Critiques to Liberal International Order

5 min readMar 4, 2022

With reflection on Ikenberry’s defense of liberal international order, I come to the conclusion that two of the core principles of liberalism are economic development and free market. Through a legal institutional analysis, DuBois, Anghie and Getachew critique the liberal international order while centering colonized peoples as protagonists in the narrative of reconfiguring the international community, and across the readings we can see that just as economic development is a core feature of liberalism, so too is it a core feature of the decolonial process.

Anghie’s work takes up a study of the League of Nations and the mandate system whose purpose was to lead the development of both political and economic sovereignty and independence in former colonies. His analysis draws a line between the European colonization and the colonial legacy that continues to derive economic advantage out of colonies. The mandate system acted as both curtain and tool for a continued form of imperial imposition, which openly condemned colonization and the ‘civilizing mission’, and which reimagined European intervention as a trustee relationship to the native populations, nurturing and adjudicating their progress towards sovereign recognition and full inclusion into international society.

Anghie’s book goes on to identify the aspects of international law which maintain an insidious form of imperial influence through terms like ‘good governance’ to structure the unequal integration of non-European states into international society, and the coercive power of international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, in controlling this process. These institutions capitalize on their moral framing and economic power to dictate the development of former colonies and create a hierarchy of difference that categorizes states on a spectrum of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’. Angie points out that Third World sovereignty is distinct from Western sovereignty, who is protected from the intrusions of international law, while non-European societies are only subject to it. The spectrum of development, as a hierarchy of difference, determines your interaction with those international laws, already adjudicated by European states.

This piece takes an incredibly euro-centric approach to anti-colonialism, a feature which raised unanswered questions and limited its argumentation in a way I found a little frustrating — and which was taken up by Getachew’s pieces on decolonization and anticolonial theories. Angie’s approach minimizes the role and agency of colonial players in influencing the decolonizing, internationalizing, and globalizing process. He is correct that there was significant imposition on the former colonies, and his attention to the bureaucratic rationalizing of mandate aims showcases that clearly. However, he frames the recently-colonized people as being hoodwinked by the nefarious institution, and pays little attention to the valuable conversations occurring in and around the decolonial process featuring native leadership, and the impact it had on the development of European policies.

This does a disservice to the history of both the institutions and the colonized peoples, who were never solely passive and accepting recipients of instruction. While he acknowledges that there were rebellions and local leaders to be pacified and slowly transitioned out of power, the euro-centric vision misses key native influences, which Getachew picks up on with tremendous detail. In addition, Anghie sets aside race as a primary driver of difference and hierarchy — not to say it is unimportant, but to highlight that economic hierarchy and membership to the state system became the primary focus of difference-making. Here, too, Getachew contrasts Anghi by evoking a rich history of African leadership and racial sociological and political presence, including the colour line theory introduced by Du Bois, which indicates the undeniable racial underpinnings of the new hierarchical developments.

Getachew’s contributions bring our conversation into the current age by tugging on complex ties that often go unexplored in decolonial literature. Her work centres African leadership in the development of supranational institutions, policies, and even the development of human rights and the right to self-determination. These rights she attributes first to the anticolonial nationalists who sought to critique imperialism and racism while advancing the sovereign potential of their nations. She attends carefully to the development of self-determination, whose history is fascinating and involves redefinition by African leadership to encourage ambitious national independence. Getachew argues that the renewed use of this term challenged and revolutionized the relationship between nations, and presented new opportunities for thinking through self-governance.

While setting up the foundations for human rights and the right to self-determination, the role of anticolonial nationalists evoked further conversation and institution-building processes, and their work on rights culminated in the eventual centrality of political communities as the guarantors of those rights. This is a recognizable, key feature of the state system we inhabit today, where the primacy of the state is reinforced by our reliance on it to provide us access to fundamental rights as well as a site for identity formation.

Getachew’s work engages the reader in a process of decolonizing the decolonial process, involving a significant shift in perception that is both interesting and insightful. By recognizing the full spectrum of influences in the international system of law and of states, and by stepping away from assumptions about the inevitability of those developments, Getachew frames self-determination as both something with potential and severe limitations, overlaps with sovereignty and territoriality in ways which have in fact hindered indigenous movements but which have the capacity for useful re-imaginings.

There is much to say about the tensions and similarities between Anghie and Getachew’s books, but one common theme is their cautionary warning against claims of objectivity and universality. This stood out to me as a key point of reflection on the existence and future of supranational institutions, which exist as a method of involving states into an international society. Their cautions about universality remind us that in our own assumptions about the potential future of international institutions we are erasing and centralizing European characteristics of power and society: that bringing all states into one society is possible, or even that it is something we should want. That forming supranational institutions which represent all state interests, and hold states accountable, is achievable. With Anghie and Getachew’s presentation of the primacy of euro-centric aims and goals in mind, we begin to doubt the potential for these institutions. Is there any way to get away from the euro-centric bias baked into our perceptions of international order?

Thinking forward, Anghie warns against the predominantly disadvantageous impacts of IFIs, a characterization that is fairly earned but also at least a little bit unfair to the potential impact of such institutions. Meanwhile, Getachew encourages us to decolonize our own thoughts, our own commitments to nationalism and the state, to sovereignty as it is currently imagined, in theorizing a future of international institutions. Recognizing the full history of development is an important step, and she frames both self-determination and international institutions in a hopeful way, warning that they both experience and evoke severe limitations on the potential for a truly decolonized future, but also that decolonized re-imaginings of self-determination and international institutions may yield valuable pathways out of a narrative of domination. It makes me wonder: if we can decolonize the narratives attributed to institutions and international society, can we pioneer an international system without the conditions of domination, difference-making and hierarchies?




Working on a PhD, trying not to die about it