The rules-based international order, today perhaps the most cherished of Western values, is the principal target of Patrick Porter’s book. The False Promise of Liberal Order sets out to deflate the ‘mytho-history’ according to which, ‘in the hour of its mid-century triumph’, the United States rescued the Old World from its sad history of colonial empires and ‘dog-eat-dog wars’. Far-sighted American leaders drew up the plans for international institutions—the un, World Bank, imf, nato—to which the us, unlike any previous global power, agreed to subordinate itself. The upshot, its admirers claimed, was seventy years of world peace and economic growth, marked by the spread of representative government and human rights—or as Madeleine Albright and Carl Bildt put it, in a 2020 Atlantic Council declaration: ‘For seven decades, free nations have drawn upon common principles to advance freedom, increase prosperity, and secure peace.’ In False Promise, Porter describes how Truman’s blueprints were called upon by Washington’s foreign-policy community in the 2010s, when these achievements seemed menaced by the rise of Trump. In Foreign Affairs, John Ikenberry asked, ‘Can the Liberal Order Survive?’ and Jake Sullivan pondered ‘How the System Can Endure’, while Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay called for a ‘Committee to Save the World Order’. At the 2019 Munich Security Conference, an annual nato-plus gathering, Joe Biden offered soothing words. ‘This too will pass,’ he told an Atlantic security elite traumatized by Trump. ‘America is coming back, like we used to be. Ethical, straight, telling the truth, supporting our allies—all these good things.’
To Porter, however, who has worked for the uk Ministry of Defence’s academic wing at Shrivenham, is a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and rand Europe and teaches ir at the University of Birmingham, ‘all those good things’ suggest a cleansing of history. What if the doomed pursuit of the ‘liberal order’ itself had driven the rise of populists like Trump? Porter argues that the inter-state compact led by the United States after 1945, variously designated as ‘liberal’ or ‘rules-based’, was neither of the above. The concept of liberal order is ‘a self-contradiction’, for ‘ordering’ is a constitutively imperial—and therefore necessarily illiberal—business. ‘The world is too dangerous and conflicted to be ordered liberally’, False Promise argues, and ‘overstriving to spread democracy abroad will destroy it at home.’ The mythology of a rules-based international order obscures a world of countervailing experiences, from ‘the killing fields of the Cold War, to the centres of authoritarian power, to the long history of post-war mercantilism.’ Panegyrics to an order that never was obfuscate the hard choices faced by policy-makers in the present, in a messy world of ‘competitive multipolarity’. Assailing the role of euphemism in international-relations debates, Porter insists on ‘gazing at history’s darkness’.
For False Promises, the rules-based order is a ‘retrospective construct’, imposed upon a historical era that saw itself very differently. Acheson, Dulles and Rusk were sons of Protestant ministers and for the us, Porter argues, the Cold War order was largely framed in terms of patriotic Christianity versus atheistic Communism. The nsc 68 paper spoke of a ‘spiritual counterforce’, not a set of international rules, and jfk of ‘Freedom under God against Godless tyranny’. An N-gram demonstrates that the term ‘rules-based international order’ is a recent addition to the ideological arsenal. Though circulating in the 1980s, in liberal-institutionalist debates around Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony, Porter suggests it gained wider currency during the second Clinton administration, then took off in the 2000s as Ikenberry and others pitted it against the unilateralism of Bush’s war on terror. Finally, such rhetoric has soared since 2014. The uk National Security Strategy the following year contained thirty mentions; the 2018 Australian Defence White Paper, thirty-eight. This vision has, for the time being, returned to the White House. Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy invokes the said order multiple times, announcing that it ‘underpins our security, prosperity, and values’ and ‘must remain the foundation for global peace’.
Porter provides ample illustration of the rule-breaking and skullduggery that underpin American power. Eighty-one instances of election ‘interference’ between 1946 and 2000; 72 attempted coups between 1947 and 1989. Assorted crimes and hypocrisies are registered, starting with the cia’s promulgation of ‘fake news’ in postwar Italy to block a Communist electoral victory. Under Clinton, the us helped set up the International Criminal Court, while exempting Americans from its jurisdiction, just as us forces are above the law of the lands they occupy. The bombardments of Yugoslavia and Iraq without a unsc mandate were ‘illegal, but legitimate’ (Anne-Marie Slaughter). In the uk, Cameron called for airstrikes on Syria to defend the rules-based international system, while in the same breath arguing that to insist on a un resolution meant ‘contracting-out our foreign policy’ to a potential Russian veto. In the South China Sea, the us demands that Beijing abide by conventions that Washington itself refuses to ratify; and so on.
The spirit is somewhere between the familiar empirical denunciation of imperial hypocrisy one might hear on the left and Trump’s timeless response to cnn on Putin: ‘We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?’ But Porter’s lists are not compiled for opprobrium. Instead, he wants to drive home the irreducible contradictions of ‘liberal order’ and to show that the post-war successes of us foreign policy were necessarily made possible by ‘dark bargains with illiberal forces’. The intellectual proponents of a rules-based system acknowledge Washington’s resorts to pragmatic illegality and coercion, only to dismiss them as regrettable, atypical lapses. Thus Ikenberry, widely considered (including by Porter) to be one of liberal internationalism’s most eloquent theorists, could declare in a 2014 Foreign Affairs essay that ‘with some important and damaging exceptions, such as Vietnam, the United States has embraced postimperial principles.’ Or again, Ikenberry’s description of Bush’s foreign policy as ‘a system in which America rules the world but does not abide by rules . . . in effect, empire.’ Iraq, like Vietnam, is understood as an aberration; Pax Americana’s most disastrous episodes become external to its historical essence, attributable to the occasional bad-apple politician.
A central charge of False Promise is that the project of American primacy and its attendant philosophy of liberal belligerence has been self-defeating. Ultimately, the product of this self-harm was the rise of Trump, whose triumph was immanent to the world the liberal primacists made: ‘less an aberration than the culmination of the order and its pathologies, contradictions and excesses.’ Trump was made possible by the record of his predecessors, including Obama, Porter argues, including the perpetuation of overseas adventurism, the erosion of Congressional oversight and the two-headed hydra of militarism and oligarchy. Trumpism on this view springs not only from the political economy of neoliberalism but from the imperial presidency and the chauvinism of the war on terror. In the driving seat of American empire, liberalism’s missionary zeal—‘jealous, intolerant and messianic’—has generated ‘its own illiberal opposite’.
Porter, however, is no anti-imperialist. A self-described ‘classical realist’ whose work occupies an intriguing midpoint between conformism and dissent, he wants to shower the empire with some ‘tough love’. He is concerned above all with counselling prudence to its practitioners. Prudential judgement is here conceived as ‘practical wisdom’, conditioned by attentiveness to the limits of social-scientific prediction. In the bleak intellectual tradition Porter holds dear, ‘emancipation is impossible’ and ‘some hypocrisy and brutality’ inevitable. But states—read, liberal-democratic states—can ‘at least be wiser and more self-aware.’ As he sees it, the principal threat facing the us is the ‘formation of a combined Eurasian adversary’—that is, a Beijing–Moscow partnership of sorts, ‘based on a shared determination to roll back Western preponderance’. Both this scenario of a hostile Eurasian competitor and/or the continuation of imperial overstretch and exhaustion could, Porter fears, ‘destroy the republic’ by inducing a ‘permanent state of alarm’, whereby an ever-more militarized state erodes civil society and quashes constitutional freedoms. False Promise points to the war on terror as prefigurative of this democratic death.