Lord States and Vassals

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The foundational values, interests and institutions of the (Anglo-)US liberal international order, with due respect for important but not fundamental recalibrations and corrections along the way, are the sources of its current crises or at least challenges. The mentalities and power structures of the LIO’s leaders are constructed by hierarchical, imperial and racial–civilizational ways of thinking, albeit in most cases subliminally embedded to the point of being unconscious deep structures themselves.The American white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) establishment built and maintained the liberal order in a ‘competitively cooperative’ alliance with their British counterparts, whose own imperial and racial mentalities were hardly in conflict with those of their American cousins.

Whatever changes occurred or were forced on US elites over time, those underlying and mainly subliminal values have remained significant in decision-making, including when nurturing new states and powers such as South Korea and China.

As a result, liberal internationalism as a ‘theory’ or approach to world order, eliding and skirting matters of hierarchy, race and class just as it does in its outline understandings of American democracy, misses a critical part of the picture—of the dynamics of international power as well as the dynamics of domestic power.

Because of that elision, that failure to see, it is a legitimating ideology of the American ruling elite. The LIO is better understood as a system of hierarchy and inequality, and as what Persaud calls a ‘racio-civilizational’ phenomenon. What does that mean? It means that this system and its leaders cannot yet comprehend an order that encompasses on the basis of something approaching equality the broad mass of people—citizens—at home, let alone the non-western peoples of the global South, or even their elites. The tweet from Donald Tusk quoted above is revealing and instructive because it was addressed to President Trump in simple and stark terms, worth repeating here: ‘Euro-Atlanticism means the free world cooperating to prevent post-West world order’—so, please ‘do not touch’. International alliances of elites, including those of the emerging powers such as China, are in large part attempts to manage and channel change to prevent radical power shifts, to sustain a world order that serves elites and masses, in West and East, in starkly unequal ways. A Gramscian–Kautskyian synthesis combines consideration of domestic and international class-based imperial hegemonies and offers a good explanation of the existing order. However, it also offers a way out, in theory, and provides ways to assess the likelihood of avenues towards egalitarianism being taken by ruling elites. The prognosis is not positive at present, although the bases of ways forward appear to be coming into view as political strife and electoral shocks challenge the status quo.


The possibilities for peaceful coexistence depend on the promotion of multilateralism and credible organisations, and instances of global governance and regional governance. The US has never been committed to multilateralism. Joseph Nye articulates the most liberal version of multilateralism based on a plea for the US to look after its ‘soft power’, essentially referring to the manner in which it projects its power in the global community.42 Multilateralism needs to be based on acceptance of diverse systemic approaches to development – peaceful coexistence between divergent national capitalisms in Dani Rodrik’s Polanyian terms. Somewhat paradoxically, the route to establishing a more multilateral international community lies through the reinforcement of both national states and regional instances of governance. Silver and Arrighi, in discussing the crises of our times compared to those of the past, draw attention to Polanyi’s understanding of sovereign state power as a precondition for “the effective self-protection of society”.43 This is an insight that often appears lost on today’s anti-capitalist movement, in its critique of states and idealisation of ‘civil society’. The Bush NSS should provide pause to theorists of ‘globalisation’ – both those who see processes of international integration in overwhelmingly benign terms, like Tony Giddens, as well as those, like Hardt and Negri who see these processes as giving birth to an amorphous supranational capital where the nation state is an artefact and transnational corporations are pre-eminent.44 Hardt and Negri’s ideas about ‘empire’ have more resonance in the anti- capitalist movement. They assume that there is no longer a role for international law – the product of mediation between nation states - but rather, imperial law reigns. For much of the world, however, capitalism has only begun to sink its roots. International law is in its infancy and by seeing it as passé, one is only catering to the power of the strongest centres of capital – the richest countries and particularly, today, the United States. The commanding position of the US can, and needs to, be checked by other nation-states and groups of nation-states. It is not ‘global society networked’ that can challenge amorphous Empire, but determined, strategically led, political communities that can carve out the room for citizens to improve their lives and step into the modern world. Hardt and Negri disarm people by throwing to the wind the nation-state as an instrument of development and empowerment. I suggest that what we see reflected in the Bush NSS is the declaration of ‘empire’, but one which is firmly rooted in a still modernist era of nation states, an era that for the time being is characterised by the overwhelmingly dominant position of a single superpower. This moment in international history is distinct from both the nineteenth century era of competing ‘great powers’ and much of the twentieth century, which saw a facing off of two emergent superpowers, the US and the USSR. Whether or not the position of US pre-eminence, so boldly articulated in the unilateralist philosophy of the NSS, will be long or short-lived remains an open question. It depends on the extent to which, on the one hand, the European nation-states can further their economic integration and develop an effective European security establishment; and, on the other hand, the People’s Republic of China can continue its rapid economic development and the modernisation of its security establishment without succumbing to the disintegrative pressures that economic development under an authoritarian political regime may foster. In other words, the possibilities for the evolution of a truly ‘multi-polar’ world, with an enlarged Western Europe, and China within Asia, able to check and counterbalance US supremacy, remains an open issue. In the short-term, the face-off between multilateralists and unilateralists in the US is the most hopeful site for an immediate challenge to the prevailing imperialist posture. In the medium term, it may well be the nations of the South that offer an alternative route in a time of crisis.