What Western Elites have Wrought: Liberal Internationalism with Chinese Characteristics
The liberal international order that maximized peace and freedom is history. The new order accepts both the suspension of liberties under the guise of Covid and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
As promised, here are some expanded thoughts about the demise of the “liberal international order” (LIO). Warning: they run long. But then, that’s why we have subheadings!
For those of you with little time, let’s cut to the chase. This essay describes the demise of the liberal international order, the end of freedom, and the return of war.
The Liberal International Order
The LIO is the rule-based international system put in place at the end of WWII and expanded at the end of the Cold War. The LIO was never anything close to what it was supposed to be. In theory, the LIO rested upon some key liberal values: All sovereign nations are equal. The laws apply equally to all, large and small, strong and weak. Democracy provides the best form of governance. Human rights are so essential that no government may infringe them. Governments exist to serve the welfare of their people, not the other way around. Adjudication, rather than violence, settles all disputes. To put the matter bluntly, the Wilsonian goal of the LIO was to recreate the world in America’s image. The LIO set out to globalize the ideas and ethos that underpinned the American revolution.
It never worked. Take, for example, the bicameral quasi-legislature known as the United Nations. In the lower chamber (General Assembly), each nation counts equally. In the upper chamber (Security Council) larger members get greater weight—wielded only in strict compliance with preset rules. UN agencies oversee global health, labor standards, human rights, cultural heritage, children’s rights, and many other items deemed central to a just society. Or at least, that’s the UN in theory.
In practice, the UN is a notoriously corrupt talking shop for petty tyrants and dictators. Its rules have never applied equally to large and small. It defends atrocities and serves as the epicenter of global antisemitism. Still, it’s telling that all of these dreadful people feel the need to dress up like parliamentarians. It’s even more telling that many of them go back to their mismanaged authoritarian hellholes and hold rigged elections to demonstrate their own legitimacy—and that regimes that brutalize their citizenry feel the need to proclaim themselves the finest practitioners of human rights.
It's lunacy. It’s infuriating. But it serves a point. The fictional nature of the LIO demonstrates once again that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Recall, it wasn’t until fairly recently that anyone connected elections to legitimacy, believed that humans possess inherent rights, or thought that governments serve the governed. The mere recognition that these beliefs possess power worth coopting represents a significant move forward in human thought.
Furthermore, compared to past frameworks for international relations, the LIO has provided more peace, greater welfare, higher living standards, and far greater individual freedom. It was a horrible, lying, dreadful setup that empowered some truly gruesome people—but it was by far the least bad global infrastructure anyone had ever devised. And it was particularly advantageous for the residents of countries that brought its governing ethos home—none more than the United States. It was a crime against humanity to let it slide into history.
Liberal Internationalism with Chinese Characteristics
Liberal Internationalism with Chinese Characteristics (LICC) is a play on Deng Xiaoping’s Socialism with Chinese characteristics—the name he gave to his then-novel combination of quasi-capitalist semi-free markets and authoritarian social controls—as applied to the current governing infrastructure of international relations.
Since its introduction in the 1980s, Deng’s combination has won many admirers—including much of the American and Western elite. Stripped to its bare essentials, Socialism with Chinese characteristics promotes innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth while nevertheless maintaining government control over large swathes of human behavior. In other words, it’s a manifestly unfree system that maintains selected trappings of freedom, particularly in the economic realm.
My contention is that the vaunted LIO that did so well for so much of the world ended so quietly that few people have noticed its demise. Its successor system, defining the world in which we have been living for the past few years, is LICC—a manifestly unfree international order that maintains selected trappings of rule-based governance.
How did we get here? The shift from LIO to LICC arose through Chinese persuasion, not through Chinese conquest. Over the course of decades, China’s Communist elite demonstrated the benefits that social controls of the citizenry confer upon the elites who wield that control “for the common good.”
Western elites, never too enamored with the selfish, backward, deplorable masses occupying space in their own countries, took notice. Whatever it was that China was doing seemed to work: China’s people were getting richer without getting freer—and rarely complaining. Inconvenient, inferior, or ideologically questionable citizens were handled easily; many even proved useful as slaves or organ donors.
When China’s elites invited Western elites to share the bounties of its growing markets, learn the Chinese system, and appreciate its benefits, Western elites swooned. It’s been over a decade since Tom Friedmanwished that the U.S. could be China “for a day” to combat global warming. Why? Because authoritarians like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can inflict unpopular policies necessary to “serve the common good” far more easily than their democratic counterparts. Friedman’s point was clear: If we could inject just enough authoritarianism into our inconveniently free system to solve our most critical problems, why not do it? Or, to do Friedman one better, why restrict it to one day? After all, who knows what critical but unpopular issue might arise tomorrow? If one day is good, why not make the deal permanent? The suggestion may be unseemly, but the logic was so compelling that global elites quietly put the plan into play. They eroded the moral legitimacy of the LIO. The world glided seamlessly into the LICC.
From LIO to LICC
The distinctions between LIO and LICC become particularly salient when, like now, elite voices in politics and media are screaming that some world event is unprecedented and incompatible with the LIO. In point of fact, though hardly unprecedented, it’s quite true that a European country invading a neighbor violates the rules, terms, expectations, and norms of the LIO. It's fully consistent, however, with the rules, terms, expectations, and norms of LICC.
President Biden’s State of the Union address reflected this new world order. Having done everything in his power to make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inevitable and nothing to deter it, compassion would have advocated rapid resolution with minimal further pain and suffering. Biden—to bipartisan cheers—veered instead into sadism. He proposed absolutely nothing that might impede Russian success or end Ukrainian pain, but he did regale his listeners with promises of pain and punishment inflicted upon anyone and anything Russian. Which, again, is just fine in the LICC. Supremacism, unequal treatment of strong and weak, and sadism are all “characteristics” the CCP wields with efficiency and pride.
That compatibility is one of the many reasons all decent people should lament the LIO’s passage into history. It’s not, however, an excuse to pretend that LIO norms still prevail. The LIO is now as much as part of history as is the Metternich System—critically useful in its time, now perhaps a brief mention in a High School social studies class.
The LIO’s demise was a conscious, intentional choice made over a decade ago. Barack Obama was the key player, but he couldn’t have done it without the broad and powerful support of the Western elite. In 2008, Obama campaigned as a transformer—not a reformer—out to change both the way that America saw itself and the way that the world saw America. By 2009, Charles Krauthammer was able to summarize what Obama meant to the world with the pithy phrase “decline is a choice.” Indeed it is. Western elites chose it for the LIO.
Obama’s raison d’être, from the moment he arrived in office, was to begin the transformation from a world reflecting (albeit in warped form) Judeo-Christian morality, Anglo-American legalisms, and American exceptionalism into a world reflecting wokeism. During his first term in office, Obama tested the waters. He cheapened the concept of American exceptionalism. He reminded America of the racist past it had made such great strides towards transcending. He injected socialist thinking into the American economy. He weakened the American military and weaponized the American bureaucracy.
His cautious approach was necessary. In 2008, Obama had run as an unknown. He was new, exciting, bold, cool, and very different. Pundits and voters across the political spectrum read their own preferences into Obama, then extolled his virtues as the first candidate who had ever matched their preferences so perfectly. It was unclear—even to Obama—precisely who America thought it was electing. By 2012—when his radical tendencies were clear to anyone willing to notice—America chose radicalism, transformation, decline and wokeism consciously and deliberately.
The global elite cheered. Their quiet redefinition of the LIO into the LICC required calm and stealth. Discrediting the American ethos underpinning the LIO’s claim to morality, legitimacy, and justice was a critical prerequisite. During Obama’s second term in office, his woke brigades worked hard to undermine America’s self-image, America’s claim to moral authority, and America’s ability to project hard military power. The theoretical constructs holding the LIO together frayed quickly. If the United States, republican home of the great Bill of Rights and the separation of powers, no longer saw itself as a viable model for the rest of the world, why should the world continue the charade of paying homage to the American model?
By the time Obama left office, the LIO’s moral legitimacy was dying. Donald Trump’s efforts to resurrect it met with a few successes but were ultimately incapable of repairing the damage—particularly given that his supposed partners denied the moral legitimacy of anything Trump touched. Though Trump got his NATO partners to increase their interest in their own security, reworked some of China’s most egregious trade practices, and modernized North American trade—all within the rule-based framework— anyone watching could see that whatever support Trump mustered from his allies was half-hearted and perfunctory. Trump left things in better shape than he found them, but it was clear throughout his Presidency that the desires of the elite lay elsewhere. Biden assumed office intent upon ratifying the transformation. His near-immediate destruction of the American oil and gas industry, greenlighting of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, and unconditional surrender to the Taliban marked great strides towards full implementation of the LICC.
The End of Human Rights
Even before Biden’s arrival, however, when Covid threw the world’s governments into panicked authoritarianism in March 2020, freedom collapsed around the world. Not a single one of the world’s proudly free countries treated basic human freedoms as a matter of right. Every one of them—the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the EU member states—enacted emergency laws and practices incompatible with basic civil liberties and civil rights. Freedoms of assembly, movement, religion, and commerce all evaporated overnight. Freedoms of speech and of the press were battered to curtail “misinformation.” Internal passports became required for basic accommodations. Discriminatory practices long disfavored came back into use. Dress codes proliferated. Experimental drugs became mandatory. Rules shifted overnight, often with minimal thought as to whether the authority issuing new emergency rules possessed the jurisdiction to impose them. Due process evaporated. Though no one suspended every right at every moment, every single freedom that residents of the Anglosphere had long taken for granted as a matter of right found itself restricted in at least parts of the Anglosphere.
The two years since that dark moment have made clear that not a single government believes that human rights are inherent and that governmental infringements of those rights are thus illegitimate. Instead, individual freedoms exist as a matter of government dispensation. Those of us who wish to travel, go maskless, opt out of an experimental vaccine, leave our homes without an acceptable reason, invite guests into our home, allow people to sit in our restaurants, or donate money to charitable causes we support, must now feel grateful to the governments that allow us to do so. Governments are no longer under any obligation to let us do any of those things; all they require to suspend them is a problem they can plausibly call an emergency. Large parts of the Western world have undergone a dangerous moral inversion: They are eager to accept pain inflicted on those nearest to them in the name of some hypothetical distant members of the collective, all in the name of the “common good” as their trusted leaders define it. Deng Xiaoping would be proud.
The consensus on this shift from freedom as a human right to freedom as a government grant has been widespread. Other than a handful of American governors and some late-awakening opposition leaders, few politicians have challenged it. Certainly, during the early days of March 2020, not a single leading political figure—in government or in opposition—anywhere in the allegedly free world was prepared to call out the lockdowns as the atrocity they were. Those whose instincts appeared to point in that direction, notably Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, were cowed into submission.
With the elimination of freedom as a basic human right, the LIO’s entire theoretical basis collapsed. The rule of law is now as optional at the international level as it is within individual countries—which is to say, something that some governments grant wherever and whenever they find it convenient.
The World Responds
The broad elite preference for the LICC during the Trump years was so clear that many of the new front-line countries began to reposition themselves for survival in this far less gentle—though more normal—international order. Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, the Baltic States, Greece, Israel, the GCC, Morocco, and Egypt all reinvented important parts of their internal politics and external relationships. While each of these realignments would have worked brilliantly in the LIO Trump was trying to resurrect, they also positioned these countries to better survive the transition into the LICC. Unsurprisingly, in every case, the global elite so intent upon assuming outsized influence under LICC vilified these precariously located countries for undertaking the reassessments necessary for national survival.
Ukraine, also a front-line state, failed to get the message. Despite what you might have heard, Ukraine has never been a stable, pro-Western, liberal democracy. Since the moment the Soviet Union fell, Ukraine has been a notoriously corrupt kleptocracy—the playground of choice for powerful foreign forces engaged in activities of questionable legality and morality. Ukraine was smart enough to remain neutral between Russia and the West until 2014, when a cadre of left-leaning Westerners orchestrated a “color revolution” coup, installed their own favored oligarchs, and began using Ukraine as a base of operations against both their own domestic political opponents and Russia. When Volodymyr Zelenskyy (a genuinely interesting figure) arrived as a reform-oriented outsider and President Trump reached out to encourage his anti-corruption campaign, Ukraine’s anti-Trump overlords explained who really called the shots in his country. Zelenskyy fell quietly in line for overlords who were perfectly willing to prop up the country but never had any intention of defending it from the inevitable Russian offensive.
That offensive, which started last week, arose only after the Biden Administration demonstrated that it possessed neither military might nor moral authority. With the LIO gone, the far more traditional LICC recognizes that big states play by one set of rules while small states must conform to another. Within that context, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was hardly unimaginable. To expand upon VP Kamala Harris’s erudite explanation, Russia is a big, powerful state living adjacent to a far smaller, weaker neighbor that foreigners had turned into an irritant.
The morality play unfolding in Western capitols and the Western press is a fable. The governments and media outlets spinning it are precisely the people who chose to malign the exceptional American ideals underpinning the LIO as immoral, chose to turn Ukraine into that irritant, chose to poke Russia, chose to enrich Russia, and chose to weaken their own militaries. Western elites chose to create the environment in which a Russian invasion of Ukraine was inevitable rather than unthinkable.
Bringing it Home
Russia is indeed the aggressor. There really is a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Western sanctions are designed to trigger a humanitarian crisis in Russia. How should we respond?
Donate if you can find a trustworthy conduit (avoid GoFundMe at all costs).
Ignore most of the play-by-play you see in the press. Unless you’ve cultivated your own sources (I have not) or know people on the ground (I do not), it’s impossible to know what’s really happening beyond the very basic contours of the conflict.
Never lose sight of the homefront. The venom suddenly whipped up against all Russians and all things Russian evokes Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. Overnight, the enemy shifted from the dangerously unclean and ritually impure unvaxed to anyone with any connection to anything Russian. There can be little doubt that an educated, Western, media-controlled, regime-led, easily redirected, fully compliant hate mob is now knit tightly into the fabric of modern American life. Nothing good can come from that development. The harm that it has generated to date is but the harbinger of the far worse to come.
Recall that compassion compels a rapid resolution and termination of hostilities. As valiant as the Ukrainian defenses might be, their chances of prevailing are slim. The most likely outcome by far is a redrawn border and a Russian-leaning regime installed in Kyiv. The least-bad path forward would thus concede those Russian victories quickly, minimize further bloodshed, and avoid a militarized Ukraine with guns pointed westward along a NATO border. A prolonged battle would heighten not only near-term suffering but also the likelihood of future conflict spreading across Eastern Europe.
By far the worst outcome would be the Russian defeat that much of the Western elite—including longtime LICC advocate Tom Friedman—favors. Easily predictable consequences of a Russian collapse would include a global black market in Russian nuclear (and other advanced) weapons, sinecures for Russian nuclear scientists in Teheran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere, the near-total destabilization of Central Asia, and Chinese advances in securing rights to the vast mineral treasures of the sparsely populated Asian Russia.
Not only would all of those events fit comfortably within a world shifting from the old LIO to the new LICC, but the big winner would be China. That’s hardly surprising. Much as the LIO deployed a weakened form of American ideology to turn the United States into first-among-nominal-equals, the LICC will deploy a weakened form of Chinese ideology to turn China into first-among-unequals. Should such events come to pass, it will be important to remember (though almost no one will) that elite Western leadership is doing its best to make them a reality.
So when surveying today’s news and wading through the propaganda, it’s absolutely fine to blame Russia as the aggressor. But if you blame only Russia, you’re missing the point. Western elites enamored of the Chinese model altered the game. There’s no way to argue that the American Revolution was inherently racist and unjust while extolling the moral basis of the quasi-American LIO. The elitist Western left destroyed the moral underpinnings of the system that rendered most invasions beyond the pale. Ukraine let itself becoming a willing pawn in their cynical game.
The World in Which We Live
The rage and venom that the Western elite is hurling at Vladimir Putin has little to do with the Ukrainians he is hurting. These elites have demonstrated little care for the suffering of their own citizens, and they have none at all for the citizenry of a useful little kleptocracy like Ukraine. No, Western elites thought they could get away with changing the game without announcing that they had changed the game. They wanted to behave like Chinese elites without admitting their embrace of Deng’s Chinese characteristics. It was working perfectly until Vladimir Putin destroyed their plausible deniability. If you really want to understand why the Western leadership heaps unique vitriol upon Putin and Russia, look no further.
The rules of the game have changed. If Canada can seize the bank accounts of citizens who donate to a disfavored political cause, Russia can seize control of Ukraine. They’re equally legitimate actions in the LICC.
That’s the world our elite leaders chose. I may detest their choice and despise them for making it but my loathing is entirely inconsequential. It’s the world in which we now all live. Better get used to it. Perhaps—just perhaps—if enough of us see it clearly we’ll be able to carve out some small enclaves of freedom strong enough to survive in an LICC world.
For more information about Bruce D. Abramson & American Restorationism, visit: www.BruceDAbramson.com
To learn more about how America’s elites destroyed the republic, see: The New Civil War: Exposing Elites, Fighting Utopian Leftism, and Restoring America (RealClear Publishing, 2021).
To learn more about the ideology driving today’s anti-American leftism, see: American Restoration: Winning America’s Second Civil War (Kindle, 2019).