The House of Cards of Liberal World Order

By Máté Mátyás

“The older I get, I learn that assumptions are dangerous,” says Claire.

Though a product of artistic imagination, House of Cards presents very real issues. Many watch the show for its supposed revealing lewdness, others dismiss it as an exaggerated caricature of US politics ignoring the values and virtues of the American democracy.

I think we should embrace it—not for its values, but its perspective.

We inherited from venerated thinkers of international relations theory from Thucydides to the late Zbigniew Brzezinski the romantic assumptions that states are real, living, acting, individual “persons” making deals, wars, and peace, vying for power, befriending each other. All current major schools of international relations theory teach us that. “Realism” says that states act in order to maximize their security. “Liberalism” believes international organizations and cooperation make countries better off. “Social constructivism” thinks ideas and identities shape the way states interact. While all offer interesting lenses, due to their naïve conceptual oversimplifications, they have often failed. Often “bigly.” From failure to predict (or avoid) the Second World War through many conflicts of the previous century to the momentous end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are now standing before an era of complex global uncertainty more confused than ever.

Had had the voters of the state of Florida and Wisconsin, in their infinite wisdom, turn out for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump on 8 November 2016, would our world look different today? Absolutely. There is nothing inevitable in politics—domestic or foreign. But if we are still to treat global politics, the “world order,” organizations, alliances, states as unitary, person-like institutions and structures—instead of products of individual and collective human agency, interactions, and decisions disregarding people’s psychology, specific socio-political contexts, options and constraints, people’s intentions, interests, values, behavior, and communication—we are going to ask the wrong questions, offer the wrong analyses, and arrive to the wrong conclusions.

The “liberal world order,” or democratic political systems for that matter, are gentlemen’s agreements: vast collections of commonly agreed upon social rules and norms. They are alive and functioning as long as they are being upheld by their people. There is nothing inevitable in politics. Realizing this has been the most important propeller of the “populist” wave: an assumed agreement could be, instead, a coalition of the willing. Targeting the right voters with dubious information and promises, forging economic and political factions can make dishonest goals come true. Many of the powerful can profit from such arrangements, but many more can suffer gravely from opportunistic politicking. Indeed, we know that a vast variety of systems based on lies, intimidation, force, violence, and terror is possible. We have taken frankness, transparency, progress, and common values for granted.

Meanwhile the world has changed tremendously, becoming more technologically advanced minute by minute. But as generations of smartphones and software followed, generations of people are still receiving largely the same curricula in schools. This is not just about technological skills. The stunning proliferation of media and the ensuing new media economics require the much desired skill of “critical thinking.” Moreover, in our time of ever-specialized jobs and diversely unique life experiences, the ability to engage in constructive debate, respectful and effective communication is more needed than ever. The alternative is alternative facts and media, fake news, and deception of vulnerable people. In the current political and media climate, you may make the best, most detailed and well-supported argument backed up by years of research—if the counterargument is a brief message of fear, you’ll most likely lose.

“It is amazing how ready people are to be afraid,” realizes Claire Underwood just one episode earlier. Our susceptibility to ear is a well-known phenomenon; we are wired this way. (In fact, throughout this writing, I have appealed to fear one way or the other in almost each paragraph). But we should embrace this—for we fear the most the things that we do not know.

Therefore, education with an explicit emphasis on constructive, effective non-violent communication, its psychology and structural, critical thinking is key. Abandoning romantic ideas of large, collective identities and characteristics of states and orders in social sciences, and focusing instead on the understanding of delicate complexities of policy processes, competition of vast multitude of personal, corporate, organizational, agency, etc. interests, different personalities and their individual beliefs and values show us a way how to navigate in our interconnected world. It gives us a better way to comprehend, analyze, predict, and explain events more precisely to people with different expertise and views. This is the way to rebuild our agreement—and return from alternative realities and echo-chambers.

In the meantime, watch House of Cards. Or, for more light-hearted—and hopefully more accurate—entertainment, Yes, Minister.

Máté Mátyás graduated in International Relations from the Cornivus University of Budapest, Hungary, in 2016 after spending an exchange semester at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is currently a graduate student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.