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Niall Ferguson says the liberal international order has passed its peak

Historians in the News
tags: Niall Ferguson



Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of 14 books, including most recently a biography of former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

How would you define the liberal international order?

This is one of these phrases that disintegrates the minute you start trying to define it. There’s a rather academic view that says that, after World War II, the United States led an institution-building exercise that would create a world based on free trade and democracy and that paved the way to globalization and that we all lived happy ever after – except then these dreadful populists came along, and if only they would go away, we could have our liberal international order back.

I think one has to be a little careful with this nice-sounding term, “liberal international order.” First of all, conservatives had as much to do with the international order after 1945 as liberals did. Secondly, I don’t know how international it really was until relatively recently, since Russia, China and India didn’t really enter the global economic system until the 1990s. Finally, it wasn’t that orderly. It has been characterized by high levels of conflict – not as high, obviously, as the 1940s, but not exactly peace and tranquillity.

Is the international order as we’ve known it over?

We should recognize that it is certainly past its peak. The globalization process overshot and produced a quite legitimate backlash. While people like me and Fareed were enjoying ourselves at Davos and Aspen and saying how marvellous the liberal international order was, a rather large number of ordinary North Americans were not feeling quite so chipper.

What are the roots of that frustration?

If one is asking why the average household in North America did so poorly, or at least in no way improved its lot since around 1999, part of the answer is technology and part of the answer is globalization. But that distinction is a little arbitrary, because what distinguishes the technological revolution is precisely that things like iPhones could be designed in California but made in China. The paradox of the liberal international order is that it made a lot of technology affordable while at the same time destroying manufacturing jobs in what people like to call the heartland. That’s where globalization overshot in economic terms.

It’s a funny liberal international order that benefits primarily a communist, one-party state. But that is exactly what has happened. The principal beneficiary of this system since the 1990s has been China. While it’s great to say that 300 million Chinese people have been pulled out of poverty, and I’ve nothing against those people, the reality is that there has been at the same time a significant erosion of living standards for middle-class and working-class Americans. One reason why Trump’s arguments have plausibility and have attracted supporters is that he was the only Republican candidate – indeed the only candidate – who was prepared to say that the liberal international order has been more beneficial to China than it has been to the U.S. That’s just true. One should stop pretending otherwise.

Does the fraying of the liberal international order make the world less stable?

One of the classic and bogus arguments that defenders of the liberal international order make is that it has been responsible for peace and that if you tamper with it we’ll plunge into World War III. That’s just a very implausible line of argument. It usually involves people conflating populism and fascism, which I’m constantly arguing against. The thing about nationalists is that they’re not particularly interested in getting involved in wars in faraway places, whereas neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the 1990s and 2000s were all too eager to have boots on the ground. ...


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