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Policy Analysis

June 5, 2018 | Number 843

A World Imagined
Nostalgia and Liberal Order
By Patrick Porter


ecent political tumult and the election the multiplicity of orders that arose, and the conflicted
of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and contradictory nature of liberalism itself. While
have driven anxious commentators to liberalism and liberal projects existed, such “order” as
lament the collapse of a post-1945 “liberal existed rested on the imperial prerogatives of a superpower
world order.” Nostalgic for the institution that attempted to impose order by stepping outside rules
building and multilateral moment of the early postwar era, and accommodating illiberal forces. “Liberal order” also
they counsel Washington to restore a battered tradition, conflates intentions and outcomes: some of the most
uphold economic and security commitments, and promote doctrinaire liberal projects produced illiberal results. This
liberal values. On closer inspection, while it is true that nostalgia is harmful because framing the world before
the postwar world was more prosperous and peaceful Trump in absolute moral terms as a “liberal order” makes
than what came before, the claim that a unitary “liberal it harder to consider measures that are needed to adapt
order” prevailed and defined international relations is to change: the retrenchment of security commitments,
both ahistorical and harmful. It is ahistorical because it the redistribution of burdens among allies, prudent war-
is blind to the process of “ordering” the world and erases avoidance, and the limitation of foreign policy ambitions.
the memory of violence, coercion, and compromise that It also impedes the United States from performing an in-
also marked postwar diplomatic history. It loses sight of creasingly important task: to reappraise its grand strategy
the realities and limits of the exercise of power abroad, in order to bring its power and commitments into balance.

Patrick Porter is professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham.

INTRODUCTION but they are floating in a sea of something
The According to a view popular in Washington, quite different.”5
exaggerated D.C., and other capitals around the world, Not only do nostalgists get the history
the United States used its power and idealism wrong, they fail to confront what “world
notion of for more than 70 years to create a security ordering” actually entails. The main critique in
the ‘liberal and economic order that transformed the this paper is that the fetish for “liberal order”
order’ and world. This world order was liberal because has obscured what is involved in the process
its imminent the United States was liberal. “Liberal” in this of “ordering”—or attempting to order—the
context means the pursuit of security both globe. The United States, as the leading ac-
collapse is a through the spread of liberty, in the form of tor in the orthodox narrative, emerges as a
myth of the free markets and democratic constitutions, power that created order through a benign
foreign policy and the rule of law, in the form of rule-based internationalist vision, consensus building,
international institutions. Today, defenders and institution creating. But the successes and
establishment of that order fear that President Trump and a failures of that order also flowed from coer-
and leads set of regressive forces are laying waste to it. cion, compromise, and rougher power politics.
America to They claim the consequences are grave: we are As the ordering superpower, the United States

overstretch. witnessing the “end of the West as we know did not bind itself with the rules of the system.
it,”1 the abandonment of “global leadership” It upended, stretched, or broke liberal rules to
by its “long-time champion,”2 and a “coming shape a putatively liberal order. Appeals to the
Dark Age.”3 Foreign Affairs, the house organ myth of a liberal Camelot flow from a deeper
of the foreign policy establishment, recently myth, of power politics without coercion and
asked 32 experts whether the “liberal order is empire without imperialism.
in peril.” Most agreed it is, with 26 respon- This fuller narrative is also a story of tragic
dents registering a confidence level of 7 out limits. The world was not so easily subjugated.
of 10.4 Alarmed by the political tumult of our Efforts to spread liberalism often contained
time, nostalgists recall the post-1945 moment the seeds of illiberalism. Multiple orders col-
of institution building and benign interna- lided and met the limits of their reach and
tionalism and call for its reclamation. power. Efforts to create a liberal order ended
They are, however, in the grip of a fiction. up accommodating illiberalism. Liberalism it-
Liberalism and liberal projects abounded self proved to be a conflicted thing. At times,
in the past 70 years. But the dream of a uni- projects to advance it had unexpected results.
tary, integrated global system organized As it happens, the pursuit of “liberal order”
around liberalism is ahistorical. In truth, is not just an antidote to the current difficul-
the pre-Trump world was a more brutal and ties suffered by the international system but a
messy place than the nostalgia allows. To be source of them.
sure, there was liberalism, and it did help de- Ideas about “order” matter and have weighty
fine postwar international relations. Broadly policy implications. Just as material power en-
speaking, the post-1945 period was, on many ables or forecloses certain choices, ideas condi-
measures, more prosperous, less violent, and tion and constrain a country’s grand strategic
more collaborative than what came before. decisions. Those who lament the fall of the
One defect of “liberal order” nostalgia is “liberal order” are saying, in effect, that some
that it exaggerates these qualities and simply ideas are illegitimate and should be off the ta-
leaves out too many contrary historical reali- ble. They worry that “populism” and “isolation-
ties. Other critics have already noted the gap ism” endanger traditional ideas that were once
between nostalgia and history and that the dominant, leading America to abandon its man-
postwar world was never “whole.” At times the ifold commitments overseas, in turn driving the
liberal order was neither very liberal nor very world into disorder. When they call for the rec-
orderly. There may be “islands of liberal order, lamation of the old order, they also call for the

perpetuation of American primacy. By contrast, THE CLAIM: THE LIBERAL
this paper argues that the exaggerated notion of ORDER IS UNDER ASSAULT As the
the “liberal order” and its imminent collapse is The prospect of major change in the in- storyline
a myth of the foreign policy establishment and ternational system is attracting a new wave of
leads America to overstretch. literature about “world order.” Recent crises
goes, the
This analysis is divided into three parts. and political revolts have prompted security United States
First, I examine the lamentations for a lost experts on both sides of the Atlantic to an- as benevolent
world, unpacking what such lamentations nounce the coming of end times. The rise of
claim about how the world “was” before pernicious “isms”—economic protectionism,
its dissolution allegedly began. Liberal authoritarian nationalism, political tribalism, designed and
order nostalgia performs two functions: by superpower unilateralism—has triggered these underwrote
denying the violent coercion, resistance, and fears, along with the gauntlets being thrown a ‘global,
unintended consequences of “world ordering,” down by revisionist powers threatening U.S.
it sanitizes history into a morality tale and dele- hegemony in the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe,
gitimizes arguments for revision and retrench- and Asia. In the United States, the focal point economic
ment. The lamentations also give an alibi to of this eschatology is the presidency of Donald and security
American primacy, attributing its demise to Trump. After the election of an erratic, coarse
order that
forces external to it. By reducing the issue to demagogue to the nation’s highest office in

one of inadequate political will, and by blam- November 2016, security experts lamented the
ing either elites or the public at large for failing passing of a postwar structure that civilized the world.
to keep the faith, “liberal order” lamentations international life, presided over by a benign
dodge the painful question of how such an American hegemon.
excellent order could produce unsustainable What is being threatened? The objects
burdens, alienate its own citizenry, and pro- of anxiety are a “liberal world order,” which
voke resistance. allegedly held sway for 70 years, and even
In the second section, I demonstrate that the end of “the West” itself. The life of this
“liberal order” rhetoric is ahistorical and order is normally periodized from the end of
therefore largely mythical. The claim that a World War II in 1945 to the recent past. As the
single, internally consistent, and consensual storyline goes, the United States as benevolent
order predominated for more than 70 years, hegemon designed and underwrote a “global,
with liberal projects producing liberal results, rules-based” economic and security order that
fares poorly when compared with the major transformed the world.6
patterns of international relations from 1945, After its chief competitor, the Soviet
in the spheres of both security and commerce. Union, collapsed in 1989–1991, it extended
Conversely, the claim that American statecraft this strategy globally. Proponents of liberal
is now being turned upside down is hyperbol- order draw on the logic of hegemonic stability
ic, and blind to the quiet victories that ortho- theory.7 According to that theory, one domi-
dox U.S. grand strategy is winning under the nant state exercises such a preponderance of
Trump presidency. power that it lessens the insecurities that lead
Lastly, I argue that “world order” nostalgia to arms races and spirals of alarm, enabling
is harmful. There is a prudent case for other states to ease their security competitions
retrenchment, and a diplomacy of deterrence, with neighbors and rivals, relax their arms pro-
power sharing, and accommodation, through grams, and focus on economic growth. More
which the United States could pursue security ambitiously, it not only reshapes institutions
in a multipolar world. For an overstretched and markets but remakes the preferences of
superpower to address the imbalance of power other states. To its admirers, this order, for
and commitments, it will have to look beyond all its imperfections, achieved unprecedented
ritual incantations. general peace and prosperity. It was based on

a harmony of interests between the United This sunny “highlights package” offers a
The liberal States and the rest of the world. It made the strangely bloodless retelling of history. It is a
order is a world a single system or “whole,” as Council euphemistic rendering of the Cold War and
on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass the actual practice of anti-Soviet containment
missionary claims.8 Revision of the order, and retreats by by the superpower and its proxies. The Bay
project that the hegemon, will lead to increased disorder. of Pigs, napalm, East Timor, the shah of Iran,
looks to On the campaign trail Donald Trump explic- and the Contras fade into the background.
extirpate rival itly threatened the status quo. He denounced That this pristine retelling should come
allies as delinquent and threatened to shred from distinguished historians of American
orders and alliances, tolerate nuclear proliferation, diplomacy like Friedberg and Suri suggests
demands the re-erect tariff walls, and abandon international how seductive the vision of an earlier and bet-
perpetuation agreements. To security traditionalists who ter order has become. Trump, too, is complicit
oppose Trump, his revisionist challenge accel- in this mythmaking. Like his opponents, he
of American

erates the collapse of a “liberal order” under a frames his own election in stark terms. Trump
dominance. transnational assault by authoritarian forces. speaks of a dark prehistory of “globalism,” of
In a state of shock, they seek orientation in open borders, predatory capitalism, futile wars,
an ahistorical myth about the world before and general American victimhood, and a return
this dark age. As Princeton’s Aaron Friedberg to wholesome nationalism, industrial regenera-
tweeted, “After WWII US built a system of tion, civilizational rebirth, and, of course, mak-
democratic states, tied together by trade, in- ing America “great.”11
stitutions and common values—a liberal order. What was the liberal order, as its defenders
Now it needs to defend that order against the define it? If an “order” is a coming together of
illiberal powers it tried to incorporate after the power with social purpose, a “world order” is
Cold War.”9 Historian Jeremy Suri charges that an international design of institutions, norms,
Trump is plunging the world into a great regres- and patterned relationships that defines the
sion by “launching a direct attack on the liberal global balance of power.12 Some commentators
international order that really made America argue that for a viable world order to emerge
great.” The elements of this order include “a in a time of turbulence, the United States
system of multilateral trade and alliances that may have to compromise. Amitav Acharya,
we built to serve our interests and attract others Michael Mazarr, and Henry Kissinger seek to
to our way of life.” Suri explains: revive the concept of world order, but unlike
those of other “world order” visionaries, their
Through the European Recovery Pro- proposed designs are pluralistic and require
gram (the Marshall Plan), the General the United States to temper its universal-
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the ism for the sake of stability and negotiated
World Trade Organization), the Inter- coexistence in a polycentric world.13
national Monetary Fund (IMF), and the By contrast, the liberal order is a mission-
World Bank, among other institutions, ary project that looks to extirpate rival orders
the United States led a postwar capital- and demands the perpetuation of American
ist system that raised global standards of dominance. As an ideal type, the “liberal order”
living, defeated Soviet communism, and entails a copious number of norms and institu-
converted China to a market economy. tions, suggesting that good things go together.
Through the North Atlantic Treaty Or- In accounts of the postwar liberal order, many
ganization (NATO) in Europe and a web or all of the following features appear, though
of alliances in Asia and the Middle East, with varying emphasis: the rule of law and the
the United States contained aggressive supremacy of “rules,” humanist globalism and
states, nurtured stable allies, and promot- humanitarian development, free trade, multi-
ed democratic reforms when possible.10 lateral cooperation, the security provision of

the United States (principally through its per- such as the United Nations and norms such
manent alliances), and a commitment to liberal as multilateralism—could give way to a more The liberal
progress through the advocacy of democratic contested and fragmented system of blocs, order is
and market reforms. Its institutions span the spheres of influence, mercantilist networks,
United Nations, NATO, the North American and regional rivalries.”18 Once optimistic
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans- that the order would withstand geopolitical hierarchical.
Pacific Partnership (TPP), the General Agree- challenges and prove resilient, Ikenberry To speak of
ment on Trade and Tariffs (followed by the now fears a different kind of insurgent threat,
liberal order is
World Trade Organization), the IMF, and the flowing not from hostile subversive states
World Bank. A commitment to protocols and but from within. Working- and middle-class to speak also
the bridging of divides figure centrally. Hence populations, he suggests, may lose faith in the of American
phrases like “open, rule-based international order as democracy degenerates.19 primacy, with
economy” abound.14 The “order,” proponents Similar complaints have arisen across the
argue, embodied also a pattern of behavior, or, Atlantic. Warnings against U.S. disengagement
the former
as Jake Sullivan at the Carnegie Endowment are a staple of rhetoric from security thinkers in depending on
for International Peace explains, a “system of allied countries.20 For Robin Niblett, director the exercise of

norms, institutions, and partnerships” whereby, of the internationalist Chatham House, Trump
the latter.
under the hegemon’s stewardship, collective replicates and feeds on the destructive forces
cooperation trumped competition for relative that powered “Brexit,” forcing liberalism
advantage, significant shares of sovereignty into retreat.21 For the University of Exeter’s
were ceded for the benefits of collective action, Doug Stokes, as for Ikenberry and Niblett,
and a global consensus spread.15 An “illiberal domestic discontent may unravel the world-
order” would presumably be the opposite of wide arrangements that best served America’s
these things: politically and economically di- “globalized” interests. For the old order to
vided and closed, authoritarian, uncooperative, reproduce itself, it must make a new settle-
coercive, and disrespectful of rules and norms. ment with the American working class.22
The liberal order is necessarily hierarchi- Most of these diagnoses have a common
cal. To speak of liberal order is to speak also of premise. All offer an upbeat, potted history of
American primacy, with the former depend- the world created in and after 1945. Many then
ing on the exercise of the latter. Nostalgists blame the crumbling of that world on agents or
do not deny that the American superpower forces that are separate from it.23 If the order
upheld it partly through overwhelming mili- is perishing, they argue, it is being assassinated
tary strength. However, they emphasize the rather than dying from its internal failures.
nonbloody uses of force, for example, deter- They have little to say about the significant re-
ring and dissuading adversaries, reassuring and verses that occurred while the order reigned.
uniting allies, and preventing conflict. And These included some of America’s most
they stress the consensual, attractive quality disastrous wars, geopolitical chaos in the
of American hegemony. Postwar continental Persian Gulf from the Iran-Iraq War to the
Europe therefore stands out as a favorite area present sectarian breakdown, resurgent jihadi
of emphasis, as an “empire by invitation.”16 Islamism, the greatest act of urban terrorism
Most anxious observers agree that a sig- committed by a nonstate actor in history, the
nificant “fall” is occurring.17 To explain it, they eurozone crisis, the economic regression of
weigh heavily an alleged loss of political will Russia under “shock therapy,” mounting and
within the West. Leading theorists of liberal unsustainable debt, the global financial crisis,
order, such as Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry, the entrenchment and immobility of wealth,
have long warned that “the hallmarks of and the growing underclass of working poor.
liberal internationalism—openness and rule- Rather than attributing to the old order the
based relations enshrined in institutions failures that occurred on its watch, nostalgists

blame mismanagement, or popular fatigue, or order includes conflicting rather than comple-
Nostalgia for “populism” and demagogues that whipped up mentary rules and principles. It contains “veto
a lost order is mass discontent. They give credit to the order players” like Russia or China with different
and U.S. primacy for benign developments, conceptions of order. The protection and en-
not just the discounting other possible contributors such forcement of such an order, and the enforcer’s
complaint as the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons or own preponderance, rests upon selection and
of self- the memory of World War II. That the order the exercise of a hegemon’s privilege.
styled liberal may have been complicit in its own undoing is Liberal world orders typically involve
hardly considered. several impulses, namely, international-
internationalists. Nostalgia for a lost order is not just the ism, integration, and imperialism.27 That
It has a wider complaint of self-styled liberal internationalists last, imperialism, is the most contentious.
provenance of any particular faction. It has a wider prov- Historically, world orders, with their trading
enance among those who believe today’s choice protocols and monetary regimes, and control
among those lies between continuing American primacy of sea lanes, commercial routes, and access
who believe and chaos. The strength of the consensus is to raw materials, are designed and imposed
today’s choice reflected in a Brookings Institution paper, by the strong. The opening of Asian markets,
lies between coauthored by former high-ranking officials a celebrated feature of liberal order, was also
in the administrations of George W. Bush and a pre-1945 byproduct of violent and imperial
continuing Barack Obama, urging the White House to coercion, imposed on China by Great Britain
American revert to a traditional posture, upholding an through the Opium Wars and on Japan by
primacy and order favoring openness, human rights, and American Commodore Matthew Perry with

peace, and claiming that this is the only viable the threat of naval bombardment in 1853–1854.
chaos. grand strategy for the United States.24 The Proponents of liberal order occasionally
hawkish intellectual Robert Kagan argues that admit that what is sometimes framed straight-
the order established after World War II was forwardly as a rule-bound order is in fact a sys-
a “liberal enlightenment project” that is now tem of imperial power (and vigilante privilege)
“challenged by forces from within and with- exercised by a hegemon. Robert Cooper, the
out,” not only because of popular fatigue with former diplomat and adviser to Prime Minis-
the burdens of international leadership but ter Tony Blair, argued that if the world had a
because Americans have forgotten the reasons civilized core that deserved lawful conduct,
their country adopted the role as the world’s there was also a barbarous periphery that war-
guarantor and stabilizer.25 Primacists such ranted “rougher methods of an earlier era.”28
as Robert Lieber, Thomas Wright, and Eliot “Among themselves,” he wrote, “the postmod-
Cohen issue similar warnings.26 ern states operate on the basis of laws and
The prominence of neoconservatives open co-operative security” but “in the jungle,
among this chorus is ironic. Critics once one must use the laws of the jungle.”29 One-
accused neoconservatives of violating the time advocate of American empire Michael
principles of liberal order with their bellicose Ignatieff admitted that being an imperial
unilateralism, by agitating for preventive war power “means enforcing such order as there is
in Iraq in March 2003 without an explicit UN in the world and doing so in the American in-
mandate, and by justifying torture. But this terest. It means laying down the rules America
reflects the paradoxical problem at the heart wants (on everything from markets to weap-
of liberal “world ordering.” On the one hand, ons of mass destruction) while exempting it-
under most popular visions of liberal order, self from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on
the hegemon creates a world based on defer- climate change and the International Crimi-
ence to institutions and rules. But actual inter- nal Court) that go against its interest.”30 At
national life includes hostile, noncooperative the height of the war on terror, jurists advis-
forces that refuse to defer. Thus the liberal ing the George W. Bush administration used

a similar logic to justify the suspension of the its axioms but neglects to ground its vision
rule of law and Geneva conventions.31 One can in a careful reading of history or the present. Too often, the
defend these inconsistencies as necessary, or A good example is an article by Edward Luce liberal order’s
not. That they continually recur suggests that in June 2017, mourning the internal defeat of
liberal “world ordering” is an inescapably com- Western liberalism and a new world “disorder.”
promised process. To demonstrate the imminence of disorder un- assert what
The United States is an imperial power, der Trump, Luce did not examine what Trump they ought to
even if it is distinct from former empires. It was actually doing beyond the decision to
prove. The
may lack the land hunger of empires past and withdraw from the Paris climate change agree-
look different from European or Asian impe- ment, which is not an unprecedented pullback. foreign policy
rialisms. It was averse to formal annexation, The many Trump administration moves that establishment
refused to claim the mantle of empire, and have affronted Moscow go unmentioned: for repeats its
made a succession of retreats, from Vietnam, example, the reinforcement of NATO through
Lebanon, and Iraq. But it still throws its weight increased funding of the European Reassurance
axioms but
around in imperial ways: through coercion, Initiative; and the bombing of the Assad re- neglects to
subversion, or patronage, it penetrates gime, Putin’s ally, in April 2017. Instead, Luce ground its
the sovereign autonomy of other states to cited the statements of two allies who were
vision in
constrain their choices. The political economy wondering where Trump’s behavior would lead,
underlying American interventions was at gossip about personality clashes in Trump’s a careful
times coercive, as in the structural-adjustment court, and corroborating statements from reading of
programs visited on developing countries from other figures in the foreign policy establish- history or the

Eastern Europe to Latin America. Leading ment who take the “liberal order” as an article
primacists who speak up for liberal world of faith, betraying a confirmation bias. Without
ordering have earlier acknowledged that the evidence, he then accused President Obama of
American project overseas must be necessarily “global retrenchment.”35 Typical of the genre,
imperial, albeit in this case of a distinctively in- Luce contrasted these recent failures with the
formal “American” kind, involving the forceful postwar internationalism and institution build-
suppression of revolt, hard-nosed enforcement ing of President Harry Truman.
of parameters around other states’ policies, and To be reprimanded for violating estab-
the exercise of unequal bargaining influence.32 lished norms of American “global leadership,”
But for the most part, today’s lamentations for against the exalted standards of Truman, is
a dying liberal order do not acknowledge the an occupational burden that comes with the
necessarily imperial component. This is the presidency. Before Trump, critics had accused
imperialism that does not know itself. presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and
Invocations of the liberal world order have Obama of retreating from a long-standing
become the ritualized language of the foreign commitment to a liberal world order. The
policy establishment. In the academy, there charge that Washington is abandoning a
is a well-established scholarly study of “world noble Trumanite diplomatic past is less an
orders.”33 But too often, especially among observation than a political predisposition,
think-tank specialists and the foreign policy substantively shallow yet part of the frame-
commentariat, the liberal order’s admirers as- work within which debate is conducted. Inter-
sert what they ought to prove. In that respect, national history after 1945 is more fraught.
President Trump’s former deputy assistant
for strategic communications at the National
Security Council, Michael Anton, was right MYTHOLOGIZING THE
to argue that the foreign policy establishment POSTWAR ORDER
has become a “priesthood,” fonder of reca- Accusations that U.S. presidents are
pitulation than argumentation.34 It repeats flouting a long-standing postwar liberal order

rely upon a mythologized account of history. corporations and supply chains, got
During the When presidents wage war unilaterally, topple underway only in the 1990s and 2000s.
postwar era, governments, coerce allies, threaten abandon- Mass immigration to the United States
ment, disregard the demands of international and Europe is also largely a post–Cold
the United institutions, practice economic protectionism, War phenomenon. The euro and the
States or cultivate illiberal allies and clients, they may Eurozone date back only to 1999.
persistently or may not be practicing prudent statecraft. Labor mobility within Europe is also a
flouted liberal Either way, their behavior is unexceptional. relatively recent policy. Controversial
They are not departing from tradition. “megaregional” trade pacts like NAFTA,
economic Let us revisit history first in the area the TPP, and TTIP [Trans-Atlantic Trade
principles of trade and political economy. President and Investment Partnership], which go
and imposed Trump disturbs defenders of the liberal order beyond old-fashioned tariff reductions
partly through his economic nationalism, his to rewrite much domestic legislation, go
restrictive promise to rebuild American manufacturing back only to the 1990s.36
measures industries by erecting protective tariff walls,
when it and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Niall Ferguson, too, observes that “truly

suited. Partnership (TPP). The extent to which U.S. free trade, truly free capital flows and large-
membership in the TPP represented a long- scale migration across borders did not begin
standing commitment to liberal order is until the 1990s.”37 Earlier decades saw capital
doubtful, given that the United States signed controls, fixed exchange rates, and periodic
the agreement in February 2016 and withdrew returns to tariff barriers. One major pillar of the
in January 2017, and given that the agreement’s postwar order was U.S. ally, democratic Japan.
intent was to exclude and contain China as Under U.S. military protection, that same
much as to integrate other Asian economies. country instituted, in the words of Claremont
Nonetheless, nostalgists assert that Washing- McKenna College’s Leon Hollerman, “the
ton’s commitment to free trade was a central most restrictive foreign trade and foreign-
pillar of liberal order. Identifying the market- exchange control system ever devised by a
ing precepts of the Washington consensus major free nation.”38 The long-running com-
with liberal order, they present Washington’s petition with the Soviet Union moved the
various “Open Door” policies as both a cause United States to deliberately encourage the
and symptom of the world’s liberalization. economic growth of its Asian allies, but under
Without question, the United States in the shield of a neomercantilist state. In other
the postwar period dismantled the economic words, in identifying the U.S.-led order with
architecture of the British Empire. It strove market and trade liberalization, nostalgists
to reshape the international economic envi- historicize what are in fact a quite recent set
ronment on its terms, to establish and exploit of post-1989 international arrangements. From
the dollar as the reserve currency, to promote this perspective, a liberal order did arrive, only
open markets, and to make a world safe for the it came later, in the age of post-1989 unipolarity.
penetration of American capital. How far did
that process, that long-standing commitment A Less-Than-Completely
to the “Open Door,” represent a liberal drive Liberal Trading Order
for free trade? There is a more basic defect in recollections
In reality, there was not one but several of the liberal order. During the postwar era,
postwar economic orders. As Michael Lind the United States persistently flouted liberal
cautions: economic principles and imposed restrictive
measures when it suited. Indeed, major powers
Globalization on a large scale, character- have not historically risen through free trade
ized by the emergence of transnational and passive governments. Ascending powers

have typically risen partly through the delib- President Clinton also championed free
erate, visible, and intervening hand of an ac- trade, in words and deeds. He drove through A world
tivist state.39 So too with America. All U.S. NAFTA, a free trade zone uniting North where even
presidents have had to manage the tension America’s three largest economies, and pushed
between the commitment to the “Open Door” for China’s admission to the WTO under “most
the most
and the demand for industrial protection at favored nation” status. Yet under Clinton, rice avowed
home. The subsidy, the tariff, the quota, and subsidies that continued during his admin- exponents
the bilateral voluntary-restriction agreement istration enabled U.S. growers to dump their
of free trade
have remained part of America’s repertoire. As product onto the markets of vulnerable rural
a recent study of global data by Gowling WLG countries such as Haiti, Ghana, and Indonesia continually
reveals, the United States is a “long-term and at depressed prices. Clinton has since apolo- resorted to
prolific proponent of protectionist policies,” gized to Haiti for the devastation that these ar- protectionism
and the world order it presides over is notably rangements inflicted on the country.44
protectionist.40 Since the 2008 financial crisis, President George W. Bush emulated Reagan
was not
the United States has imposed tariffs worth rhetorically, invoking the principles of free the ‘flat’
$39 billion, while the world’s top 60 economies trade and unfettered markets. Yet in 2002, he free-market
have adopted more than 7,000 protectionist increased steel tariffs by 30 percent, only to
trade measures worth more than $400 billion. back down 20 months later under threat of
The United States and the European Union punitive countertariffs by the European Union, world we are
both accounted for the highest number of a protectionist bloc in its relations with many being invited
protectionist measures, each exercising more countries beyond its borders. Confronted with to be nostalgic

than 1,000, with India a distant third at 400.41 the prospect of economic meltdown in the
America’s trade protectionism has the highest crisis of 2008, Bush intervened in the market
impact on other countries. Foreign farmers with strongly protectionist measures, includ-
would be baffled by the claim that the old order ing bailouts of major firms, claiming, “I have
embodied free trade, when the United States abandoned free-market principles to save the
persistently granted agricultural subsidies and free-market system.”45 The reintroduction of
other mechanisms limiting foreign govern- protectionist measures today, then, is not such
ments’ access to U.S. consumers.42 a sudden or radical departure as is sometimes
The reversion to protectionism has claimed, though Trump’s open enthusiasm for
precedents from before the global financial a “trade war” does mark a difference. There is
crisis. Some of the most strident advocates a defensible logic to the position that in order
of open markets and the dismantling of trade to practice free trade a country needs a viable
barriers have in practice done the opposite. economy to practice it with. Reagan and Bush’s
One was President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had contortions on the issue reflect the inherent
championed the cause of free trade as a founda- difficulty of liberal projects, whose architects
tion of progress and peace. Yet as president, he often feel impelled to compromise with illiberal
increased the proportion of imports subject to pressures. A world where even the most avowed
restrictions by 100 percent from 1980, as well exponents of free trade continually resorted to
as tightened quotas, introduced “voluntary protectionism, though arguably more free and
restraint agreements” and new duties, raised liberal than what had gone before or than what
tariffs, and strengthened the Export-Import might have prevailed otherwise, was still not
Bank in order to protect the recovery of U.S. the “flat” free-market capitalist world we are
industries, especially automotive, computer- being invited to be nostalgic for.
chip, and steel.43 Reagan justified these steps Nostalgists claim that one dividend of
on the grounds that he was forcing economic American hegemony has been the econom-
competitors to trade freely. Regardless, his ic liberalization of the globe, or large parts
policies were a long way from Adam Smith. of it. They could point, for example, to the

transformation of China into a wealthy capi- capital flight and deep recession; slumping in-
A review of talist economy that has lifted its population dustrial production; malnutrition; the rise of
the actual out of “a dollar a day” poverty. But this liber- criminality—a criminalized economy, in fact—
alizing process is more conflicted than potted intertwined with a corrupt oligarchy enjoying
experience histories suggest. Beijing achieved rapid indus- a concentration of wealth; and the decline of
of the past trial revolution and the movement of its work- health care and an increased rate of prema-
70 years force from the field into the factory through ture deaths.48 As Nobel laureate and former
suggests that authoritarian and illiberal measures: involun- World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz
tary-resettlement urbanization schemes, pop- observed, by eschewing the more gradualist
the process ulation control through forced abortion and path of Poland or China, the consequences of
of ‘world compulsory sterilization, severe working con- the program were profoundly illiberal.49 “Lib-
ordering’ ditions, repression of civil society, including eral order” visionaries are quick to give their
trade unions, labor, and human-rights activists, ideas credit for the prosperity of nations from
must at times and internet surveillance, among other mea- Western Europe to the Pacific Rim, finding
be coercive. sures. The People’s Republic has consistently causation in correlation. They deny such a di-
For all the ranked low on the Freedom Index.46 rect link between their ideas and the problems
of post-Soviet Russia.50 Yet it is hard to accept
attractions A more direct application of U.S.-backed
liberalism happened in Russia. After com- that measures like sudden privatization and
of American munist rule collapsed in 1991, at the urging the rise of monopolies in a corrupt country
hegemony and advice of the United States’ government were not related to asset stripping and capital
abroad, there and economists, Moscow embarked on a flight or that “eliminating the housing and util-
program of “shock therapy” to restructure ities subsidies that sustained tens of millions
has also been Russia around the principle of market ex- of impoverished families” did not play a major
resistance and part in the social ruin that followed.51 Western

change, adopting accelerated privatization of
imposition. state industries, deregulation, fiscal discipline, technocrats, diplomats, and politicians were
and the shedding of price controls. This ex- deeply implicated in the new order’s design.
periment was a major effort in the project to
enlarge the global liberal order at a rapid clip. The Hard Edge of the
It had the support of the leading institutions Liberal World Order
of global capitalism, the IMF, World Bank, Lamentations for the end of the liberal
and U.S. Treasury Department. Harvard aca- order are also heard in the realm of “hard”
demic Jeffrey Sachs, one of Russian liberal- security. The U.S. hegemon, nostalgists warn,
ization’s architects from 1991 to 1993, set out is losing (or has lost) the political will to
the program’s logic in The Economist, a journal underwrite the international system through
that champions the cause of the liberal world a commitment to permanent alliances and to
order. “To clean up the shambles left by com- intervene to bring order out of chaos. Part of
munist mismanagement, Eastern Europe must the current intellectual confusion flows from
take a swift, dramatic leap to private owner- the conflation of liberalism, which is suppos-
ship and a market system. West Europeans edly peaceable, consensual, and benign, with
must help it do so.”47 “Swift, dramatic leap,” the process of “world ordering.” It is here
a vast program grounded in classical liberal that defenders of the old order present their
economics, took on the tempo and zeal of the most misleadingly anodyne account of history.
revolutionary communism it aimed to replace. A review of the actual experience of the past
These rapid reforms replaced an oppressive 70 years suggests that the process of “world or-
and failed communist system. They did so at dering” must at times be coercive. For all the
Washington’s continual insistence that Russia attractions of American hegemony abroad,
reform itself on “our conditions.” But the there has also been resistance and imposition.
results on many measures were disastrous: To understand how the superpower met

that resistance and imposed itself, we must go however, was not strong enough to prevent
beyond the romanticized postwar moment of or dislodge China’s seizure of Tibet, the bids American
Trumanite internationalism in the late 1940s. of Turkey and Greece to grab Cyprus, Israel’s unipolarity
Consider both ends of the chronology as it is occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, India’s
usually presented, from 1945 until the recent occupation of Kashmir and annexation of
was not
past. Admirers trace the restructuring of in- Goa, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, peaceful or
ternational life in that first year to the vision- or indeed the Soviet Union’s occupation of liberalizing for
ary institution building that President Truman Eastern Europe.
the unipolar
oversaw amid World War II, such as the At the other end of the chronology, the pres-
United Nations Conference on International ent moment, consider that the U.S. hegemon power. The
Organization in San Francisco and its main has been waging a “war on terror” against first two
creation, the UN Charter. In this render- Islamist jihadi groups since the 9/11 attacks of decades
ing, the founders conceived the liberal order 2001. In pursuing the liberal cause of democ-
through a collaborative process of institution ratization as an antidote to terror, Washington
after 1989,
building. The narrative is strikingly nonviolent. entered the age of “enhanced interrogation” which made
In fact, to create the conditions for that and preventive war. Now, with new weapons up less than
visionary world making, the liberal order was (drones) at hand, Washington conducts a sus-
10 percent
conceived in blood. Only months later, the tained campaign of extrajudicial assassinations,
same U.S. president launched two atomic often without the consent of host countries of America’s
strikes on Imperial Japan, immolating and and without seeking formal permission or history,
irradiating two of its cities after blockade, fire- mandates. It has conducted renditions of sus- generated
bombing, and starvation had not broken its pected terrorists without trial. Reluctant to
will. He did so to put down an adversary that deal with live captives in indefinite detention,
25 percent
had been brutally pursuing a rival vision for an a more liberal president from 2009 increas- of the nation’s
Asian order of its own. In order to create an or- ingly avoided the dilemma by killing them. total time at

der, Washington swept aside a competitor by Meanwhile, whatever benefits it has wrought,
introducing a genocidal weapon into the world. American unipolarity was not peaceful or lib-
There are powerful arguments that this was the eralizing for the unipolar power. The first two
“least bad” choice available.52 Tellingly, though, decades of the unipolar Pax Americana after
in panegyrics for a dying liberalism, the words 1989, which made up less than 10 percent of
“Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” hardly appear. America’s history, generated 25 percent of the
If there were liberal principles that nation’s total time at war. That period is more
underpinned the UN as it was founded in bellicose by an order of magnitude than the
1945, they were at first self-determination preceding eras of bipolarity and multipolarity,
and sovereignty rather than democracy and in terms of frequency if not intensity.53
human rights. The world order was hardly Whether in Iraq and Libya, or now with U.S.
born “liberal” in the sense implied today: assistance to Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate
recall that two of the permanent five members bombardment of Yemen, this proclivity to
of the UN Security Council were totalitarian continuous war making has not created a
communist states, and two of the democracies “liberal” condition of peaceful order. At home,
were managing colonial empires that they there is a continuous state of alarm and
would not relinquish for decades. Then and vigilance, whereby “normality” is permanently
now, modern liberalism is antithetical to the suspended by an unending state of exception.
grave exertion of state power still practiced in This, combined with an encouraged state of
58 countries, the death penalty. To be sure, the paternalism where citizens are encouraged to
birth of the post-1945 world order did advance be passive consumers of events, has helped
some liberal ideas broadly. The general norm weaken the checks and balances of the repub-
against imperial aggression was one. This, lican Constitution.54 Detention without trial,

secret, warrantless surveillance, unauthorized institutions to constrain them when the stakes
The coups wars, torture, covert “black sites”—these are were high—does not occupy a prominent place
that were not the obvious features of a robust liberal in the mytho-history. Hardly anywhere in
constitutional order. If large parts of the world nostalgic reminiscences do there appear the
sponsored or have not accepted liberalism in major areas of numerous coups that were sponsored or sup-
supported by civic life, neither has the United States. ported by Washington. These interventions
Washington Instead of a full reckoning with diplomatic linked to the United States since 1945 may or
during the history, nostalgists frame history around the may not have been defensible. They certainly
positive creation of new architectures and violated one of the claimed core principles
Cold War schemes. Thus the Marshall Plan (1948–1961) of “liberal,” “rules-based” order, that of
violated figures centrally in America’s postwar historic self-determination.
one of the mission, based on, as Benn Steil puts it, “the The United States not only overthrew
moral primacy of democratic government governments (sometimes democratically
claimed core and free economic exchange.”55 This abso- elected ones)—or attempted to—in Albania,
principles lute, almost platonic account of the past has Ghana, Guatemala, Greece, Cuba, Chile,
of ‘liberal,’ little room for other, less-celebrated events Iran, El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Vietnam,
‘rules-based’ from the same era, such as the British- and Argentina, and Grenada. It also supported
U.S.-backed overthrow of Iranian prime violently illiberal forces, from Islamist
order, that minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, de- mujahideen in Afghanistan-Pakistan and
of self- posed despite his commitment to national President Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive state in
determina- independence and secular democracy. In this Egypt to the Indonesian Suharto regime and

picture, the violence and compromises of its death squads. A mainstay of U.S. hegemony
tion. hegemony, moral and strategic, almost vanish. in the Persian Gulf is its partnership with
Nostalgia for the liberal order also over- Saudi Arabia, an absolutist state that beheads
looks the reality that it was enforced through apostates and survives by making concessions
coercion. In the same era, a defining episode in to Wahhabi theocrats. It is currently wag-
the postwar assertion of American hegemony ing a brutal campaign against rebels in Yemen
was the Suez crisis of 1956. In that hinge event that, according to Amnesty International,
of the Anglo-American relationship, the U.S. includes attacks that are “indiscriminate,
Sixth Fleet stalked and harassed British ships disproportionate or directed against civilians
in the Mediterranean, fouling their radar and and civilian objects, including funeral gather-
sonar, menacing them with aircraft and lighting ings, schools, markets, residential areas and
them up at night with searchlights.56 With the civilian boats.”58 NATO allies on the European
British pound and oil supplies under pressure, continent for decades included authoritarian
President Dwight Eisenhower threatened Brit- Portugal and Greece. West Germany, the poster
ain with the simple formula of “no ceasefire: no child of the liberal order, did not have elec-
loans.” Patronage could be rapidly withdrawn, tions during its first four years, and its proud
regardless of recent history, blood ties, or shared social democracy retained officials who had
visions of Western-enforced order. The United been security elites in the Third Reich.59 For-
States enforced its interpretation of that order mer Nazi mandarins stuffed the highest levels
by targeting its ally’s vitals.57 of government, including the Foreign Office
Between those two moments in time, the and the Interior and Justice Ministries. Sev-
United States practiced geopolitics ruthlessly. eral former Nazi generals would later become
It partly did so in the course of its long security senior commanders in the Bundeswehr. And
competition with the Soviet Union. Strikingly, in the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA helped
the Cold War as it was actually conducted ensure the electoral defeat of communists by
and lived—where two superpowers did not funding anti-communist parties, forging docu-
allow rules, sovereignty, multilateralism, and ments to discredit the Communist Party, and

warning Italians that if they publicly supported argues, “imperial violence while simulta-
the party they would be barred from entering neously positing the necessity of imperial If liberalism
the United States. For the sake of liberalism action.”61 If liberalism at a basic level is an is an
in the long term, the United States exercised enlightenment project committed to liberty,
its privileges. If the deliberate subversion of a equality, and limitations on state power, and
democratic election abroad with “fake news,” if “world ordering” requires imperialist power project
bribes, and coercion represents the antithesis projection, it is hard to fuse them without committed
of liberal world order, as Trump’s critics now friction. Some may conclude from this his-
to liberty,
suggest, then Washington attacked that order torical record that, in the history of American
in the period of its creation. Coups, parti- hegemonic “world ordering,” liberalism was equality, and
san electoral interventions, the cooptation of missing in action. On each occasion, critics limitations on
illiberal actors, and the flouting of international have accused the United States of betraying its state power,
law made American hegemony unexceptional. own liberal traditions in the pursuit of power.
In dismantling the power of old European But it is hard to believe that a republic whose
and if ‘world
colonial empires, the United States erected leaders so often and so intensely enunciate lib- ordering’
a form of domination that had an imperial eral principles is really driven by secret, amoral requires
quality of its own. Consider one of its more cynicism. A more troubling possibility should
ambitious ventures in liberal ordering: the be considered. Liberalism is a powerful engine
invasion and remaking of Iraq. The occupiers of American statecraft, but that statecraft power
of Iraq regarded themselves as liberators. often violates liberal principles. As a dogma of projection, it
After invasion, though, the United States foreign policy, liberalism is jealous, intolerant, is hard to fuse
also projected power over Iraq’s interior and messianic. Applied unchecked, it leads to
them without

governance in imperial fashion and with a its own illiberal opposite.62 The practitioners
liberal program, with all the tensions this im- of rough geopolitics were not necessarily friction.
plies. Director of the Coalition Provisional hypocrites. They often believed they were
Authority Paul Bremer applied a program serving the ultimate cause of forging a liberal
of rapid liberalization not only through the peace under American oversight but that to
well-known de-Ba’athification and disbanding do so they had to accommodate illiberal allies
of the Iraqi Army, but through the order for and pitilessly destroy liberalism’s enemies. In
“the full privatization of public enterprises, this way, a superpower attempting to create a
full ownership rights by foreign firms of liberal order permits itself to employ unsenti-
Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign mental methods.
profits . . . the opening of Iraq’s banks to for- Thus in February 2017, David Petraeus
eign control, national treatment for foreign could recall sincerely that “to protect freedom
companies and . . . the elimination of nearly all here at home, we adopted a foreign policy that
trade barriers.”60 The United States continued sought to protect and, where possible, promote
to impose itself on Iraqi politics when it want- freedom abroad, along with human rights and
ed, demanding and receiving the resignation rule of law,” invoking American values such
of elected prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as “political pluralism” and “a free and open
in May 2007. Intended to implant market society.”63 Yet as commander in Iraq, Petraeus
democracy, these measures infringed the sought to reverse that country’s implosion and
country’s sovereign democratic will. In other salvage victory by compromising these stan-
words, the liberators were freeing the Iraqis to dards. To that fight, he brought pragmatic,
conform with the occupier’s preferences. byzantine divide-and-exploit methods, paying
It remains hard to have an empire for the defection of former Iraqi insurgents
without imperialism. Yet many visions of and working with Shia paramilitary units not
liberal order erase the historical process of known for their commitment to the Hague
imperialism, decentering, as Jeanne Morefield conventions. As director of the CIA, Petraeus

advocated and implemented a campaign of also modernizers, Syngman Rhee and Park
Washington “signature” drone strikes, whereby the assail- Chung Hee. These authoritarians nurtured the
underwrites a ant knowingly targets a group gathering—at a chaebol business groups, Hyundai, Daewoo,
funeral for an al Qaeda member, for instance— and Samsung. Free markets took root first as
liberal world because of their suspicious behavior and highly protected markets under unfree politi-
order not by association, rather than through verified iden- cal conditions. Such contradictions are absent
adhering to its tification of the presence of individual persons. from liberal-order panegyrics.
principles but Such strikes, therefore, can also threaten non- As it is recalled, the “liberal order” embodies
combatants and the innocent.64 To bolster the the permanent commitment of the United
by stepping struggling rebellion in Syria, Petraeus later States to alliances and institutions without
outside them, in 2015 advocated luring away and recruiting coercion. A broader historical perspective
practicing “opportunistic” members of the jihadist suggests, however, that Trump’s coercive treat-
Jabhat al-Nusra, then formally affiliated with ment of allies is less of a break with the past
punishment, al Qaeda.65 This is not the place to arbitrate than is often thought. In reality, the United
threats, and the wisdom and legitimacy of such measures. States has often coerced allies with threats
bribes that Dealing with conflicts in such places is a of abandonment and punishment.66 In 1954,
it would not choice of agonies, and no doubt Petraeus and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threat-
his peers regard themselves as guarding Amer- ened Europe with an “agonizing reappraisal” of
accept if icans while they sleep and trafficking with less- alliances. In 1973 and 1974, President Richard
directed at er evils to keep greater ones at bay. But note Nixon and his national security adviser

itself. that a senior advocate of liberal order can also Henry Kissinger suspended intelligence and
advocate measures that risk “crowd killing” nuclear cooperation with Britain to punish
and that involve enlistment of members of ji- noncooperation over a U.S.-initiated declara-
hadi terrorist organizations and collaboration tion of principles and the privacy of bilateral
with sectarian governments. Champions of and UK-European Economic Community
liberalism must somehow navigate their ideals discussions. The United States has used the
through the illiberal demands of warfare. threat of abandonment to persuade allies
Nostalgists for the liberal order also betray and clients to cancel their nuclear programs,
a shallow conception of their central idea, lib- including West Germany, Japan, and Taiwan,
eralism. They conflate liberalism with other while threatening adversaries with sanc-
desirable phenomena, like capitalism and tions or preventive war. The demand that
democracy. They neglect the possibility of il- European allies shoulder more of the burden
liberal democracy, and illiberal capitalism. of military expenditure has been a staple of
Majority democratic rule does not equate with, U.S. diplomacy, from President Eisenhower
or necessarily produce, a liberal protection of to former secretary of defense Robert Gates.
individual rights such as the presumption of Despite Britain spending blood and treasure
innocence or trial by jury, a liberal tolerance in Afghanistan and Iraq to support the war on
for opposition and dissent, or a constitutional terror and cement its standing in Washington,
order that separates powers and constrains gov- President Obama made a blunt threat that
ernment through an independent judiciary or departing from the European Union would
a free press. Capitalism can also be illiberal, as place the UK at the “back of the queue” when
the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates. seeking a bilateral free trade agreement.
One of America’s long-term allies, Singapore, Assured commitment to institutions and al-
evolved as a supervised market democracy lies through only positive solidarity is a false
that curtailed the right to dissent. South Ko- memory. This underlines the pattern whereby
rea, an ally and protectorate within America’s Washington underwrites a liberal world order
Asian system, evolved first as a dictatorship not by adhering to its principles but by step-
under authoritarian founding fathers who were ping outside them, practicing punishment,

threats, and bribes that it would not accept if THE BURDEN OF LIBERAL
directed at itself. NOSTALGIA America’s
In “liberal order” litanies, another The debate around “liberal order” is conse- more
persistent claim is that the order was “rules- quential. Memories of what went before will
based.” It was not. Rules exist, and flouting condition the ability of the United States and its
them can have costs. But at critical moments allies to navigate their way ahead. At issue here efforts to
for strong states such as the permanent five is neither the legitimacy of American power in reorder
members of the UN Security Council, rules the world nor many of its benefits. If there was
the world
proved to be slippery; they were invoked, to be a superpower emerging from the rubble of
stretched, arbitrarily altered, or ignored, as world war in midcentury, we should be grateful generated
interest permitted. The unreality of nostalgic it was the United States, given the totalitarian illiberal as
legalism was illustrated in the summer of 2016 alternatives on offer. Under America’s aegis, well as liberal

by two adversaries who both at different times there were islands of liberty where prosperous
have appealed to “rules” as the arbiter of inter- markets and democracies grew. U.S. interna-
national order. China defied the unanimous tionalism rebuilt Western Europe and East Asia
ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and successfully contained Soviet commu-
which found against its territorial claims, and nism. The central issue is whether this created
continued to expand into the South China a wider “liberal” system, and whether the actual
Sea and seize disputed waters, islands, and historic process of world ordering can even be
shoals. At the same time, the United States achieved by liberal means. The answer, in both
appealed to China to respect the “legally cases, is no. Even at its zenith, America did not
binding” verdict yet had not even ratified the have the power to reorder the world so funda-
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that mentally. Its more ambitious efforts to do so
it urged China to observe. From ignoring the generated illiberal as well as liberal results. The
International Court of Justice over the mining limits on power and knowledge are too strong
of Nicaraguan harbors in 1986 to bombing for any world ordering to be so straightfor-
Serbia in 1999 without a UN mandate, the ward and benign.
United States has infringed on the letter of How do we best explain these contradic-
international law when it has found that other tions? The most accurate answer is not that the
interests or values were compelling. It exer- United States cynically preached liberalism
cised a vigilante’s privilege. So too did other while practicing realpolitik. Liberalism is an au-
major powers. For less powerful and emerging thentic and powerful engine of U.S. diplomacy.
states, the writ of liberal order was often It is a pillar of the American diplomatic mind.
remote, as they “routed around” rules to pur- But it was never all-conquering. Long before
sue their interests. In this century, Africa, from Trump, large swaths of the globe (and of
the Great Lakes region to the Sudan, has seen American statecraft) were unsubjugated by it.
millions butchered, displaced, and unavenged. Today’s lamentations confuse two phenomena,
The era may have involved greater degrees of liberal ideals and institutions on one hand and
“rule following” than earlier eras. But it was not a hegemon’s world ordering on the other. To
“based” on the observation of rules, at least not underwrite the order it promoted, the super-
for the major powers. To rebrand this fraught power exercised prerogatives in ways that can-
history of power politics as an era of rule- not adequately be labelled “liberal,” implicitly
bound civility is perverse. There is nothing claiming a privilege to do so. Except in atypical
intrinsically wrong in calling for the conserva- circumstances, large liberal projects require
tion, or restoration, of an order on the basis murky bargains. At worst they contain the
that it represents something better. In this seeds of their own unraveling, especially in
case, though, the nostalgia rests on delusion— the countries that become laboratories for the
about what the world was and what it can be. most doctrinaire attempts.

Endless recall of the “liberal order” is not self-encirclement, whereby a state undermines
Endless only ahistorical. It is harmful. It damages the its own security by provoking resistance and
recall of the intellectual capacity to diagnose the failures counterpower; and imperial overextension,
of the recent past. It harms the effort to con- whereby a state expands to the point where the
‘liberal order’ struct a workable design for the future. It im- costs outstrip the benefits.69
damages the pedes Washington from undertaking a needed The United States is accumulating record
intellectual reassessment of its grand strategy that has put deficits and growing, unsustainable debts.
capacity to the United States where it now is: struggling According to the Congressional Budget Office,
under the weight of spiraling debt, confront- federal debt will reach 150 percent of GDP
diagnose the ing multiplying foreign conflicts and domes- by 2047.70 Because repayment obligations are
failures of the tic discord, and set on a collision course with the first, compulsory items in expenditure and
recent past rivals. Appeals to take up the burden, again, of because heavy fiscal burdens beyond a certain
spreading liberalism overseas presupposes the proportion of debt-to-GDP tend to choke
and harms worldview of idealistic technocrats, confident economic growth,71 a growing debt load di-
the effort to in their capacity to reprogram the world despite rectly impedes the country’s ability to sustain
construct growing evidence to the contrary. At a time its way of life alongside its extensive interna-
a workable when a sober reappraisal and some retrench- tional commitments. U.S. grand strategy also
ment is needed, both Trump and his critics gives Washington a proclivity to continuous
design for the

undermine that task by peddling ahistorical wars that it chooses to fund through deficits.
future. reductionism. There is a better, non-Trumpian According to one estimate, U.S. wars from 2001
critique to be made of a failing foreign policy to 2016 had a budgetary cost of approximately
consensus, and on behalf of an alternative order $4.79 trillion, taking into account indirect costs
based on a wiser combination of restraint, such as interest on borrowing and through-
deterrence, and power sharing. life care for veterans.72 Those wars have led
A review of the United States’ current grand to further geopolitical crises and demand for
strategic situation suggests that a clear-eyed further commitment. Conflict-induced anar-
stock taking is in order. Trump’s presidency chy in Iraq and Libya created footholds for the
doesn’t signify a general retrenchment of the Islamic State and, by upsetting the balance of
United States and a retreat from international power in the Persian Gulf, opened the way to
commitments. Under Trump, Washington’s a Saudi-Iran cold war that now implicates the
growing commitments still exceed its power. United States.
The United States feels its capacity to impose The Trump administration has not reversed
order strained, even with the significant invest- this imbalance but aggravated it. It has sig-
ments it already makes. As Richard Betts once nificantly increased the defense budget, while
suggested of the annual defense budget, half a significantly reducing taxes. It has embarked
trillion dollars is more than enough.67 It is in on a deficit-financed military buildup, a pattern
the size of the policy ambition relative to ca- that historically increases imbalances in the
pabilities, rather than merely the size of those economy and triggers a “boom-bust” cycle, and
capabilities, where the dangerous imbalance where overreaching wars (like Iraq) and finan-
lies. Despite his threats to overturn the old cial meltdowns (like the global financial crisis)
order, the power of the foreign policy estab- are linked.73 The final 2018 defense budget is
lishment and its habitual ideas have steered expected to be 13 percent higher than that of
Trump to quickly conform to the fundamentals 2017.74 The United States’ grand strategy of
of traditional U.S. grand strategy.68 He now ag- primacy saddles it with defense and national
gressively reasserts U.S. primacy. If he poses a security expenditures that amount to over
danger, it is not from abandonment but over- 68 percent of discretionary spending, taking
reach. On its current course, the United States into account the base budget and overseas con-
is prone to two forms of self-inflicted wounds: tingency operations and support for veterans

affairs, homeland security, and the nuclear is achievable, and what costs and sacrifices
weapons program.75 it can bear. The growing demand on already Washington
Meanwhile, the overall direction so far of scarce resources, from the mounting costs of needs to ask
President Trump’s foreign policy has been to defense to the current and future burdens of
multiply America’s security commitments entitlements, means that it will be difficult for
what works
and entanglements. The United States has im- the superpower to increase its extraction of and what
plicated itself more deeply in the geopolitics resources from its population base. For a reas- doesn’t, to
of the Persian Gulf. Trump has intensi- sessment to be realistic, the country must be
fied America’s confrontation with Iran by able to consider retrenchment, burden shift-
abandoning the multiparty settlement on ing, the accommodation of potential rivals, what is vital
Iran’s nuclear program. He has reinforced and the limitation of commitments. History from what is
U.S. patronage of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf suggests strategies that bring a state’s power desirable, to
monarchies, while hardening Washington’s and commitments into balance and that can
alignment with Israel by recognizing Jerusa- successfully prevent overstretch, insolvency,
assess what
lem as its capital. By November 2017, Trump or exhaustion.79 To do this, decisionmakers is achievable,
had increased the number of troops and civil- can draw on an American tradition of pruden- and what
ians working for the Department of Defense in tial, realist thinking about aligning resources
costs and
the Middle East by 33 percent.76 At the time of and goals. As Samuel P. Huntington summa-
sacrifices it

writing, the status of America’s commitment rized it, to address the gap between ambitions
in Syria is not clear, with the administration and capabilities, states can attempt can bear.
both promising to withdraw yet indicating it
would stay to defeat the remnants of the Islam- to redefine their interests and so reduce
ic State, and threatening to continue to punish their commitments to a level which
Syria for chemical weapons use. He increased they can sustain with their existing
the U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan- capabilities; to reduce the threats to
Pakistan theater. Lastly, the Trump admin- their interests through diplomacy;
istration’s National Security Strategy openly to enhance the contribution of allies
acknowledges competition against “revision- to the protection of their interests;
ist” powers Russia and China.77 And its Nu- to increase their own resources, usu-
clear Posture Review expands the conditions ally meaning larger military forces and
under which the United States would threaten military budgets; to substitute cheaper
nuclear use and plans an increased arsenal of forms of power for more expensive
low-yield nuclear bombs.78 Escalating rivalries ones, thus using the same resources to
are the likely result. Not only is this imbalance produce more power; to devise more
between power and commitments financially effective strategies for the use of their
difficult to service. It also makes the country capabilities, thereby securing also
harder to govern. Recurrent clashes over greater output in terms of power for the
federal budgets and the increasing tradeoffs same input in terms of resources.80
between consumption, investment, and
defense lead to periods of paralysis. We see If, however, Washington is held to a fic-
a dangerous interaction between domestic titious and demanding historical standard,
discord and foreign policy failure. this exercise will be impossible. If “liberal
These deteriorating circumstances make it order” visions prevail, it will be deemed im-
imperative for Washington to conduct a cold moral even to consider an alternative of
reassessment of its grand strategy. It needs to restraint. A pernicious byproduct of such
ask what works and what doesn’t, to rank its nostalgia is its reductionism, whereby tra-
interests into a hierarchy and distinguish what ditionalists assert a false choice between
is vital from what is desirable, to assess what primacy or “global leadership” on one hand

and inward-looking isolation on the other. Accordingly, 9. Aaron Friedberg, Twitter post, February 10, 2018, 3:47 p.m.
advocates of primacy brand today’s realists who call for re-
trenchment as Trumpian.81 By contrast, if Washington can 10. Jeremy Suri, “How Trump’s Executive Orders Could Set
be liberated from the burdensome historical fantasy that America Back 70 Years,” Atlantic, January 27, 2017.
hegemonic nostalgists impose upon it, then it can gain a
clearer-sighted appreciation of the choices now before it. 11. See, for example, “Full Text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC Draft
Speech Transcript,” Politico, July 21, 2016, https://www.politico.
NOTES: acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974.
1. As Anne Applebaum puts it, “Is This the End of the West as We
Know It?,” Washington Post, March 4, 2016. 12. See J. G. Ruggie, “International Regimes, Transactions, and
Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,”
2. Patrick M. Stewart, “Trump and World Order: The Return of International Organization 36, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 380.
Self-Help,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 2 (March/April 2017): 52–57.
13. Amitav Acharya, The End of American World Order (Malden,
3. James Kirchick, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the MA: Polity, 2014), pp. 106–19; Henry Kissinger, World Order:
Coming Dark Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017). Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (New
York: Penguin, 2014), pp. 361–75; and Michael J. Mazarr, “The
4. “Is the Liberal Order in Peril?,” Foreign Affairs Online, undated, Once and Future Order: What Comes after Hegemony?,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 1 (January/February 2017): 25–32.
14. Hal Brands and Colin Kahl, “Trump’s Grand Strategic Train
5. Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber, “The Wreck,” Foreign Policy Online, January 31, 2017.
Mythical Liberal Order,” National Interest 124 (March/April 2013):
56–67; see also Andrew Bacevich, “The Global Order Myth,” 15. Jake Sullivan, “The World after Trump: How the System Can
The American Conservative, June 15, 2017; Brahma Chellany, Endure,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018): 10.
“Mirage of a Rules-Based Order,” Japan Times, July 25, 2016; and
Michael Brendan Dougherty, “The Endless Hysteria about the 16. Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States
Liberal World Order,” National Review, March 27, 2018. and Western Europe, 1945–1952,” Journal of Peace Research 23, no. 3
(1986): 263–77.
6. Adam S. Posen, “The Post-American World Economy:
Globalization in the Trump Era,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 17. The journal Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the foreign
(March/April 2018): 28–38. policy establishment, asked 32 experts whether the “liberal order
is in peril,” and most agreed it is, with 26 respondents registering
7. See Mackubin Thomas Owens, “A Balanced Force Structure a “confidence level” of 7 out of 10.
to Achieve a Liberal World Order,” Orbis 50, no. 2 (Spring 2006):
307–25; Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America 18. G. John Ikenberry, “The Future of the Liberal World
Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century (New York: Order: Internationalism after America,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3
Public Affairs, 2005), pp. 34–35; Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand (May/June 2011): 56.
Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (New
York: Basic Books, 1997), pp. 30–57; Aaron Friedberg, “China’s 19. G. John Ikenberry, “The End of International Order?,” Inter-
Understanding of Global Order Shouldn’t Be Ours,” Foreign national Affairs 94, no. 1 (January 2018): 7–23.
Policy Online, January 24, 2018; and Stephen Brooks and William
Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st 20. A representative article in this regard is Martin Wolf, “Davos
Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 4. 2018: The Liberal International Order Is Sick,” Financial Times,
January 23, 2018.
8. Richard N. Haass, “Liberal World Order: R.I.P,” Project
Syndicate, March 21, 2018. 21. Robin Niblett, “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a

Dream,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 1 (January/February 2017): 24. Wright, “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate?,”
American Political Science Review 101, no. 2 (May 2007): 253–72; El-
22. Doug Stokes, “Trump, American Hegemony, and the Future iot A. Cohen, “Calling Mr. X,” New Republic, January 19, 1998, pp.
of the Liberal International Order,” International Affairs 94, no. 1 17–19; Richard Haass, “Imperial America,” paper presented at the
(January 2018): 133–50. Atlanta Conference, November 11, 2000; and Max Boot, The Sav-
age Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New
23. For an honorable exception, see Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. York: Basic Books, 2002).
Keohane, “The Liberal Order Is Rigged,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 3
(May/June 2017): 36–44. 33. Andrew Hurrell, On Global Order: Power, Values, and the
Constitution of International Society (New York: Oxford University
24. Building Situations of Strength: A National Security Strategy for the Press, 2007); and Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “The
United States, Brookings Institution, 2017, https://www.brookings. Nature and Sources of Liberal International Order,” Review of
edu/research/building-situations-of-strength/. International Studies 25, no. 2 (April 1999): 179–96.

25. Robert Kagan, “The Twilight of the Liberal World Order,” 34. Michael Anton, “America and the Liberal International
in Big Ideas for America, ed. Michael O’Hanlon (Washington: Order,” American Affairs 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 113–25.
Brookings Institution Press, 2017), pp. 267–75.
35. Edward Luce, “The New World Disorder,” Financial Times,
26. Eliot A. Cohen, “Trump’s Lucky Year: Why the Chaos Can’t June 24, 2017.
Last,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018): 2–9; Eliot A.
Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of 36. Michael Lind, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘the’ Liberal World
Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2016); Robert J. Lieber, Order,” National Interest, September 5, 2017.
comments in “Roundtable 10-2,” International Security Studies Fo-
rum, October 27, 2017; Robert J. Leiber, Retreat and Its Consequences: 37. Niall Ferguson, “The Myth of the Liberal International
American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge: Order,” Global Times, January 11, 2018.
Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Thomas Wright, “The For-
eign Crises Awaiting Trump,” Atlantic, January 20, 2017. 38. Leon Hollerman, “International Economic Controls in Occu-
pied Japan,” Journal of Asian Studies 38, no. 4 (1979): 719.
27. Constance Duncombe and Tim Dunne, “After Liberal World
Order,” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (January 2018): 25–42; and 39. As Pankaj Mishra argues in “The Rise of China and the Fall of
Tim Dunne and Trine Flockhart, eds., Liberal World Orders the ‘Free Trade’ Myth,” New York Times Magazine, February 7, 2018.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
40. Gowling WLG, “Global Protectionism: Are You Leaving Your-
28. Robert Cooper, “The New Liberal Imperialism,” Guardian, self Open?,” p. 6,
April 7, 2002. topics/global-protectionism/overview.

29. Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the 41. Marc Jones, “World Has Racked Up 7,000 Protectionist
Twenty-First Century (New York: Atlantic Books, 2004), pp. 61–62. Measures since Crisis: Study,” Reuters, November 14, 2017.

30. Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire: The Burden,” 42. See, for example, Daniel Griswold, Stephen Slivinski, and
New York Times, January 5, 2003. Christopher A. Preble, “Ripe for Reform: Six Good Reasons to
Reduce U.S. Farm Subsidies and Trade Barriers,” Cato Institute
31. See Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture,” New Yorker, February Trade Policy Analysis no. 30, September 14, 2005, https://www.
14, 2005, pp. 106–23.
32. Thomas Wright, a proponent of liberal world order, also ar-
gued that the United States, especially during the Cold War, ex- 43. Sheldon L. Richman, “Ronald Reagan: Protectionist,” Free
ercised informal imperial control: see Daniel Nexon and Thomas Market 6, no. 5 (1988).

44. See Maura R. O’Connor, “Subsidizing Starvation,” Foreign 57. The definitive book on the U.S. economic pressure on the
Policy Online, January 11, 2013. United Kingdom and France during this period is Diane B. Kunz,
The Economic Diplomacy of the Suez Crisis (Chapel Hill: University
45. “Bush Says Sacrificed Free-Market Principles to Save Econo- of North Carolina Press, 1991). On Eisenhower and the Suez
my,” CNN, December 17, 2008. Canal Crisis, see Evan Thomas, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s
Secret Battle to Save the World (New York: Little, Brown, 2012),
46. Mark P. Lagon and Bettany L. Fried, “China and Singapore: pp. 219–34.
The Models Not to Follow,” Freedom House, August 24, 2016; and
Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2017, pp. 3, 20–21. 58. “Yemen 2017/2018,” Amnesty International, https://www.
47. Jeffrey Sachs, “Eastern Europe’s Economies,” The Economist, report-yemen/.
January 13, 1990.
59. See “From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Role Ex-Nazis
48. See Lawrence R. Klein and Marshall Pomer, The New Russia: Played in Early West Germany,” Spiegel Online, March 6, 2012;
Transition Gone Awry (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, and Stefan Wagstyl, “Postwar West German Ministry ‘Bur-
2002); and David Stuckler, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee, dened’ by Ex-Nazis, Study Says,” Financial Times, October 10,
“Mass Privatisation and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: 2016.
A Cross-National Analysis,” Lancet 373, no. 9661 (January 2009):
399–407. 60. Cited in David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 6.
49. Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York:
Penguin, 2002), pp. 144–45. 61. Jeanne Morefield, Empires without Imperialism: Anglo-American
Decline and the Politics of Deflection (New York: Oxford University
50. “Mass Murder and the Market,” The Economist, January 22, Press, 2014), p. 242.
62. For this argument in greater depth, see Michael C. Desch,
51. See Stephen Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of “America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of
Post-Communist Russia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 15. Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security 32, no. 3
(Winter 2007/2008): 7–43.
52. For a strong articulation of this case, see Richard B. Frank,
Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: 63. David H. Petraeus, “America Must Stand Tall,” Politico,
Penguin, 1999), pp. 349–61. February 7, 2017.

53. See Nuno Monteiro, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is 64. On “signature strikes,” see Micah Zenko, Reforming U.S.
Not Peaceful,” International Security 36, no. 3 (Winter 2011/2012): Drone Strike Policies, Council on Foreign Relations Special
9–40; and Bruce Porter, “The Warfare State,” American Heritage Report no. 65, January 2013, pp. 12–14; on Petraeus’s advocacy
45, no. 4 (July/August 1994): 56–69. of signature strikes, see Greg Miller, “CIA Seeks New Authority
to Expand Yemen Drone Campaign,” Washington Post, April 18,
54. See Mary L. Dudziak, War-Time: An Idea, Its History, Its 2012.
Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.
95–133. 65. David Petraeus, interview by Jake Tapper, “Petraeus Explains
How Jihadis Could Be Peeled Away to Fight ISIS—and Assad,”
55. Benn Steil, “How to Win a Great Power Competition: CNN Politics, September 1, 2015.
Alliances, Aid, and Diplomacy in the Last Struggle for Global
Influence,” Foreign Affairs Online, February 9, 2018. 66. See Gene Gerzhoy, “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Re-
straint: How the United States Thwarted West Germany’s Nu-
56. Keith Kyle, Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East clear Ambitions,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015):
(London: I. B. Tauris, 1991, 2011 edition), pp. 411–12. 91–129.

67. Richard Betts, “A Disciplined Defense: How to Regain Strategic Buildups, Booms, and Busts (New York: Cambridge University
Solvency,” Foreign Affairs 86, no. 6 (November/December 2007): Press, 2015).
74. Jennifer Rizzo and Brad Lendon, “Pentagon Asks for Major
68. See my article, Patrick Porter, “Why American Grand Budget Increase amid Threats from Russia, China, and North
Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit and the Foreign Policy Korea,” CNN, February 13, 2018.
Establishment,” International Security 42, no. 4 (Spring 2018):
9–46. 75. According to the estimate of the Watson Institute’s “Costs
of War” Project:
69. Jack Snyder, The Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and spending-2018.
International Ambition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
1991), p. 60. 76. John Haltiwanger, “Trump’s Secret War? U.S. Military’s
Presence in Middle East Has Grown 33 Percent in Past Four
70. Congressional Budget Office, The 2017 Long-Term Months,” Newsweek, November 21, 2017.
Budget Outlook (March 2017), p. 39,
publication/52480. 77. White House, National Security Strategy of the United
States of America (Washington: White House, December
71. Manmohan S. Kumar and Jaejoon Woo, “Public Debt and 2017), pp. 2, 25.
Growth,” IMF Working Paper, WP/10/74, July 2010, http://www.; and Carmen M. 78. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review
Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” (Washington: Department of Defense, February 2018), p. XII.
American Economic Review 100, no. 2 (May 2010): 573–78, https:// 79. Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, “Graceful
pdf; see also Salim Furth, “High Debt Is a Real Drag,” Heritage Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment,”
Foundation Issue Brief no. 3859, February 22, 2013. International Security 35, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 7–44; T. V. Paul, ed.,
Accommodating Rising Powers: Past, Present, and Future (New York:
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$4.79 Trillion and Counting, Watson Institute, Brown Univer-
sity, September 2016, 80. Samuel P. Huntington, “Coping with the Lippmann Gap,”
cow/imce/papers/2016/Costs%20of%20War%20through%20 Foreign Affairs 66, no. 3 (May/June 1988): 453–77.
81. Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, “Saving Realism from the
73. See Thomas Oatley, A Political Economy of American Hegemony: So-Called Realists,” Commentary, August 14, 2017.

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