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According to conventional wisdom, states in the twenty-first century inhabit a fundamentally liberal world order. And while the current international order certainly has its discontents, most in the West like to believe that most of the world accepts liberal principles as desirable ways of organizing international affairs. Current events, however, highlight the extent to which this conventional wisdom is wishful thinking: international order is not an agreed-upon set of international compacts, but rather the site of vigorous political contestation, and the survival of its liberal character can hardly be taken for granted.

Europe and the United States are the architects and stewards of the rules, norms and institutions that together comprise what is commonly referred to as the liberal international order. The liberal order-building project can be said to have started during the age of Pax Britannica, when the world’s leading great powers—the European empires plus the United States, Japan and, to a lesser extent, the Ottomans—gradually came to routinize certain aspects of their relations with one another. Growing free trade, an expanded corpus of public international law, the use of binding arbitration as a mechanism for settling interstate disputes, formalized institutions and agreements to regulate commerce, communications and the process of colonization—all of these international developments can be considered germs of the present liberal order.

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Published by Peter Harris in the National Interest http://nationalinterest.org/ on November 10, 2015.

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