Beyond Liberal Internationalism

Beyond Liberal Internationalism

In embracing the hegemonic role of the United States in the world, defenders of liberal internationalism have left us with a foreign policy of expansive militarism and endless war that is neither liberal nor internationalist.

Liberal internationalists have spoken admiringly of “the idea that is America,” in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s phrase, but also betrayed its limits (Chatham House / Flickr)

The foreign policy consequences of Donald Trump’s election are agonizingly unpredictable. As with any schoolyard braggart, Trump says so much that nobody can ever know which parts he might actually mean. Unlike the devil we knew, Trump defies any attempt to forecast his choices, and therefore to anticipate a response. But if progressives stick to a popular front strategy, uniting in a grand coalition allowing liberals and neoconservatives to define a more responsible approach to Trump’s foreign policy, they could miss the ripest opportunity they have had in a generation to indict the Democratic Party’s profound mistakes.

The temptation—who does not feel it?—is to hunker down into defense. It makes more sense to rely on a minimal baseline and inclusive coalition of opposition: to denounce the specter of torture that Trump has promised to return to American policy, for example, or to stand up for the defaults of long-standing alliances and the multilateral style that Trump has dismissed so cavalierly. But Democrats need to recognize that over the decades, including under Barack Obama, they have enhanced the president’s authority in international affairs, working mainly to put a human face on American national security imperatives. And after a president who invented a frightening new form of global warmaking so humane that it declined in visibility even as it expanded in reality, it is important not to romanticize where the liberal internationalism of the Democratic Party has led—or to fail to fight for a new foreign policy.

When asked what he thought of “Western civilization,” Mohandas Gandhi is said to have replied that it sounded like a good idea. I think the same is true of “liberal internationalism,” which has often served as the Democratic Party’s preferred label for its vision of American foreign policy. Its defenders, however, committed the cardinal error of over-identification with American interests and power, betraying liberalism and internationalism alike. While Trump’s erratic rule may get some things right—even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day—his excesses are likely to command the most attention. But to forsake a debate over the future of Democratic foreign policy in the process is not a viable option. After all, liberal internationalism as it exists today, with all its flaws, came out of a creative rethinking of the Democratic Party’s central approach when it was out of power.

The phrase “liberal internationalism” was barely used in English before the 1980s. Later identified with Woodrow Wilson, the label was in fact born in response to the crisis of Cold War internationalism during and after the Vietnam War. It was the Democrats, after all, who initiated and escalated that conflict, and the early 1970s saw a struggle within the party about how to rethink the country’s relationship to the world. George McGovern called on America to “come home”—though that need not have meant reverting to so-called isolationism—but he was felled by a historic defeat. Jimmy Carter, who brought the Democrats back to power, would not give up on the Cold War, but he insisted it would now have to be fought within certain moral constraints. To their credit, Democrats of all stripes tried to separate promotion of universal principles from advancing the geopolitical advantage and militarism of their own state—but they did not go far enough. For one thing, they concluded that in order to win elections, they must embrace the hegemonic role of the United States in the world. More importantly, they still believed in the credo of American exceptionalism: in their heart of hearts, they still considered the country the “indispensable nation,” as later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it.

Still, it took the election of Ronald Reagan, a conservative cold warrior, for liberal internationalism to really blossom. Out of power, Democrats contended that their foreign policy would differ from the escalated Cold War Republicans were engaged in. Both sides generally rejected direct military intervention abroad, so there was little to argue about there. But liberal internationalists insisted that, practically speaking, internationalism would have to involve liberal principles, liberal allies, and liberal means. The purpose of American power was to advance American values, not enter into unholy alliances with despots and juntas, pick winners in peasant wars, or tarnish the ideals that our foreign policy was meant to export. “Democracy promotion” sounded good, Democrats agreed, so long as it didn’t require propping up right-wing authoritarians under the pretext that they would someday embrace democracy, as neoconservative UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick once famously advocated.

The founders of liberal internationalism had a window of opportunity when the Cold War unexpectedly ended and Democrats came to power once again, under Bill Clinton and then later, Barack Obama. After twelve years out of power, their approach could finally move from principle to practice. At first, no great enemies beckoned the United States onto the moral low road. Indeed, for Obama, who resuscitated liberal internationalism after an eight-year interruption by George W. Bush’s administration, showed just what could happen when we took the bait, and he promised that when terrorists went low, he would stay high.

The trouble all along was that liberal internationalists overestimated the ease of turning a great power into a great defender of freedom—something that became even more difficult after the 9/11 attacks pushed the country back toward the kind of direct intervention it had rejected after the catastrophic war in Vietnam. It was difficult to “stay high” in the age of the War on Terror, and Obama ultimately failed to do so—unless raining security from the skies counts. And whether it came to constitutional, statutory, or international law, Obama’s lawyers always gave him a free hand to fight so long as he kept it humane—always a frightening legacy for future generations, but one that has become far scarier far more quickly than anyone imagined. Great power may not corrupt absolutely, but it rarely advances moral principle unerringly. And now Trump is in the cockpit of the American power liberal internationalists romanticized.

The overarching and worst mistake liberal internationalists have made is to believe that hegemonic ascendancy and military intervention by their own country could create a freer world. British liberals, especially in the age of William Gladstone, made that error in the nineteenth century, blithely assuming that the cause of humanity was served by the geopolitical advancement of a single nation (and empire). American liberals have repeated it in our time, never breaking with the exceptionalist outlook that cast the United States as uniquely virtuous, even though Trump will show just how terrifyingly normal a nation we are, with our populist jingoism and hawkish foreign policy. Democrats’ foundational blunder of idealizing America’s role in the world became especially poisonous when it enhanced the powers of a presidency, which is now in the hands of a charlatan.

Equally significantly, liberal internationalists have failed to mount a serious challenge to American militarism, leaving a Cold War baseline in funding defense and security intact, as if it were normal for one country to so far outspend all others on war preparations and institutionalized spying. They have ignored that, as critics of the “military-industrial complex” from Dwight Eisenhower on have rued, those who benefit from constant military buildup will not leave the trough of government funding easily. This is to say nothing of the United States’ support for a staggering global arms trade and broader security and surveillance cooperation. It has become hard to hear the slogans of liberal internationalism above the din of hardware changing hands, and now the hum of software and data shared among “friends.”

And of course, the tools of violence have hardly remained idle. Liberal internationalists have tended not merely to look the other way as the United States has militarized the world in the name of keeping itself safe, but have also apologized for too many wars in the deluded hope that they might serve freedom and equality in the short or long run. The global War on Terror, however, has not only involved a horrendous ethical price—achieving the opposite of its declared aims, breeding the insurgencies it was supposed to suppress, and failing to address the root causes of global violence—it has served to delegitimize liberals around the world.

Obama has accordingly helped advance a version of international law distorted by American interests, which allows powerful countries to engage in militarized policing at the time and place of their choosing. That vision is all the more chilling given that so many liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party have been far more interested in imposing constraints on how the United States conducts hostilities, even as they have further eroded rules constraining its global security imperatives (from the constitutional rules requiring the president to have congressional approval of the use of force abroad and domestic laws like the War Powers Resolution, to international rules that once prohibited wars against non-state actors or on the territory of unconsenting states). As I have argued before in these pages, liberal internationalists have rightly stigmatized torture and other abuses but wrongly avoided any broader critique of endless war. The counterterrorist legacy they have designed, and are currently struggling to contain now that Trump turns out to be its beneficiary, is hardly less dubious than the torture Trump has himself threatened to bring back.

It would be ironic if, taking seriously his own critique of American adventurism and abjuring his promises to escalate counterterrorism and bring back torture, Trump became the emissary for liberal internationalism—however inadvertently—that its own representatives never were. After the Cold War, liberal internationalists also pressed hard to establish a right of humanitarian intervention for the sake of rescuing select oppressed populations. Their record shows a demand for more American military forces around the world, not less. From Kosovo to Iraq and Libya, humanitarian intervention blazed the path toward a new era of American direct intervention, often advertised as succor for the world’s suffering, not merely the self-interest that states inevitably pursue. Trump, abjuring humanitarian intervention, will at least make that self-interest totally open. His militarism will make him an easy target, even if his restraint goes beyond what his rhetoric so far implies. But it would be a mistake for the progressive left to insist that its main difference from Trump is that it proposes to use force for “good” causes.

As for their honorable insistence that the United States not serve repression, liberal internationalists might attempt to draw a stark contrast with Trump’s affection for authoritarians across borders, from Vladimir Putin on down. And it is genuinely disturbing to watch authoritarians and populists set up their own transnational movement in our day. But to allow liberal internationalists to claim to be above the blandishments of strategic repression is to allow the most serious hypocrisy to stand. Liberal internationalists have looked the other way when, for reasons of domestic politics, or international strategy, or both, the United States has made its own series of exceptions to denouncing misrule—beginning with Egypt or Saudi Arabia. No true liberal could fail to denounce the massive funding the U.S. government has supplied to illiberal forces in these countries (not to mention to Israel, a right-wing liberal democracy). Ultimately, Trump’s otherwise noxious calls to revisit old calculations in the name of “dealmaking” could have a silver lining.

Finally, and now most importantly, progressives cannot forget that liberal internationalists have always endorsed a globalization that often ends up serving free markets more than it does political freedom, with economic equality its central omission and biggest casualty. Liberal internationalists have spoken admiringly of “the idea that is America,” in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s phrase, but the reality is that beneath the hype the United States has nearly always placed economic liberty first among its foreign policy priorities. Trump’s economic nationalism will hardly work either, but our main response to it has to be to invent a new form of liberal internationalism rather than fall back on the failed pieties and stale rhetoric that contributed to the ascendancy of Trump and other populists in the first place.

In failing to make political freedom a greater priority and showing how it is compatible with global economic welfare, liberal internationalists have risked discrediting liberalism itself. They have played into the hands of those, on the Marxist left and on the populist right, who regard liberalism as nothing more than an ideology of global class rule—with the wealthy benefiting most of all—rather than a program for political liberty or economic welfare that extends beyond securing free enterprise for individuals and corporations. Liberal internationalists have sometimes had a soft spot for the poor at home and abroad, but little for the working and middle classes, except to crow when globalization expands them in Asia, while ignoring that the real gains continue to accrue to the super-rich.

As a result, liberal internationalists forestalled the creation of a foreign policy capable of addressing global economic inequality. For example, the paltry foreign assistance that the United States budgets for reasons unrelated to its security imperatives (as it perceives them) remains as much of a scandal as ever. Nor has this country ever tried to advance equality by reforming any of the international financial institutions or trade agreements it controls.

Trump responded brilliantly to the failure of Democrats to match their zeal for globalization with a commensurate policy to address dislocation and economic stagnation. And we should never forget that the United States’ longstanding skepticism toward global economic and social rights—including on the liberal internationalists’ watch—is still as withering as ever. While the heyday of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” pursued by the International Monetary Fund and other institutions has passed, our country’s promotion of antiregulatory trade deals—with the Trans-Pacific Partnership only the most recent example—remains its enduring signature. In short, Trump’s victory requires progressives to actively redesign liberal internationalism in economic affairs, and not merely to wait out the madness.


For those restive in the cage of liberal internationalism, the keys to the exits are not hard to find. We should be glad when Trump, moving chaotically in every direction, puts a dent in the right bars, while seeking Democratic victory the next time around. And Democrats needn’t wait until the next campaign to debate their future direction.

They should begin by revisiting the false binary of isolationism and internationalism. A foreign policy based on expansive militarism and endless war is neither liberal nor internationalist. If the true meaning of those now abused terms is to be recovered, a good deal of retrenchment and restraint is critical. It might even require revisiting McGovern’s approach, not because it was isolationist but because it portended a truer liberalism and a truer internationalism. McGovern insisted that living through Pearl Harbor had long ago convinced him of the need to defend the country. Yet the liberal internationalism that Democrats never realized, but that he called for, started with “the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people.” The United States cannot even begin to think about bringing freedom and equality to the rest of the world until it cleans its own house.

That our house is in fundamental disarray is the principal lesson of Trump’s unexpected victory. A premium on keeping the United States safe from terrorists has meant neglecting our fellow citizens while liberal internationalism offered little more than hollow melodrama about our commitment to freedom and justice in the world. As Democrats stand firm against Trump, their reimagination of domestic priorities for the sake of the fellow citizens who put him in office should also force them to invent a liberal internationalism finally worthy of its name.

Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Harvard, and his most recent book is Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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