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  • Liberal and Illiberal Internationalisms
  • Philippa Hetherington and Glenda Sluga

The twenty-first century is awash with diagnoses of the end of liberal internationalism.1 In both popular and academic manifestations, declarations of liberal internationalism's 'crisis' tend to assume that the term has a stable meaning that it is clearly differentiated from illiberal internationalist variants. The aim of this special issue of the Journal of World History is to interrogate this assumption. We argue that a historical view of internationalism highlights the interrelation between and the mutual dependence of liberal and illiberal internationalisms since 1880. Taken together, the essays collected here position the politics of internationalism at the centre of a new historiography that rejects an axiomatic relationship between the liberal and the international. They do not aim at an additive history, demonstrating how socialists, or fascists, or evangelical Christians were also internationalists. This is well known.2 [End Page 1] Rather, they seek to rethink how liberal and illiberal cooperated, comingled and co-produced one another on an international plane.

By probing the relationship between liberal and illiberal internationalisms, this special issue places the political attributes of internationalisms under an historical microscope that is more 'in the world', arguing that ideological debates look different if viewed from Lagos as well as London. The essays gathered here show how, over a century, international ideas and institutions worked their way through the nuanced global landscapes of war and peace. The special issue extends across a world that begins in the religious casting of international thinking in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Western Europe and the Middle East, travels through the technocratic idealism of interwar Geneva and Paris, examines ideologically-inflected 'scientific' humanitarianism directed at Cold War Yugoslavia, and ends with actors from India and Iran remaking the United Nations (UN). The essays gathered here emphasise the changing historical significance of internationalist thought by mingling views from Paris, Geneva and New York with Skopje, Tehran and Kabul.

Taken together, these essays constitute a call to rethink the diverse ways in which the liberal character of internationalism was historically an open question. Some essays restore internationalism to discussions of the nature of liberalism. Others bring into question any default characterisation of internationalism as liberal by deploying social, political, cultural and intellectual approaches to the study of the international past. Most importantly, perhaps, the essays collected here interrogate the points of internationalism's ideological liminality, the moments of intersection of liberal and illiberal politics and policies in the modern era. Rather than move between distinctively liberal and socialist internationalisms, the essays posit much more fluid and problematic renderings of internationalism as one manifestation of the shifting spectrum of liberal and illiberal politics through the modern era.

Across the seven essays, there are three axes of analysis that allow for this interrogation of the categories of liberal and illiberal: religion and internationalism (Abigail Green and Tim Nunan), technocratic and expert internationalism (Phillip Wagner, Dave Petruccelli and Ljubica Spaskovska), and the ideological underpinnings of international organisations and internationalist thinking (Alanna O'Malley and David Goodman). For the rest of this introduction, we will introduce each theme in turn, noting how the articles contained herein extend our understanding of illiberalism, liberalism and internationalism. [End Page 2]


Recently, a number of historians have drawn on Talal Asad's famous insistence that 'the concept of the secular cannot do without the idea of religion' to explore the religious underpinnings of twentieth century modernity.3 Such studies necessarily implicate forms of self-consciously 'secular' liberalism that claim an origin in the Enlightenment, and that supposedly infused internationalism since at least 1880. One way in which the essays assembled here engage the literature on internationalism is by investigating the role of religion in the 'liberal' world order. Whereas much literature on modernity's religious underpinnings has focused on Christianity, Abigail Green's and Timothy Nunan's contributions examine Judaism and Islam, looking at the possibilities and limits religious organising presented for those wishing to act on an international plane. They pose a number of central questions: How has religion historically been included or excluded from 'liberal' internationalism? Have certain religions been framed as being more compatible with...


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