The best books to understand the rise and fall of liberal international order in the 21st century

Philip Cunliffe Author Of The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-2019: A Critique of International Relations
By Philip Cunliffe

Who am I?

Having come of age at the End of History in the late 1990s, it seemed to me back then that the only big political questions left were international ones. Everything in domestic politics appeared to be settled. As I pursued this interest through my scholarly work as an academic, I came to understand how questions of international and domestic order were intertwined – and that one could not be understood without the other. As we’re now living through the end of the End of History, unsurprisingly we’re seeing tremendous strain on political systems at both the national and international level. These books will provide, I hope, some signposts as to what comes next.  


I wrote...

The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-2019: A Critique of International Relations

By Philip Cunliffe,

Book cover of The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-2019: A Critique of International Relations

What is my book about?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that the international order defined by liberal globalization is under severe strain. Will it survive, and if not, what will replace it? In The New Twenty Years' Crisis 1999-2019, Philip Cunliffe shows that the decline of our liberal international order began in 1999. In contrast to claims that the order has been undermined by authoritarian hegemonic challengers such as Putin’s Russia, Cunliffe argues that the primary drivers of the crisis are internal. In search of a solution, this book argues that breaking through the current impasse will require pushing past the fear that the twenty-first century will repeat the mistakes of the twentieth. Only then can we finally escape the twenty years crisis that perpetually bedevils liberal international order.

The books I picked & why

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Globalization and Sovereignty: Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism

By Jean L. Cohen,

Book cover of Globalization and Sovereignty: Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism

Why this book?

An occasionally dense but ultimately bravura text that sought to draw out the consequences of globalization for political theory. Cohen performs the difficult but important feat of combining themes from international security with international political theory and international law, and in so doing, gets to grips with questions of political order in a way that many other books fail to do, as they remain frozen at the level of foreign policy or inter-state relations. Political order is more than policy though. Although I disagree with Cohen’s conclusions regarding the need to suppress state sovereignty through global structures and greater European integration, her honesty, hard-headedness, and attempt to interweave international security with questions of global constitutionalism remain an intellectual inspiration. 

Globalization and Sovereignty: Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism

By Jean L. Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Globalization and Sovereignty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sovereignty and the sovereign state are often seen as anachronisms; Globalization and Sovereignty challenges this view. Jean L. Cohen analyzes the new sovereignty regime emergent since the 1990s evidenced by the discourses and practice of human rights, humanitarian intervention, transformative occupation, and the UN targeted sanctions regime that blacklists alleged terrorists. Presenting a systematic theory of sovereignty and its transformation in international law and politics, Cohen argues for the continued importance of sovereign equality. She offers a theory of a dualistic world order comprised of an international society of states, and a global political community in which human rights and…


European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States

By Chris J. Bickerton,

Book cover of European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States

Why this book?

A brilliant book that succeeded in snapping the contrastive manacles that had hitherto hobbled our understanding of European integration. These conceptual manacles bound us either to over-emphasizing supranationalism on the one hand, or on the other, to claiming that European integration was nothing but an adornment for nation-states. Bickerton shows not only that supranationalism grows out of dynamics that are internal to European states, but that this out-growth involves a profound transformation of the structure of states themselves – the shift, as described in the sub-title, from nation-states to member-states. This brilliant insight illuminates so much politics today, from domestic struggles between liberals and populists to geopolitical rivalries. 

European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States

By Chris J. Bickerton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked European Integration as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

European integration confuses citizens and scholars alike. It appears to transfer power away from national capitals towards Brussels yet a close study of the EU reveals the absence of any real leap towards supranationalism. The EU is dominated by cooperation between national representatives and national officials yet it continually appears to us as something external and separate from national political life.

This book takes on these paradoxes by arguing that European integration should no longer be studied as the transcendence of states or as merely an expression of national interests. Rather, we should approach it as a process of state…


Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

By Adam Tooze,

Book cover of Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

Why this book?

The economic origins of our contemporary woes lie, of course in the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008. Tooze’s summary of the sub-prime crisis in the US housing market is worth the price of the book alone, and he upturned my understanding of the GFC as originating in the global savings glut. His argument also echoes themes discussed above – how international order is shaped around institutions that are internal to the state but that end up bursting across its boundaries – specifically, how the Fed became the de facto central bank for the world through institutions such as the swap lines. His comparisons of the relative cohesiveness of the British, French, and US elites are also tremendously insightful.  

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

By Adam Tooze,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Crashed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE LIONEL GELBER PRIZE
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST'S BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A NEW YORK TIMES CRITICS' TOP BOOK

"An intelligent explanation of the mechanisms that produced the crisis and the response to it...One of the great strengths of Tooze's book is to demonstrate the deeply intertwined nature of the European and American financial systems."--The New York Times Book Review

From the prizewinning economic historian and author of Shutdown and The Deluge, an eye-opening reinterpretation of the 2008 economic crisis (and its ten-year aftermath) as a global event that directly…


Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By Helen Thompson,

Book cover of Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

Why this book?

The book that has come closest to making me think it may really all be about oil after all! Or energy at least. Although written before the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine, Thompson shows that the origins of the war go back far beyond 2014 or even 1991, but rather lie in the 1950s – when Anglo-French power in the MENA region was broken, first by the 1956 Suez War and then by Algeria’s secession from France in 1962, which in turn would lead to West Germany becoming dependent on the USSR for energy – a dependence that lasts to this day. Her account of the geopolitical consequences of the US fracking revolution is superb – prompting me to think that the Ukraine war can be seen as a battle over who will supply the European energy market. Once the LNG terminals in northern Europe are built, the US has won.     

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By Helen Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Disorder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Getting to grips with the overlapping geopolitical, economic, and political crises faced by Western democratic societies in the 2020s.

The 21st century has brought a powerful tide of geopolitical, economic, and democratic shocks. Their fallout has led central banks to create over $25 trillion of new money, brought about a new age of geopolitical competition, destabilised the Middle East, ruptured the European Union, and exposed old political fault lines in the United States.

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century is a long history of this present political moment. It recounts three histories - one about geopolitics, one about the…


The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump

By Patrick Porter,

Book cover of The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump

Why this book?

Despite having been maligned for so long in the British academy, in this book Porter shows the continuing vitality of the intellectual tradition of classical realism for understanding power politics today. He gratifyingly sweeps away the dewy-eyed nostalgia for the so-called ‘rules-based order’ that supposedly crumbled on Trump’s election to the White House in 2016. In addition to usefully reminding us of all the hypocrisy bound up with liberal internationalism, Porter also forces us to reckon with the core question of all politics – how far power is needed to underpin political order. Although I demur from some of his conclusions, Porter scrapes the tablet clean, offering the possibility of a more forthright and meaningful debate. 

The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump

By Patrick Porter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The False Promise of Liberal Order as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In an age of demagogues, hostile great powers and trade wars, foreign policy traditionalists dream of restoring liberal international order. This order, they claim, ushered in seventy years of peace and prosperity and saw post-war America domesticate the world to its values.

The False Promise of Liberal Order exposes the flaws in this nostalgic vision. The world shaped by America came about as a result of coercion and, sometimes brutal, compromise. Liberal projects - to spread capitalist democracy - led inadvertently to illiberal results. To make peace, America made bargains with authoritarian forces. Even in the Pax Americana, the gentlest…


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