A politics based on the rule of law and the rights of individuals at home has rarely translated into the same politics abroad. For a long time, liberal states were advocates not of global democracy promotion and “international human rights” so much as of a kinder, gentler empire. Back in the day, French reformers waxed poetic about how “colonial humanism” would realize the civilizing mission their empire had long promised the natives. At the turn of the twentieth century, Lord Cromer, the consul-general of Britain in Egypt, defended the British Empire by denouncing empires from Rome forward. In them, he explained, “the subject was regarded as existing for the empire rather than the empire for the subject.” For Lord Cromer, Britain’s global ascendancy fell into a different category, because it promoted “the moral and material elevation” of “the subject races which were brought under her sway.” Compared with prior and rival empires, Britain provided the right sort of domination—and only “an extreme radical visionary” would make the mistake of supposing that the world would be better off without it.
Such soft sells of hard power are reminders that, free trade aside, a domestic commitment to liberal values had very little impact on the chilling and sometimes violent quest for wealth, security and order that modern European states conducted beyond their borders. But how different is the United States, with its proud traditions of constitutional government and fundamental rights? For a moment in the 1990s, it looked as if the American school of thought known as “liberal internationalism” was close to realizing its fondest dreams. The global order it envisioned—and which it claimed had already materialized to a striking degree—would provide the benefits not only of nineteenth-century free markets but also of twentieth-century human rights. As a leading liberal internationalist, G. John Ikenberry, writes in Liberal Leviathan, for more than four decades the United States had cultivated this postimperial world, crafting—and, when necessary, submitting to—its multilateral rules and acting as the linchpin of its mostly consensual security arrangements.
But even liberal internationalists, like Cromer earlier, cannot imagine a world beyond domination. Ikenberry contends that when the United States had the torch passed to it by Britain as the new liberal standard-bearer during World War II, it decisively moved liberal internationalism away from imperialism toward a new and benevolent kind of hegemonic leadership. Power now served morality, with the international community standing ready to right wrongs whenever the spontaneous workings of the global system were threatened. Claiming they were the most recent inheritors of this old vision, and seeing themselves in the vanguard of history, liberal internationalists explained after the fall of the Soviet Union how long-dormant plans were finally coming to fruition in a world order that, under America’s watch, was enjoying unparalleled freedom and prosperity.
The dawn of a long day turned out to be the dusk of a short one. After 9/11, George W. Bush quickly and unceremoniously upended a state of affairs that, according to Ikenberry’s scholarship, Americans had spent decades reinforcing. Bush trashed multilateralism in foreign affairs, insisting that America had to “go it alone” when terrorism threatened; as a result, he treated global institutions that the United States had had a hand in creating as irritating obstacles to sovereignty—if not simply irrelevant. Counting himself among liberals offended by Bush, Ikenberry writes that the president “presented an extraordinary puzzle.” Adding insult to injury, the Great Recession that followed the political disarray of the Bush years has shaken the material foundations of American leadership and, in turn, the liberal order American internationalists have envisioned.