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How to make sense of our collapsing global order

- April 17, 2018
Boys stand on the rubble of a house destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2017. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Both international relations scholars and policy thinkers have spent a lot of time over the past 18 months arguing about whether there is a “crisis of the liberal order.” After World War II, the United States and its allies put together a set of institutions and policies that were supposed to sustain small-l liberal values at home by promoting them, along with open economic exchange abroad. Now, people inside and outside the academy worry that this order is crumbling. As someone who has worked in the executive branch, Congress and at a Washington think tank, I greatly value scholars’ ability to analyze and structure our world — and sometimes, to shake up our understanding. For years, academia has agonized about its relationship to policy. Here are a set of vital contributions it can make right now.

Stop arguing about the word ‘crisis’

The question of whether the liberal order is indeed in “crisis” is an interesting intellectual conundrum. Practically speaking, though, it ends up mostly telling us about the many ways in which the words “crisis” and “liberal order” can be defined. Policy people have varied needs. Candidates want to know what to say in the midterm elections, activists look to stop genocide or scientists try to build networks to respond to global warming. What they all want is more immediate and practical information. Thinkers can lead us, instead of disagreeing endlessly over whether we are in crisis, by moving on to define more specific aspects of our troubles — “flaws,” “weaknesses” or “outdated practices” — and identifying responses.

Be clear about what aspects of the liberal order are important

It should be easy to say what the specifically important aspects of the liberal order are, and what is happening to them. It isn’t. The policy advocacy world could urgently use a catalogue of formal and informal norms and institutions, with maps of who is attacking and defending them. We also need structural thinking about which norms depend on which, and which are most foundational.

Map the debates and how they are spreading

In the United States and internationally, analysts don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe different schools of thought and groupings of policy preferences among publics, elites and political actors. We need to build this vocabulary and to start to map out how people fall into different clusters. Journalists have had no end of trouble pinning down whether candidate Donald Trump, and now President Trump, is a “hawk” or a “dove,” an “isolationist” or a “warmonger.” Other axes would help. We also need to understand who is influencing whom, and how policy ideas are shifting and adapting as they spread across different communities. Scholars could contribute enormously here.

Track what is changing

We have stunningly little in the way of comprehensive systemic monitoring and analyses of what norms, standards, laws, regulations and processes are being reversed, altered or abandoned. Political scientists in Bright Line Watch and other such initiatives are doing important work at the domestic level, but more is needed in granular detail on specific policy areas. There is next to nothing at the level of international politics, or covering the intersection between international politics and domestic implementation. The author is aware of just one effort to track changes in U.S. government law and practice relevant to climate change, for example; and of no efforts to track changes relating to the U.N.’s Women, Peace and Security agenda and its implementation in the United States. There are multitudes of great student research projects and groundbreaking analyses waiting to happen — or be lost. As political circumstances change, such academic efforts could have enormous value.

Bridge different approaches to how societies respond to major stresses

We are blessed with several distinct literatures that consider aspects of this question: political reform; conflict prevention/resolution/peacemaking/peacebuilding; and the theory of nonviolent social change. However, they don’t speak much to each other. And, frankly, the latter two are not particularly highly valued either in the internal hierarchy of political science — or the understanding of policymakers and their advisers who trained in the elite reserves of political science. For one example of this, read my work with Elizabeth Weingarten on how few security policymakers are aware of the well-documented empirical link between a society’s rates of violence against women and its risk of intra-communal and international conflict. For another, try to find examples of policymakers or advocates who oppose a particular military response citing Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s empirical work on the superiority of nonviolence.

Likewise, there is a mismatch between domestic and international debates about reform. In the United States, debates focus on how to reform institutions that don’t seem to be working — with entire literatures talking about the problems. In the international arena, in contrast, observers’ concern with how the international system is becoming more closed takes up all the energy that might be used to think about how reforms might possibly make things better. Washington could have used more creative thinking about how to respond to the earliest stages of Chinese initiatives to build regional economic institutions, for example; and the reality of multi-stakeholder governance including nonstate actors in managing important aspects of our world, such as the Internet, is understudied and theorized. Bringing the lens of institutional reform to international structures — while being realistic about how changes in institutions at both levels involve shifts in power — could generate new and practical ideas.

Another set of possible insights comes from academics who focus on peace-building in countries once torn by violent conflict and genocide. This scholarship is often neglected by political scientists who look at institutions and politics in advanced democracies. However, much as they may dislike it, they need to start recognizing that its insights may be relevant for democratic societies that are increasingly bitterly divided. For example, scholars could examine whether media programming is better at changing people’s closely held personal moral or political views, or whether instead it changes their perceptions of the broad norms that everyone should obey, and what this means for resolving conflict. They might also ask about the relative importance of “buy-in” at the local and national levels to the success of projects aimed at easing tensions in polarized societies.

They could look to the lessons of the literature on nonviolent change. People defending civic freedoms in Hungary, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere have made explicit use of prior experience in Serbia, the U.S. civil rights movement, and so on back to Gandhi. Indeed, the civic activist movements transforming the grass-roots landscape in the United States explicitly trace their theories of change to this tradition — from the Movement for Black Lives through 350.org to Indivisible, to name just a few. This body of work builds on foundational ideas of political science but is rarely discussed in the mainstream of academic and think tank debate.

Include more and different voices

Just as in the spheres of politics and activism, political-science research has to be more informed by — and carried out more by — individuals with the experience of the groups that are most affected by changes in the liberal order, domestically and globally. While we still hear arguments about inclusion from alleged positions of principle, literatures as diverse as peace-building and organizational psychology make it clear that inclusion is necessary for responses to be effective and legitimate. If political science wants to be genuinely useful to the outside world, it has to do the same.

Heather Hurlburt runs the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America. Her decades of work on the politics of American foreign policy include stints at the White House, State Department, Congress and advocacy organizations.