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Addressing the Illiberalism in Liberalism

by Nora Kürzdörfer

№ 6/2021 from Jul 27, 2021

Nora Kürzdörfer

In her book “Empires without Imperialism” Jeanne Morefield shows how liberal intellectuals deflect from the tensions between political liberalism and illiberal policies pursued in the name of liberalism, including British Imperialism and US foreign policy. A rhetoric of universalism and uniqueness is employed in order to justify illiberal practices. Alternatively, such practices are simply omitted from the narrative. In this essay, I reflect on Morefield’s argument and outline how it transcends to other areas of liberalism, more precisely to the EU’s trade agenda.

“Fortress Europe” protecting its market

“Fortress Europe” protecting its market
Image Credit: Worker, Creative Commons — CC0 1.0 Universal license

Liberal illiberalism – what sounds like an oxymoron can, in fact, be witnessed in a broad array of liberal politics. By discussing British Imperialism and post 9-11 US foreign policy, Morefield shows how politicians and intellectuals stick to a rhetoric that highlights their countries unique and naturally liberal character. Problematically, this serves as justification for illiberal policies directed at the others who threaten the superior and liberal powers. In this discourse, violence and exploitation deeply intertwined with liberal action are either deemed as necessary evil or simply excluded from the narratives. To be sure, the narrative of the unique values of liberalism is compelling. It will be hard to find anyone denying the importance or desirability of freedom, equality, or autonomy. What is problematic is the assumption that these values statically survive any sort of illiberal actions. Moreover, narratives do not consist of values only, but also include tactical framing. Emotions or concerns are used in order to convince the addressees of a specific issue. This combination makes narratives powerful tools to justify interventionist policies.

The EU’s Trade Policy: In between Uniqueness and Universality

Morefield outlines a liberal justification for illiberal practices based on the following logic, “who we are” is the principle that determines “how we act”. The first one is given by nature and cannot be altered through the second one. Instead, it might demand illiberal acts for the sake of preserving the exceptional liberal character. The illiberal potential of liberalism certainly transcends Imperialism and US foreign policy. Albeit with less deadly implications, free trade as one of liberalism’s celebrated principles is situated just as much in between inclusion and exclusion. Poverty alleviation in the global south and reduced unemployment rates in the global north are seen as evidence for the inherent benefits of globalized trade. At the same time, social and economic inequalities have risen similarly, indicating that the benefits of free trade are not distributed evenly.

The EU is a traditional advocate of global trade liberalization. By externalizing market policies and regulations, economic interests are achieved on the basis of which social norms are diffused. Similar to British and US intellectuals backing illiberal policies by referring to their countries’ universal liberal values, scholars of European studies see the EU’s normative power rooted in its unique character. Due to its history, its hybrid polity, and its legal constitution, the EU is able to define what passes for normal in world politics. While the concept of Normative Power Europe was originally developed with reference to foreign and security policy, it applies to trade, too. EU external trade is an important instrument to diffuse norms such as human rights, sustainability, and free and fair trade.

An interesting two-sided rhetoric arises; on the one hand the set of norms is uniquely represented by the EU, but on the other hand it can be universally transferred to non-European countries. To be sure, the promotion of norms is desirable where it eliminates poverty or reduces conflicts. As such, this appears much more justifiable in liberal terms than colonialism or invasion. At the same time, a universalist conception of norms threatens the agency of those who the EU seeks to empower. The risk of epistemic violence, i.e. a hierarchy of knowledge and morals, has its roots in colonialism where the colonizer was allegedly superior to the colonized. It also pervades the War on Terror where the US is portrayed as superior to the threatening and illiberal others. To overcome epistemic violence within EU trade policy, the EU is well advised to take local conceptions of liberal values seriously.

Not only does this allow its partners to keep its agency, it is also a prerequisite for the EU’s ability to act as a normative power. This ability is limited by the degree to which EU norms are accepted and shared outside the Union. Vietnamese policymakers e.g. agreed with EU market standards for a Free Trade Agreement but remained skeptical about social norms which were interpreted as neocolonial. Similarly, concerns about neocolonialism and protectionism ultimately led to a transitional stalemate of negotiations for a FTA between the EU and India.

Turning back to the liberal narratives backing illiberal practices, it is noteworthy that the EU attaches importance to including social standards in its official communications and documents. Values have always been present in the EU’s trade agenda and can e.g. be witnessed in the Generalized System of Preferences established in 1971 which grants developing countries non-reciprocal market entry. Since the 1999 anti-globalization protests, such practices are also communicated more intensively, as is the need to connect values and trade. Interestingly, at the same time actual policies supporting developing countries are declining, replacing non-reciprocal with mutual market access, and further increasing the EU’s economic leverage. Moreover, while FTAs need to include human rights clauses, sanctions in case of violations rarely occur. In contrast, market-driven interests are based on binding treaties. It appears that while social norms are a reoccurring theme in the narrative of EU trade, they are often subordinated to market liberalization.

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that trade crucially affects the livelihood of people around the globe. Additionally, trade is inherently political, inter alia by having the potential to change balances of power. Due to the size of its single market and its collective bargaining power, the EU is a power in trade. However, this also endows it with power through trade. By restricting or giving access to its market, the EU can influence domestic policies of its partners. Again, while this can include the implementation of liberal policies, the intervention itself can be interpreted as rather illiberal. This applies even more when it is based on economic pressure.

In addition to the EU’s ability to change countries through trade domestically, it increasingly contributes to changes in the global power structure. Under von der Leyen’s geoeconomic commission, a number of tools of economic statecraft have been implemented, addressing the rise of China on the one hand and four years of an unreliable US-administration on the other. While reliance on the transatlantic partnership is likely to increase under President Biden, China continues to play a role in the EU’s discourse on geoeconomics. There is an increased fear that Chinese global investment is not driven by the maximization of profits, but by geoeconomic strategies.

While it goes beyond the scope of this essay to analyze whether this fear is reasonable, it is worth mentioning as it again points to the tendency of liberals to address otherness as a threat which requires illiberal actions. In the case of EU trade this means that perceived geoeconomic competition and power fragmentation potentially result in less liberal policies. Illiberal trade practices, including investment screening mechanisms, sanctions, and support of domestic firms, are presented as necessary and pragmatic. They are, however, not presented as a challenge to the EU’s own system of market-led capitalism.

Overcoming Strategies of Deflection

The illiberal pervades the liberal. This applies both to policies and their justification. As outlined by Morefield, liberals deflect from their illiberal actions through emphasizing their countries’ unique liberalness and through omitting illiberal aspects of their external policies. Violence, exclusion, or exploitation might not be inherent to the ideal type of liberalism. Nonetheless, they continuously accompany allegedly liberal practices. How then can the illiberalism in liberalism be addressed without justifying what is not justifiable – at least not on liberal grounds – and without ignoring it?

It is not my aim to argue against liberal values, nor to deem all external policies illiberal. Rather, I am hoping to point to the paradoxes of liberalism and the necessity to first acknowledge and second overcome them to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from the more desirable aspects. Consequently, I take up Morefield’s call for replacing deflection with reflection. Character is not something that is simply naturally given. Instead, it hinges on actions. Liberals would benefit from constantly reevaluating where and how their actions violate the character they wish to preserve. Such reflection allows for reshaping policies towards practical rather than narrated liberalism.


In case of EU trade this requires reconsidering how norms can on the one hand be unique and on the other hand be universal. Regarding the subordination of social norms to market interests, this is all the more crucial. To ensure that values such as human rights, solidarity, and fair trade are pursued not only rhetorically, but also practically engagement with the others is crucial, by taking their perspectives seriously, and looking for common denominators. Recently, the EU and India launched a joint connectivity strategy in which they stressed their shared values as the world’s biggest democracies. For many, this came as a surprise, considering that the two partners were not able to agree on normative issues during their FTA negotiations. Revived partnerships like these lend hope for overcoming a Eurocentric perspective of liberalism and for more alignment between references to a liberal character and liberal actions.


Nora Kürzdörfer is a PhD researcher in the SCRIPTS project The Challenge to the Challenge. In her PhD she works on the European Union’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative.