Liberalism in the Trenches

MADRID – After a dizzying few months, in which Donald Trump’s young presidency called into question the entire post-World War II global order, the geopolitical status quo appears to have reemerged. But this is no time for complacency: the liberal world order remains far from secure.

To be sure, recent developments are encouraging. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, appears to be losing influence, and may even be on his way out. The once-marginalized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now Trump’s closest cabinet member. The respected H.R. McMaster has replaced the questionable Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser. The adults, it seems, are back in charge.

This shift has been reflected in policy. The Trump administration may have recognized that it cannot assume an entirely inward-looking foreign policy. Its demonstrative (but not damaging) use of cruise missiles in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s contemptible chemical attack on his own people was a decision taken straight from former President Bill Clinton’s playbook.

Moreover, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China has given way to a more cooperative approach, driven largely by shared concerns over North Korea. Russia has been returned (at least publicly) to its traditional role as the West’s bête noire, while NATO, the security bedrock of Western liberalism, has made a remarkable and speedy recovery from obsolescence.

Of course, there is still plenty to be worried about, beginning with developments in North Korea. And there have been many bumps in the road – most recently, the Trump administration announced that the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was headed for the Korean Peninsula when it was actually going in the opposite direction. But the sky has not fallen.

Of course, that does not mean that it won’t. In the short term, the resumption of conventional foreign policy by the US – which remains indispensible to the world order – could reduce the chance of crisis, because it implies a more predictable geopolitical environment. But, in the longer term, the West needs a comprehensive foreign policy strategy.

So far, such a strategy is nowhere to be found. Instead, we are seeing the foreign-policy equivalent of muscle memory, with the players using familiar tactics, though with no clear objective in mind. This kind of autopilot can work in normal times; indeed, it dominated the Western leaders’ approach to global affairs for much of the last decade and a half. But these are not normal times.

The instruments that sustained the world order – multilateralism, free trade, long-held alliances, and even the occasional unilateral policing by the US – remain. What is gone is the broader vision that guided their use: the belief that liberty, democracy, and the rule of law underpin peace and prosperity. The result is drift.

Re-establishing a clear direction for the international order partly comes down to leadership – something that is woefully lacking today. There is no white knight on the horizon to save the day. In the US, the most we can hope for from Trump is that he does not rock the boat too violently. In Europe, navel-gazing remains leaders’ favorite pastime. And China is touting a “vision” that would merely perpetuate the soulless aspects of globalization that got the world into this mess in the first place.

But, in today’s world, a new strategic vision for international relations should not come from the top. Instead, it should emerge from a bottom-up process, underpinned by a broad popular embrace of a particular vision – ideally, that of the liberal international order.

As it stands, the case for the liberal international order is not compelling enough for a large – and growing – swath of the population. This is partly because that order has not lived up to its promise of shared prosperity – a failure that must be addressed.

But it is also because supporters of the liberal international order have not connected with people emotionally. Their liberalism has become a matter of cold economics, rather than values and common humanity. In Aristotelian terms, they have emphasized logic (logos), using the language of ethics (ethos), while trying to suppress passion (pathos).

This approach began to fail in the early 2000s, when the start of the “global war on terror” raised serious ethical and logical questions. The 2008 global financial crisis deepened doubts about the ethical and logical foundations of the liberal world order.

Now, passion is making a comeback. But it is the opponents of liberalism who are wielding it most effectively. As the far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen puts it, globalization and the liberal institutions that underpin it have become sauvage. Nationalism and traditionalism, meanwhile, have become sources of positive emotion, even if those emotions – nostalgia and a völkisch sense of belonging – are ever-shifting sands.

If liberalism is to survive as a guiding framework for international relations, its proponents must tap into passions of their own. Without disregarding logic and ethics – areas where the liberal world order continues to outshine the alternative – liberals must connect with people on an emotional level. Simply put, they must craft a case that is not just reasonable, but also compelling. And they must make that case not to the faithful, but to the skeptical. To some extent, that is what Emmanuel Macron has done in France – and it has brought him victory in the first round of the country’s presidential election.

For too long, the virtues of a globalized world have been expounded from the comfort of self-contained talking shops. This has to end. Those who believe in the liberal world order must jump into the trenches and fight for it. Only if the public is on board will leaders respond to pleas for bold and decisive strategic planning. Otherwise, our governments will just continue to go through the motions, until they forget how.