Conrad Russell and liberalism 5: Internationalism and utopias

(This is part of a series of posts about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. You can find an introduction and links to all the posts here.)

When it comes to internationalism, Russell’s historical account of the development of liberal thought shows how the application of consistent principles to international affairs over the years have resulted in very different outcomes of liberal policy as the international situation has shifted. It’s interesting — and not at all coincidental — to note that liberalism began to form as a coherent ideology in the middle of the seventeenth century, just as the modern world system of nation-states came into being after the treaties of Westphalia. As we’ve seen from previous posts, liberalism is centred on the principle of consent, and Westphalia, in a very limited fashion initially, introduced the idea that political power did involve consent and was not merely about the application of absolute power downwards.

However, while there may have been a nascent potential for internationalism in liberalism from its beginnings, it couldn’t develop into a fully-formed part of it until it became practical from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Even at that point, internationalism was primarily an idea of the elites, particularly in Britain, as mass transport and mass communication were yet to arrive on the scene and most people would have had little conception of what was happening within the rest of the country, let alone outside its borders. As Russell notes, during that period there was an alliance of liberalism and nationalism, as revolutionaries sought to overthrow the old systems to replace them with nation-states built on the consent of the people, but then the two diverged as the realisation dawned upon liberals that nationalism had released the monsters that would haunt the twentieth century. At first impression, nationalism had seemed to Gladstone and others as a way to create governments based on consent rather than authority, but time would reveal that the complexities of identity and community would make that wish impossible to realise.

Thus, while the principle of consent remains important, in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond we can see the other core principle of liberalism at work in the international system — that all power must be able to be controlled. The principle of consent believed that control could be solely applied from below and that states would be controlled by the granting or refusing of power from their people, which may have seemed plausible to nineteenth century elites. However, the twentieth century had shown that states now had enough power (following industrialisation, mass media etc) to be able to influence and control their people. If power could not be controlled solely from below, then liberal internationalism would support control from above.

This is how we come to have the liberal internationalism we see today, and that I touched on in the post on pluralism, where power is controlled by being dispersed and no one — especially no government — is above the law. It’s actually one of the great successes of international liberalism that so much has changed since 1945 in establishing an international system that’s generally in line with liberal principles. Perhaps there’s an interesting lesson in the way the international system has developed, in that it’s mostly been an organic and responsive process rather that’s been driven by necessity rather than by campaigning?

That is not to say that we have a perfect system, as can be seen by either looking at the world we live in or looking at how many people are out there propounding their theories of international relations (still one of the consistently growing fields in academic social sciences). There are many liberals who are absolutely sure they know the way to fix everything — in domestic and international affairs — if only everyone would agree to adopt their specific way of doing things. This is something Russell notes, and explains why his section on internationalism ends with a Popper-esque warning against dreaming of utopias:

All utopias depend on one person’s vision taking priority over another’s and therefore they all come into existence, if at all, by the draconian enforcement of one person’s vision on others. All utopias are potentially dictatorial. The beauty of the idealism is soon taken to obscure the beastliness of the enforcement. This is why utopias are not a liberal pursuit. A creed which is founded on consent and on respect for difference of ideals is one which can dream dreams, but when awake, it can never be utopian without abandoning its own essence.

This, I think, is the core of liberal internationalism that is sometimes forgotten by those that use the term. It’s interesting that Russell wrote this four years before we were led into war in Iraq in service of a supposed ‘liberal internationalism’ that essentially argued that it could bring about a liberal end by the use of illiberal means. Those ends, of course, were never delivered, but even if they could have been, the true meaning of internationalism within liberalism is that it applies to everyone. Part of the lessons liberals learnt in the twentieth century was that the elite liberalism that had encouraged nationalism in the nineteenth century had been a mistake, and one of the lessons twenty-first century liberalism is learning is a similar lesson that liberal ends cannot be achieved, no matter how tempting they may appear:

However desperate the need for haste, there are no short cuts. Desperate need for haste does not make it possible to do a job faster than it can be done. The route by consent may be painfully slow, but it is the only route which does not become dictatorial and therefore self-defeating. It may not be fast enough to do what is needed, but it is the only route there is.

I think this rejection of utopia and promotion of the importance of consent provides a very interesting idea for liberalism in international affairs. It’s not a vision of ‘this is where we must get to, now plot a route to get us there regardless’ more ‘these are the routes available, which best represents our principles?’ It fits in with Russell’s general view of liberalism as principles that have emerged from dealing with power in reality, rather than drawing up utopian visions and then expecting to be able to conform reality to fit with that vision. However, it also rejects the conservative interpretation of ‘this is how things are, and we better not change much in case we make it worse’ in saying that things can be better as long as we hold on to our principles.

Even though Russell doesn’t acknowledge it, this is surely borrowed from Karl Popper’s vision of the Open Society (and I sense that I may need to follow up this project with a reread of The Open Society and Its Enemies) which rejects the utopias of Plato and Marx but advocates that it is possible to make a better world if we accept that it is not a simple thing to do and we must be aware of the pitfalls of believing in utopias. We cannot use the end of a supposed liberal utopia to justify means that are not liberal, because once we abandon our principles, they do not automatically come back and forgive us our deviations. A liberal order can only be built by people acting liberally and the final shape it might take can only be based on consent.

And in part 6, we’ll look more at consent as we focus on individual liberty.

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