The Specter of Liberal Internationalism

The Specter of Liberal Internationalism

They present themselves as a policy vanguard. But think tanks like Brookings have become startlingly backward-looking and incapable of charting a new path for the United States in the twenty-first century.

Brookings foreign policy fellow Thomas J. Wright, February 2017 (Ralph Alswang / Flickr)

All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power
by Thomas J. Wright
Yale University Press, 2017, 288 pp.

In February 2017, the Brookings Institution published a report entitled “Building ‘Situations of Strength,’” which outlined the think tank’s vision of the United States’ role in the world. The document, which mostly consisted of boilerplate about the importance of U.S. global leadership, was officially co-authored by a number of America’s most prominent foreign policy thinkers: Michèle Flournoy, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration; Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor under George W. Bush; and Robert Kagan, the historian and neoconservative hawk, among others. Despite the presence of these notable individuals, however, the strategy was primarily drafted by someone whom most people have never heard of: Thomas J. Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow at the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings.

Wright’s report appeared at a transitional moment in Brookings’s history. Founded in 1916 as the Institute for Government Research, Brookings was created to bring America’s top thinkers together to solve the nation’s most vexing policy problems. For much of the last century it has been one of the United States’ most influential think tanks.

Today, though, things are changing. In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory and a 2016 New York Times report that accused Brookings of selling its advice to the highest bidder, the think tank stands at a crossroads. Trump has made clear time and again that he respects few groups less than centrist Beltway elites. Furthermore, both Trump’s election and Bernie Sanders’s insurgency revealed that a growing number of Americans are no longer willing to heed the counsel of their meritocratic betters. Brookings—like other mainstream think tanks—has clearly lost significant public legitimacy. If the think tank hopes to retain its influence, it must reexamine the principles that have guided its policy advice for decades.

Brookings experts, however, do not appear interested in the task. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Wright’s new book, All Measures Short of War. Wright is young by the standards of Washington’s policymaking elite. Educated at Georgetown and other elite universities, he is not only a Brookings wonk, but also a principal member of the next generation of defense intellectuals who have taken it upon themselves to envision the future of the United States (and who likely expect to serve in government after what they hope to be a short Trump interregnum). What All Measures Short of War reveals, though, is that for all its education and claims to authority, the vanguard to which Wright belongs has become startlingly backward-looking and incapable of charting a new path for the United States in the twenty-first century.


All Measures Short of War champions what has become the standard Brookings line: the idea that the United States’ primary global mission must be to defend the “liberal international order” that has supposedly defined geopolitics since 1945. “For seventy years,” Wright argues, “the United States built and led a liberal international order characterized by alliances, an open economy, multilateral cooperation, democracy, and human rights.” It’s a curious argument: just ask the people of Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and several other countries about the United States’ commitment to democracy and human rights and see what they have to say about the matter.

Undeterred by history, Wright insists that this order enabled the United States to both achieve its goals and serve as a global moral leader. While drafted mostly before Trump’s election, All Measures Short of War is Wright’s attempt to push back against what he views as an emergent isolationism and to convince Americans that defending the “liberal order” is crucial to their security and prosperity.

The book should have been shorter than it is. The first four chapters, which summarize recent international relations, mostly consist of well-told stories that a reader of the New York Times should already know. These chapters do not engage with much historical scholarship, which would have provided depth to their summary of contemporary events (and which might have forced Wright to more seriously question the premise that the U.S.-led order was a force for moral good). Wright’s lack of interest in history might account for the banality of the two major insights he offers in these chapters: first, that Russia and China’s attempts to assert themselves in Europe and Asia affect international order, and second, that no great power currently wants to fight a war with another. Neither claim has been especially controversial for decades. Whatever their other faults, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, the generals presently steering the ship of state, don’t need to be reminded of these rather prosaic points.

All Measures Short of War truly begins when it turns to the subject of international interdependence. Here, Wright usefully highlights the irony that such interdependence, which pundits like Thomas Friedman previously lauded as the basis for global peace, has in many instances provided unique opportunities for conflict. Economic sanctions, for example, are only effective in an interconnected world. Although an economic superpower like the United States is more likely to inflict than receive pain, Wright correctly notes that China and Russia have sought, and will continue to seek, “to carve out spheres of independence for themselves to hedge against the downside risks of being reliant on others,” which could have deleterious effects on the West. Globalization, then, has encouraged the very sort of expansionist nationalism it was meant to attenuate. As a modern Marx might say, the contradictions inherent to neoliberal capitalism continue to heighten.

This tension provides Wright with a puzzle: how can the United States defend the liberal international order in an interdependent but competitive world? “Responsible competition,” his preferred strategy, is based on the premise that the United States can maintain global supremacy through economic, rather than military, measures: in other words, sanctions can replace war. That strategy, Wright argues, could convince China and Russia that it is not in their interests to challenge U.S. regional hegemony, even when the nation dominates their own backyards. It would also, he maintains, leave a space open for the world’s great powers to collaborate on global issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation.

When he wrote the book’s epilogue, “Trumpism and the Global Order,” Wright was certain that Trump’s then-recent election presaged an isolationist turn. One wonders what Wright would say if he revisited these passages today, when Trump has publicly endorsed NATO’s mutual defense pact, appears ready to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, and seems to have outsourced foreign policy decision-making to McMaster and Mattis, two generals very much committed to maintaining American supremacy. While Wright is probably aghast at Trump’s intemperate tweets and bizarre press conferences—the establishment disdains nothing more than vulgarity—he is undoubtedly relieved that the United States has demonstrated that it intends to remain the world’s sole superpower. As under earlier American presidents, under Trump it seems likely that the nation will continue to do what it wants when it wants, only with less bleating about democracy, liberty, and, perhaps, open markets.

The biggest gap in All Measures Short of War is Wright’s complete indifference to the domestic costs of U.S. empire, an indifference unfortunately common to much mainstream national security writing. It wasn’t always this way. When thinkers debated America’s world role in the 1940s and 1950s—a historical moment in which, similar to our own, the nation’s geopolitical position was hotly contested—numerous intellectuals cautioned that empire abroad could result in empire at home. Today, we can appreciate the prescience of these warnings: domestic surveillance undertaken in the name of national security has made many Americans wary of freely expressing themselves in public forums, particularly on impossible-to-completely-delete social media platforms; the militarization of U.S. policing has been encouraged by counterinsurgency efforts abroad; and unfettered American-led globalization continues to widen the gap between the 1 percent and the rest. Trump’s election and our stark political polarization have only underlined the price Americans have paid to maintain a largely chimerical “liberal” international order.

Perhaps the saddest thing about All Measures Short of War, though, is its lack of imagination. Wright is paid to think profound thoughts about the U.S. role in the world, and the best strategic vision he can offer is essentially to do what the United States has been doing for seventy years, but better and with less violence. Compare this to the midcentury moment, when, as the historian Or Rosenboim shows in The Emergence of Globalism (2017), dozens of intellectuals—from Owen Lattimore to Charles Merriam to Nicholas Spykman—offered diverse visions of potential world orders that included, but were not limited to, liberal perspectives. In contrast, today all Brookings experts can offer is an exsanguinated vision that looks back to a mythical liberal golden age.


In the twentieth century, intellectuals and government officials decided to develop organizations like Brookings because they believed in the value of expertise. But they never confronted the question of how to prevent intellectual and institutional inertia from taking hold. Policy requires expertise, but wonks must be held accountable for their failures; otherwise, bad ideas continue to be championed long past their sell-by date. Today’s defense intellectuals of a centrist bent clearly feel themselves accountable to no one; how else, in the wake of the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires, the Libyan disaster, and the global rise of reactionary populism, could such brazen manifestos like All Measures Short of War see the light of day?

Judging from last year’s electoral upheaval, the public will no longer passively accept epistocracy or meritocracy. For too long ordinary Americans have been looked down upon or simply ignored by a foreign policy elite that has done little but send many of their sons and daughters to kill and be killed in pointless wars. This cannot continue. The United States requires a cohort of policy-oriented left-wing intellectuals prepared to challenge the utopianism and shibboleths of both liberal internationalism and neoconservatism. To effect change, left-wing intellectuals must become a power elite, organized in think tanks of their own.

Despite the present reaction against elites, political structures don’t transform overnight, and wonks will probably continue to influence which policy ideas are considered legitimate. That is not an entirely bad thing. Modern democracies need thinkers who have dedicated their lives to studying arcane issues, but Americans, particularly those underrepresented in the halls of power—who are precisely those who fight the nation’s never-ending wars—deserve a better class of experts.

But what ideas should left-wing think tanks advocate? Anti-imperialism, while morally just, is not a foreign policy. Instead, progressive think tanks will need to supply proposals that address the details of specific issues, from trade to war to surveillance to military spending. Thomas J. Wright believes that since 1945 the United States has been mostly a force for good in the world and that geopolitical stability, peace, and prosperity rest on maintaining unquestioned U.S. global leadership. This is an appealing, if demonstrably false, myth. To combat it, the left needs a foreign-policy vision of its own, and comprehensive plans for making that vision a reality. Otherwise, we cede the policy ground to thinkers like Wright and institutions like Brookings and ensure that the American empire continues to hum along unchallenged.

Daniel Bessner is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.