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Hegemony and Diversity in the ‘Liberal International Order’: Theory and Reality

18 28 0

Most analysts attribute the uncertain fate of the Liberal International Order (hereafter LIO) to the global power shift, anti-globalization sentiments, and the rise of populist leaders spearheaded by Donald Trump. But the crisis has longer and wider roots in what might be called the hegemony-diversity gap at the heart of the LIO. Supporters present the LIO as an inclusive order offering substantial material benefits to the world while remaining open to participation by all (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999). Yet, the LIO is also cast as a hegemonic order, both as a product of US (or US-led Western) hegemony and as the dominant world order with no real alternatives. This simultaneous aspiration for diversity and hegemony creates a fundamental tension at the heart of the LIO, especially in the non-Western world, where the LIO is often perceived as a narrow ideological, economic and strategic framework reflecting and advancing the interests and identity of the Western nations led by the US. The LIO’s performance legitimacy from the material benefits it offered to rising powers like China and India is undercut by its normative legitimacy deficit in a world of political and cultural diversity. Meanwhile, in Western nations like the US, the benefits of the LIO offered abroad have become a source of resentment at home, thereby compounding the challenge to the LIO. This article focuses on the LIO’s relationship with the non-Western (Global South, postcolonial) world, and argues that as the LIO loses its presumed “hegemony”, instead of claiming to “co-opt” the Rest, we must embrace the realities of a culturally and political diverse world.

Despite its wide prevalence today, the term liberal international (or world) order is relatively new, except in a mainly economic sense. In his 1984 classic, After Hegemony, Robert Keohane speaks of “liberal economic arrangements” and “liberal international political economy”, rather than “liberal international order”. Keohane was borrowing from Gilpin’s observation about the role played by Britain and the US in creating and enforcing “the rules of a liberal international economic order” (Keohane, 1984: 31, 8, 54). It was after the Cold War that the liberal order, strengthened by the end of communism and the advancement of democracy and capitalism under an internationalist US leadership, acquired its broadest meaning: encompassing economic interdependence (free trade), multilateral rules and institutions, democratic political systems, and values and norms (especially universal human rights). Ikenberry, the scholar who has done most to popularize the liberal international order as a broader concept, defines the liberal order rather vaguely as an “order that is open and loosely rule-based” (Ikenberry 2011:18) but like Keohane, sees it as a product of US hegemony, with particular stress on US-led multilateral institutions and institutional-binding. He calls it variously as “liberal hegemonic order” (xi, 224); “American-led liberal world order” (xii); “American-led liberal hegemony” (224); “the American system, the West, the Atlantic world, Pax Democratica, Pax Americana, the Philadelphia system” (35). The association between US hegemony and LIO is at the heart of debates over its future.

Hegemony vs Diversity

To illustrate the hegemony-diversity gap, or the lack of fit between these theories that are derived primarily from a Western context (while aspiring to have universal validity), and the realities of postcolonial world, I examine three liberal theories of IR. To the extent that theories aspire to explain reality,........

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