Alexander Wallis on International Relations

The ‘Private’ Law Paradigm and Liberal vs Critical Theory Perspectives on Globalization

It has, in my estimation, as of late, become rather fashionable to criticize globalization. Any number of objections from any number of perspectives may be raised. Indeed, criticism of globalization is truly bipartisan. Of course, such criticism is often quite varied. You may have an ethno-nationalist deploring the establishment of inter-racial equality and migration that has occurred within the global system, a Marxist ranting against exploitation in developed countries, a principled constitutionalist arguing that buying into multilateralism degrades sovereignty, etc. This list could go on ad absurdum.


The most salient champions of globalism tend to be Liberals. And the most salient critics of globalism, at least academically, have tended to fall within the camp of Critical Theory. While as of recent a resurgence in right wing populism has on paper seemed to challenge the very existence of globalism, the reality is that from a polemical perspective many of these critics, such as, for example, Donald Trump, ultimately object not to globalism on a systematic level, as critical theorists often do, but object to certain vicissitudinous characteristics of globalization such as offshoring, mass migration, and overextension. Such a difference is critical. It is only the critical theorists, such as Immanuel Wallerstein, who suggest that the very structure of the global system is premised on neo-colonialism and exploitation of the periphery by the core. In other words, Critical Theory posits that many of the vicissitudinous characteristics of the global order are features, not bugs.


This of course contrasts with the Liberal view. Liberals, of course, see the modern global system in terms of voluntary association in a system of mutual benefit. They employ concepts such as comparative advantage and the global division of labor to explain the essential theoretical underpinnings of the mutual benefits obtained by such a global system. Liberals similarly look into history to show the consistent rise of living standards throughout the world, and to the success of multilateralism in peacekeeping. Francis Fukuyama famously made many of these arguments in his landmark 1992 book, the End of History and the Last Man. To put it simply, Liberals argue that the benefits of globalization far outweigh the costs.


I believe that both schools of thought make absolutely correct points. My own belief is as follows: There is absolutely a global system. Globalization is inevitable, and, in the context of issues such as resource scarcity and climate change, it is fundamentally untenable to not be globalized. However, this is not a relationship among equals. While we may speak about sovereignty and international law, there is nevertheless a clear pecking order. The international order has leaders, and it has followers. The global division of labor absolutely relegates certain populations to less-than-desirable circumstances, and similarly disallows for the development of certain productive forces that could improve economically or geostrategically the positions of certain countries. I do not, however, believe that this is an issue of delegitimizing proportions. The global order is created and curated by the United States, it is not some collaborative process that just happened to spring out of thin air. The material foundations of globalization – the extensive US Navy, the US Dollar, the western funds, banks, and companies that finance global projects, the massive foreign aid and capital that develops countries, etc. are all essentially western, and therefore American. It is impossible to conceive of a civilized and developed modern Europe without decades of US security guarantees, without US Curated oil from the Middle East, without the vast post war economic aid, without the free trade paradigm that allowed for ruined countries all throughout the world to thrive, from Japan to Germany, and, without US led multilateralism and coordination. It is even more ludicrous to imagine a developed China without access to the same US provided goods and services. Without access to international markets, China would be an economic backwater today. Its history of economic development is impossible to even dream of without considering America’s facilitating role.


Sovereignty in the international system is similarly clearly considered by the USA in a preferential fashion. Interventions under international auspices, or performed by the international hegemon, frequently disregard notions of sovereignty and multilateralism. Examples of this include intervention in Libya, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and NATO intervention in Serbia. While such occurrences have been detrimental to the global order writ large, I do not believe that some vague sanctity should be applied to state sovereignty. Most state level actions have global repercussions, and while one should be cautious in punishment and not eager to devour merely slightly anti hegemonic states, one should nevertheless not subscribe to some pollyanna view of sovereignty as some inalienable and inviolable right. By overwhelmingly benefiting from the US-led international order in an unequal relationship – and one that frequently comes at the expense of American Jobs, see the economic history of the great lakes, the national security community support for projects such as TPP, etc. –  I believe that there is some inherent abrogation of sovereignty on the behalf of the recipient. This is a historical phenomenon that arguably affected the creation of civilization through private contract, and thus, in my view, may serve as a precursor event to the advent of a global society. The relationship between the hegemon and other states is not merely economical, it is deeply political. Indeed, economics may be conceived of as a continuation of politics by other means. To quote Karl Ludwig von Haller,


In short, whenever a man makes himself useful or indispensable to others, whenever he can save them from some evil or procure them some good, he rules over them and makes their laws.  – Karl Ludwig von Haller


The international system can thus be conceived of to an extent as a private law society. Many norms and regulations, despite how they may be approved of by the vast majority of states, ultimately spring forth from the wellspring of western liberal thought, and are often imposed. Perhaps there is no international police force. But there is certainly a private police force which has intentionally intervened and shaped considerable portions of the world, from Iraq to Libya, from Kosovo to Somalia. Such a paradigm is inevitable. The vast majority of countries are absolutely incapable of providing even the beginnings of the basic building-blocks required to uphold an international order. Despite their economic, political, and demographic importance, countries such as Brazil, China, Nigeria, India, Egypt, South Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Germany, France, etc. simply do not have the global reach or political capital to lead. This situation may of course change in the future. It is probably inevitable, though not imminent. However, such a change would not presage the transition to some wholesome communal decision making order, but rather to the private rule of another hegemon. In the meantime, there is simply no alternative.


This is not to justify imperious or otherwise damaging enterprises undertaken by the United States or by corporations or organizations emanating thence. Indeed, the global system has many problems. But the solutions to these problems are only imaginable in a globalized environment, and an efficient globalized system is only imaginable with a hegemon, lest intractable political issues paralyze global decision making.


To return to the question, I would most likely intellectually agree with Critical Theorists more than Liberals, despite essentially agreeing with both. I can not comment on what I may agree or disagree with specifically, given the myriad points of view present in both camps. However, despite my agreement, I likely come to different conclusions than most critical theorists, and one more similar to Liberals.

One Response to “The ‘Private’ Law Paradigm and Liberal vs Critical Theory Perspectives on Globalization”

  1.   mosemanb Says:

    I also agree with the critical perspective on globalization. I like how you considered the points for both the liberal and critical perspectives. This was a well written blog.

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