Whereas neoliberalism is rarely seen by its critics as part of the liberal family, there is another area that has fashioned its own take on liberalism. This is not a case of misappropriation but of trimming and recasting. Over the past half-century or so, the language of international relations has repeatedly referred to a ‘liberal world order’. The proponents of that view are prone to a macro view of liberalism in which broad contours are adumbrated but the fine distinguishing details that identify an ideology as liberal are elided. As Georg Sørensen has observed, ‘Liberal ideas about the international sphere are less developed than liberal ideas about domestic politics’. Whereas liberal ideas and ideologies in domestic settings are both complex and frequently challenged and criticized by other ideologies, competing as they do against conservative, nationalist, socialist, green, fundamentalist, or populist tendencies, there is paradoxically a large degree of consensus among international relations analysts that the world order is a liberal one. Yet it is difficult to talk of a recognizably liberal world order emanating from the so-called ‘West’ and underpinned in particular by the nigh-hegemonic status of the USA. For that international order is supported and often aggressively promoted on a micro level by conservative, nationalist, and quasi-populist governments as well as by social-democratic welfare states, none of which falls happily into the liberal camp as seen by the discerning analyst of ideologies.
What, then, is a ‘liberal world order’ and why is the term so popular both among many players in the international arena and among international relations experts? At its heart are three assumptions, explicit or implicit. First, that ‘liberal-democracy’ refers not to an ideology but to a type of regime, to a set of institutional political arrangements and a rule-based system for which the phrase ‘liberal-democracy’ is a useful abbreviation. Those arrangements are mainly in line with the minimalist base that first layer liberalism advocates, but they lag far behind liberal transformations since the mid-19th century. It is now a commonplace for many conservative, social-democratic, nationalist, or populist systems—particularly in Europe and in the American continent, but also in Australia, New Zealand, India, and Japan—to accept constitutionalism and the rule of law without adopting ideologies that are notably or unambiguously liberal. The over-generalizing postulation that all those polities are liberal in their interactions leads theorists of international relations to contend that liberal principles are frequently violated in practice by liberal states.
It would be more plausible to maintain that so-called ‘liberal states’ do not necessarily possess either liberal governments or comprehensive liberal ideologies. Their practices may not be liberal to begin with because their liberalism is either nominal and thin or profoundly outbalanced by non-liberal ideas. To describe George W. Bush’s foreign policy with regard to Iraq as promoting liberty and democracy in seeking forcibly to impose regime change does not imply that American policy was liberal under the highly conservative Republicans in any of the senses suggested by the third or fourth layers of liberalism. To the contrary, it risks disparaging liberalism as a whole. Even the promotion of liberty itself, described as a ‘liberal impulse’ in the international order, is no guarantee of membership of the liberal family if it entails, in R.H. Tawney’s famous phrase, that ‘freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’.
The second assumption is that liberalism always involves an economy based on capitalism and markets (an assumption to be distinguished from the exaggerated neoliberal inflating of free markets at the expense of most other liberal values). That is insufficiently nuanced, for neither capitalism nor markets are fixed quantities. They display degrees of control and regulation that vary vastly within different ideological frameworks. Some libertarians will be far more accommodating to free markets than welfare liberals. And some business entrepreneurs will be far more attuned to the profit motive than those liberals who wish to divert some of those profits—through taxation and other means—towards public and socially beneficial goods and services. As was seen in , incompatibility among liberal core concepts results in very different decontestations and orderings, often in direct competition with each other. If in the past private property was part of the ethos inherited from Locke and others, neither it nor capitalism itself—as a system of investment and expansion of financial and commercial power—have been specifically or uniquely liberal over the past century, contrary to the prevailing views of the liberal international order. Capitalism has been endorsed and pursued by non-liberal states such as China, as well as within European and American countries whose ideologies and regimes are, or were, patently not just conservative or socialist but nationalist or fascist.
The third assumption holds that to be liberal on the international scene is usually associated with the promotion of universal human rights and with peaceful conflict resolution. But there is divergence over which human rights should be protected and advanced, a divergence that parallels the difference between the first liberal layer on the one hand and the third and fourth on the other. The established list of human rights principally contains the rights of respect for individual freedom; protection from tyranny and torture; security; property ownership; and gender, race, and religious equality—and, collectively, of national self-determination. It was only subsequently that the United Nations and other international agencies attempted to shift the emphasis to the right to human development that is central to layer three, and to the relatively generous range of social and economic rights that is central to layer four.
Consequently, new notions of interventionism have now entered internationalist liberal discourse. Universal welfare considerations that were well-known to layer four liberals (the securing of conditions that prevent domestic humanitarian crises), have changed the rationale for intervention and enforcement, as for example in Kosovo, in Africa, and in the Middle East—albeit in selective and haphazard manner. However, there is no consensus among states or among students of international studies on prioritizing those additional rights or even on classifying them as liberal. The problem with accounts of liberal internationalism and with ascribing the adjective ‘liberal’ to the main agents committed to constructing a world order is not that they conceal the full view of liberalism, but that they do not seem to benefit from knowledge of the richness of liberal argument that has accrued over time and across space. Although that problem exists in some circles with respect to domestic liberalisms as well, it is much more prevalent in international politics.