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(Gerald Herbert)

Sen. John McCain, who died at his Arizona ranch over the weekend, penned an op-ed in the Economist at the end of last year defending the “liberal world order." The Republican politician was an inveterate internationalist, a staunch advocate of the post-World War II norms and institutions he believed were essential to American leadership and global prosperity. But with the rise of President Trump, the growing strength of right-wing populism in Europe and the resilience of illiberal powers elsewhere, McCain feared a great unraveling.

“They have turned inward economically and prioritized protectionism over integration,” McCain wrote, referring to Trump-style populists on both sides of the Atlantic. “They have warmed to authoritarianism and embraced strongman politics. Most troubling, they seem to have given up on the very idea of liberalism itself, betraying the underlying will that is necessary to maintain any world order.”

The flood of hagiographic eulogies that poured in from Washington and around the world this weekend hailed both McCain’s will and idealism. The senator’s moral convictions, selfless patriotism and belief in decency, some argued, stood in stark contrast to the habits and instincts of the current occupant of the White House. McCain’s spirit, wrote Post columnist Max Boot, remains “desperately needed at a time when his party has embraced an amoral, narcissistic demagogue who fawns over tyrants and flirts with isolationism and protectionism and white nationalism.”

As the Washington establishment mourned McCain’s passing, it became clear that it was mourning not just a man’s death, but the waning of the world he seemed to represent. The global vision championed by McCain seems to be in profound retreat. Trump has systematically chipped away at the transatlantic alliance since coming to power, with officials in Europe now calling for a future untethered from an unreliable Washington.

With social inequality deepening, populations on both sides of the pond are increasingly skeptical of the merits of unfettered free trade and open markets — central tenets of McCain’s worldview. And there’s a broader apathy toward the universal values preached by the Arizona senator, whose full-throated appeals to democracy and rule of law were shrugged off by Trump.

Readers of Today’s WorldView have likely noticed our frequent invocations of the “liberal order” or the “international order” over the past two years. They serve as a shorthand for what Trump seems to resent — a catchall concept that encompasses everything from multilateral institutions like the European Union to principles of free trade to political support for immigrants and refugees.

But analysts on both the right and the left argue that this imprecision tends to obscure valid criticism of the West’s political status quo. It leaves unchallenged the Cold War-era logic that calls for a planetwide American military footprint and an American-dominated economic order; for the sake of an airy cosmopolitanism, it minimizes the ways in which globalization triggered financial crises and made life harder for the working poor in many societies.

International affairs academic Stephen Wertheim pointed to this tension in a recent essay. American advocates of the “liberal order” — including dozens of prominent scholars who published a full-page open letter in the New York Times in July in support of the international order and its institutions — cling to a “faceless, agentless” project that requires an unspoken faith in American primacy. Moreover, their rallying around a technocratic “international system” does little to check the xenophobia of Western populists.

“Despite claiming a seven-decade pedigree, the defense of the ‘liberal order’ is surprisingly vulnerable to attack from each side,” Wertheim wrote, “for it offers a nationalism that dares not to speak its name, and an internationalism afraid to walk the talk.”

In McCain’s case, his embrace of the “liberal order” ultimately hinged on a belief in American exceptionalism and, by extension, hegemony. His support for bloody, ill-fated wars — most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and his cheerleading for further interventions in the Middle East may be remembered long after we forget his advocacy for human rights. And McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate prefigured the intolerant, ultranationalist politics that fueled Trump’s ascent and the assault on the “liberal” norms McCain claimed to uphold.

McCain was not insensible to the need for reform and evolution. “At times we tried to do too much, and at others we failed to do enough,” McCain wrote in the Economist, offering a vague mea culpa. “We lost touch with many of our people and were too slow to recognize and respond to their hardships.” In his piece, McCain pointed to the power of the Marshall Plan, hoping to summon the spirit of a decades-old American triumph.

But the United States accounted for about half of the world’s gross domestic product at that time; now that figure is only about one-seventh. The growth of other countries' economies doesn’t mean that the United States is losing — as Trump would contend — but it does put McCain’s triumphalism in context. The world leaders who have loudly defended the “liberal order” in the face of Trump’s attacks did so not in honor of a Pax Americana but because they understand how their nations have benefited from a system underwritten by Washington.

“Far from dismissing the order as a mere euphemism for U.S. hegemony, they see their own national interests at stake in it,” wrote Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner in Foreign Affairs. “They also recognize that those interests cannot be protected without a powerful — and committed — United States. Even China, the order’s most formidable challenger-in-waiting, finds value in selectively embracing its tenets."

But “a new approach,” the academics argue, has to reckon with a changing world where Americans reconsider the hubris of its “post-Cold War U.S. grand strategy."

Wertheim separately points to surveys that suggest younger Americans are less committed to principles of American exceptionalism or interested in U.S. global military superiority, both mainstays of McCain-style internationalism. If those attitudes become more prevalent in the years ahead, McCain’s death may mark an end of an era in ways his friends and allies have yet to admit.

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