This is How the Liberal World Order Ends

Not with a bang, but with a pair of defiant anti-establishment presidential candidates.


In 1967, Britain unexpectedly announced the end of what, for decades, had been a genuinely global foreign policy. In response to the depreciation of the pound sterling, expensive decolonization campaigns, and the evolving attitudes of the baby boomer generation, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labor government abruptly announced that his government would change course, prioritizing welfare over warfare. That would include withdrawal from all bases “East of Suez.” In response, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk complained that he “could not believe that free aspirin and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world.” But the danger of such a patrician attitude to foreign policy — one that views domestic considerations as illegitimate — is that, over time, foreign policy can become seriously disconnected from the priorities of the electorate.

If the New Hampshire primary — where populist candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders resoundingly thrashed their establishment rivals — gave us anything to go by, the United States could be approaching a similar moment. Populist candidates threaten the two pillars that have dominated establishment views on U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: liberal economics and liberal interventionism.

Take the liberal economic commitment to open markets, represented in the 2016 presidential race by support for the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Rapid globalization since the end of the Cold War has generally benefited skilled workers in Western countries in the middle and upper class, those who can sell their services to the world and enjoy cheap and varied goods.

But for many lower-middle class Americans, globalization is perceived not as a warm summer breeze, but as a biting winter wind. Their once-stable manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas, immigrants compete with them for low-paying jobs at home, and incomes have stagnated. Shockingly, blue-collar white men are the only group in America whose life expectancy has actually declined since 1999, due mainly to suicide and substance abuse. Yes, globalization brings blue-collar Americans cheap goods too, but that makes no difference to social mobility: it’s unsurprising that the link between individual freedom and economic liberalization pushed by establishment candidates rings hollow to all too many American ears.

With remarkable effect, Trump and Sanders have channeled this visceral and inchoate anger in their rejection of the TPP. More recently, Sen. Ted Cruz has jumped on the anti-TPP bandwagon, although he has equivocated on exactly what his position is — perhaps not surprising, given his vexed claim to be running as an anti-establishment candidate, his Princeton and Harvard Law School pedigree and marriage to a Goldman Sachs banker notwithstanding.

By announcing their opposition to the TPP, the populists have sent Hillary Clinton running for cover, despite her role in sculpting the deal as secretary of state during President Obama’s first term. Gov. John Kasich is for the TPP, saying he is “pretty much for open” trade. But he too has equivocated, saying that “American workers have been shafted” and that he “want[s] to make sure that the workers in this country are protected.”

The only candidates to have thrown their full weight behind TPP are Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. But their reasons for so doing are based primarily on the U.S. role in Asia and the treaty’s advantages for corporate America, which do not speak to the concerns of blue-collar workers. Rubio, for example, published an April 2015 op-ed in support of the TPP. “It will advance economic liberty and unleash free-market forces in the world’s most dynamic region,” he wrote, adding that it would strengthen U.S. alliances in the western Pacific. There is a certain courage in advancing this position, given how unpopular it is across the American rust belt. But this only confirms the fragility of the domestic political foundation for free trade and open markets.

However, liberal internationalist economic policies may still find a thin majority of support after the November election, given their benefits to much of the middle- and higher-earning tranches of the American electorate. Moreover, there is a good argument that you can’t reverse globalization anyway, since the information revolution is here to stay and protectionist policies won’t do much to insulate blue-collar workers from a rapidly changing information economy. The real priority is to fix education so that more people have the skills to benefit from a globalized economy.

While free-market foreign policies are more likely to taper off than to collapse outright, the other pillar of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy — liberal interventionism — is on the verge of policy oblivion.

The failures of Iraq and Libya have been a stick that Trump, Cruz, and Sanders have used unrelentingly to beat Hillary Clinton. With nothing to parry them with, she’s simply had to take these blows, and the bruises are increasingly starting to show in the polls. In her last debate with Sanders, Clinton argued that a vote against invading Iraq in 2002 — which Sanders cast and Clinton did not — is not a plan to defeat the Islamic State now. She’s right, but this argument suffers from the fatal defect that the Islamic State would not exist in its current form were it not for these interventions.

As for Bush, his dithering inability to take a coherent position on the invasion of Iraq speaks for itself. We’ll see in November if Trump was right to claim iconoclastically, given the context of the last Republican debate, that: “The [Iraq] war was a horrible thing. If we’re not going to admit that, you’re going to have yet another election where the Democrats are going to win.”

The force of the populists’ argument on this point isn’t hard to grasp. As should be rather obvious from the label, regime change can create ungoverned space, into which transnational, networked terrorist groups will flow, especially when there’s no replacement plan, as the experiences of Iraq and Libya showed us. The Kurds aside, this is the problem with arguing for regime change in Syria. The West has no alternative to the Assad regime even if the man himself goes, so regime change would very likely create a political vacuum filled by a cocktail of radical Islamic terrorists. The United States would ultimately be forced to accept that reality, or to redeploy American forces to pacify the region — both outcomes for which the U.S. electorate has zero enthusiasm. This geopolitical reality has left Clinton with no choice but to more or less avoid the issue of regime change, and instead focus only on the narrow question of the Islamic State, and on humanitarian precautions such as no-fly zones that won’t change the direction of the conflict.

The only candidate fully on board with regime change in Syria appears to be Rubio, who has clashed vigorously with Trump and Cruz on the issue. While Rubio claims, not unreasonably, that Assad encourages the likes of the Islamic State, he also has no explanation whatsoever for how regime change would prevent a Libya-like jihadi-fest.

Beyond Syria, the broader idea of spreading democracy and human rights seems to be grinding to a halt. Apart from some vague statements of “concern,” none of the candidates has seriously challenged Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ruthless political repression in Egypt, or the widespread allegations of ethnic cleansing by the Iraqi government’s Shiite militias against the Sunni population.

Of course, the implicit narrative now is that the Islamic State, not democracy, is the priority. But this masks a more fundamental reality flowing from the 4,500 U.S. dead and $2 trillion-debt burden for an Iraq War that handed Baghdad to Tehran on a platter. Whatever the Iraq War was supposed to be in the world of counterfactuals — if the weapons of mass destruction had been there, if the Iraqi Army had not been disbanded, if Bush had extended the status of forces agreement to keep troops in Iraq beyond 2011, if Obama had not withdrawn troops in 2011, and so on — the war that actually took place was, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest U.S. strategic disaster since Vietnam. With that plain reality in mind, Rubio’s zealous enthusiasm for regime change seems wildly out of touch with the U.S. electorate.

Unless he wins in November, the immediate future of U.S. foreign policy will likely be a return to a proven Cold War model that privileges stability and strong alliances over disruptive and unaffordable ambitions to spread democracy by force.

Ultimately, only economic superpowers or dictatorships can drive foreign policy independently of domestic considerations — and Britain was neither in 1967. America is an economic superpower, but also a democracy, which explains both why foreign policy can be pushed beyond domestic considerations for long periods of time, but also why it can all too suddenly come crashing down.

Photo Credit: Joe Raedle / Staff

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.