Debating the liberal order – 25 years late?


After World War I, and again at the start of the Cold War, Americans had held great debates over whether and how to engage with the world. But that debate didn’t happen after the Soviet collapse, according to foreign affairs expert Walter Russell Mead. Washington thus embarked on a series of consequential foreign-policy endeavors: enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include much of Central and Eastern Europe, establishing the World Trade Organization in the mid-’90s, promoting a global democracy agenda whenever possible, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

American voters have never shared the establishment’s enthusiasm for a foreign policy aimed at transforming the post-Cold War world. When given the choice at the ballot box, they consistently dismiss experienced foreign-policy hands who call for deep global engagement. Instead they install untried outsiders who want increased focus on issues at home. Thus Clinton over Bush in 1992, Bush over Gore in 2000, Obama over McCain in 2008, and Trump over Clinton in 2016.

Today the core problem in American foreign policy remains the disconnect between the establishment’s ambitious global agenda and the limited engagement that voters appear to support. As Washington’s challenges abroad become more urgent and more dangerous, the divide between elite and public opinion grows more serious by the day.

“The establishment is now beginning to discover what many voters intuitively believed back in the 1990s,” Mead contends. “Building a liberal world order is much more expensive and difficult than it appeared in a quarter-century ago, when America was king. Further, Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is neither as wise nor as competent as it believes itself to be.”

What explains the global resurgence of populism and the rise of political actors on the right? And what are the effects on longstanding alliances, international institutions, and accepted norms? Don’t miss this lively conversation (podcast here or video above) with Mead and Leon Botstein, president of Bard College.

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