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Liberalism Matters and America Must Defend It

Brett Bauman is a rising junior at Wheaton College, where he studies international relations and Spanish. He was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course “Christianity, National Identity and America’s Role in the World: Rival Interpretations” taught by Dr. Paul Miller.


It was not so many years ago, 2005 to be precise, that we hit a certain “highpoint” in terms of the number of countries classified as democratic. Since then, while there are a myriad of stories testifying to the success of democracy, this period has been characterized by democratic backsliding. An increase in authoritarianism as well as nationalist sentiment have put liberalism (the political philosophy based on liberty and consent of the governed) on the defense.

Russia and China in particular have become quite adept at promoting anti-liberalism abroad and for many leaders who currently hold power, authoritarianism is an appealing way to maintain control and not be overly concerned with the rights of their citizens.

Recent changes in the U.S. political landscape also raise concerns about the state of liberalism at home. While they are not in danger of breaking down entirely, our liberal structures and beliefs are under strain from illiberal tendencies on both the left and the right. One particular threat to liberalism at home is nationalism.

Nationalism, as opposed to the general love of country that characterizes patriotism, is based upon the pursuit of competitive prestige for a certain cultural group. In distinguishing one group from another, nationalism emphasizes defining traits that separate out those who are part of the nation and those who are not. For Christians in the U.S., a nationalism based on American Anglo-Protestantism often appears to be a positive thing if it is based on common heritage, traditions, and values held by Christians.

But nationalism does not effectively care for our neighbor as liberalism does, even if it is nationalism based on Christian heritage. All forms of nationalism necessarily exclude certain people from the nation due to their lack of an arbitrarily chosen characteristic while liberalism offers protections to the rights of both the majority and minority groups. Liberalism serves to acknowledge the Imago Dei that is in every person, Christian and non-Christian alike.

For Christians, it is especially important to wrestle with how our faith influences our political actions, and this applies not only in the domestic sphere, but also internationally. This topic was discussed in “Christianity, National Identity and America’s Role in the World: Rival Interpretations,” a course taught by Dr. Paul Miller for AEI’s Summer Honors Program. Just as liberalism is the best way to love our neighbor in our own country, the liberal international order serves as the best way in which we can seek peace, justice, and (in Dr. Miller’s words) “ordered liberty among nations” abroad.

The liberal international order, as stated by G. John Ikenberry, is “organized around ideas of economic openness, multilateral institutions, security cooperation and democratic solidarity.” Within this organizing framework, we can find compatibility with certain Christian principles and advantages for the Unites States, including national security priorities. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Miller, the liberal international order serves as an “outer perimeter of security” for the United States, shielding us from threats that we do not necessarily even perceive and contributing to a more sustainable peace. This need to safeguard our security is a recognition of the sin that pervades this fallen world. Additionally, the liberal international order allows for open markets, which provide immense economic benefit to the U.S. and promotes cooperation between governments. In working with multilateral institutions and foreign governments to resolve issues of mutual concern, the U.S. is promoting a world order based on a cooperative search for peace and ordered liberty, a world order that while clearly benefiting the United States, proves incredibly valuable for others as well. When the United States comes alongside those who fight for democracy and an end to oppression, there we find love of neighbor. The liberal international order has its flaws, but its roots in a rules-based order is the best way to protect the God-given dignity of each human being. As such, America must come to defend liberalism from the intensifying attacks of authoritarians and nationalists.

But what exactly would this defense of liberalism look like? It certainly would not entail going into each authoritarian country and demanding an immediate conversion to liberal democracy. Democratization is often a long and messy process, and it can take considerable time for true democratic roots to grow. But, from what we have seen from the millions of protesters in Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and in countless other places around the world, there is a strong desire for democracy and a recognition of individual rights.

What it would entail is the prudent and responsible use of American influence and power to do good by continuing to maintain and secure the global commons and fighting for the recognition of basic human rights. The U.S. ought to work through the liberal international order to protect the poor and disadvantaged, not shield the powerful from accountability. Additionally, it should use its alliances to respond jointly on issues of mutual concern. Furthermore, the U.S. should invest more in its diplomatic corps and the essential work they do to advance national interests of democracy and freedom. Finally, the U.S. must work towards the peaceful resolution of conflicts while also recognizing that because there are real security threats to domestic life, it must maintain an ability and a willingness to use force to protect American interests.

Through the political systems of the liberal international order, we have hope in establishing a degree of peace and justice in a fallen world. Will it ever be perfect? No. Until Christ comes there will always be suffering and injustice, and we should never let our hope in politics come before our hope in Christ. Will we have to make adjustments along the way? Most definitely. No system can be perfectly conceived on paper and we must be open to acknowledging when we fail. But the United States, despite its flaws, is a country rooted in justice, freedom, equality, and self-determination. Millions of people around the globe desire these things and the United States is in a position to provide leadership in promoting and defending them.