For centuries it has been recognized that the coming of darkness brought a heightened threat of danger, and that the night provided cover to disorderly and immoral practices. The anxieties that darkness gave rise were first met by the formation of a night watch in the 13th century, and by the rules about who could use the streets after dark.
Today on this defining moment in time, with our civilization endangered and the need to find all-inclusive solutions for the global issues (climate and food system disruption; infectious diseases leading to pandemics; poverty and inequality; nature and biodiversity loss; and pollution and waste), the same logic for the international liberal order and the “global night watchman” holds favour with progressive liberals.
As a laissez-faire liberal, with realist underpinnings I appreciate the international liberal order, but only as part of the whole. An order based on ideas and values that include open and free trade, liberal democratic governance, universal human rights, collective security, international institutions, and the rule of law, as a force for good, and the best possible political order. Although it’s fair to say, the liberal order is not perfect and in need of more Clausewitz realism, prudence and restraint, instead of liberal- sanctionism and interventionism.
Having said this, its highly desirable to live in countries under the umbrella of liberal democracy that protects individual rights through laws, but I also recognize and accept there are other forms and interpretations of political thought.
However as a “realist” in the tradition of Thucydides and Machiavelli, with liberal norms my opinions are contrary to the beliefs and optimism found in the more progressive liberal circles, who see the world as a potential battlefield, a world in which all issues what arise make them an principal issue of confrontation, and are prepared to make regime change the principal goal of liberal policy. A world where a liberal global world order, a world state with the night watchman is envisioned.
With this, as the thinking goes in Francis Fukuyama “The End Of History,” published in 1992 after the end of the cold war, liberal democracy would steadily sweep across the globe, spreading peace and triumphs over all political forms.
An universal homogeneous state, in which all prior contradictions are resolved, an international system which is hierarchic, not anarchic in which balance of power policies of our Hobbesian world no longer exist. But time has not been kind to the suppositions of “The End of History,” as authoritarianism has shown itself to be a viable alternative.
The circle of Plato’s wheel of political history still seems to apply today, from dictatorship, to monarchy, to aristocracy, to democracy to dictatorship to monarchy…
Although liberal democracy has many virtues when dealing inside countries, the functionality of the free liberal order is debatable when dealing in the global multipolar arena, just as human rights are not always equal to national rights or prioritised by nation states in the same manner.
Advancing Liberal democracy is a worthy endeavour, in the name of making the world safer, more peaceful and more prosperous, but one which has shown itself to be exceedingly difficult and is destined more often to fail than to succeed.
The costs of “liberal hegemony”, in which consultation has given way to confrontation, begin with the illegitimate interference in internal affairs of other states. This interference is often followed by sanctions and regime change strategies.
The intrusion by the liberal hegemon, the 800 pound gorilla in the room, who in the name of promoting democracy is leading to erosion of sovereignty, the cornerstone of international law and results in endless wars and the diminishment of human rights, which is promoting instability around the world and results in an addiction to war.
This thinking about interference in other countries affairs is not new, but was specifically expressed in an important speech in Chicago by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 1999
“On the eve of a new Millennium we are now in a new world …. The most pressing foreign policy we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we want to jettison too readily.
One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects.”
Five years later, in a speech by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March 2004, this theme resurfaces in defence and unjustifiable justification of the Iraq war, which left the Westphalia system behind
“So for me, before September 11th, I was already reaching for a different philosophy in international relationships from a traditional one that has held sway since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648; namely that a country’s internal affairs are free for it and you don’t interfere unless it threatens you, or breaches a treaty, or triggers an obligation of alliance.”
In my view this thinking as eloquently expressed by Tony Blair has resulted in the assault of sovereignty and a self-serving approach to international law is most questionable, but not unlike John Locke emphasizing liberal societies cannot tolerate groups that do not play by liberal rules.
Still today liberalism is surprisingly intolerant towards groups and states which do not share these believes are illegitimate, thinking the only legitimate political order is the liberal one. Given the believes of liberalism one would think by the same logic liberal powers should stay out of the affairs of neutral and illiberal states.
There is good reason to doubt this supposition of a world order based on liberal democratic values is realistic as the realization stumbles on the geopolitical balance of power realities of our multipolar world.
Maintaining a balance of power between major powers is essential, a system which fosters both stability and moderation, and which keeps everyone’s dissatisfaction at a low enough level to not result in attempts to overthrow the basic tenets of the system.
Freedom House 2022 report confirms democracy has seen consecutive years of worldwide retreat and has never accounted for half of the countries of the world.
A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.
Just as this ideological contest on hegemony between the liberal order versus autocracy given the problems humanity is faced with is not very useful, together with this inclination to loath and disregard sovereignty and interests and of non-liberal nations.
This ideological contest between the liberal order and autocracy is like a conversation between the deaf and the blind, just like the different sides are deaf and blind to the dangers and risks of artificial intelligent, climate change and nuclear weapons leading to Armageddon.
My progressive liberal friends should be well advised to remember what the old Greeks already realized, that despite all the promises of civilization, the thin veneer covering civilization can under the slightest amounts of pressure easily be damaged and destroyed, and the river of civilization does not flow with the same speed everywhere and in the universal flux of everything anything in time can turn into the opposite.
Humanity has never had and likely will never have a universal culture, based on shared ideas about identity and logic of ideology given its diversity, that can serve as the foundations of a world state. Generating a universal culture demand broad consensus on what constitutes a good life, which comes in many varieties, or on inalienable rights.
Although some countries can reach consensus on first principals because of their coherence and common history, but on a global scale people in different societies will never reach universal agreement given the deep rooted cultural differences and social norms which exist.
Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism, while other cultures are more oriented toward interdependence, or collectivism. The unavoidable variety of opinions, norms and interests, will have to be recognized and if possible accommodated but will not lead to humanity living under the umbrella of a universal social order.
In the world of national states, nations aim to maximize their control over their own affairs whereby international sovereignty means that the state wants the ability to make its own decisions on both domestic and foreign policy, free from outside interference. Sovereignty also means each state is free to determine for itself which rights matter and how much they matter.
The international institutions we have established put a high premium on the rule of law and essentially define the rights and obligations that should guide state behaviour. These institutions are designed to guide and are useful tools of statecraft when states have mutual interests and facilitate cooperation between them, but do not enforce the agreed rules. They are also designed to peacefully solve disputes between countries.
But great states only follow the rules and respect the rights when this is in their strategic interests or when this has no consequences. Universal rights in the world of nations is a dubious concept, as there is no superior and centralized authority above states to protect or enforce these rights on the world states.
In our Hobbesian world in which might makes right and realism is timeless, there is no night watchman and life is solitary, brutal and short. In this world states compete for power, tend to fear each other and are never sure if they can depend on their allies in time of conflict.
In this anarchic world the day to day reality is states in the fight for self-preservation compete for power based on “balance of power” policies, when conflicts are an ever present possibility and nations when matters of vital security are at play they is will do whatever they think is in their military and economic self-interest when the overall benefits outweigh the costs, regardless of whether this violates prevailing or written rules of international institutions.
States will do everything they deem necessary for their own survival, confirming Thucydides’ maxim in an anarchic system
This diatribe expresses my personal views and observations.