The neoconservative foreign policy of George W. Bush is a catastrophic failure–this is conceded even by a growing number of neoconservatives. As an alternative to the Bush Doctrine of US global hegemony, contempt for international law and support for regime change by armed intervention, liberal internationalism ought to be enjoying a renaissance. Instead, the body of strategic principles that guided US foreign policy at its best during the twentieth century is threatened. The greatest threat to liberal internationalism comes not from without–from neoconservatives, realists and isolationists who reject the liberal internationalist tradition as a whole–but from within: from schools of thought that claim the title of liberal internationalism while jettisoning some of its fundamental principles. As is often the case with a creed, the heretics are as dangerous as the infidels. In the case of liberal internationalism, the heretics come in two schools: democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists.
The democratic hegemonists advocate the global hegemony of a “concert of democracies.” Among the spokesmen for this idea are Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, both Democrats who endorsed Bush’s occupation of Iraq. The most well-reasoned argument for this position has been provided by Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, both of Princeton and co-authors of a recent manifesto, “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law.” Prominent in the 1990s, but less visible since 9/11, is the disproportionately British school of liberal imperialists, also called humanitarian hawks, including Britain’s Niall Ferguson and Canada’s Michael Ignatieff. Liberal imperialists argue that the United States and its European allies have a duty to invade, and if necessary govern, disordered societies in the interests of human rights and justice. The arguments of democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists overlap to a considerable degree.
Members of both schools often call themselves liberal internationalists and claim to be “Truman Democrats,” the genuine heirs of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and cold war liberal Presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. Both of these schools invoke an older American liberal internationalism to justify the policies they propose. But both depart in one way or another from the historic American liberal internationalist tradition. Innovation is not always progress. The new liberal internationalism is no improvement over the old.
What is genuine liberal internationalism? It is neither a naïve idealism that ignores the realities of power nor a crude realism that ignores the power of ideals. While universal liberalism and universal democracy are its ultimate goals, the practical and immediate goal has been global peace. Enduring international peace is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for liberal democracy. Why? In a world of recurring great-power conflicts or widespread anarchy, concerns about security may force even liberal democracies to sacrifice their freedoms to the imperatives of self-defense. This is what Woodrow Wilson meant when he said that the United States and its allies must make the world “safe for democracy.” A world safe for democracy need not be a democratic world. It need only be a world in which democracies like the United States are not forced by recurrent world wars to turn themselves into armed camps.
If global peace is the goal of liberal internationalism, the means to this end are the self-determination of sovereign peoples and a global concert of power. Why sovereignty and self-determination? A world of many, mostly small and nonaggressive nation-states will be less dangerous than one of a few empires battling to carve up the world. Why a concert of power? World peace is possible only if the great powers are not locked in dangerous, expensive power struggles, hot or cold. The ideal of liberal internationalism therefore is a world organized as a peaceful global society of sovereign, self-governing peoples, in which the great powers, rather than compete to carve out rival spheres of influence, cooperate to preserve international peace in the face of threats from aggressive states and terrorism.
The UN Charter codifies the liberal internationalist vision of world order. The fundamental norm is sovereignty. Wars are legal only if they are fought in self-defense or authorized by the UN Security Council. The Security Council was intended to function as a concert of great powers cooperating to keep the peace.
The cold war paralyzed the Security Council, and the two superpowers repeatedly intervened in countries from Asia to Latin America, waging proxy wars with each other. However, when the cold war ended, conditions were propitious for the realization of the vision of a liberal international order based on sovereignty and policed by a concert of status quo great powers. But this vision had few advocates in Washington in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the dominant schools of thought among the bipartisan US foreign policy elite rejected the norm of sovereignty and the strategy of US participation in a great-power concert. Sovereignty, it was widely argued, needed to be qualified or abandoned in order to permit enlightened outside powers to intervene in unjust or disordered states to promote human rights, democracy or both. And most Democratic and Republican foreign policy thinkers rejected the idea of a great-power concert, with the United States as a member, in favor of a strategy of converting America’s temporary cold war hegemony into permanent US global hegemony, in one form or another. Neither of these alterations of the older liberal internationalism is an improvement on it. Sovereignty should remain the basis of international order. And a concert of power, rather than a quasi-imperial Pax Americana, should secure international peace.
On the question of sovereignty, the older American liberal internationalism and its would-be successors differ dramatically. Unlike neoconservatives, democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists tend to endorse the idea of international law. For example, the manifesto of Ikenberry and Slaughter is titled “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law.” But the authors and others seek to erode national sovereignty as the basis of international law and to replace it with a new normative basis in the form of democratic government or human rights. Their purpose is to grant the United States, by itself or with allies, a license for invading and occupying sovereign states that have not engaged in cross-border aggression but have denied democracy or rights to their people. Ironically, contemporary China and Russia are sometimes denounced today by would-be American “liberal internationalists” for defending the idea of state sovereignty–that is, for taking the older, historic American position.
The radicalism of the critique of sovereignty cannot be overemphasized. As I have noted, the purpose of the liberal international system established in 1945 was to eliminate imperialism, not local despotism. The European empires, like the Nazi and Japanese empires, were replaced by states based–crudely and imperfectly, in many cases–on national self-determination. Few of the imperial successor states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East were democracies in 1945. But they did not have to be to participate in the UN General Assembly. They merely needed to refrain from aggression against neighbors. The dichotomy of liberal internationalism and illiberal imperialism is not to be confused with the dichotomy of democracy and dictatorship. Indeed, in the post-1945 liberal internationalist system, it is illegal for a democratic country to wage an unprovoked war against an undemocratic country.
Those who seek to replace sovereignty as the basic norm of the international system make two arguments, one practical and one moral. The practical one is based on “democratic peace theory”–the idea that democracies are not aggressive, while dictatorships are. But what does the record show? Since 1945 very few dictatorships or despotic monarchies, however odious, in Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East have attacked their neighbors. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which invaded Iran and Kuwait and fired missiles at Israel, is the exception, not the rule.
The moral argument for sacrificing sovereignty to the imperatives of democratization or human rights is no more compelling. Liberal internationalists believe that all nations have a duty to promote human rights in other countries–but by means other than war. Exceptions to the norm of sovereignty should be made in the case of genocide and ethnic cleansing, which violate the principle of national self-determination. But these exceptions cannot be enlarged to include crimes of a lesser magnitude, such as massacres or lynchings or judicial murders, without whittling away the basic norm of sovereignty until it crumbles. The alternative would be to grant some countries–inevitably, a few great powers–a license to intervene in any state in which a government executes a dissident or massacres a crowd. Can anyone doubt that in most, if not all, cases the protection of human rights would be used as a pretext for great-power interventions whose unacknowledged purposes were strategic or commercial?
In addition to seeking to weaken state sovereignty to permit military interventions, democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists reject the liberal internationalist strategy of the concert of power. In his 1910 Nobel Prize lecture Theodore Roosevelt declared, “It would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others.” In his address to Congress of January 22, 1917, President Wilson stated, “In every discussion of the peace that must end this war it is taken for granted that the peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again.” In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt outlined his plan for what became the UN: “The real decisions should be made by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and China, who would be the powers for many years to come and that would have to police the world.”
Today’s democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists reject the idea of a peacekeeping concert among the great powers, including nondemocratic ones like China, in favor of the project of indefinite US global primacy or hegemony, which they share with neoconservatives. To be sure, many of today’s would-be liberal internationalists do not make their commitment to US global hegemony explicit. The liberal imperialist school–more prominent in the 1990s than now–envisioned a US-European combination that would intervene militarily in “failed states” to promote “nation-building.” But given Europe’s low military budgets and lack of power-projection capabilities, the United States would dominate any liberal imperialist project.
Likewise, the “concert of democracies” proposed by Slaughter, Ikenberry, Lindsay and Daalder may be less a genuine concert than a camouflage for US hegemony. In “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law” Ikenberry and Slaughter propose that if permanent members of the Security Council (read: China and Russia) do not surrender their vetoes and adopt majority voting, a “concert of democracies” consisting chiefly of the United States, Europe and Japan should declare that it, not the Security Council, will henceforth have the power to authorize invasions to topple regimes.
According to Lindsay and Daalder, the traditional idea of a great-power concert including nondemocratic nations is unworkable because the “great powers often refuse to cooperate. Washington may think Beijing should use its economic clout to shut down Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, or that Moscow should halt its nuclear dealings with Tehran, but China and Russia see their interests differently.” Lindsay and Daalder unwittingly make it clear that the real purpose of the proposed concert of democracies is to provide the United States with subservient sidekicks whose role would be to rubber-stamp policies made in Washington, not genuine partners who might oppose US actions. But other democracies do not always agree with the United States on questions like the Iraq War or Iran policy.
In practice the concert of democracies strategy looks like neoconservatism with a human face. The manifest goal would still be US global hegemony, supported by a US-European-Japanese-Indian alliance against China and Russia, as well as against lesser powers that oppose US hegemony in their neighborhoods, like North Korea and Iran. And while it takes international law far more seriously than do neoconservatives and the Bush Administration, the concert-of-democracies school would eliminate the provision of post-1945 international law that most irks neoconservatives–namely, the prohibition against military attacks on sovereign states except in rare cases of individual or collective self-defense or Security Council authorization.
What would a genuine liberal internationalist alternative to Bush’s neoconservative strategy look like? To begin with, the United States after Bush should reassert sovereignty and nonintervention as the basic organizing principles of foreign policy. Sovereignty might be trumped, in the future as in the decolonization era, by the norm of national self-determination. The United States should support legitimate self-determination movements, with the caveat that in some circumstances autonomy within a federation may be more practical than independence. Many of these today involve Muslim nationalities ruled against their will by foreigners, such as Palestinians, Chechens, Uighurs and Moros. As in the Balkans, US support for such nationalist grievances would weaken the jihadist movement by depriving it of issues capable of mobilizing Muslim anger. Another exception to sovereignty would be the post-1945 ban on genocide along with a ban on ethnic cleansing. Lesser crimes against humanity should be punished but by means other than war and occupation, such as trade and travel sanctions.
A liberal internationalist America would repudiate the goal of US global hegemony, which is shared with neoconservatives by most democratic hegemonists and liberal imperialists. The United States will remain the leading military power for some decades to come. But American leaders would make it clear that the alternative to the competitive multipolarity that they envision is cooperative multipolarity–not a Pax Americana, however benign.
The final end of the post-cold war era and the beginning of a new era in US foreign policy would be marked by the gradual and prudent transformation of America’s left-over cold war alliances into regional great-power concerts. Putin’s authoritarian Russian regime deserves to be criticized for internal tyranny and external thuggery. But that should not prevent the United States and its allies from incorporating Russia into a pan-European security system. This could be done in one of two ways: by admitting Russia to NATO or, in the alternative, by elevating the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which contains Russia and former Soviet republics, from a paper organization into a genuine military-political concert.
In East Asia the “six-power talks” about North Korea could become the basis of an enduring security concert that unites the United States, Japan, China, Russia and both Koreas. To deprive North Korea of a rationale for development of nuclear weapons, the Korean War should be formally ended and the alteration of regimes and borders by violence rather than consent on the Korean Peninsula should be formally abjured. The model would be the Helsinki Accords, which stabilized borders and reduced tensions in Central Europe in the 1970s. The United States should retain its bilateral treaties with Japan and South Korea but should add a bilateral treaty with China, pledging to come to China’s support in the case of unprovoked attack.
The new Eurasian and East Asian concerts orchestrated by the United States could be joined by looser ad hoc coalitions including India in South Asia and local states in Africa and South America. In the Middle East the conditions for a stable concert of power do not exist. The second-best option is a balance-of-power policy in which the United States and other great powers intervene if necessary to prevent Iran or any other country from dominating its neighbors by intimidation, subversion or direct attack. To pursue this “offshore balancer” role, the United States should rapidly remove its troops from Iraq and minimize its military footprint in Arab countries. In Iraq, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, the United States should act as an honest broker, seeking to mediate conflicts between rival ethnic nationalities, as it has done in Bosnia and Northern Ireland.
If there is a need for a global great-power concert, in addition to regional great-power concerts in which the United States takes part, then the rigid structure of the UN Security Council might prevent it from playing that role, even if all the great powers, including Japan, Germany and India, become permanent members. Foreign policy thinker Philip Bobbitt has suggested that something like a G-8 for security could serve as an informal great-power concert.
Since the cold war, American leaders, with particular radicalism under Bush, have repudiated the ideals of our midcentury statesmen and whittled away or rejected the norm of sovereignty while rejecting the idea of a concert of power in favor of US global hegemony. None of the arguments made by neoconservatives, democratic hegemonists or liberal imperialists against traditional liberal internationalism are persuasive. “The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society,” Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1941. Liberal internationalism as the basis of grand strategy hasn’t failed, for the simple reason that since the end of the cold war US leaders have pursued a different project. Now that the neoconservative alternative has led us into disaster and disgrace, it is time to give genuine liberal internationalism a chance.