Undoing the Liberal World Order:

Progressive Ideals and Political Realities Since World War II

Leon Fink

BA Harvard, MA/PhD University of Rochester

Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, the University of Illinois at Chicago

In conversation with:

Adam B. Kushner

CC'03, Outlook editor, Washington Post

In the decades following World War II, American liberals had a vision for the world. Their ambitions would not stop at the water’s edge: progressive internationalism, they believed, could help peoples everywhere achieve democracy, prosperity, and freedom. Chastened in part by the failures of these grand aspirations, in recent years liberals and the Left have retreated from such idealism. Today, as a beleaguered United States confronts a series of crises, does the postwar liberal tradition offer any useful lessons for American engagement with the world?

The historian Leon Fink examines key cases of progressive influence on postwar U.S. foreign policy, tracing the tension between liberal aspirations and the political realities that stymie them. From the reconstruction of post-Nazi West Germany to the struggle against apartheid, he shows how American liberals joined global allies in pursuit of an expansive political, social, and economic vision. Even as liberal internationalism brought such successes to the world, it also stumbled against domestic politics or was blind to the contradictions in capitalist development and the power of competing nationalist identities. A diplomatic history that emphasizes the roles of social class, labor movements, race, and grassroots activism, Undoing the Liberal World Order suggests new directions for a progressive American foreign policy.

Time will be allocated for Q&A.

Cosponsored by:
  • Harvard Club of Washington DC

This program is part of the ColumbiaDC CUP series.


"Offering a broad analysis of left-liberal approaches to foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century, this is a gripping book that manages to elicit a vision of postwar liberalism as a global project and to suggest some of the real difficulties that it encountered." Kimberly Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Leon Fink is distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior resident scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. He is the editor of the journalLabor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, and his many books include, most recently,Labor Justice Across the Americas(2017).


Adam B. Kushner is the education editor of the Washington Post, running the paper’s coverage of national education trends, universities, and the school districts in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Previously, he was editor of the Post’s Outlook section, its home for ideas, essays, arguments, and book criticism — coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 under his leadership. Before that, he was the editor of National Journal magazine, a senior editor for foreign affairs at Newsweek and a managing editor at the New Republic. He grew up in New Orleans and lives with his wife and three sons in Bethesda. Adam has a BA in the study of antiquity from Columbia University.


CUP Series: This is a new initiative between ColumbiaDC and Columbia University Press to showcase acclaimed and pioneering work by renowned academics, scholars, and researchers published by the Columbia University Press.

January 26, 2022 at 6:30pm - 8pm


Washington, DC
United States

Miyako Yerick


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