Mild, English-Style Rebuke to the Americans, Yet in the Same Tight Knot. By Fernando Gómez Herrero.
Mild, English-Style Rebuke to the Americans, Yet in the Same Tight Knot.
By Fernando Gómez Herrero, U of London, firstname.lastname@example.org
This brief writing engages with the recent article “The Liberal Order Begins at Home: How Democratic Revival can Reboot the International System” by Robin Niblett and Leslie Vinjamuri (Foreign Affairs, March 30, 2021; https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2021-03-30/liberal-order-begins-home). This pair has some visibility, respectively, the Director and Executive Officer of Chatham House and the Director of the U.S. and Americas Programme, British spelling, and let us quickly factor in the peculiar name of the Area Studies (“U.S. and Americas”). The latter author is also listed as Associate Professor of International Relations at SOAS University of London. There are bridges and undergrounds connecting think tanks and university settings in the London metropolis, the London School of Economics included, but the main area of interest is across the Atlantic. We have two authors, but it is fair to assume a larger collective stamped by the Royal Institute of International Relations. We can read that “[the essay] emerged from the Lloyd George Study Group on World Order.” Such group apparently met for a few hours (9.45am to 5pm) in two days in February 27-28 2021 under the auspices of Chatham House. Listed as “research,” the sessions have not been made public to the members or the general public as far as I can see. There is no list of participants or documents. Secrecy is part and parcel of diplomacy and also of diplomatic writing about matters of immense importance. I have spoken with one author (https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/2020/04/29/robin-niblett-the-more-coherent-the-world-is-the-less-influential-britain-will-be-intervi; https://www.lavanguardia.com/participacion/lectores-corresponsales/20200504/48936745091/entrevista-robin-niblett-director-chatham-house-the-royal-institute-of-international-affair-covid-19-brexit.html). I have also spoken with the chair of the institution, https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/2020/05/30/jim-o-neill-chatham-house-chair-international-cooperation-does-not-require-the-same-form, https://www.lavanguardia.com/participacion/lectores-corresponsales/20200608/481654202726/entrevista-lord-jim-oneill-presidente-chatham-house-londres.html). I have not succeeded in interviewing the second author of the article yet.
The time span is 75 years, George Kennan’s Long Telegram opening up to what we still call the Cold War. The typical divide of domestic, or home, and international, or abroad or even foreign, gets muddied from the very beginning and it will get supremely muddled by the end. The nationalist methodology of these social sciences near international relations or foreign affairs produced by these venerable think tanks remains predictable. The working assumption remains one of offering global knowledge for the immediate benefit of the host nationality of such think tank first and foremost, British in this case, and there will be different constituencies negotiating proximities and distances, xenophilias and xenophobias, always responding to the latest interests and pressures. This brief article, co-authored or better yet fronted by Niblett and Vinjamuri, is another example of the conventional Anglo-American terminology of “liberal order” emanating from the Anglo Zone. Take world for order, replace order for West, occasionally, add “liberal” to both as you wish, the civilizational category acting more and more as stalking horse, smokescreen, increasingly in opposition to others, avoid the prefix “neo-“ in the context of the ideological adjective, the “liberal,” which even conservative commentators use freely against externalised others, and think more of this use of language along the lines of a shibboleth or a group-identity marker of affiliation and repudiation than pure and simple elucidation. Look mostly outside and ahead and less so introspectively to the troubles of your own society and the internationalism that is being proposed inside the aforementioned timeframe of 75 years has mostly to do with the Anglo dominance that is now slipping away. We are no longer in the Arnold Toynbee’s deep-time civilizational scope of world affairs with his open criticism of the U.S. blocking global progress in many of his public lectures and the old-fashioned English historian in the vicinity of Chatham House in its first half a century of existence is conveniently neglected and relegated to the dusty library shelves. Perhaps the revival of civilisations will emerge strongly soon enough in the vicinity of the Chinese challenge to U.S. world leadership (leadership is the preferred official option, America First or Number One is crass mass popular, hegemony remains “high-theory,” preeminence is uncommon and Empire comes with condemnation): in essence we are talking about the same thing, the U.S.-controlled world system that started 75 years ago and is now in the interregnum. Chatham House willingly joins the preservation efforts of such status quo and does not refrain from making its universalism appealing to “the best hopes for mankind.” This is conservative stance in the Samuel-Huntingtonian sense of institutionalism apropos the system that has been in place and still is. Bluntly, Chatham House picks the American side of the universalism debate that took place in Armitage, Alaska (https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/geopolitics-of-the-united-states-and-china-in-the-interregnum-the-meeting-in-anchorage-alaska). Official Europe is largely here too.
Globalisation, capitalism, we are on this side of the defence team of the global system and its diverse national-cultural variations. Neither side will receive a detailed anthropology of specificities. We are with nomothetic social-science that privileges public policy and getting the eyes and the ear of the influential governments on this side of the fence. These are the good ones. The bad ones are the authoritarians (China, Russia, Turkey), but are they capitalists? Terminology is confusing. The Arab Spring, where is it going? Latin America permanently missing in action with Mexico firmly locked up in the tight North-American embrace. The European Union, increasingly apart from Brexit Britain, even the stronger countries, France and Germany barely emerging the British media, and the minor nations of Europe never amount to much except tourism and retirement homes, vegetables and cheap entertainment. Brexit Britain is now for all purposes sailing the waves solo with the slogan “global Britain.” Robin Niblett has a more extensive piece on its possible futures.
What is the problem now? Problem or crisis turns out not to be external, which is what institutes of foreign relations typically cover and do (problems are yonder and fast approaching, like the shark approaching the blonde in the blockbuster). Crisis of the system (democracy) has now, with no previous warning apparently, penetrated the “core of the liberal order.” Crisis is what this type of Social-Science near International Relations always already needs. But there is a significant difference now in the sense that it has come “home.” No visitation from alien space, crisis has gone deeper, metastasised. Extrication will be complicated. This core? Specifically, the Anglo Zone, the United States and the United Kingdom in this order of importance, express “divisions,” the article says in sublime euphemism as though “union” was the ultimate goal of the polity. Public trust is low (always according to the standard mechanism of the quantification out of the social-data). The identity chain: low public trust means the erosion of “the role of science” and “the facts in shaping public policy under attack.” This is serious matter and post-structuralism and continental philosophy have not penetrated these think-tank enclosures: power / knowledge with or without Foucault is being disregarded by the populace. But since when has that been a problem for elite groups? This is however a problem of loss of credibility and also of fragility in the persuasive knowledge production needed to keep things together. The working assumption of Chatham House is here one of “enlightened despotism,” although such historical label will never be admitted. That is to say, might makes right and since the former is weakening, so is the latter, but there is no forensics of both nouns (the rationale would be something like this, “we” are historically the good democrats, the ones who know, in the know, those who respect “facts” and respect knowledge and focus mostly on “public policy,” as opposed to more abstract or esoteric varieties of continental political philosophy, and what “we” are now publicly expressing is our concern at the convulsions of democracy (but also knowledge) most worryingly inside the aforementioned core). “Are we losing it?,” is the question that will not get asked thus. But yes a bit and this is what is at stake. So the thrust of “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” is to slow down this worrisome course of action, to stop it and ideally it to reverse and land, feet first in the renaissance and (counter-)reformation of things as we know them. The identity chain of democracy-science-facts-not-only-their-problem-but-ours-now has exploded up in smithereens also in the vicinity of the 101-year-old Royal Institute of International Affairs. Remember the famous line by Michael Caine in the Italian Job (1969) about blowing off only the bloody car doors? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_PX1cVuaVA).
The authors admit that it is not a pretty picture, but they will do so as calmly as possible. Better to go on the repair-operation quickly. Biden signifies the opportunity to “restore democratic norms in the United States and salvage the liberal order abroad.” Interesting the English deflection and deflation (Vinjamuri is American analyst, but the home-court is English): they (the Americans) are the ones who can fix this. Are there no English suggestions or contributions? Do the English resign themselves to playing the chorus line? Playing on the same side of the volleyball net, look for the enemy that will unify your efforts, the “rise of an authoritarian China, [who] threatens to shift the balance of global values away from democracies and toward authoritarian regimes.” Value talk is the operation proper to this secular form of ecumenism of vague boundaries, call them “liberal democracies,” minus the bad guys, and there are two particularly bad ones, guess who?, and seas of uncertain alliances.
Values (freedom, democracy) are invoked and quickly mobilised. If “the others” opposed them in “authoritarian” fashion, then you know ipso facto where the speaking subject is located, emotionally and intellectually, whether convincing arguments are forthcoming or not. The likely community of readers and interpreters is expected to be sympathetic to the authors (article comes out in Foreign Affairs, its editor is invited to attend the House webinars… birds of a feather… as though there was no need to go deep into intellectual matters since we all know where we stand…). Citations anchor the authors: G. John Ikenberry’s slogan of “a world safe for democracy,” which is Woodrow Wilson’s, is included early in the piece. Lighthouse to the readers who might need reassurances in these dark times. No other English native figure around. What do we make of this brutal evasion of knowledge production that looks at the single name of the influential American scholar in the social sciences now close to the Biden / Blinken administration? The challenge, Niblett and Vinjamuri say, is to deliver on this vision (see my conversation with Ikenberry for a larger context, https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/no-plan-b-for-the-neo-liberal-internationalism-of-the-anglo-american-tradition-now-admittedly). The business is about reviving. If these were humanists in the old style, we would say they want a “renaissance,” with or without its admission of the fair share of darker sides or big mistakes or ugly blemishes.The dichotomy of inside-outside holds sway in the Niblett / Vinjamuri essay: fix democracy at home to then revive the international order at your liking once the fixing has happened. Better, do not wait, go in tandem. “New domestic social contract… for inclusion” is invoked, the euphemistic language of reformism notwithstanding, what is wanted by the authors is the return, quick rather than slow, to the global influence of the Anglo Zone, call them “liberal democratic values” or not. Name the ideal to be pursued instead of the attachments to the immediate series of opposites of its ugly problematic reality: this is the basic rule in diplomatic writing, speak of “inclusion” instead of “exclusion,” “new social contract” instead of inequality, racism, state violence and state terrorism, do not go too deep in your own social fractures, simply invoke the ones in the competitors, etc. Easy money: who do you think will abuse human rights?
IR knowledge production of this kind typically speaks of “Western democracies.” But we will soon see how flexible the affiliation is. And the focus is always on “shaping the international order” (shaping, and not controlling or dominating, or violating or doing war to it). The latter “shaping” is linked to “economic success” and the “commitment to individual freedoms at home.” Close-readings of this typical ideological bundle may rephrase the use of power of such strategic plurality, the ones who shape of the world, or try to shape it, who turn out to be “successful” in relation to freedom and individualism always in the vicinity of the speaking-subject position (Ikenberry, the mirror stage of Niblett, Vinjamuri, etc.). The intelligent reader always gets the sense that the “good” in political life is always already in their vicinity: the further away you go, the less good the value is. Better yet, the values of others are non-values. Bluntly speaking, we non-authoritarian defenders of individual freedoms at home design the order of the rest of the world because of our might and economic success. If this might wobbles, then the “populists” and “authoritarians” take advantage and do damage to our best world-order shaping efforts (leadership is missing, hegemony and imperialism would be loaded terms, “America First” is Trumpian truculence, but this is Bidean / Ikenberry-inspired more calibrated discourse for essentially not so different modus operandi, mounting difficulties included). Soft naming, euphemistic, melismatic Americanism, add English-style “understatement,” and you get the fundamental desire of the essay that is not hiding: “the project of strengthening democracies is especially urgent in today’s geopolitical environment” (pay attention to the strategic plurality of the noun left uncircumscribed). Covid is talked about as an intensifier of tensions between China and the U.S. It is “Washington and its democratic partners” who have to “reassert their political and moral authority by example.” Morality or value talk. It is one-way street. There is no authority, political or otherwise, coming from other parts of the world. Should “these democracies” fail (or better, “us,” the essay seeks the complicity of authors and sympathetic readers on the same side of the volleyball court), shifters leave no room to doubt hypotheticals, the bad “guys” will spread illiberalism and instability (“I am my stability and instability is others’ misdoing,” the language is not graceful, but most IR language is not meant to be literary or florid). This liberalism is no “neo-liberalism,” the prefix is forbidden, and it is a kind of secularism. Its “political theology,” inspired, surely, by the non-dogmatic Church of England inspiration in which Manicheanism is still loose, if loud and clear (the bad guys are the Russians or the Chinese obviously as though we had not upgraded and improved the formula of the 007 Special Agent James Bond films yet). The language in the essay is not argumentative and evidentiary, much less philosophical and historical. It is simple-sentence-readable and propagandistic, overdetermined and entirely predictable, not advancing one iota what is not already known of the House in question, and articulated in simplistic terms in the favoured style liked by Foreign Affairs in its typical circles. It is chatechistic. It converts the already converted. It will not gain others with this type of presentation and it does not pretend it will do that. There is no outreach to an outside. There is no foreignness to be seduced by. There is solipsism, as though the authors were talking to themselves in the manner one athlete gives herself a pep talk before a particularly challenging exercise in the international-sports competition. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” re-asserts the already assumed belief system that, for all its crises, will not be interrogated. It vision is short-termed, short-termist, also short-changed, fully circular and ideological in the genuine sense of the term that wants to pass its position as natural or common sense, obvious, even tautological and apodictic, surely propagandistic tout court. There is here, to be sure, no intellectual adventure (there is no point B to get to and there is no new map to get us all out of trouble except doubling down in what we already know). The authors and their helpful unnamed team already know where to stand and what to defend and they are not going anywhere. There is no plan B, no alternative, TINA. This is a conservative and institutionalist defence mechanism that, seeing its power slip away, wants the Americans to set the house in order and after that, restore it so that others stay more or less where they are, one peg or two down if you please.
The damage comes from inside (“the enemy within,” was the phrase used by Margaret Thatcher against the miners and the trade unionists). This time, it is the official house that is crumbling down due to its poor management. We can also call it the breakdown of the social-welfare system or the “social-democratic” extension of social goods reaching the vast majority of the various national populations and this would be more conventional European than hard-hitting American sensibility to be sure. The subject position is generally empty in “The Liberal Order Begins at Home;” that is to say, readers cannot quite figure out who Niblett and Vinjamuri are speaking for (Chatham House in toto, metropolitan London, the current British government, Britain, Western democracies, the liberal international order?). We find therefore national labels and capitals to signify simplifications of government actions. And we have civilizational labels, mammoth-like (the West, the “liberal order,” the United States’ allies in Europe and Asia). Thus we read that these allies in Europe and Asia “managed the process of globalisation, calibrated free trade and domestic policies to prioritise social welfare and full employment.” Read: political happiness until about ten years or so.
The larger references in the article are to World War II and the founding of the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain in 1948, which still has totem-and-taboo status in the British psyche, or Medicare / Medicaid in 1965 in the U.S., and there is less false piety here on the other side of the pond. But the intended community of readers and interpreters is mainly intended to be, yes, across the pond: the invocation could be to the allies, but the Europeans are now many miles away from Calais after Brexit and Chatham House, it must be said to its credit, fought this lost battle (its defeated Tory Remainers are visible in its public events). These other allies are however background: the main conversation taking place here is between the deferential English and the current American administration, Biden and Blinken (it is always elite Americans in the military-industrial complex with their connections to a handful of universities and think tanks). “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” exemplifies what could almost be called a light-touch neo-victorian teaching of a virtuous lesson (imagine a dutiful headteacher in the public sector telling the big unruly pupil to attend to the homework before playing loudly in the big playground of the world with his mates). This article is a mild rebuke. And when you look at it twice it is generally complicit in the general situation, the Brits externalising to the Americans their own troubles that are only superficially acknowledged with no proper names to help the reader figure out the main players (“Liberal Order” also begins at home here by the Big Ben, no?). But who does this type of mea culpa publicly? The piece constitutes a soft admonition about the car whose doors have been blown off. But it is the entire car now and the brief history lesson furthered about the troubling present quickly jumps from the mid-1950s to the 1980s, no quarrelsome 1960s, no sex, drugs and rock and rolls, even less punk, and the Reagan and Thatcher decade is characterised as one of “unregulated finance flows.” The sotto voce of ““The Liberal Order Begins at Home” is the regulation. There are no “bad guys” per se, but instead the trio (or trinity) of trade, investment and technology appear as the movers of history. This is like asking, and who won the match?, and the answer is the name of three players, but there is no team and no league and you fail to name the sport in question (capitalism) with no specific managers, sponsors, traditions, trophies, etc. Foreign Affairs is not the place for deep-histories, even less for philosophical dilemmas. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” provides portable policy solutions for the next five to ten years, say.
Yet, Niblett and Vinjamuri provide a misleading mirror image of generic Europe and the U.S. apropos these migratory fears: populists have used and still use these fears against an anti-globalization agenda (it is fair to call the Chatham House agenda globalist, originally Cameronian until the Brexit vote and there is some recalibration going on as we speak). The Chatham-House analyst has to try different shapes on the dance floor of global history now (formerly Europeanist, pro-Western, allied if not subservient to the U.S., post Trump and post Brexit nothing is obvious anymore, the Europeans are further back in the room and the Americans have one too many problems at home, where to look?).The Brexit vote in June of 2016 is mentioned once and no one doubts it has been four years of upheaval in the UK and also in the EU. A feeling of exhaustion is still palpable, but there is no dwelling here. No names are added, in fact no one single English name since the glorious foundation of the NHS, except the ominous name of Donald Trump, whose election represents the “cement of the rejection of liberalism within the two founders of the liberal international order [U.S. and the U.K., the Anglo Zone].” The thickness of the cement: the big numbers of his voters after his four years in the last election. The system is limping like Long John Silver, and limping badly, and worse still, it seems, on the American side of the Atlantic (I am writing these sentences one exact day after George Floyd jury verdict). Almost like the lambs in the green fields of England in the lambing season, still in the first hundred days of the Biden presidency, Trump is crass symptom of such rejection breaking up the cement that has kept the “liberal world order” together. Call it 6th of January. Covid exacerbates and covid speeds things up, but one does not get the feeling that it poses a fundamental existential threat to our authors, certainly not intellectual, and more like a nuisance like wearing masks and keeping your distance from others and not shaking hands, but English culture is not known for being touchy-feely unless you join the fans in the pub and shout at the television set for your team and fuck all the others. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” is silent over the number of covid deaths in the U.S. and the U.K. worst in the world and Europe respectively. The authors do not fail to mention, to their credit, the impact on the lives and livelihoods of citizens in poorer neighbourhoods, the magnification of racial divides… the impact of young peoples. Yet, the IR heart does not tick strongly close to these immediate matters, and neither does “The Liberal Order Begins at Home.”
The “multilateral stability” praised since the 1945 is fraying. It maintained “an open economy” and “spread prosperity to hundreds of millions of people around the world.” Eulogy and elegy for the shaky present and the immediate future. The crisis is not, you guessed it, at the level of belief system, or values, but at the level of “events.” Stuff happens, mate, and bad stuff too, like the deity not being propitious to the believer who continues believing that things will get better since they have been pretty good so far. Why should not stay the same? The thinking remains essentially the same, with a recommitment if you wish to more state intervention domestically speaking. Conventional piece of IR knowledge firmly lodged in the Anglo Zone therefore tries to catch up with the said bad events and tries to steer them to the benefit of the alleged timespace occupied by the speaking subjects (Niblett and Vinjamuri and unnamed others in the immediate context of the British think tank Chatham House in times of Brexit Britain). They are not going to become sacrificial lambs but the reader gets the sneaky suspicion that this history is phantasmagoria, that we are looking at some ghost town, London wasteland, a patient etherised upon the table, as the modernist poet would say a long time ago. There is no concreteness of subject position and little specificity of meaningful timespaces, except that we are in the immediate here and now: public-policy proposals need a level of generality that could travel to others and appeal to others.
This is a very English piece but it is not about England, not about the U.K. either. Discreetly, the authors assume a background position. Deferentially, they play second fiddle to the Americans. They are willing to hold the reins of the horse for others to mount the animal (I am recreating a Perry Anderson image). There is evacuation of the immediate circumstance: precious little or nothing in terms of first-names in the English-dominant British setting. No one is providing inspiration for the vast geopolitics of past and present? There is deference, delegation, or better yet, evasion, to the “liberal” side among the Americans. The competitors are given no rendition: they are assumed to be “bad” in toto in some kind of typical fable of aggression. Typical cogito interruptus this one that will not develop ideological counter-reformations or even less alternatives and dissolutions to what has been known since the second half of last century, which is pronounced to be, well, “good.” Trump is the single name mentioned, Godzilla-like, who is delivering attacks and menacing destruction to organisations such as the WTO. Such attack is connected by Niblett and Vinjamuri to the rise of China, so this is “bad,” and the undermining of the “economic security of the American middle class” (the name of China acts in this piece like the sign of a brutal diminution and dismissal of a millenarian civilisation and a mammoth population dwarfing all others with the exception of India). Doors of perception appear to open and close and readers are invited to contemplate the main action taking place in the domain of the world that is shifting to the South China Sea. Yet, the flotation device is not there but in the declining American circumstance apropos such tokenised term of “security.” We have already left Britain behind. Was the “liberal order” meant to help everyone in equal measure inside the “land of the free and the home of the brave” as the anthem has it? But there is deracialization of economic improvement and “safety” flies high in “The Liberal Order Begins at Home.” It is clear that now (vividly since the 1980s?), the American public is not benefitting from such U.S.-dominated order that its government continues to advocate, perceptibly with less brio (Blinken’s Armitage performance is symptomatic).
“The Liberal Order Begins at Home” does not fail to deviate from the American promise: Biden is the name-promise of a restoration potential of what was, the Obama years?, with or without the lingering impact of covid. Interestingly, the pandemic does not cut fundamental lines in the world map in this article. Covid adds up but it is no crucial or defining factor.Its economic dimension is also missing. The essay is not forensic about the immediate Brexit impact either. It is still too traumatic for those who opposed it and still rings its bells like a very bad hangover or worse like a lingering post-traumatic stress disorder. The project European and the American fractures across the Atlantic are still visible, post-Trump, and Britain cannot claim the mantle of Europe on this side of the old continent and elsewhere only if the Europeans are not in the vicinity. So, Chatham House is on its own now and it shows. Without strong links to the strong nations of France and Germany, where to look? Transatlantic ties are not what they used to be and the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and the U.K. feels like those daily cheap menus one grabs on the go (Boris Johnson was close to Trump in general tone and manner and he survived him and the essay is wise not to name the current leader of the absolute majority in the British Parliament who is not close to the think tank in question). The article points out that the EU is negotiating its own treatises with China, Germany its own with Russia… Well, flexibility is also others’ virtue and we will see later wha the Chatham House proposal is (what else if not ad hoc relations?). The U.S. cannot be taken for granted, was it ever?, in its conditional multilateralism or “assertive unilateralism” (“aggressive” is typically used for “the others”). Hostility to democratic values is said to be on the rise which is as fair a statement in its generality as it is useless, like the proclamation of the justice and beauty of the deity among the faithful in the cute little Church of England in the countryside in the lambing season. As though democracy was an obvious notion today as ever. As though the mention of values convinced anyone that the deal is done and signed by all the parties involved. And who summons them? The orientation compass, the signs maligned, the repudiations (illiberal, authoritarian and the like). Europe is largely non-problematic except for Poland and Hungary. Britain is now officially not part of Europe but her problems are not laid out for everyone to see. The U.S. was in a state of constant upset with Trump. Now, with Biden, things are quieter, but not tranquil. “Liberal democracies” see “globalisation” turning against them and the latter term cannot shake off the negative connotations even in these circles (globalisation is something like high-finance, speculative capitalism mocking rules or regulations benefitting the already privileged). Bell tolling: “by 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the largest global economy. By 2050, the contributions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU to global GDP is expected to decline from over 40 percent in 2016 to around 21 percent.” No other names, except Ikenberry, telling us what is going, the events of history circle the operative belief in this article, call it economic determinism, the economic might of others, particularly the Chinese, means the diminution of the appeal of your alleged democratic values. What lies at bottom is the slipping away of power from the “North Atlantic,” euphemistically addressed as the “liberal order,” but only in the Anglo Zone, and only in numbered public occasions.
So, besides a diplomatic reprimand, this is a call to arms, playing catch-up with China’s rise to superpower status near the United Nations (4 out of 15 of its specialized agencies are run by Chinese nationals; the article says with alarm). There is more: “China is using its new access to define multilateralism according to its own illiberal norms and strategic priorities, demanding noninterference in the internal politics of states even if these contravene established commitments to human rights protections.” Underline “illiberal” and “established” and “human rights” and see if any nation would willingly occupy such subject potions.You will not see public contestation of the Anglo arrogation of the “human rights protections” in most of the Western media (they, the main actors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of recent memory!). Painting the competitor in bad colours: “Beijing is also weaponizing interdependence—threatening to deny access to its vast domestic market to countries that investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic or call out China’s human rights abuses at home.” Tell me who you are against so that I can see who you are with: since when is “interdependence” a weapon? Chatham House webinars on covid-19 investigations have not accused anyone of anything. And no, there is no account of vaccine cooperation and yes, of course, the Chinese abuse human rights at home. So, the “liberal West” cares about that. The hypocrisy is thick and you can cut it with fork and knife. National signs and capitals and among them the name of the current Chinese leader: shorthand for otherness antagonising the speaking subjects (Niblett and Vinjamuri, stand-ins for the Americans). The second banana of evil-doing is introduced: Russia. Charge: social-media manipulation. They sow disinformation. They sharpen cultural divides, no kidding, they destroy trust in democratic institutions, at home or abroad? Damning tentativeness: “In late 2020, it was likely the source of one of the largest cyberattacks ever launched against U.S. government agencies and corporations.” Isn’t it true that all governments out there engage in cyber-attacks? How come we never hear of the U.S. and the U.K.’s? Pots calling the kettles black? “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” faithfully echoes the American-state rhetoric of accusation of the two competitors in question.
IR domains are no confessional booths: no contrition and no mea culpa, no recollections in tranquility of big vistas of history and politics. Vulnerability and insecurity are however now “here.” So, the call is to “man up,” as the cute expression has it, and this is my language to spice this bureaucratese a bit: piripiri sauce to the phrase in question, “a new social contract.” Pay attention, dear reader, to the shift from democracy to state, and back, and forth in the sleight of hand. But no notion will be given a definition and nation finds no nationalism. No one doubts the methodology, nationalist. So is the English-national configuration of the Chatham House brand of Anglo internationalism. To join the “influential forces,” these democracies have to “nurture” productivity and personal liberty, two more abstract goods. General language commits to very little. The “new social purpose” must emphasise “inclusion” over “growth.” Covid opens the space for a “cross-party consensus” inside a predictable geography (Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the EU). State intervention is not mentioned by its proper name, but that is what is applauded. The example, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package in the U.S., the largest in its history, and the $1.9 trillion Rescue Plan moved forward without bipartisan support. All sounds fairly “social democratic” and state-interventionist or Americanise it with the “New Deal” a la FDR if you wish (public investment in infrastructure, modernising roads and broadband networks…). The strong affirmation is that these “improvements” will break down “inequalities” in “opportunities” between cities, rural areas and urban hubs, families and regions… The word “nation” is missing in action in this context, so is “protectionism.” Luckily, so is “free trade.” The quantum leap: this intra-national focus in the U.S. will benefit all “sectors of society—especially the young.” It feels like you are holding on to your hat and the umbrella for the hard rain that is coming down to pass you by: “globalization” take the adjective “unfettered,” and this is not wanted any long, and the call is for the “Western democracies” to regulate “investment by foreign companies that benefit unfairly.” Brutal generality: “In the United States and Europe, leaders are already moving to screen out hostile foreign takeovers of sensitive firms.” The significant portion is “hostile foreign.” It is always the “others” who do the “bad” thing, right? Sanctimonious and priggish ride piggyback in turns.
The proposed utopia is for democratic coordination so that “one state’s actions do not undercut others” (we jump from democracy to state in the general with the carrot of harmony and not the sticks of competition and conflict). Alignment of Western values with tax incentives for basic research and remodelled bankruptcy law and new patent protections would produce better results, “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” says. Everything fits in this ideal world, my pocket goes with my heart, my conscience with my hand… And the civilisational category of the West in dreary isolation. And who is assigned to do this regulating? “Liberal democracies” are encouraged to rethink its taxation in relation to property and investment gains and “revenues that global tech firms such as Facebook and Google earn in their countries.” Bad multinationals…
“The Liberal Order Begins at Home” calls for a rethink of the issue of immigration. The piece advocates the typical response of the balancing act between the “obvious economic benefits against the social and cultural insecurity that it can generate.” Advocacy of “the right mixture” in these hard times of economic recession and rising unemployment. The unbearable banality: “the battle over immigration has become one of the most divisive issues for modern democracies.” Predictably, the name of Trump surfaces for a second time as a negative example against whom everyone must look prettier, but do “we”? The paper calls for “reform” and for “humane but tough measures targeting illegal immigration” (my emphasis in italics). The advise is to “[highlight] the positive role immigrants play in the country’s economic growth, capacity for innovation, and national identity.” Goodness of legal immigration in the magnificent abstraction, read irony, and the prose wins little hearts and minds (investment by the U.S. and the European countries in places with high levels of emigration such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Central America, and the Sahel is recommended). No word about Britain’s migration policy under Priti Patel and the scandals under successive Tory governments (Grenfel Tower, Windrush Empire generation…).
“The Liberal Order Begins at Home” advocates efficiency (“transparent and accessible pathways for both unskilled and highly skilled immigrants; strong border controls and the capacity to expel undocumented migrants rapidly but humanely (my emphasis, again); and protection for the children of undocumented residents”). We are in the Mexico-U.S. border inside the North-American domain: Biden receives praise for ordering the review of the Trump’s immigration policies. “Countries should adopt a clear and realistic path (my emphasis, again) to citizenship so that these immigrants can also contribute as citizens.” Tremendous level of generality and more “coherence” of the issue of immigration “based on the liberal democratic values of openness, tolerance, and inclusivity.” Analysts coincide that anti-immigration was a crucial component of the victorious vote in the Brexit debate. But, here, populism is anti-immigrant and “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” calls upon “leaders” in what is a perfectly vacuous statement “to ground the idea of national identity not on their citizens’ race, ethnicity, or religion but on their shared commitment to liberal democratic values.” No French revolutionary values. This is un-recycled “Americanism” that has not read the criticism of such universalist ideology of the abstract subject of values occurring in the last two hundred years. This piece of institutionalist social science has kept its distance from post-structuralist anti-identitarian thought in the humanities. It will waste no time with continental philosophies, let alone with those of the once called Third World, now still developing nations. Its proposed utopia is therefore but a feeble one to be sure, still caught up, mind you, in the national-identity houses of some difference that the covid pandemic has not brought together in increasing collaborative solidarity. Perhaps something stronger than covid might?
There is something ominous and even harrowing about the feebleness of this type of thought proposal about the global polity in the vicinity of international relations. No suggestion of a genealogy of thinkers who we could turn to in these certain moments of distress or duress in any tradition out there. Its strength? In numbers! But not in the numbers of the thinking heads clashing about civilisations. Back to the grist in this windmill, the economic determinism of macro-units: total GDP output, the authors tell us, is declining, among the so-called Western democracies. But what is the relationship, direct or inversely proportional, official or casual, between the domestic and the foreign, the good or bad political and the good or bad economic. Here it seems that all tides elevate all ships, this is, I would say, the mindset of “The Liberal Order Begins at Home.” The foreign acts in the good cases as force multiplier and is “access” and it is already something of a sad joke to catch one good example of foreignness adopted in the Anglo Zone as the way to go.There is no one single instance of the foreign dimension striking back the core of empire, positively speaking in the terms officially subscribed by Niblett and Vinjamuri. Same thing applies to the last two hundred years narrated by Ikenberry! Domestic here does not emphasise the dream of racial harmony arching slowly towards justice in these times of BLM and George-Floyd trial, and sober Britain offers the latest Boris Johnson “Sewell Report” saying there is no “institutional racism in Britain.” Domestic means mostly, in case you got punch drunk in the prose, “economic competitiveness” and any good or bad capitalist will sign up under this dotted line.
This is the “philosophical” (read irony) argument of “The Liberal Order Begins at Home:”
“The transatlantic partnership between Europe and North America must be a central element of this renewed multilateralism. The United States and Europe still enjoy the most interwoven political and economic relations of any group of states. Along with Canada, they comprise nearly one billion people, slightly below 15 percent of the world’s population but over 50 percent of global GDP. Together, their military budgets are equivalent to 57 percent of the global total, and they contribute 85 percent of international development assistance. NATO remains the world’s most powerful military alliance, and the EU is the largest and most integrated single market.”
This elementary cognitive mapping does not necessitate many intellectual ideas or none: we are invited to contemplate continental dimensions and nation-states. Whose perspective is this? Bird’s eye view? Satellite vision? Is Britain part of this Europe? Presumably. Canada is brought up twice as part of the North American treaty, and Mexico is not named. This is certainly “strength in numbers” as the section calls it and we are dealing with proportional numbers in relation to cumulative GDP in the world. Economic determinism of might-is-right underpins “liberal values,” and this would be the core defended by Niblett and Vinjamuri, which is not original. The one-billion demographic is obviously set against China. The military alliance, NATO, acts as blinder of the real might of the U.S. But there must be outreach, given the two “bad” competitors (China and Russia):
“U.S. and European leaders should seize the momentum from Biden’s inauguration to renew the transatlantic partnership. In doing so, however, they also need to reach out to democracies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More inclusive cooperation will be essential to addressing pressing global challenges, such as public health crises, climate change, technological competition, cybersecurity concerns, debt forgiveness, and humanitarian relief.”
Should the existing structures of multilateralism in the North Atlantic fail to deliver…
“[these democracies] should rely on smaller groupings of like-minded countries with shared values and overlapping interests. By creating a core group of democracies, liberal states could boost their voices within large, multilateral bodies, such as the G-20 and the UN.”
The core or liberal Area must contemplate some alliances with useful satellite areas in flexible arrangements (the looseness in relation to the immense zones of Africa, Asia and Latin America). There is slippage between democracy and state throughout the piece. Eminently impersonal or following the dictum of general virtue, the “ad hoc” virtue is now of smaller and adjustable groupings of nation-states… adding on to the more consolidated associations such as the EU. NATO is mentioned, but the real option is the G3 (UK with Germany and France) or the G2 (the two nuclear powers in Europe, Britain and France). Flexibility is the name of this game and the echo is faithful, how not to?, to Biden’s “proposal of the so-called Democracy Summit to strengthen democracy worldwide.” Not to miss the final adverb which looks ominously very much like recycled neo-Wilsonianism of the type we already saw a decade ago also with Ikenberry.
“The Liberal Order Begins at Home” comes out of an old British institution based in the London metropolis. Britain is called upon to the fore: Readers are reminded that the British government has recommended creating a “D-10” of democratic states (Australia, India, and South Korea) that will be added to the existing G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.). This is another more concentrated group of interest to Britain and by extension directly to Chatham House. Interconnected digital technologies are invoked near national-security risks in connection to this initiative (there is a curious technological determinism at play here too as though technology was really the decisive factor in geopolitics, forget “liberal international values”).One proposal is for this smaller group is to coordinate its members’ domestic and foreign policies and reduce their dependence on Chinese firms, 5G telecommunications technologies are mentioned. China is the negative glue that makes this G-7-becoming-D-10 (D, is for democracy) stick together. It has not happened yet, but it may happen, and the EU would be relativized.
The reader’s imagination will come up with the proliferation of groupings of all sorts, former imperial / colonial powers trying to activate its commonwealths and existing alliances and others that may take place by and by according to imperious contingency or inevitable need or even fanciful fashion and caprice (can we imagine an Asian trend in sophisticated telecommunications, avant-garde gadgetry, urban and youth cultures, the general realm of the image, and the like). Watchwords are here, no surprise, security and interests. Interesting to notice how quickly the alleged “democratic values” under duress at home thin out their general claims in the pursuit of digital technologies and military coordination responding to a perceived threat. No bigger sound bell than the mention of threat, real or imagined, and no one is missing the content in the conventional channels of official communication fanning the “concerns” caused by the “illiberals.” But the document of course acknowledges that there will be challenges and that “ideological cohesion among liberal democracies” is a difficult prospect. Hungary and Poland are named for the “democratic backsliding” in the otherwise quiet European neighbourhood of immediate UK interest. Chatham House can surely speak of but not for the old continent, the Brexit divorce made official. The continentals will simply not let the Brits do that anymore, no matter how former-remainer the affiliation. So, the question remains until the end on behalf of whom is Chatham House really speaking about world affairs. Its speaking position is, despite the two front names, far from obvious. To whom, it is clear: the general, and largely American readership of Foreign Affairs.
Trump, like a trumpet, is played upon for a third time to call attention to grave matters. If there is no strong counter instrument (Macron would not do!, Merkel is too calm, Justin Trudeau?, certainly no Brit in a million years now!, we will see what happens soon with the Narendra Modri, the Indian prime minister), this bad one of Trump, already passed for good?, will do its role to remind ourselves that we should avoid this and all disruptors of “consensus-based bodies,” the G-7 is mentioned. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” proposes, you guessed it, a balancing act between the existing G-7 and the proposed D-10, “especially when it comes to including India.” A second chance for the Crown Jewell as the country was known during the British Empire? How is the big country talked about? Think like the elephants do, think bulk: immense population, 5th or 6th ranking among largest economies, democracy and strategic location (vis-a-vis China) make it “a logical partner.” Intellectual tradition? Genealogical riches in postcolonial criticism? Thick-brush painting: it also brings about domestic divisions and inequalities, poverty and problematic political system. No major problems for geopolitics, “as a result, Indian governments have long been reluctant to fully liberalise the economy.” The verb gives the Chatham House position aways and it is at odds with the previous paean for regulation (we may just as easily assume textual incoherence given the two authors and the unnamed team of contributors inside the institution at large and surely allies invited to participate and there is no immense need to patch things up when the way forward is ad hoc as we will see and we are dealing with the big world dimension after all, so there will be different answers to different problems and mutations necessary to all contingencies require attributes constant revision and intelligent adjustability and agility). Narendra Modi is mentioned in relation to “authoritarian tactics” to repress Muslims and elevate Hindu nationalism (“nationalism” has also acquired negative connotations it cannot shed hence it has to be pegged to “others”). So, Modi would not do to put in front of the Chinese leader. And Boris Johnson, always on the lookout for the competitive advantage, did not fail to populate his cabinet with the “most ethnically diverse cabinet ever,” the enthusiastic media said, and the Indian background has at least three strong representatives (Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, and Alok Sharma).
Membership in the ideal democratic set acting together to offset China must take into account “judicial independence, free press, individual rights in the digital realm (sic), and protections for minorities.” Global problems will force “liberal democracies” to work with states outside their democratic circle (note the shift between democracies and states bypassing nations, typically). Precedent mentioned, post 9/11, the collaboration with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia apropos the so-called “Proliferation Security Initiative” established in 2003. Anyone can see very quickly how the prose loses its impetus and vigour in the contemplation of trade-offs: “this tradition (sic, of collaboration with problematic nation-states?) has along history.” Which one? We go back to 1947, jumping over more uncomfortable situations, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, not to mention the U.S. and the U.K. meddling in Iran, the Middle East, etc. to the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the WTO. There is no need to sink in the acronym soup: security and trade, or defence and business if you wish, will allow, indeed demand, greater flexibility of the democratic principle of nation collaboration. The future-oriented contingency plans will combine, how not to, force and cunning or the slipperiness of the fox, the strength of the lion, the wily Florentine wrote well before the 20th century. With Brexit Britain going solo, the invocation is for the EU to come up with comparable arrangements a la Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), surely a disparate collection of countries (Mexico, Peru, USA, Canada, Australia, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam…) and Jim O’Neill, President of Chatham House, in conversation with me said that there is no need to do business with similar or likeminded partners. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” calls this flexible option “inclusive coordination.” In case of doubt, go for the balancing act, and you must be willing to “[tread] a careful line between sovereignty and effective cooperation.” Quintessential IR manoeuvre: it sets up a binary of euphemistic terms with no actors and no specific timespaces. A parallel expression: “have my cake and eat it too,” formula mentioned often in relation to Boris Johnson’s modus operandi. So, we are not very far from official British policy after all.
Interestingly, the bureaucratese nuances multilateralism. If the latter “grants too much authority to consensus or great-power consent,” if it, multilateralism, “creates barriers to action” hence there are poor outcomes (i.e. “lowest-common denominator”). So this “multi” can break down into multiplicity of arrangements, as though slicing the pepperoni multiple times unevenly… The converging nouns around which we should operate according to the article: climate and health. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, and the risks to health and survival of the species are planetary in range. By that I suppose we all mean that we are all affected by the said risks (risks making exceptionality an unacceptable or impossible excuse, we are in it as it were). So, there is no way out and the barely perceptible twist is that there is now no willingness for the delegation of national sovereignty to a supra-national body. Perhaps learning from the Brexit “example,” operative units, what if not nation-states?, do not want to subject themselves to another “higher or universal” jurisdiction.The current talk is thus one of “national alignment,” and the expression sounds Brexitian enough, in what must be, strongly so, a debilitation of the post-WWII internationalism, or the fraying of the internationalist ideal of greater fusion of the participating units and the reach of a higher, bigger and better interpenetration and compromise. In other words, we join the “club” to give up some of our individualities and reach, or try to reach, a higher plateau or long-lasting or more intimate, or a more expansive sense of a commonwealth, not simply for the participating units to stick to their individuality and get together according to the supreme dictum of contingency. Isn’t this a sign of the victory, so far, of the totem-and-taboo notion of “sovereignty”?
Individual nation-state sovereignty undergoes a totalizing and this is congruent with the ongoing Brexit experience. It is probably a mirage in this interdependent world but it is at least its perception and how it was sold to the British public, who bought it. We will see how it plays out in the following months and years. In the meantime, the official British position breaks loose from long-lasting and intimate relations with the EU, less so with NATO, but it is a nuclear power nation with a strong military capability. Yet, is this to be extrapolated to other nations of the middling sort? “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” appears to be saying that yes, it can. Sovereignty trumps any supra or inter- or intra-national organism of size. One example, the inability of the International Criminal Court to prosecute de iure or de facto British or American citizens in violations of war situations, but this high form of legal internationalism is not mentioned in the document. The concept of “so-called Nationally Determined Contributions” is invoked. Determinations and boundaries according to nations, but surely states: “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” praises these new mechanisms “for driving real change in national and corporate policies.” Nations and corporations on an equal footing. And we appear to have left behind the democratic values some time ago.
What could commonality possibly mean in this scenario of ad hoc national-state alignments? Perhaps the latter noun can be understood as “casual relations.” No long-lasting “marriage” relations, thus run the analogy, but a simultaneous multiplicity of “links” according to “enlightened self-interest,” as the expression has it, among the self-styled democracies, but associations with other political regimes are acceptable to increase its influence and impact. “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” calls, of course, for the revival of the liberal international order. Chatham House unequivocally pegs its name to the mast of Ikenberry’s terminology, giving him space and praise and easy handling in book promotion and the questions and answers. How to unify disparate participants? Oldest trick in politics: name the enemy, or the competitor: China. Diplomatic language: a common strategy is needed about China and there are “rising concerns.” How is the enormous dimension of millenarian China, a civilisational state some literature already calls it, to be handled? Via the singularisation in the foreign leader: Xi Jinping has consolidated power and “cracked down on political dissent.” Two highlights: “incarceration of up to a million Uyghur Muslims in reeducation camps” and “draconian security law in Hong Kong.”
There is ore more turning of the screws: The Chinese government has had a “secretive handling” of covid. There has been nothing of the sort in any of the Chatham House webinars I have attended on the matter of the pandemic. More misbehaviour: “Beijing has annexed and militarized reefs and islands in the South China Sea.” This topic has not been covered by the Chatham House programme. But there is more: Taiwan, “China has escalated its threats” and “engaged in a lethal (sic) military confrontation… along the line of control between China and India.” China is becoming “more belligerent” and is “unwilling to concede to other countries’ concerns” (sic, the subject position is left undefined, unassigned, in typical IR pressurised language). This Chatham-House behaviour is identical to Blinken’s at the beginning of the Anchorage meeting for the world to see. Human rights is operationalised (“Xi’s domestic policies and the crackdown on Hong Kong have galvanized U.S. concern about human rights abuses across the political spectrum”). Delegation, not only intellectual, to the “concern” felt in the U.S. What picture of the world is emerging in “The Liberal Order Begins at Home”? Where is Chatham House going if not to the American House of Being as narrated by Ikenberry and others? The Europeans do not have a joint position on China. No “thirteen ways of looking at this blackbird” in the poetic language of Wallace Stevens: no poetry and no others’ perspectivism. No one appears to like China, almost like a bully strategy to isolate the disliked kid in the playground. The UK goes solo. “Beijing” (standard IR metonymic trope, to name the capital to mean the government of the nation) is now “seen as a threat not only to the long-term competitiveness of certain high-value economic sectors but also to human rights.” Strategic use of the passive verb with the human-rights charge on top of the mouthful about the economic “competition.”
The British circumstance is “socially distanced.” “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” exercises what we might call a certain “externalising strategy” (the bully speaks for others who echo his feelings towards the isolated kid in the playground): “the European Parliament has threatened to reject the recently finalized EU-Chinese investment agreement” if China does not meet International Labor Organization standards on workers’ rights.” The British Chatham House points at others (U.S. and EU) to act on China. It will not point the finger at the door with the Number 10. In the meantime, other arrangements emerge. It turns out that other democracies in the Asia-Pacific are already collaborating economically with China. The article lists them (Australia, Japan, and South Korea). They have joined China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the so-called “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.” It is a “free-trade agreement that excludes the United States and India.” They did not wait for the election of Joe Biden. So, one example, a country like Australia can be part of the defensive “five eyes” alliance, combine it with this “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” and also be part of the West and the British orbit and the Commonwealth and perhaps feel strongly the recent decease of Prince Philip and send condolences to Palace, and why not, they might surely say in this world of “alignments.” The logic: “I come together with you in alliance in relation to one set of priorities and not others, and not in the name of the greater fusion or the scales and layers of interpenetration, that I am not interested in, that was the EU project, I want “agility,” and I may leave it, or I may even break it, I may also come back again… catch me if you can.”
Disingenuously “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” asks the rhetorical question, how could these democracies collaborate thus with China? A counter-strategy is proposed, the “contestation” of the Chinese export of its “surveillance state.” Now, this coming from one of the most, if not the most surveilled society in the world, the British, so it is a bit rich, to say the least. They are the only ones exporting the so-called surveillance state? Unconscious reflex kicks in: “individual protection” in the digital domain is to be prioritised (facial recognition, machine learning, credit rating, and health monitoring are mentioned). We jump from the state apparatus to the level of individuality protection. Yet, it is clear, “they” are the ones “threatening human rights around the world.” This would “entrench state power at the expense of ordinary people.” The Chinese are truly Orwellian. Control of “Chinese-inspired alternative technologies,” is recommended. 5G is mentioned. How quickly has the U.K. turned its back to the Cameron moment of seeking proximity with China! Remember the famous photo of the shared pint in the pub between Cameron and Xi Jinping?
Is “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” proposing that we should all learn Chinese? Will the recommendations go in the direction of learning about the millenarian civilisation for our own enlightened self-interest? Technological cooperation “should be part of a larger framework designed to prevent China’s influence from growing in sectors central to liberal democracies.’ The areas mentioned are national security, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and outer space. NATO is invoked as one forum that could mirror the so-called “Quad” (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States). Readers can marvel at the proliferation of acronyms and the Australian agility to join also this one in relation to its immediate South-Pacific neighbourhood. And why not? The language of developing world brings about the rest (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” advises to counter the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). What could the U.S. do it? An alternative “Girdle and Highway Enterprise” in these times of deficits and constraints, and with Biden’s major domestic infrastructure investment praised at the beginning? “Washington” could demand its partners involved in BRI to seek the transparency of World Bank and regionally Asian banks. Should others team up with the kid in the playground, to run the previous analogy, the bully’s sidekick whispers in his ear, that he should force these new friends to tell them what they are up to. With the UK out of the picture, this is the animus of “The Liberal Order Begins at Home.”
And it is the arrogation of universalism the cherry on top (“the world’s best hope,” is the end of the article). The actor and agent, fundamentally, the U.S. The “liberal international order,” Ikenberry’s brand, is its stalking horse. The claim, the revival of multilateralism, to “make it work again,” and there are unnerving echoes of the former President’s slogan here to be sure in the cadence and the basic meaning. The vision of the future: growing geopolitical competition and an “increasingly value-free international context.” Curious phraseology: so, if it is not the values assumed by you (Chatham House, acting as the faithful friend of “Washington” and by extension of the EU), then the “world” (the dimension larger than you) is “value free”? But you are part of the world, synecdoche, in it and of it, also playing with Thatcher’s dismissal of Europe (Britain being “in” Europe but not “of” Europe). Prepositional cuteness to signal a rejection and rejections signal unequivocally “who the speaking subjects claim to be.” Another thing is whether these claims hold. Close reading concludes emphatically that they do not at least in relation to this article.
The others’ values are not developed in what is customary underdevelopment of the competitors’ position. The value-talk: if not our values, let us take them at face value for now, then value-free world? False syllogism, if I do not breathe then the “world” does not breathe either? If I do not read this book or learn Chinese, then ipso facto the “world” does not do it either? Surely, casuistry (my alleged values or no values at all, my way or the highway, since my competitors do not have them). I am “liberal,” and you are not, and this severe binary of a mono-perspectivism is endemic to the entire piece. It is vintage IR of the most conventional kind that sticks to policy and not politics. The pandemic, it turns out, reveals the “gravity of the challenge.” Global health challenge? Provision of vaccines for the greater number of “individuals”? Worry not, there will be nothing about international cooperation (who passes its vaccines to whom, who buys from whom, EU and UK “spats” as the British press calls them publicised, the US sharing its vaccines with Canada and Mexico in its favourite North-American economic area; isn’t all of this a blatant case of vaccine nationalism and a preamble of the immediate world we are entering?). “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” does not linger in the virus. It surely cannot provide a road map towards the immediate future. No one can in these moments of brutal uncertainty. Yet, the signs coming from these alleged “Western democracies” are not good (the reader will not know what the French or the Germans are doing). The insisting message, “we” must unite, who is this “we”, we who have a strong GDP, and what binds us together is the opposition to “the secretive Chinese system that refuses to discuss the origins of the virus,” because we are open, and have free press and a civil society, etc. Nothing about the freedom of movement of individuals undercut by Brexit and now undermined by covid. This self-exculpatory litany rings hollow and customary and fails to excite passions at leat in this reader. But that does not mean that we will not see orchestral manoeuvres in the dark soon, Sinophobias and Russiophobias galore.The conditional remains, “if they can make progress at home, liberal democracies will remain the most credible source of global governance norms deemed legitimate by the broadest segment of the world’s population.”
Venerable 101-year-old Chatham House is in the ominous room depicted by the great filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the great surrealist film Exterminating Angel. The two authors, Niblett and Vinjamuri, and a team of associates, signed to produce an article that essentially Americanises the theoretical solution to the democratic crises and deficits in the world today undergoing a pandemic and the interregnum from US supremacy to Chinese superpower status. They are not calling for a revolution of forms and content of the non-obvious noun of democracy. In essence, do the democratic rebuilding in the theoretical social-democratic style at home first and quickly link up with international allies to oppose China’s rise. Britain produces no intellectual content on its own to the current dilemmas and this is a tremendous thing to say in the context of Brexit Britain labeled “global.” Who are these authors representing? Who is Chatham House speaking for? Cui Bono? Its members? Its corporate members? The Europeans will not feel represented here, no matter how you speak of the European Programme and the Latin Americans are not really there in the quirkily labeled “US and the Americas programme.” This is “America First.” And “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” tells us that it is in essence Biden’s America First to go after China. The rest follow.
So, o.k., do it yourself first, do the “liberalism” at home, get the house in order, since this is not working. There is no forensic detail, there never is in IR domains, about what the immediate problem is and how to fix it in detail (plutocratic democracy?, gerontocracy of entrenched bipartisanship in the U.S. system?, brutal race-and-ethnic disparities in the “white nation,” impoverishment and immiseration of majority populations?, fracture of the social-security model of a theoretical egalitarian society, the Giorgio-Agambian denunciation of the democratic betrayal of its own alleged liberal values at home and abroad blatantly since 9/11?, delinking from long-lasting ties and intimate alliances across the Atlantic and intra-European in the case of Brexit Britain?, the anti-immigrant stance, the xenophobia?, the creation of a new set of discriminations and new global colour lines?). The article is schematic about what redemocratization would mean, with or without the slogan of a “new social contract.” Domestic infrastructure reconstruction far away from the immense Chinese ambition of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? A more inward-looking government? But we are in the context of think tanks that prioritise the international domain. Everything about the articles published in Foreign Affairs is schematic. They attempt to catch the government eyes and become public policy. If they fail to do so, articles such as this one quickly die the death of fireflies.
“The Liberal Order Begins at Home” must instantly invoke the disarray of the international extension of the various interests scattered among the many nations. The general desire is for the subset of the democracies to coordinate the best they can and use such internationalism as “force multiplier.” Sovereignty is not ceded, but kept tight on a leash like a favourite pet in the walk in the park. So, there is alignment and ideal convergence and multiple memberships, if possible, in several “clubs,” as though you were to play tennis here, and football there and cricket over there… You bring your own set of interests and you will not cede your “human rights” to these organisations which you can join or quit, it seems, at will, contingencies, like tides, ebbing and flowing, making themselves more pressing or moving away. There will be many associations of nations and many clubs of states, military and economic, and you bet your hat that there is —and how many times have we already seen this?— no one single foreign import for these respectable Brits and Americans worth its salt that could provide fire and force of intellectual inspiration to move this earth and wind, rain and thunder for the challenges ahead.
The foreign world out there is res extensa, no res cogitans. The good thinking is all-American, also for the Brits, all-internal, home-grown and of that there is not an awful lot in “The Liberal Order Begins at Home,” except for the solitary figure of Ikenberry in a landscape with no other intellectual figure. Everything “good” is internal to the Anglo Zone and there no externalities that could protest or contest any other desirability (my interview with Ikenberry clarifies the philosophy of history of our noted American scholar of foreign relations). The “RoW” (rest of the world in the standard acronym of the conventional International Relations) does not think worthy thoughts about democracy and human rights. If the arrogation of the latter term is indefensible, the former term is never truly interrogated in public or in private, in lectures or in webinars of think tanks such as this one. In case of trouble, the strategy used is to raise doubts about China in the hope that such move will unite your “allies.” Better keep them in the undefined plural. Are they yours in perpetuity? “The Liberal Order Begins at Home” is fragile castle of cards that any critical reader insisting on a close reading could easily destroy. This is what has been attempted here. Its critical intelligence is, we can all see it, in Buñuel’s room. Will it finally come out? It is symptomatic of the official Anglo Zone trying to catch up with crises, changes and transformations occurring everywhere.
Warwick, 23 April 2021 / FGH, U of London, email@example.com