The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

Viewed from the perspective of liberal IR, Britain’s globe-spanning empire can be described as “Liberal Internationalism 1.0.” According to G. John Ikenberry, the “liberal ascendancy” had everything to do with the “growth and sheer geopolitical heft of the world’s liberal democracies.” The British may have been the first to harmonize national interest with the stability, openness and rule-following in the international systems, but it was the Americans who “fused” them. “If the liberal order was built after World War II primarily within the West, the end of the Cold War turned that order into a sprawling global system” [1].

The question that has always fascinated me is how we got from Liberal Internationalism 1.0 to Liberal Internationalism 2.0, or how, to freely borrow from Ikenberry, power shifted between two liberal Leviathans, Britain and the U.S. What is puzzling here is the absence of the Wars of Anglophone Succession. Instead of fighting each other at least once or twice, the two empires first found ways to cooperate and coordinate their imperial activities around the globe, then engaged in what can be described as a pacted transition, even as a corporate merger. Here’s one verdict, taken from “The imperialism of decolonizationpiece by Wm Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson:

The British were welcoming the Americans back into the British family of nations and, informally at least, into the Commonwealth . . . [the post-war empire operated] as part of the Anglo- American coalition . . . like a multinational company.

Putting aside the historiography debates about its scope, timing and sequencing, this historical process was no doubt of momentous importance for the evolution of the liberal order, both in terms of the accumulation of hegemonic power, and in terms of social and institutional learning. The Anglosphere, in other words, begins here. So how do we explain it? Strategic calculus and/or a putatively liberal predilection for cooperation, compromise, and conciliation (last word Churchill’s) are only parts of this story, as Charles Kupchan notes in his How Enemies Become Friends:

British appeasement of the United States and the practice of reciprocal restraint that followed cleared the way for rapprochement. But it was the emergence of a new discourse on both sides of the Atlantic – one that propagated notions such as a “shared Anglo-Saxon race” and an “Anglo-American family” – that produced a compatible identity, consolidated stable peace, and laid the foundations for the strategic partnership that exists to this day.

I could not agree more. Racialized identities operate as social structures of power, and this was a time when they explicitly authorized unity and superiority for Us against Them in ways that had profound consequences for the evolution of the so-called liberal international order. Anglo-Saxonism enabled the U.S. and Britain – or their elites – not only to position themselves favourably vis-à-vis each other at the turn of the twentieth century, but also with respect to the rest of the world and in a longer term. The Anglo-American rapprochement was no “global turn” of the sort that Kupchan talks about in his latest book, but it arguably comes close to it in macro-historical term. For one, the paths, pace and outcomes of the 1945-1951 international institution-building spree – that foundation of Liberal Internationalism 2.0 –followed the patterns of UK-U.S. cooperation first established during the colonial wars and near-wars in the 1890s. The much-disclaimed “special relationship” has its origins in this period – something to keep in mind next time we hear that U.S.-hugging remains in someone’s national interest, as General Sir David Richards, the head of Britain’s armed forces, argued last week.

This story I wish to tell can be expanded and contracted empirically (Anglo-Saxonism is dead today, but its effects can be found everywhere from university scholarships to contemporary military alliances) and theoretically (through, say, an account of core-periphery relations that made global capitalism possible), but the main substantive point remains the same, and that is that we cannot fully understand the “liberal ascendancy” without pausing (as Siba Grovogui might say) over the pervasiveness and power of racialized identities that connected Liberal Internationalism 1.0 and 2.0 [2]. What this history shows, at a minimum, is that the rise of the liberal order has been contingent on all sorts of illiberal developments, some of which could have lead onto decidedly illiberal trajectories. It was this openness of history that motivated Orwell to set his 1984 in Britain, “in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

Ikenberry would probably agree that before it became Western (Liberal Internationalism 1.0) and then global (Liberal Internationalism 3.0), liberal ascended mainly within and around the Anglosphere. The processes of secession, de-dominionization and decolonization destroyed the British empire, but left behind a loosely bounded community of states, nations, and societies united by, in addition to language and other things, liberal values such as responsible government, the right of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the rule of (mostly common) law. This definition of the Anglosphere has a long lineage, encompassing both the fact that liberal values saturate Anglo-American laws, public policies, party politics, and judicial rulings, as well as a more abstract claim that British and American hegemonies reflected as well as reproduced the ideals of the Enlightenment (rather than, say, classical, feudal, or even Christian forms of governance). That liberal values and institutions needed a lot of fine-tuning is not controversial; Ikenberry, for one, would agree that Victorian Britain was not a liberal Leviathan precisely because of many illiberal compromises with liberal laws, policies, and judicial rulings. Victorians, after all, were exceptionally adept at persuading each other that all good liberals must sometimes act illiberally to maintain order (reason, progress etc.) or that things like empire and frontier life should always be kept separate from homeland liberty [3].

The latter argument was perfected in the so-called white settler colonies; indeed, the notion that (our) responsible government corrects (their) irresponsible land use was once regarded as liberal. This type of liberalism criss-crossed the English-speaking world for a very long time, allowing colonial elites to constantly update each other on how to govern most effectively. According to one theory, articulations of the global Anglo-Saxondom served to privilege poor whites and so have them protect the imperial order against the resentment, anger, hatred, and rebellion of those outside the pale of liberty. Race, in other words, was necessary to convince the poor that they are a certain shade of white and that defending the status quo was in their best interest [4].

Eventually, one might say, liberalism faced its contradictions and reformed itself in profound ways. The end of Anglo-Saxonist supremacy was at least partly a function of liberal politics, and the ways in which the spirit of the Enlightenment compelled an ever fuller commitment to equality and inclusion of all people, not just certain white propertied men. This was one consequential culture change; indeed, yet another global turn. Mid-twentieth century human rights revolutions – associated as they tend to be with the rise of mass politics, de-Nazification, decolonization, feminist and civil rights movements, and so on – not only overturned the ideas of natural/biological inequality and helped mainstream anti-racism on a global scale, but also helped establish the liberal international order, reversing an earlier setback created, for example, by Woodrow Wilson’s unwillingness to give up on “race wars” and “race alliances.”

This reading can be coopted by whiggish and even “Weberian” theories of history. Here, the remarkable staying power of Liberal Internationalism 2.0, as well as its triumphalist, post-Cold War transition into Liberal Internationalism 3.0 had much to do with America’s liberal tradition and/or its Protestant culture of reformism or at least an aptitude for social and political change [5]. But these theories are passé. Whatever the causes of liberal Leviathan’s great transformations, I believe most historians would suggest that they cannot be reduced to a handful of social forces or even their “nexuses” or “complexes” (these make a great reading, of course, such as the one by Thomas Borstelmann on the interaction of African American voters, anticolonial nationalists in the Third World, Cold War liberals, different sorts of communists and segregationists, the Non-Aligned Movement, and U.S. Supreme Court judges).

Theorizing broadly, however, whig histories can be countered by a constructivist teaching that says that any international order evolves as a set of Self-Other relations. From this point of macro-historical view, global conflict and cooperation is always hostage to the dynamism of identity formation. In the nature of self-other relations an optimist can see benign or virtuous cycles of socialization—agents become socialized into the peaceful and cooperative practices such that they make them part of their identity, and that identity in turn sustains an interest in peace and cooperation as an end in itself. But there is a dark side to these cycles: what is a benign or virtuous for some might be vicious for others. This point was the crux of Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey’s influential critique of the liberal peace in IR in 2000s: the  “zones of peace and war are not separate and discrete phenomena explained by the presence or absence of liberal institutions within states but effects of mutually constitutive international political, social and economic relations.”

There is no need to explain a branding problem with any Anglosphere that is imagined as a hierarchy made up of the core and mostly white Self on the one hand and on the other the peripheral and over­whelmingly nonwhite Other. Indeed, core/periphery—like the corollary metaphors of concentric circles, nodal points, families of nations, clubs, waiting rooms—is a colonial-era concept that almost always invokes the presence of historically or cultur­ally backward Others. That articulation alone is productive of illiberal practices, as Robbie suggested in a recent post. Under the conditions of the so-called imperial peace, as Barkawi and Laffey note, it is relatively easy for liberal metropolitan elites to have liberal political opinion at home support the use of force in the colonial peripheries. Add racialization to this mix, and it becomes natural to formulate and implement one set of standards (say, just war) for the periphery and another for the core (compare, e.g., the treatments of African versus European prisoners of war in almost any early twentieth century armed conflict fought by European empires). There are other conceptual and analytical challenges as well. For one, without tracing the co-constitution of Self & Other (which, note, does not necessarily harmonize with core & periphery or rich & poor or East & West or North & South etc.), any narrative of the liberal ascendancy will not only be impoverished, but it may also miss the crucial liberal moments. The more liberal ideas and practices proliferated among the native elites in India, the more difficult it became for the British to control political processes through the barrel of the gun. All global turns, after all, have rather localized beginnings [6].

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberal would probably acknowledge that the liberal ascendancy has been uneven, bringing prosperity to some and misery to others. The question is whether these imperfections are temporary (or local) or whether liberalism has a durable dark side? The answer depends on how we fix the meaning and context of liberalism since we are talking about a political ideology (or rationality) composed of many, at times contradictory strands. Thus if we define it as a “really existing” political ideology that regards society as composed of free and equal individuals, then we are likely to come to the conclusion that “liberalism” has never been fully realized in practice. A rather long history of double standards and double visions on the question of membership in the liberal political communities of the Anglosphere and beyond – whether domestic, foreign, or in-between – certainly indicates that liberals have never been shy to draw a hard and fast line separating groups of people in matters of political authority. Sift through this blog (and its friends and affiliates) and you will find no shortage of evidence that the systems of liberal separation are alive, even if they are not as pervasive, powerful, and blatant as in the era of colonial regimes.

What of liberalism in IR, where it usually refers to a family of theories that consider the links between things like societal preferences, institutions, or trade on the one hand and on the other international and transnational cooperation. Liberal IR theorists tend to be political liberals, but as Gerry Simpson noted in “The Ethics of the New Liberalism” (Oxford Handbook of IR), the normative commitments of liberal IR are not always obvious or straightforward. For the rest of IR, which may or may not be politically liberal, “liberal values and institutions” usually appear as a target of critique. As every IR textbook explains, realists say that the “fashionable garments of liberalism” serve only to disguise the necessity of sovereign power, also adding that liberal ideas are directly responsible for many an unnecessary war. Marxists often agree, arguing that liberal garments actually obscure the movement of global capitalism from an Anglospheric core onto the rest of the world, either against the emerging “contender states,” and/or onto new, horizontally networked, and thoroughly transnationalized systems of coordination among different social forces and state/society complexes. And then there are all those “crits” who use liberal values and institutions as a starting point for the study of exclusionary politics. For Critical Security Studies, and this is a single critical IR camp that is yet to enter its ruby anniversary, the main research questions revolves around the ways advanced liberal democracies construct and reconstruct threats using moral and legal hierarchies between Us and Them. Here, both security and liberalism are regarded as ways of governing that are at times interdependent and even symbiotic.

From some of these IR perspectives, one might come to see liberalism’s dark side a function of life under anarchy, that is, the result of the inability to institutionalize liberty at a global scale without coordinating the will of many state/nation collectives. The outlook is in fact even worse considering that anarchy weakens liberalism not only abroad, but also at home. As every textbook on American political development explains, for example, the republic’s founding fathers acknowledged at once the “law of nations” and the fact that no state, no matter how peaceable, can be safe from external threats. The early constitutional debate on the so-called “standing armies” was settled precisely by this argument, as are multiple current debates on the use of force involving the sharp edges of the individual liberty-national security trade off. Anarchy may or may not be behind liberalisms’ imperfections, but my proposition is this: critical explorations of liberalism are much more helpful in articulating the history of the Anglosphere than all those popular approaches that see a rather straight direction of travel from Magna Carta to the seemingly galloping globalization of liberal ideas.

Let us try and fast-forward these different histories deeper into the 21st century: all being equal, what comes after the Anglosphere? If we accept that the rise of liberal internationalism has been shaped by the growing recognition of the equal rights of all people and the mainstreaming of antiracist attitudes, constitutional architectures, and institutions for managing cultural diversity as much as it has been shaped by free trade and collective security, it (might) follow that its future also hinges on the capacity and willingness of the US-centric hegemonic core to resolve both old and emergent tensions related to culture and values. Working hypotheses of this sort are beginning to appear in the current debates on the American decline. A decade ago, the future of the liberal order was related to the tension between the multilateral desiderata and the willingness of the U.S. to bind itself to them. Today, the dominant problem representation appears to revolve around the tension between growing interdependence on the one hand, and on the other stagnating or even regressing inclusiveness and integration.

Consider the positions of two aforementioned authors: Ikenberry is adamant that Liberal Internationalism 3.0 can continue even with once/if U.S. hegemony dissipates because stability, openness and rule-following are in everyone’s interests. Kupchan, in contrast, is sceptical. The swaggering states of what used to be known as the global South are challenging the liberal international order more and more. The contemporary global turn is not simply about multipolarity, but also about what S.N. Eisenstadt once called “multiple modernities” – the idea that “modernity” (defined in terms of, say, capitalist industrialism, democratic regimes, and secular constitutions) is experienced differently in different places, in accordance to historically specific, contingent, and mutually co-constituted pathways. Liberal Internationalism 3.0, from Kupchan’s perspective, will not necessarily prosper in a more heterogeneous modernity. In this world, there will be much interdependence, much political and ideological diversity, but no single globocop – an international arrangement that is hundred percent novel and hundred percent uncertain.

Also building on Eisenstadt, as well as on Michael Mann and Yasasuke Murakami, Peter Katzenstein forsees a similar arrangement, which he dubs “polymorphic globalism.” This argument is developed over the course of three collections of essays he edited on “civilizations in world affairs,” which explore the power of cultural identities that execute assorted discourses, policies, institutions, and practices of different communities around the world, including states (disclosure: I have a chapter in one of the volumes). What will make a U.S.-centric order, predominant in the West, hang together with the mini-orders in non-Western regions, Katzenstein suggests, is a “loose sense of shared values entailing often contradictory notions of diversity in a common humanity.” The content of those shared values is unclear, but what is clear is that they will be contested.

The Anglobocops need not go on alert, however. The clash for civilization of modernity is not likely to be violent. In addition to nuclear weapons, humanity has also developed all sorts of institutional, legal, and normative playbooks on how to prevent major war. Using some of them, Kupchan thus offers a series of proposals on how a strategic bargain on a common humanity can be struck (Postliberal Internationalism 1.0, perhaps?). Katzenstein makes a similar suggestion, but from a different perspective. What makes our world so clearly “polymorphic” is the rise of the Rest and the approaching contest between (at least) two fundamental “worldviews”: while the West is cosmologically and politically “transcendental,” the Rest (or at least East Asia) is “practical.” This argument goes back to Weber, and his attempts to link worldviews and the patterns of socio-economic development. In the West, argued Weber in his Economy and Society (1922), institutions like industrial capitalism were shaped by Christianity and its top-down understanding of authority:

The occidental church is a uniformly rational organization with a monarchical head and it is headed not only by a personal transcendental god, but also by a terrestrial ruler of enormous power, who actively controls the lives of his subjects. Such a figure is lacking in the religions of Eastern Asia, partly for historical reasons, partly because of the nature of religions in question.

The fact that worldviews always co-constitute and influence each other was outside Weber’s analysis, but he was correct in arguing that one worldview cannot completely replace another. This means, among other things, that the transcendental and hierarchical structures of authority prevailing in the West never erased their equivalent in the East. According to Weber – as well as Needham, Fairbanks, Mann, Murakami and many others who have written on this subject, but whose work an IR-ist like never got to read – the Sinocentric worldview emphasizes the supremacy of roles, not rulership. This has resulted in the presence of more complex structures of authority: in addition to working through topdown, jurisdictional hierarchies characteristic of the Western world, East Asian societies are said to also operate through status hierarchies and networks of normative (“harmonious”) social relationships. This worldview offers a basis for political authority and legitimacy that may significantly differ from what we have seen in the age of Anglobal governance. In the era of polymorphic globalism, the perennial trade-offs between efficiency and legitimacy, prosperity and security, liberty and empire will have to be revisited, but this time non-liberal Others will participate as rule-makers, and neither side will able to impose its will. The jury is out on whether this is a good thing. Depending on the prevailing self-other dynamics, and contrary to canonical IR teachings on multipolarity, no one’s world might well prove to be a much more peaceful world. Furthermore, an optimist would add, no one’s world might be characterized with more equality not just among the “regional hegemons,”  but also among  individuals and groups of individuals (and not in the supernarrow sense of equality among consumers). To that end, the reigning liberal Leviathan would do well to address its enduring old double visions and double standards, while recovering and cultivating a liberal pluralist ethos that calls for more recognition and more respect for cultural and political difference. This redistribution of power (in all of its forms) could be a basis of a friendlier world society that has been idealized by generations of liberals. Perhaps ironically, the global turn may in fact be very good news for that old liberal telos known as the “world state.”


[1] Ikenberry, note, does not posit thick liberal ascendancy. Allow me to caricature of two schools of thought that do. The first (“Fukuyama”) asserts that liberalism has always had an inherent advantage over its rivals due to its ability to balance among personal freedom, economic growth, social equality and other promises of modernity. History shows that this is not merely bourgeois wishful thinking. The universal demand for the protection of individuals through democracy and the rule of law, to say nothing of the yearning for the positive sum outcomes provided by developed, free markets, has put an end to all “really existing” alternatives to liberalism so far. The second school (“Foucault”) professes doubt about such notions of universalizing progress, defining liberalism as a political rationality – a mode of state-society relations revolving around the idea of the market. Where they both (sometimes) agree is that liberalism is not only ascendant, but also globally dominant as a political culture, philosophy, and/or ideology.

Also, Ikenberry brackets domestic politics, which arguably makes it more difficult to explore thicker version of the liberal ascendancy. The way I see it, we miss out by putting aside, temporizing or ignoring the feedback loops between putative liberal “traditions” at home and abroad, and the way they influenced the evolution of the global liberal order. As I will show in the rest of this post, when it comes to IR theory, I am with classical realists, second-image theorists, and all those inspired by historical sociology: the rise of liberal internationalism – or anything else related to internationalism – cannot be studied without the integration of domestic and foreign.

[2] Here I cannot discuss how my Anglosphere story relates to the huge, and often sparsely connected scholarship on Anglo-American relations, but let me draw attention to one outstanding recent book that will be subject to a panel discussion at the BISA/ISA convention in Edinburgh. In Patterns of Empire, Julian Go makes a big comparison (his adjective) between British and American imperial formations from the late seventeenth century to the age of Obama.  The patterns refer to economic historical phases – ascendancy, maturity, and decline – as well as to the policies, practices and forms shaped by both localized and global “logics of legitimation.” What Go’s books shows is that we cannot understand the multiple modalities of imperial power without, nod to the note above, integrating of domestic and foreign, local and metropolitan, inside and outside. It also raises excellent questions for further discussion (e.g., What makes a field of struggle global? Must imperial hierarchy be racialized, always and by default? If there is such a thing as the Anglosphere historically, to what extent can we treat American and British imperial careers as discrete entities?), perhaps calling for a book symposium (wink, wink, TDOT, nudge, nudge). Go’s original and ambitious accomplishment will be well worth your reading time, even if you are not necessarily into (if you’ll forgive the label) Wallersteinian-cum-historical-sociology approaches.

[3] One of the most devastating critiques along these lines comes from Fanon. Orwell’s quote from the earlier paragraph is from his letter to the United Automobile Workers, as it appeared in The New York Times Book Review on 31 July 1949; italics in the original. As for the book cover jpeg, it was Pablo’s idea, not mine. But now that’s up, let me say a couple of things. The image of the early Anglo-Saxon ceremonial helmet appeared as one of the nominations for the official icon of England in a project on English identity commissioned and funded by the UK government in 2006-11. The official website, done by Cogapp, is now down, but it received much newsmedia coverage at the time (I can’t seem to find the silhouette that represented the official icon, and how many votes it won in the end). Also, what I’ve always found interesting is that the helmet (or the burial ship in which it was found) was excavated in 1939, just as the Anglos were about to go fight the Saxons (I wonder if anyone can recommend me a good cultural history that explores the ironies of national identity narratives in this particular context). And yes, to get the image of the helmet on the cover, I got written permission from the British Museum.

[4] The pros and cons of this theory remain subject to ongoing discussion at TDOT, and all I want to say for now is that while the contemporary liberal international order may have no single origin, it surely has more than one racialized moment. I would also add that some of these compromises long predate Britain’s Victorian empire. Every time we use the phrases like the “plantation” or “beyond the pale”, we should think about the age of pre-modern, pre-liberal empires and, in particular, of English/British colonization of Ireland and the rest of the Isles.

[5] This is simplification of course, but consider Walter Russel Mead’s discussion of Weberian and liberal progress narratives in his Anglosphere story.

[6] Consider Go’s argument once again (see note 2 above): the agency of the local colonial elites (as well as the colonized masses) in places like the Philippines and Puerto Rico was as productive of the liberal ascendancy (such as it was) as anything cooked up by the liberal grand strategists in Washington’s kitchens of power. Put differently, the Anglosphere is liberal not because of the culture and shared values of its core societies and elites, but because of the feedback loops of “legitimation” (Go’s term) between the imperial center and the colonial periphery. The beginnings bit is meant to be a bow to Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson’s 2008 book. I am not much of a political philosopher or an intellectual historian, but I’d describe it as an instant classic.

One thought on “The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

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