Prof Sir Adam Roberts calls for rethinking of liberalism to withstand the erosion of international legal and security norms

06 March 2020

This week Professor Sir Adam Roberts, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, University of Oxford, delivered a Keynote Lecture on the current setbacks experienced by liberal constitutional democracies, and set out a series of proposals for how we might rethink liberalism to withstand the threats it faces.

In the lecture, organized by FLJS at Wolfson College and attended by over 100 people, Prof Roberts charted the dramatic decline of liberal constitutional democracies around the world since their zenith in 2006–11. He diagnosed the various crises that liberal democracies around the world are undergoing – notably, the assault on legal norms, evidenced most recently in such very different actions as the UK's rejection of European Union rules, and the Syrian government’s violation of the Geneva Protocol in the ongoing civil war.

Professor Roberts went on to examine the crisis of security that is evident in the apparent powerlessness of the UN Security Council to prevent ongoing conflict and human rights violations in Yemen and Syria. He also assessed NATO's deteriorating relations with Russia and Turkey, before identifying another crisis that the liberal international order was singularly failing to confront – the environmental crisis and the growing conflicts caused by scarcening resources.

The roots of these problems, Professor Roberts argued, can be traced to the fragile basis upon which the liberal international order was built. Since the Second World War, peace has been maintained by the threat of nuclear weapons, and much liberal thought is premised on an implicit support for colonialism, which undermines its very foundations. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, was, as an employee of the East India Company, responsible for defending the company's rule in India against the nascent independence movement, and viewed India and China as barbarous countries, legitimizing British rule as benevolent despotism.

What liberal thinkers failed to foresee was how difficult a process the vast project of decolonization would prove to be, and the military interventions in Suez, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere can all be seen to have as part of their origins the creation of a new state from old Empires.

Professor Roberts concluded by raising the problem caused by the very definition of liberalism, which is itself deeply contested and subject to multiple different meanings, from neoliberal economic interpretations in the US to a very different understanding of liberalism that prevails in the UK. He closed by calling for a more coherent vision of liberalism to emerge in the wake of the Trump presidency, in order to support the liberal project and sustain it through the challenges it faces in the decades to come. 

The Keynote lecture served to open a workshop on the contemporary international order the following day. These events brought to a close our Hilary Term programme, but future events will be announced in the coming weeks before our Trinity Term gets underway in April.

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