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Policy Essay | Liberal International Order Project | 2017 | No.17 Although Western analysts and policymakers often to refer to the “liberal international order,” the phrase is far from self-explanatory. In particular, it is not obvious in what sense the liberal international order is “liberal.” The lack of precision about what is meant by the liberal international order is a problem because it obscures the complexities of the concept and inhibits self-criticism by Western policymakers, especially Atlanticists and “pro-Europeans” who seek to defend the liberal international order. The liberal international order has evolved since its creation after World War II and has different elements — some of which are in tension with each other. It is also perceived quite differently outside the geographic West than within it. Western analysts and policymakers need not just to defend the liberal international order but also to think about how to reform it — and perhaps even reverse elements of the evolution of it since the end of the Cold War — in order to save it. What is the Liberal International Order? By Hans Kundnani In the last five years or so, U.S. and European foreign policy think tanks have become increasingly preoccupied with threats to the set of norms, rules, and institutions known as the liberal international order, especially from “revisionist” rising powers and above all authoritarian powers like China and Russia. But even more recently it has also become increasingly apparent that support for the liberal international order in Europe and the United States is declining as well. This has become particularly clear since the British vote to the leave the European Union last June and the U.S. presidential election last November — not least because the United Kingdom and the United States are two of the countries historically most associated with liberalism and were generally thought to be most committed to it. However, although the phrase “liberal international order” is widely used, it is far from self-explanatory. Theorists of the liberal international order understand it as an “open and rule-based international order” that is “enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism.” 1 But this still leaves big questions unanswered (in what sense it is “open” and what are the “rules”?) that tend to be glossed over. One particular ambiguity is around the sense that the liberal international order is “liberal.” Does this refer to political liberalism (in opposition to authoritarianism)? Or economic liberalism (in opposition to economic nationalism or mercantilism)? Or liberalism in the sense that international relations theorists use it (in opposition to realism and other theories of international relations)?

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