Post-secularism and the liberal international order

In October last year, I gave a talk entitled ‘Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order’ at a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). This has now been published, in Russian, in the latest edition (2019, no. 3) of ‘Tetradi po konservatizmu’ (‘Notebooks on Conservatism’), and can be found here.

As the piece is only available in Russian, below is a much truncated version of it in English, which provides the gist of the argument while leaving out most of the academic baggage.


Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order


In recent years it has become common in the West to talk of the ‘liberal international order’. Western politicians also make regular reference to the ‘rules-based international order’. Both are considered ideals which the West wishes to promote and defend. Yet rules do not have to be liberal and many of the rules governing state behaviour are founded as much on utility and necessity as on liberal values. Indeed, in the traditional Westphalian model of international relations, values were set aside in favour of international peace and stability. Western states thus find themselves in a paradoxical position, unable to pursue both rules and values without one in some way contradicting the other. Using post-secular theory, I argue that one reason for this contradiction may be that contemporary Western liberalism has taken on many of the characteristics of a political religion which has shed God but incorporates Christianity’s universalism and messianism.

Traditional international relations theory is often said to date back to the seventeenth century and the aftermath of the bloody religious wars of that era. Theorists such as Hugo Grotius sought to sideline religion and to produce an understanding of international relations ‘as if God did not exist’. No state had the right to claim that its values were superior to any other state’s. Rules were established on the basis of ‘necessity’, and applied equally to all. States’ internal affairs were their own concern only.

This model of governance left no place for religion, and can therefore be seen as creating a ‘secular’ international order. The growing dominance of liberalism in the Western world helped to cement this understanding of the nature of international affairs. Liberalism stresses the importance of the individual and the right of every individual to determine for himself or herself what is valuable in life. Applied to the international sphere, liberalism theoretically similarly allows each nation to choose its own belief system and favours a system which puts ideological considerations to one side when considering rules.

This was the original position of classical liberalism. But whereas classical liberalism avoided state interference in people’s affairs, later liberalism has taken the stance that the state has to act to ensure people’s rights, be they political, social, or economic. With this, liberalism has become more interventionist. This applies to international affairs as much as domestic ones. Western states in particular have become increasingly assertive, demanding that others comply with their views concerning political and economic systems.

The resulting ‘liberal international order’ can be seen as containing three parts – a security order, which rests on the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention; an economic order, associated by and large with free market principles; and a human rights order. This liberal international order contains traces of the earlier rules-based system established in the seventeenth century (state sovereignty, international law, etc) as well as later values-based elements (free markets, democracy, and human rights). These elements fit uneasily together, creating a situation in which Western liberals claim their adherence to the old secular system of a ‘rules-based international order’, while simultaneously proclaiming the primacy of values over rules.

One explanation for this seemingly paradoxical situation is that the secular international order isn’t actually secular as it is made out to be. Post-secularism provides a useful theoretical tool for examining why this may be the case.

In recent years, post-secular theorists have sought to bring religion ‘back into’ international relations theory, that is to say they have sought to account for the role that religion plays in international. Some theorists, however, argue that we need to go further, and move beyond thinking in terms of a clear-cut distinction between the secular and the religious. Western societies which imagine themselves to be ‘secular’ are largely fooling themselves, as religious modes of thinking remain a dominant part of their culture. Indeed, secularism itself should be seen as a religious construct.

Post-secular philosophy thus forces us to consider the possibility that modern liberal society is not as secular as it thinks it is. Similarly, we must consider the possibilities that the secular international order may also not be truly secular, and that ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of I[nternatonal] R[elations] are secularised theological concepts.’

Indeed, there are good reasons for considering the liberal international order to be in many respects a ‘theological concept’. Sociologists and anthropologists generally define religion in a couple of ways – fideistic and functionalist. The first sees religion as an expression of a human instinct, ‘the need to submit oneself to a divine, political, or social faith.’ The second views religion as ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community.’ Neither of these definitions requires a God. It is sufficient that there be some ‘inexpressible spiritual experience that cannot be understood rationally.’

Seen this way, political ideology can certainly be considered a form of religion, taking two possible forms: ‘civil religion’ and ‘political religion’. Civil religion, ‘coexists with other ideologies, and does not impose obligatory and unconditional support for its commandments.’ By contrast, political religion is ‘founded on an unchallengeable monopoly of power … [and] is intolerant, invasive, and fundamentalist.’

The question then arises as to what extent the liberal international order fits within either of these categories. As previously noted, the liberal international order has three elements. The first of these – the security order – is largely rule utilitarian in nature, but the other two – the economic and human rights orders – rest to a large degree on values, and can be seen as having their own ‘myths, symbols, and rituals’, to be resting on ‘faith’, to have their own ‘community of believers’, and so on. They can therefore be viewed as having the attributes of religions.

We can see evidence of this in the faith in free markets and capitalism which underlies the international economic order. As Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins notes in a review of Eugene McCarrah’s book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity:

The mysteries and sacraments of religion were transferred to the way we perceive market forces and economic development. The new world that capitalism created … is characterized … by a ‘migration of the holy’ to the realm of production and consumption, profit and price, trade and economic tribulation. Capitalism in other words, is the new religion.

Much the same may be said about human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) specifically uses the word ‘faith’ to justify itself. The UN Committee which drafted the UDHR ‘concluded during the drafting that there was no deeper consensus on the theoretical basis of human rights. “Yes, we agree on the rights, but on condition that no one asks why,” explained the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, deeply involved in the Committee.’ As one human rights scholar remarks, ‘modern natural rights theories … cannot stand independently from faith’, adding that,

The claim that human rights are universal and therefore suffer no worldly exception implies precisely the timelessness and absoluteness that used to be identified with the spiritual. Accordingly, to claim that human rights are secular makes little sense etymologically or ontologically. As universal, eternal, absolute values, their claim necessarily lies beyond the worldly and the temporal.

Both the economic and the human rights elements of the liberal international order therefore may reasonably be defined as religious. The next matter to determine is whether they best fit the description of ‘civil religion’ or of ‘political religion’. Philosopher John Gray views them in terms which come much closer to the latter than the former. According to Gray, the political ideology which now dominates in the West and underlies the concept of the ‘liberal international order’ is an offshoot of Christianity. God has been removed from the equation, but the Christian idea that the world is progressing towards some final object has remained, he argues, stating that, ‘despite its claim to scientific rationality, neo-liberalism is rooted in a teleological interpretation of history as a process with a preordained destination.’ This gives modern Western liberalism a universalistic and messianic character, making it intolerant of alternatives. Liberalism, says Gray, ‘is a lineal descendant from Christianity and shares the militancy of its parent faith.’ Thus belief in the liberal international order is increasingly coming to resemble a political religion rather than a civil religion, being ‘intolerant, invasive, and fundamentalist.’


By challenging the simple dichotomy between the secular and the religious, post-secular philosophy facilitates an understanding of the liberal international order and helps to explain the apparently inconsistent policies adopted by many of that order’s proponents. If the argument of this article is correct, however, there are no benefits to be derived from bringing religion ‘back into’ international relations, because it is already there in the form of belief in a liberal international order.

John Gray suggests an alternative. ‘Realism is the only way of thinking about issues of tyranny and freedom, war and peace that can truly claim not to be based on faith,’ he writes. Perhaps, then, the problem is not that the secular Realist order supposedly founded in the seventeenth century has failed, but that it has never truly been tried.

10 thoughts on “Post-secularism and the liberal international order”

  1. I am envious. I wish I could read the whole document.

    Makes sense anyway in a lot of ways for this somehow politicized citizen post 9/11.


  2. I wouldn’t take high-brow philosophical musings so seriously as to presume even for a second that they somehow dictate actions of international, institutional, or even individual actors.

    Highfalutin philosophical constructs are needed to justify their actions, often in contradictory, hypocritical ways, but that’s pretty much all they’re good for.

    Incidentally, do you know the story about Voltaire and Rousseau’s “Letters from the Mountain”? Voltaire, who (as asserted, famously, by his biographer) lived by “I may detest what you say, but I will give my life to defend your right to say it“, did this.

    And that’s freaking Voltaire in a straightforward freaking case of book-burning. What do you expect from a garden-variety western politician?

    …or read the story behind the famous phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. No theater, no shouting ‘fire’, just straight-up political speech, in its purest form. Elites do what they want, and philosophy ain’t got nothing to do with it.


  3. We shouldn’t forget that the concept of human rights was a compromise between liberals’ focus on political rights and more collectivistic societies’ focus on social and economic rights.

    The liberal juggernaut has tone its best to forget, or obliterate, the second part of it. Which may explain the growing contempt of the whole concept, in for example Xi’s view.


    1. That’s a very good point. The Liberal wing has succeeded in completelyl atomizing the individual from society, while claiming to grant him (=the individual) almost limitless rights of self-definition.
      Meanwhile Liberal society chugs on, becoming ever more totalitarian. I recently went on a trip and once again subjected to the “Security State” at the American airport. Individuals have the “freedom” to use any bathroom they like, before being forced to line up like sheep to be X-rayed and body scanned.

      I’m not different from the other sheep. I allow them to do this to me because I just need to get from A to B, and can’t afford a private jet! During this particular event I was even pulled out of the line and subjected to the most intrusive search ever, even down to my crotch! And I just grinned and didn’t say a word of protest. They said I had something metallic on me, but I didn’t. They were just messing with me, I think, and they didn’t even apologize afterwards. TSA Bastards…


    2. While I agree in general, can you please tell me what are social rights and where’s the line between them and political rights? I’m honestly not sure which terminology you use here.


  4. “I argue that one reason for this contradiction may be that contemporary Western liberalism has taken on many of the characteristics of a political religion which has shed God but incorporates Christianity’s universalism and messianism.

    … ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of I[nternatonal] R[elations] are secularised theological concepts.’”

    I’ve been saying this for close of a decade, Professor. You owe me royalty checks;)

    “Some theorists, however, argue that we need to go further, and move beyond thinking in terms of a clear-cut distinction between the secular and the religious. Western societies which imagine themselves to be ‘secular’ are largely fooling themselves, as religious modes of thinking remain a dominant part of their culture. “

    Breaking news! The West’s Ivory Towers’ve discovered “the ideology”!


    1. Actually – scratch that. I never likened the liberalism and its proponents to those who share faith in Christ. I likened them to the Cathars, yes, but this dualistic heresy is, anyway, is already a very serious departure from the central tenets of Christianity. “Religious worldview” and “religious-magic(k)al mentality” of the liberals – these things I also said.

      But I draw a line at likening the modern Western liberalism to the Christianity. Why? Because, all things considered, modern Western liberalism is not, I emphasize, not universalist.

      That’s not my words – that’s conclusions of the well-paid, highly educated American think tankers. According to them, the hopeless messianic idealism permeating the conduct of the country’s policy is based on two premises:

      1) American exceptionalism as an integral part of the national self-conception. “Shining city upon a hill” and all that jazz.

      2) Universality of the American values and system, which others absolutely must adopt.

      If you have a bipolar derangement – then it makes total sense! For the mere normals out there, it produces only cognitive dissonance and understanding, that, no, you can’t be both. The truth is simple and the truth is ugly. The Americans (as the core of the Western so-called “liberal international order”) want other countries acquiescence to its values. Not a real conversion – just admit their superiority for you, poor, destitute 3-d/2-nd world untermenschen, will never, ever really became like the US. Becoming like the US produces a competitor for the US. Who needs that?

      No, “liberal” worldview is no Christianity. It’s much, much older one. It’s a belief in the powerful tribe-spirit, that is superior to the spirits of all other tribes, and with which it’s Chosen People (the blessed Westerners) have a… compact… of sort. An ancestral compact, even. That’s a henotheism, for sure – but not much slack is granted by its adherents to all deviant and foreign cults beyond it.


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