The Elusive International Order


The liberal international order was a screen and a sham. But this does not mean that liberalism is lost.

The following longform piece was an essay submitted in May 2022 to the Mont Pelerin Society for the Hayek Essay Contest on the topic of international order. Although rejected, the subject is important and of interest for our readers.

An international authority which effectively limits the powers of the state over the individual will be one of the best safeguards of peace. The international Rule of Law must become a safeguard as much against the tyranny of the state over the individual as against the tyranny of the new super-state over the national communities. Neither an omnipotent super-state, nor a loose association of ‘free nations’, but a community of nations of free men must be our goal.

Hayek, Friedrich (1944, 1976) The Road To Serfdom. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 175.

Since it has been argued so far that an essentially liberal economic regime is a necessary condition for the success of any interstate federation, it may be added, in conclusion, that the converse is no less true: the abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the liberal program.

Hayek, Friedrich (1939) The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism,
reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order (1949, 1976) Routledge & Kegan Paul. p.269.


Prose, not poetry, is the language of politics. The liberal international order was a screen and a sham. But this does not mean that liberalism is lost. I will begin by outlining some problems with the two aforementioned Hayek quotes before discussing the importance of the nation-state, the problem of liberalism, and finally, the necessity of statesmanship and prudence in international politics.

International Rule of Law

The two aforementioned Hayek quotes rest on illusions.[1]  Hayek’s goal is the preservation of peace internationally, served by such institutions as free trade and an international political authority.[2] The first quote makes implausible assumptions. The first is that an international authority is somehow more capable of safeguarding peace than any other form of authority. But any authority powerful enough to safeguard peace will be powerful enough to break it. Hayek also assumes that war or conflict results primarily from the state’s power over the individual – its power to oppress its own people or coerce them into going to war. A solution presents itself: democracies are better able to resist the power of the rulers and will not wage war on each other. The concept is dubious.[3] But Hayek ignores this dubious solution since unrestrained democracy is equally liable to lead a state to violence and tyranny. The states must be restrained; hence the need for an international authority.

Hayek invests this international authority with far more effectiveness than it is likely to enjoy in practice. He does not appear to differentiate between domestic and international politics. If rule of law works domestically, then why not internationally? However, in stark contrast to the domestic sphere, an international authority would need at least two things that no international authority truly has: a monopoly on the interpretation of international law, and a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence to enforce this interpretation. Lacking these, there are potentially as many interpretations of international law as there are states, and each of them end up responsible for enforcing their own justice.[4] At the domestic level, where rule of law is reliable, many problems of order can be reduced to legal problems. At the international level, problems of order remain political. Domestic authorities enjoy legitimacy vis-à-vis their citizens (though even here not always), but no international authority can match this legitimacy on a global scale. Even if such an authority had both forms of monopoly, it would hardly put an end to conflict. Wars formerly considered foreign would become civil wars, and no less contentious.[5] Less ideal outcomes are more likely. Any international authority that has these aspirations on a global level, but with a monopoly neither on the interpretation of international law nor on the legitimate use of violence to enforce this interpretation, will be deemed illegitimate by many countries, an extreme annoyance at best, a bureaucratic machine suffering from democratic deficit at worst. If this authority does not have the most powerful countries on board, such as the US and China, then even if its interpretation of law is widely respected, it will remain impotent. If this authority does have the most powerful countries on board, though its interpretation be widely considered invalid, it will be deemed imperialist.


An aid to the international rule of law for Hayek is federalism. In the analysis that precedes the first quote from The Road to Serfdom he accurately points out the thorny issues associated with centralized domestic economic planning and their exacerbation in the case of international economic planning.[6] However, his lucidity does not extend to his proposed alternative: an international political authority. Such an authority, for Hayek, would possess only negative powers, i.e. the ability to prevent people from damaging one another and imposing restrictive measures. It amounts to the creation neither of a single centralized state nor a confederation, but rather an international authority that resembles the “ultra-liberal ‘laissez faire’ state”, or “the application to international affairs of democracy”. This federalism is sustained by a division of powers and is expected to restrain bad economic planning as well as potentially devolve powers to more local levels. The primary goal being peace, economic union is deemed indispensable, covering everything from foreign policy (trade) to the free movement of goods, people, and money, to a common fiscal and monetary policy, to defence, without which states could too easily revert to national planning and protectionism, endangering the federation as a whole.

Is the Hayekian model of federalism an adequate form of international political authority? It seems to me that the primary difficulty to address is what would compel the various states voluntarily to surrender sovereignty over their economic and foreign affairs. The EU is not strictly speaking a federation, though the project was born of the need to rebuild economically, and its success in this area gradually drew in other countries over the years. At the time of Hayek’s writing, the US and Switzerland were examples to emulate, although Hayek was aware that even they were beginning to embrace policies that threatened the common economic area.[7] And the American project was not without bloodshed, despite the common culture and ideals of its early immigrants. Indeed, new political orders, such as federations, seem to form out of violent disorder. Peaceful institutional solutions cannot create the will to cooperate; rather, those are the result of this will. Both the international rule of law and international federalism presuppose the nation-states’ willingness to surrender sovereignty. For this reason, Hayek’s second quote indicates that nationalism and the nation-state are the problem.

Political Community and the Nation-State

I believe Hayek is mistaken on this point. In fact, an effective international order requires that national sovereignties remain intact. National sovereignty is intertwined with popular sovereignty. It is a point insufficiently appreciated that popular sovereignty, democracy, and nationalism all emerged hand-in-hand in the wake of the French Revolution.[8] This is because it is unclear, if we jettison national sovereignty, by what principle we could define the “people” who are supposed to be sovereign. It became apparent that if the people are to participate in political power, then they require some sense of civic duty and responsibility. If they are diverse, then they need some standard by which they can feel a sense of cultural homogeneity and common loyalty, making it easier for them to serve the interest of the whole.

The nation-state has been the most effective political order at integrating large populations within a clearly defined territory and maintaining popular sovereignty. Over and above other collective forms, such as those based on class – to say nothing of one encompassing all of humanity – the nation-state enjoys a privileged position, for it is more than just a configuration of institutions; it has a collective life of its own, defined by shared culture and beliefs. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek writes that “[n]either an omnipotent super-state, nor a loose association of ‘free nations’, but a community of nations of free men must be our goal.”[9] What does it take to create a community of nations of free men? We can answer in part by observing that the community of the nation-state is markedly different from many international communities, let alone a global community.[10]

Liberalism refuses to face the fact that there is a tremendous difference between the problem of community on the national and the global level, a difference which no constitutional magic can overcome. National and imperial communities all have ethnic, linguistic, geographic, historical, and other forces of social unity. The universal community, however, has no common language or common culture – nothing to create the consciousness of “we.” Modern democratic communities may be culturally and ethnically pluralistic, but they all possess a core of common spiritual possessions which the world community lacks.[11]

The Primacy of the Political

The great hope of liberalism has always been to overcome these differences of culture – this tribalism – and, like Achilles and King Priam at the end of Homer’s Iliad, to recognize our common humanity. For it is a fact that we all share in reason or are children of God, but is this sufficient to ensure that as a collective entity we are capable of political action, i.e. acting commonly? No, for in our time it is the nation-state that acts politically. What does it mean to act politically?

All peoples find themselves confronted in their activities with the need to match means to ends. Sometimes the ends are written directly into the activity itself. The businessman seeks profit.[12] The physician, health. The lawyer, within the confines of the laws, justice. The politician? Power. Power is both means and immediate aim in politics.[13] But is that all? It has long been acknowledged by those who contemplate politics – who are more sophisticated than those who practice politics – that the end is the common good. But we still have not been able to define the common good. The politician’s end, then, is somewhat more open than the ends of the businessman, the physician, and the lawyer. The politician has no roadmap – he cannot act according to a bureaucratic procedure. He cannot abrogate the necessity of choosing and acting without reducing his action to a decision based merely on science or economics or even the law. Holding one of these domains above the others is itself a political choice. The politician cannot reduce the government of men to the administration of things.[14]

What is unique about the nation-state in our world today is that it constitutes open-ended political action by people who feel they have something in common. Or, in Pierre Manent’s words, it is “a public or common thing (res publica) and therefore a certain way of ‘putting something or having something in common.’”[15] The nation-state consists of a geographically circumscribed group of individuals who feel they constitute a community, who deliberate on the common good and their destiny as a community. A community of nations of free men may feel a certain degree of homogeneity and fellow feeling, but it will be gradually weaker as more nations are included in the group. And it does not appear at all possible today that such a community could include all nations and that all nations would be made up of free men. Besides, freedom, as with all important ideals, means different things to different people.

One sometimes speaks of the necessity of international community as if the diversity of nation-states and cultures were something to be feared – a legacy of the exaggerated response to the exaggerated nationalisms of the first half of the 20th century. But the mere existence of nation-states – just like the mere existence of arms – does not render conflict inevitable.

The diversity of cultures is not a cause to be exorcized but a heritage to be safeguarded…To efface the distinctions between these communities would be to impoverish humanity, supposing that such an objective were possible to achieve. The ideal of a humanity conscious of its own solidarity does not contradict the fact of a humanity divided into nations conscious of their uniqueness and of the value of their uniqueness.[16]

Secession and Subsidiarity

Contrary to Hayek’s wish, we are a long way from abrogating national sovereignties, and it is good that this is so. But if the nation-state is determined by collections of individuals who share common beliefs and values and act in concert, then what should prevent nation-states from splintering into smaller political units whenever internal divisions threaten the commonality of their beliefs and values? To begin with, the internal divisions mustn’t contradict or corrupt the very spirit of the regime. Civil strife can be a sign of vibrancy and vigor.[17] Should the divisions become so great as to be intractable, then secession. But by what right? It makes no more sense to debate the right of secession than to debate the right of confederation. It is not a legal question to begin with. The question of what constitutes a political community and the collective project cannot be solved by legal formulae, for it is a political question of the highest order. It is thus a question of the “putting in common”, which precedes law and the discussion of rights.

As for subsidiarity, preference should always be given to the lowest and most local level possible, where knowledge and the capacity for action are greatest and where the people feel they have skin in the game – all more the case given the strong tendency toward centralization. However, there is no reason to assume, as Hayek does, that an international authority, once established, would be any more likely to cede powers taken from the nation-state to more local authorities. On the contrary, given the natural instinct of any authority to accrue more responsibilities and power, I would tend to see any authority not subject to the will of peoples to incline towards tyranny – even a Hayekian international authority that claims to restrain states. The supplanting of national sovereignties in favour of international authority or rule of law is redolent of the centralization towards which a people are propelled once they have overthrown the aristocracy. “It then takes far less effort to hasten its way further down this slope than to hold it back. There is a tendency for all the powers within it to become one, and it is only with a great deal of art that they can be kept apart.”[18]

The United States and the Empire of Liberalism

By this point it should be clear that the national and international domains are distinct. International order is anarchic and can only with great difficulty be moulded to a design. It is a Hayekian spontaneous order par excellence. The present international order acknowledging nation-states – the Westphalian order – is “the sole generally recognized basis of what exists of a world order.”[19] One must take the international order as it is and navigate it as best as one can, serving the interests of one’s country.

The idea that we could go beyond this and fulfil the dream of an international order that preserves liberalism – or even a liberal international order – is of American inspiration. The success of the American constitutional project, the international role assumed by the US in the 20th century, the nobility of the country’s ideals – all of these have conspired to convince so many that the American example stands as an example for all.[20] It is supposed to represent Enlightenment ideals in practice. It is the dream of every philosopher who has thought politics more than he has practiced it. A republic with universal ideals – the Imperial Republic.[21] Yet, for all of the goodness and rationality of America’s liberal ideals, they may still be felt as a form of imperialism in disguise. It is not the first time in history that just rule has weighed more heavily than oppression.[22]

On the other hand, imperialism need not be bad. It is one of the oldest forms of political order, and not without some success. Gibbon famously referred to the period “which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus” as the point “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”[24] But a liberal imperialism poses problems of an altogether different nature. How does a liberal empire square its imperium with the fundamental respect for individual freedom that liberalism stands for? One way is to give priority to economic freedom over all other forms of freedom, which is more or less what Hayek does. Hayek, as many liberals, ignores the primacy of the political. But what of the freedom of individuals to arrange themselves in autonomous political units, such as the nation-state? Was it not in the name of liberty and self-determination that so many colonies in the 20th century broke away from their imperial masters? Was it not in the name of liberty and self-determination that the greatest power in the world today broke away from the greatest power of yesterday, the empire of the sceptred isle? The will to be free turns easily into the will to dominate.[24]And liberalism, which seeks not to oppress but to reform, may offend more deeply.[25] Are political will and justificatory sophistication enough to sustain the hypocrisy of a liberal empire?

Statesmanship and Prudence

Pure constitutionalism, the power of reason and science, economism, universalism, peace, progress – all are integral to the liberal worldview.[26] And all of them stumble in the face of politics.[27] Recalcitrant, inevitable, evil – politics must be confronted with a greater sense of tragedy than science; more old European wisdom than American optimism.[28] Instead of institutions and orders to secure liberalism, the focus should be on statesmanship and prudence.[29] Where orders and structures are shaky, stability rests with men of virtue. Every country desiring to defend liberalism must ask itself such questions (and contemplate how other countries would answer these questions):

What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? The answer defines the minimum condition of the survival of the society. What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? These goals define the minimum objectives of the national strategy. What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? This defines the outer limits of the country’s strategic aspirations as part of a global system. What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance? This defines the limiting condition of the [country’s] participation in world order. Above all, what is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? What applications depend in part on circumstance?[30]

The values we cherish are liberal. But even liberalism has need of limits.[31] It is easier to secure within countries where political authority is legitimate than abroad. However, an international order preserving as much of liberalism as possible would require countries not to commit themselves to the imposition of universal and abstract ideals internationally, e.g. converting other countries into democracies, or defending human rights verbally when we cannot back them up with deeds, or dogmatically promoting the free market, or imposing an overly ambitious green agenda on ourselves and the rest of the world – not because any of these things are morally wrong, but rather because advocating or imposing them has been ineffective. These universal ideals are but some of the many priorities of Western countries, and certainly not their top priorities. Instead, countries must be ever aware of the relation of forces, the will of peoples, and the potential commonality and conflict of interests.

In short, an effective international order requires statesmen to exercise prudence. The liberal philosopher Raymond Aron defined the morality of prudence thus:

To be prudent is to act in accordance with the particular situation and the concrete data, and not in accordance with some system or out of passive obedience to a norm or pseudo-norm; it is to prefer the limitation of violence to the punishment of the presumably guilty party or to a so-called absolute justice; it is to establish concrete accessible objectives conforming to the secular law of international relations and not to limitless and perhaps meaningless objectives, such as “a world safe for democracy” or “a world from which power politics will have disappeared.”[32]

Prudent policy would also have us ask ourselves who our allies, friends, rivals, and enemies are, and what our interests are. There are natural groupings between countries with shared values and beliefs – in the case of Western countries, not just Enlightenment liberalism, but also the older ties of Greco-Roman civilization and Christianity.[33] It makes little sense to lump Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, Putin, and Xi Jinping into the same “authoritarian” basket, as if they were so many shades of the same ugly colour. One was the democratically elected president of the US who did far more offence to the political elite and the chattering classes than he did harm to his country or to the world. One is the democratically elected prime minister of a European country, a self-styled defender of Christendom and opponent of the EU, who in his virtues and especially his faults continues to share more in common with liberal Western politicians than his detractors will ever admit. One is the fickle leader of a NATO allied country on Europe’s doorstep, an unavoidable working partner always to be watched closely. One is the leader of a declining great power, who understands only the language of power politics, and all the more to be forcefully guarded against since few things are more dangerous than a power that recognizes the gap between its delusions of grandeur and its actual mediocrity.[34] One is the president for life of one of the oldest civilizations in the world – all foreign policy decisions should be calibrated while bearing in mind the possible actions and reactions of the quiet Middle Kingdom.

What constitutes prudent policy with regards to trade? Liberals never fail to sing the praises of free trade, lifting billions out of poverty and providing for greater choice to consumers the world over. These are great benefits indeed. But free trade is not a good in and of itself; it is but a means to prosperity, which is one of several desirable ends, some of which, such as self-determination, may in some circumstances be preferable to prosperity. And we are not only consumers but also citizens. Trade serves not only economics but also geopolitics, and prudent foreign policy must be mindful of this.[35] For example, the misfortune of America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was not that it signalized opposition to free trade, but rather the self-imposed exclusion from the economies of the future and the opportunity to maintain influence in the region vis-à-vis China.


From international institutions and international order to statesmen and prudent action at the level of nation-states; from science and progress to tragedy and politics – such has been the trajectory of this essay. Unsatisfying perhaps to those who seek institutional reforms to save the rules-based international order. But I cannot see the preservation of liberal civilization without recovering something of the spirit that animated the great liberals of old: the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and moderation; the study of antiquity and the love of country that such study engenders; the experience of tragedy and the pursuit of beauty and nobility. Was it not the founder of the Mont Pelerin Society who arrived at his liberalism by reading the great German poets?[36]

[1] The reader will note that my criticisms of Hayek throughout are based exclusively on these two quotes and do not take into account Hayek’s later works. This choice was motivated partly by my belief that some of the illusions Hayek entertains in these quotes are entertained still today by many well-meaning liberals.

[2] Hayek, “The Economic Conditions of Inter-state Federalism,” 255.

[3] See Layne, “Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace.”

[4] Aron, Peace and War, 725

[5] Aron, Peace and War, 755. Cf. Montesquieu, Considérations, Ch. XI.

[6] Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 223-236

[7] Hayek, “The Economic Conditions of Inter-state Federalism,” 266-267.

[8] Calleo, Europe’s Future, 24-27; Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, 74. Right-wing defenders of nationalism and critics of liberalism are hardly news; however, that nationalism may not be antithetical to liberalism – indeed, may be vital to the survival of liberalism – is also beginning to be acknowledged. See Fukuyama, “A Country of Their Own: Liberalism Needs the Nation.”

[9] Hayek, Road to Serfdom, 235.

[10] Technological advances permitting greater communication make hardly a difference. Increased communication between peoples gives them manifold opportunities to understand and misunderstand each other.

[11] Niebuhr, “The Myth of World Government,” 663-664. Although Niebuhr is speaking here specifically of American liberalism, I believe that his argument can be extended to liberalism in general.

[12] When he is not too distracted by ESG and other forms of corporate social responsibility.

[13] Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 31.

[14] Cf. Aron, “Etats démocratiques et états totalitaires,” 69.

[15] Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, 77.

[16] Aron, Peace and War, 750-751.

[17] Cf. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.4; Montesquieu, Considérations, Ch. IX.

[18] Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, 61.

[19] Kissinger, World Order, 6.

[20] America’s vogue for pure constitutionalism in international political theory can be explained by a misinterpretation of that country’s founding as the result purely of constitutional fiat. The constitution was the end of an organic process rather than the beginning. A common conflict drew various colonies together into a community, which, together with the statesmanship of Washington, was able to draw up a constitution. See Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 446.

[21] Aron, République impériale.

[22] Cf. Thucydides, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, I.76-77.

[23] Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.3.

[24] Cf. Sallust, Historiarum Fragmenta, I.8.

[25] Cf. Montesquieu, Considérations, Ch. XI.

[26] And the socialist worldview.

[27] See Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics.

[28] Cf. Gewen, The Inevitability of Tragedy.

[29] See also Cohen, “The Return of Statecraft.”

[30] Kissinger, World Order, 372-373. Cf. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 563-564.

[31] Cf. Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, XI.4.

[32] Aron, Peace and War, 585.

[33] Hayek too is aware of the problems associated with world order. He sees regionalism based on shared values and beliefs as a steppingstone. See Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 235-236.

[34] On the other hand, it may well be possible to seduce it into the Western orbit. A great power does not oppose the West only to play handmaiden to the Middle Kingdom.

[35] See, e.g., Blackwill and Harris, War by Other Means.

[36] Caldwell, Introduction to Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, 2 n. 4.


  • Scott B. Nelson

    Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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