Princeton University Professor John Ikenberry, one of the most articulate defenders of the open, rules-based system that dominates international politics today, claims that the past two centuries should be remembered as “the liberal ascendancy.” In this narrative, conservatives have become economic liberals, socialists have become social liberals, the institutions that regulate international affairs have proliferated and strengthened, and liberal values have been promoted across the globe with increasing vigour.
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have led many to conclude that this liberal order is in crisis. The likes of Ikenberry would disagree: They claim that crises only serve to provide greater incentives to cooperate in rules-based ways. In other words, we are simply living through the “growing pains” of liberalism.
An examination of liberalism’s conceptual foundations, however, may lend credence to a more pessimistic outlook.
Liberalism is a philosophy that originated at the domestic level, gaining its full form as a political movement…