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Recognizing Injustice: the ‘Hypocrisy Charge’ and the Future of the Liberal International Order

Authors: George Lawson, Ayşe Zarakol

Affiliation: Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs/Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: January 9, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 17 


Keywords: Liberal International Order, Hypocrisy, Liberalism, Recognizing Injustice, Justice Recognized


There is a consensus among commentators that the liberal international system is already in crisis. However, the article strongly criticizes the way this crisis is being dealt with, considering it insufficient for understanding the real reasons behind it. The current approach tends to focus on either internal or external causes as the major sources of instability. In contrast, the authors of the article take a different direction in their analysis of the crisis, based on a distinction between the problems that any international system may face and those specific to the liberal international order (LIO). They link these problems to issues of justice, which they recognize as one of the most important questions associated with the system.


The article is divided into three main sections. The first section addresses the issue of “liberal recognition” within the LIO, highlighting inconsistencies between the theoretical aspect of justice claims based on liberal merit and hierarchical recognition practices. The authors discuss the constituent elements of the LIO, which are based on the principles of liberalism: harmony of interests, individual independence, free market exchange, and representative democracy. They argue that any international system is vulnerable to conflicts and challenges related to its constituent elements that question its legitimacy. In the case of the LIO, they see these conflicts as normal due to the various and conflicting manifestations of liberalism. For example, liberal states have different options when it comes to intervention or non-intervention, which may be permitted on humanitarian grounds but rejected based on the right to self-determination.

On the other hand, the article argues that the social stratification on which liberalism is based (Western and non-Western states, developed and underdeveloped states, etc.) is often criticized as one of the major flaws of the liberal international order. However, the authors contend that social hierarchies are necessary for any social order and that this criticism alone is not sufficient justification. Instead, they raise the question of how social hierarchies can be legitimized and how recognition of justice claims can be acknowledged, accommodated, or rejected. They argue that the liberal international system has often relied on irrational exclusion criteria based on ethnic discrimination, geographical differences, and other factors. For example, they mention the 1919 Versailles Conference when Japan demanded racial equality but was rejected by the West, despite being a modern superpower. The article argues that the structure of the liberal international system, based on political, economic, social, and cultural hierarchies, has shaped the West’s relations with non-Western counterparts and has become a determinant for gaining status, recognition, and equality. The authors also highlight the deep-rooted concerns about recognition that motivate many countries and peoples to seek to join the system, which are often based on irrational feelings such as belonging rather than solely rational arguments.


The second section of the article examines how charges of hypocrisy undermine the LIO’s claims of recognized justice. The authors note the lack of precise definitions of “hypocrisy” in the field of international relations and world politics in general. However, they provide some definitions that have indirectly addressed the term. They mention Krasner’s definition of hypocrisy as “the point of tension between the logic of appropriateness and the logic of consequences.” Glazer argues that American hypocrisy is detrimental to the United States’ long-term interests, while Finnemore views it positively as a fundamental pillar of Washington’s soft power. Based on these perspectives, the authors argue that liberalism cannot fully realize the principles of equitable justice and merit on which its legitimacy is based. Furthermore, they argue that the reliance on historical legacies, practices, and illiberal rationales, particularly by liberal representatives themselves, undermines these claims. Taking into account the changing power configurations, this reliance poses a fundamental challenge to the stability of the LIO.


The third and final section of the article examines the consequences and challenges for the future of the liberal international order resulting from demands for recognition of justice, which are major sources of the multiple crises that surround it. The authors assert that the biggest contemporary challenge to liberalism comes from within, as the three main constituent foundations of liberalism are being challenged. They provide examples of rising inequalities in Britain and Italy between 2009 and 2016, declining electoral participation and traditional parties, and widespread violent protests. The authors divide the internal challenges into two sections. The first and most prominent challenge is related to “populism,” represented by radical movements advocating “illiberal democracy.” These movements make promises of law, order, and economic prosperity, mobilizing political parties that have turned into successful political forces, such as the Justice Party of Türkiye. Liberal political systems find it difficult to deal with these cases because even if they acknowledge the injustices or restrict the political expression of these demands, they will still be accused of hypocrisy. The authors also note the challenge posed by radical leftism, particularly with the emergence of groups blending social movement techniques with revolutionary discourse, such as the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, which demands radical action within the LIO that cannot be accommodated.

Critics of both populism and radical leftism charge liberalism with hypocrisy, either because it is seen as insufficient to deal with crises or as the main cause of them. However, the authors argue that the problem lies within the liberal part of the LIO, as the resentment arises from unfulfilled promises made by liberalism, such as its ability to address rising inequality, the climate crisis, excessive corporate power, and the erosion of democracy, among others. They argue that such resentment rarely occurs when similar promises are not made. Therefore, they conclude that the LIO cannot provide solutions to its current dilemmas. The authors also warn against the role that critics play in weakening the LIO and shaping international regimes with clearer hierarchies.

In conclusion, the article suggests that the liberal international system cannot resolve its internal contradictions due to the changing power dynamics in today’s world. This poses a significant challenge that could undermine the centrality of the LIO as a global recognition system. The authors anticipate that the LIO will seek measures to address these challenges, such as the United States joining the International Criminal Court and liberal states refraining from engaging with authoritarian regimes. They also propose intensifying campaigns to reduce inequality and promote democratic governance and individual rights. However, they caution that these measures cannot guarantee the desired results. Furthermore, the article believes that the liberal international system will not remain the world’s sole or dominant system of recognition in the years to come but will rather compete as one of many struggles in a global field concerning recognized justice. Therefore, the dispute over justice claims is likely to persist.

By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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