- The Crisis of Liberal Internationalism:The Legacies of the League of Nations Reconsidered
The liberal order appears to be coming apart at the seams. The global economic crisis, rising authoritarianism, growing resentment of foreigners, and populist revolt against the political establishment have led many commentators to look to the 1930s as a point of reference. Nowhere has this impulse been more pronounced than in the United States, where a procession of historians rushed to offer their expert opinions for or against the frequently drawn parallels between the Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election and the rise of fascism and Nazism in interwar Europe.1 Historians of the United States, meanwhile, have explored the domestic fascist traditions that provided fertile soil for Donald Trump's ascendance.2 Such historical analogies have not been confined to the United States. In Europe, the [End Page 111] electoral gains of populist political parties railing against globalization, liberalism, and immigration has evoked similar comparisons to the 1930s.3 Such historical analogies risk obscuring more than they illuminate. They draw their urgency from an implicit warning—the crises of the 1930s led to the Second World War and the Holocaust—without directly confronting the critical question of whether the mounting challenges to the liberal order make major conflict and genocide more likely.
Foreign policy experts warning of the impending demise of the liberal international order have, on the whole, been more measured in their diagnoses, rarely resorting to the kinds of comparisons to the 1930s so common in commentaries on domestic politics. Such prognostications predate the recent crisis. Already during the presidency of George W. Bush, foreign policy experts pointed to America's turn from its longstanding traditions of liberal internationalism as marking a historic watershed. But the twin shocks of the vote for Brexit and election of Donald Trump in 2016 have lent them credence outside of the narrow circles of foreign policy experts.4 If debates about the future of liberal internationalism have eschewed [End Page 112] direct comparisons to the 1930s, however, the specter of the interwar decades nonetheless looms large.
"Liberal internationalism" is, in one sense, a term in search of a history. Beginning in the 1980s and gaining steam after the Cold War, scholars in the field of international relations developed the concept of liberal internationalism to characterize an approach to foreign relations that emphasized the role of international institutions and networks rather than principally sovereign states. In the United States, an influential cohort of foreign policy experts pushed the U.S. government to adopt what they labeled a "liberal internationalist" agenda that would bind it to the open, rules-based order even as it emerged as the world's sole superpower.5 The propagation of the idea of liberal internationalism has rested on three layers of historical revisionism. First, its advocates have attempted to reread America's Cold War foreign policy, emphasizing not the Realpolitik of Washington's approach to the Soviet Union but rather its successful construction of a liberal international order among its allies in Europe and East Asia.6 This has allowed them to argue that the ideology of liberal internationalism has been the key component of a kind of benign American hegemony that has ensured the relative peace and prosperity enjoyed by the West since the Second World War. Second, liberal internationalists have sought to reinterpret the crisis of interwar internationalism and the origins of the Second World War. They have rejected the longstanding view that Woodrow Wilson's program for the spread of liberal democracy through the League of Nations was irredeemably flawed, though they admit that the post-1945 "liberal internationalism 2.0" successfully addressed at least some of the very real weaknesses of this order.7 It was largely the vagaries of American domestic politics and personal failings on the part of Wilson, who proved incapable of brokering a deal to secure American entry into the [End Page 113] League, that had doomed his earlier project. Liberal internationalists have therefore shown a curious preoccupation with reviving "Wilsonianism," offering it as a roadmap for American foreign policy in the twenty-first century.8
This rehabilitation of Woodrow Wilson is...