Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:19 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:19 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Liberal internationalism


Sam Roggeveen


14 April 2010 11:03

Linda Quayle, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, responds to my post about liberal internationalism, which in turn was a comment on a piece by Walter Russell Mead:

I agree that the distinction between the 'Grotian' and 'Kantian' strands of international politics is still a useful one (although many scholars have real problems with the labels, which tend to misrepresent both Grotius and Kant).

The difficulty comes with the sheer breadth of the Grotian, or internationalist, strand, which stretches along a spectrum from pluralist to solidarist. 'Thinner' pluralist international societies stress the principles of state autonomy, diversity, and minimalism. Such, still, at root, is the global international society we now inhabit.

'Thicker' solidarist international societies, on the other hand, are looking for a qualitatively different type of coexistence, involving more ambitious, wider-ranging norms, and (if necessary) coercive intervention in the enforcement of these norms. A clear regional example is the European Union.

Proponents of solidarism (who need not be, but usually are, liberal) stress that the kinds of problems we face today demand solidarist solutions. They therefore aspire to push global international society in a solidarist direction. Defenders of pluralism (such as Coral Bell and Robert Jackson) argue that until we can obtain deep-seated (not coerced) agreement on ways forward, then pluralism has a normative value of its own, and artificially accelerating solidarism – grafting solidarist elements on to a pluralist society without broad international support – risks undermining whatever order (and whatever hopes for justice) that we do have.

Crucial to this argument is the level of consensus available. Hedley Bull was always keen to stress that solidarist societies cannot move faster than the actual levels of solidarism present in them. It is no good just wanting a deeper, thicker, more cohesive society. You have to do the hard political yards of building the kind of consensus that can bridge a range of cultures, political systems, and historical legacies.

Liberal internationalists may be 'Grotians', as you argue, but their patience in consensus-building has sometimes been lacking, hence Walter Russell Mead’s concern in the piece you quote. It is not necessary to be a cosmopolitanist to assume that the only 'good' international society is one that is increasingly made in your image.

I agree that there are signs the Obama Administration is investing in consensus-building (in a way that Obama’s predecessor conspicuously did not), but this is a long, painstaking task, and it remains to be seen whether domestic constituencies will have the stomach for it over the long term. Consensus-building requires the kind of arduous negotiation that brings few headlines and many frustrations, needs endless repetitions and consultations and compromises, and – by its very nature – ends up with less than can ideally be imagined. It is always easier to coerce than to coax. But coerced solutions, with fewer willing stakeholders, are far less likely to be deep-rooted and effective.

Hence, Walter Russell Mead’s warnings are still apposite, even in a 'Grotian' world that is not quickly trending to world government.