Tag: liberal order

WPTPN: The Rise of Embedded Nationalism

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Moonhawk Kim, who was an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder from 2007 to 2016. His research focused on the politics of international trade institutions. This post first appeared on his blog To Be Analyzed.

Ruggie’s (1982) “embedded liberalism” provided the framework for understanding the nature of the domestic social contract underlying the post-World War II international economic arrangement for the last three-and-a-half decades. As a alternate to the “disembedded liberalism” (Polanyi 1944) model of the gold standard era, this model described and prescribed the importance of domestic political economic stability over maintenance of the liberal international economic order. In the decades since Ruggie’s article, the potential threat to the stability of embedded liberalism scholars anticipated was a return to disembbeded liberalism, the model of hyperglobalization at the cost of domestic political economic stability.

One way to interpret the triumph of Donald Trump is that the long-standing social bargain within the U.S. underlying Pax Americana—and thus the whole post-war international order—has unraveled. The bargain is moving toward hyper-priotization of domestic political economy over a liberal international economy. This interpretation is consistent with the broad observation about the characteristics of voters who voted for Trump (losers from globalization, broadly defined to include those that confront a high level of economic uncertainty if not low income) and Trump’s nationalistic economic policies, now taking the first step in the form of withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Two interrelated components are necessary for maintaining a stable domestic-international bargain. One, the international benefits of a liberal world economy—the gains from trade—has to be domestically distributed. Economists have always recognized that the gains are at the aggregate level. Those who gain from economic globalization (”winners“) need to compensate those who are hurt from it (”losers“) and mitigate the latters’ cost of adjusting to the new economic reality. Two, the domestic population needs to intuitively and/or rationally understand the nature of the domestic-international bargain and continually support to reinforce and sustain the international arrangement.

I have some ideas on why these two components unraveled over time:

  1. A Paradox of Stability: When an international order works—works really well, as it did in the post-war era—it becomes taken for granted. People and states simply come to think “this is how it is” and fail to realize the institutions and the effort underlying it. That’s actually the indication of the most institutionalized institutions, at least according to sociologists. However, when the taken-for-grantedness leads to desires for dismantling the institution in question, it becomes a problem. (This is akin to the vaccination issue—”Oh, I don’t have to vaccinate against pertussis, because pertussis is not a problem anymore!“

    A related aspect of this is that people/leaders also come to disregard the strategic interaction underlying the stability of the existing order. Other countries have been keeping their trade open because the U.S. has been. If the U.S. becomes more protectionist, other countries will not keep their trade open. The U.S. doesn’t just import; it also exports.

  2. Disjuncture from the Historical Moment: Much of the post-war international order was shaped by the experience states endured during the interwar years, in particular the Great Depression. As the length of time between the historical moment and the current period increases, the lessons fade—people/leaders who experienced it die and new ones never learn it. (What about the Great Recession? See #1 above.)
  3. Disembedded Liberalism: #1 and #2 led to an increasing emphasis on the liberal economic order over domestic political economic stability. The gap in real income growth in the U.S. over the last four decades is the best evidence of this. Certainly not all wealth resulted from a liberal international economy alone—technological progress played an important role—but the gains were not distributed in ways to ensure long-term domestic stability.
  4. Complexity of Globalization: I use the term “globalization” as a shorthand for lowering of costs of transportation and communication, thereby increasing the density of interaction among people. These changes are mainly facilitated by technological innovations that lower the costs. As a result of this, the global system becomes more complex in two ways.

    First, causal chains in large-scale outcomes become harder to trace. When causation has to be inferred rather than perceived, people reject both the process of inference (science) and the assertions of causality. This opens up the possibility of phenomena like “alternative facts” to arise.

    Second, differences across individuals, groups, and countries—which have always existed—become revealed and more likely to generate conflicts. Simultaneous with this increased exposure to diversity, the same technology that increases that exposure facilitates individuals and groups to communicate and organize with those that are likeminded (e.g., cable news channels). In short, globalization strengthens intra-group cohesion while increasing inter-group conflicts.

So what happens now? The next four years will be an interesting test of Keohane’s (1984) thesis that international institutions can in fact successfully persist and maintain order after hegemonic decline. Of course, with the current regime in the U.S., we are witnessing less of a decline and more of a willful rejection in alleged service of domestic political economic priorities. The absurdly misinformed protectionist policies by the administration will certainly end up causing a great deal of economic harm to the very groups it is claiming to be helping.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.

In Domestic and Foreign Affairs, ‘It’s the Institutions, Stupid’

american-839775_1920[tl;dr: This is a ~3.5k word essay on why the biggest threat posed by a Trump Presidency is to liberal-republican institutions at home and abroad. It suggests placing specific policy debates  on the back burner in favor of forming and maintaining a broad political coalition—one aimed at preserving those two aspects of American liberal order.  In brief, you can always change tax rates, but once democratic institutions and America’s web of international partnerships are gone, they will be monumentally difficult to put back together. Focusing on this kind of action is a matter of prudence; one hopes that it proves unnecessary. The essay does not discuss the fate of democracy in other countries, although that too remains a major concern. The piece collects and synthesizes arguments that I have made in other social media, most notably Twitter.]


A number of people are now sharing stories about Trump and his circle with the caption “This is not normal.” The pieces range widely in subject matter. They range from  apparent purges of insufficiently loyal members of Trump’s transition team to Kansas Secretary of State—and transition-team member—Kris Kobach’s discussion of “drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.”

They are right: none of this is normal.

My wager in this post is that Trump’s election may amount to an inflection point in the institutional fabric of our political system. And by this, I do not simply mean our domestic republican institutions. I also mean the broadly liberal-republican international order constructed after World War II.  Indeed, these two sets of institutions are profoundly bootstrapped to one another. This dual threat amounts to the greatest challenge to the American experiment since the early years of the Cold War.

The nature of this challenge requires us to set aside normal politics. It requires a broad coalition—of liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and moderates—to come together with the purpose of monitoring and protecting the health of those institutions. Such a coalition will fail if it becomes divided by policy differences. At this moment, many of the standard debates—about taxes, the level of economic regulation, and size of the defense budget, and so forth—are of secondary importance. Indeed, their elevation to existential concerns helped bring us to this point.


As I’ve argued on Twitter, most Americans—and academics—operate with the assumption that political institutions are sticky. Once constructed, they prove difficult to radically transform—in the absence of huge shocks such as revolutions, wars, and economic collapse. And, in many respects, that’s a reasonable assumption. Institutions structure political competition and cooperation, create vested interests, and otherwise generate their own mechanisms of perpetuation.

In the American system, we have multiple “veto points” spread across our Courts, Congress, and the Presidency. Our federal system devolves a fair amount of authority to the states, making top-down change harder than, say, in France. Indeed, France is on its Fifth Republic, but the United States has enjoyed the same fundamental law—its constitution—since 1789. On top of that, we have a complex, professional bureaucracy that requires immense knowledge and willpower to set in a radically different trajectory.

All of these factors may rightly provide reason to discount my alarmism (and I am being deliberately alarmist). But this is not a good year to bet on the stability of liberal-democratic institutions. The Philippines, with its wave of extra-judicial killings and the deaths of elected officials, is seeing rapid democratic backsliding. Turkey looks in danger of quickly moving through the hybrid-regime phase into outright autocracy.

Americans generally look at democratic backsliding as something that happens “to other people.” As the well-known phrase itself calls into question, we believe that “it can’t happen here.”

But underneath the trappings of continuity—a longstanding continuous currency, the US Constitution, and the like—the United States has indeed undergone radical change. In practical terms, American institutions look almost nothing like they did prior to the Civil War.


Consider this way of thinking about the first 190 years of American political development: We first tried a confederation. We quickly gave up on that and built a semi-centralized federation. That federation collapsed into civil war. The victors established a more centralized federation. We further struggled over the terms of central authority through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. The post-war period saw the combination of a more national-state apparatus combined with a regional race-based hybrid regime. The Federal Government, pushed by a great social movement, ended many of the institutional props of those regional apartheid systems.

Moreover, during the long nineteenth century, the United States was a continental empire. It established settler colonies and displaced indigenous inhabitants. After the Spanish-American War, the US explicitly established an overseas empire. Vestiges of those empires still remain, even if many of the territories of the first became part of the American federation.greateramericamap

We could discuss many more examples. In fact, the history of ethnic, religious, and racial inclusion and exclusion itself supplies a great deal more empirical material. But all of this evidence would all point in the same direction: beneath the superficial stability of the American system—beneath its apparent equilibrium—lies great political instability and ongoing transformation.


The same is true of the post-war liberal international order, including the World Bank, the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To these, and other, institutions we might add more recent ones, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), and the EU’s predecessor agreements and institutions.  Beyond these ‘named’ organizations lies a host of relationships, networks, partnerships, and alliances. In this diplomatic and military web, the US is at least primus inter pares. Continue reading

Not Just Another Word (for nothing left to lose)

Russian soldiers in Crimea

Note: The following is a guest post from Mlada Bukovansky, Professor of Government at Smith College.

The word freedom has to come into it, when speaking of the Ukraine crisis. It has become exceptionally difficult to use that term without wincing in the post-Bush era, but still I think it needs to be said. I was speaking to my mother about Ukraine and inevitably Czechoslovakia 1968 came up. I could hear in her voice the urgency and echoes of the passion that accompanied our fleeing Prague in August of that year. There would be no more freedom there. She said those who stayed behind were “doomed.” That included her own father, and many other family members besides. My initial reaction to her use of the term – doomed – was to dismiss it as hyperbolic, and that it may be, but I know what she means.

The power politics and legitimacy of the interests involved, the hypocritical orientation to international law by all sides, the lack of will by the U.S., the EU, and NATO to do anything painful in response to the annexation of the Crimea, as well as the assignation of blame for what triggered the violence in Ukraine has been well covered in many threads, from many angles. What is pressing me to write now, though, is the sense that not enough attention has gone to what will happen, and what has already happened, as in Georgia, to the people coming into Putin’s orbit. They are losing their freedom, and by that I mean something very specific. They are losing what can be called republican freedom (again, take your mind off Bush, please) – the freedom from arbitrary power. Because that is what Putin is exercising: arbitrary power with little restraint (I won’t say no restraint). He is of course not alone in this in our world, and there are arguably far worse villains operating with impunity, but he is operating so in Europe, and as tired and elitist a cliché as that may sound, this makes a difference. Because presumably European institutions, as so the American institutions which share their core ideals, are designed to restrain arbitrary power – that is arguably the central and most critical mechanism from which many of our other advantages and capacities emanate. Continue reading

Taking Liberalism on Intervention Seriously: a 12-Step Program

500px-Coalition_action_against_Libya.svgEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tim Dunne. He is Research Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland and the past editor of the European Journal of International Relations. tl;dr warning: ~2400 words.

In a recent lively and provocative post, Stephen Walt argues that liberal imperialists are like ‘neocons’ only more human rights-friendly. They are alike in the sense that both ‘are eager proponents for using American hard power’. And combined, these two sets of protagonists have been responsible for bad foreign policy decisions ‘to intervene in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today’s drumbeat to do the same in Syria’.

To help cleanse the US policy community of liberal imperialist tendencies, Walt offers ’10 warning signs that you are a Liberal Imperialist’. If you fail the test, as I did, then you have the option of (1) coming out as an interventionist (2) engaging in a form of realist immersion therapy by reading texts about why interventions fail. ‘And if that doesn’t work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program’.

The question I want to pose is whether failing the test commits you to being a liberal imperialist? Or does the particular identity construction creak and crack under scrutiny, such that it is possible to adopt a liberal position on intervention that does not ascribe to the folly and naiveté that is attributed to it?

To help address this question I’m going to offer an alternative 12-step program that critics of liberal thinking on intervention may want to enroll in. My principle reasoning is that Walt’s ‘warning signs’ lump together – and obfuscate – critical debates and distinctions within liberalism, which is why many liberals opposed the 2003 Iraq War just as they oppose a military escalation in Syria today. Some even plausibly argue that Libya came dangerously close to an illiberal intervention on the grounds that the mandate of protecting civilians morphed into the goal of regime change. Yet what no liberal countenances is ‘another Rwanda’ in which the great powers (individually and collectively) failed to take the decisive action that was being called for by the UN force commander on the ground in Kigali. Avoiding the twin problems of indifference and recklessness has been the driver of the intervention agenda that the UN has embarked upon since the turn of the new century. And this agenda has been drive forward by the search for an effective capacity to respond to mass atrocities that is anti-imperialist. I develop this point in stages 9-11 of the recovery plan. Continue reading

The Mythical Liberal Order: A Reply and Response

Naazneen Barma, one of the authors of the “Mythical Liberal Order,” responded to my post of last week with a reply to my critique. With her permission, I’m posting her message here and my response. Readers, we’d love for you to weigh in with your views.

Continue reading

Is the Weakness of the Liberal Order Overblown?

Last week, Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber offered “The Mythical Liberal Order,” a provocative update to their earlier article on the world without the West. They sought to puncture certain mythologies about the strength of the liberal order, that it never was a strong as defenders thought: its decline is much exaggerated since there was not much to begin with. Moreover, they seek to offer more convincing and significant evidence that non-Western countries are “routing around” the West through currency swaps and discussion of a new multilateral bank and other actions.

Both that article and their earlier one are part of a liberal order pessimism that captures the current zeitgeist but may look dated in a few years. I’d put in that category Charlie Kupchan’s book No One’s World, Ian Bremmer’s G-Zero world in Every Nation for Itself, and perhaps Kishore Mahbubani’s new book The Great Convergenceif his past writings are any indication [though the first chapter is surprisingly supportive of making the current global order better].

While there is a lot about this piece I like, especially the focus on problem-solving through “coalitions of the relevant,” I wonder if Barma, Ratner, and Weber are underestimating the resilience of the liberal order and created a straw man version of  it as well. Continue reading

Podcast No. 7 – Interview with Alex Cooley

The seventh episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Alex Cooley about his books on hierarchy, basing, incomplete contracting, and his new book — Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  • Front Matter
  • Who is Alex Cooley?
  • Logics of Hierarchy
  • Base Politics
  • Contracting States
  • Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia
  • End Matter

Note: the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.

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