from these disciplines—have engaged with and contested the institutions of the international order, including bodies tasked with governing international trade (the World Trade Organization), international finance (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), and the protection of human rights (the Human Rights Council, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regional human rights bodies, and various UN special rapporteurs). In fact, the international order has been a central battleground for transgressive social movements since before the postwar period: in a recent paper in International Studies Quarterly, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True argue that feminist activists like Jane Addams articulated the antecedents of latter-day feminist international relations as early as a series of peace conferences at The Hague in 1915.

I have a working paper on the US black freedom movement that focuses on one aspect of this historical question; I hope to be able to post it soon. The black freedom movement is among the most expansive manifestations of the radical critique of the international order, but it is far from the only one. Similar debates have animated protest, scholarship, and public debate about organized labor, the Chicanx rights movement, and the native rights movement, to name a few US / domestic examples; non-US / global movements have also posed important challenges to the concept and policies that define the order’s institutions. A new vision of the international order and its shortcomings requires that international relations scholarship re-integrates these critiques into the study of the order’s purpose and functions.