Over the past decade a strong ideological current has gained prominence in the Anglo-American world, running parallel to the discourse of globalization and rhetorically complementing it. Indeed, in official parlance it is the more insistent of the two, and seems likely to become all the more clamorous in the aftermath of September 11th 2001. We may call it the new liberal cosmopolitanism, as distinct from the more democratic cosmopolitanism defended here by Daniele Archibugi.footnote1 Its theorists are for the most part to be found in international relations departments of the Anglophone universities, though some have been seconded to offices of the UN Secretariat or NATO protectorate in Bosnia.footnote2 Viewed historically, the new doctrine is a radicalization of the Anglo-American tradition that has conceived itself as upholding a liberal internationalism, based on visions of a single human race peacefully united by free trade and common legal norms, led by states featuring civic liberties and representative institutions. Such liberal internationalism sought to create a global order that could enforce a code of conduct on the external relations between states. But it still essentially accepted the Westphalian system that granted states jurisdiction over their own territories.

The new liberal cosmopolitanism, by contrast, seeks to overcome the limits of national sovereignty by constructing a global order that will govern important political as well as economic aspects of both the internal and external behaviour of states. This is not a conception advocating any world government empowered to decide the great international issues of the day. Rather, it proposes a set of disciplinary regimes—characteristically dubbed, in the oleaginous jargon of the period, ‘global governance’—reaching deep into the economic, social and political life of the states subject to it, while safeguarding international flows of finance and trade. In this system, sovereignty is reconceived as a partial and conditional licence, granted by the ‘international community’, which can be withdrawn should any state fail to meet the domestic or foreign standards laid down by the requirements of liberal governance.footnote3

Significant ideological shifts are always in some measure responses to changes in the real world. The new liberal cosmopolitanism is no exception. Its theories have arisen against the background of a whole set of new pressures on the internal organization of weaker states, and new patterns of interaction among stronger ones. Victory in the Cold War has made it easier for the Western powers to dispense with client dictatorships that were once loyal allies in the battle against Communism, and to proclaim liberal democracy a general value, to be upheld even in less favoured parts of the world. Domestic economic law and property relations have been steadily realigned, across continents, to harmonize with directives of the IMF, WTO or relays at regional level. States outside the rich core have been remarkably ready to make such internal, ‘behind the border’ changes. Strategically, the collapse of the USSR has not led to any revival of major conflicts between the Western powers, but on the contrary to a reinforcement of what Michael Doyle extols as the ‘Pacific Union’ of our day—the military alliance that fought the Gulf War, launched the attack on Yugoslavia and, at the time of writing, appears to be gearing up for an onslaught in West Asia. The multiplication of UN military missions involving the major powers tell the same story. The theorists of the new liberal cosmopolitanism (henceforward NLC) are on firm ground in pointing to all these developments as a sea change in international relations. When, however, they attempt to explain them, we quickly enter the realm of apologetic euphemism.

Crucial to the NLC version of today’s world is the claim, not just that the ‘Pacific Union’ has remained united, but that its members have broken with power politics as their governing impulse. What this, of course, represses is the central fact of contemporary international relations: one single member of the Pacific Union—the United States—has acquired absolute military dominance over every other state or combination of states on the entire planet, a development without precedent in world history. The US government, moreover, has shown no sign whatever that it is ready to relinquish its global dominance. American defence spending, as high today as it was in the early 1980s, is increasing, and a consensus across the Clinton and Bush administrations has developed in favour of scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The underlying reality of the Pacific Union is a set of bilateral, hub-and-spokes military alliances under US leadership. In the past liberal theorists usually explained the forging of these alliances as responses to powerful Communist and Soviet threats to democratic values and regimes. Yet, though liberalism and democracy are now widely held to be a prevailing norm, and the Warsaw Pact has vanished, these ‘defensive’ alliances have not quit the stage. On the contrary, Washington has worked vigorously to reorganize and expand them during the 1990s.

NLC theorists protest that the United States has, nevertheless, abandoned egoistic national interest as its strategic guideline. After all, are not liberal democratic values tirelessly lauded and expounded in the speeches of US leaders—most imperishably, by the late President Clinton? Such declarations are no novelty—ringing proclamations of disinterested liberal principle go back to the days of classical nineteenth-century power politics and Lord Palmerston. If, on the other hand, we turn to actual policy guidelines for US diplomacy in the 1990s, we find them wholly dedicated to the calculations of power politics.footnote4 Where such documents refer to the icons of free trade and liberal democracy, they are presented as conditions for the advancement of US power and prosperity.