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.