Requiem For a Liberal Internationalism That Never Really Was
One cheer for Michael Ignatieff's attempt at a reckoning
Chamber of the United Nations Security Council
Michael Ignatieff has a good post up at Persuasion about the collapse of liberal internationalism as a foreign policy doctrine, the main limitation of which is that it does not go nearly far enough in reckoning with the reality of American foreign policy in recent decades, nor the fundamental contradictions of liberal internationalism itself. I hope this critique will be considered constructive, because I think it’s very worth saving what was good about liberal internationalism, and we won’t be able to do that unless we truly understand where it went wrong.
As I understand it, liberal internationalism’s fundamental opposition is to unilateralism. Liberal internationalists don’t simply think that jaw-jaw is better than war-war; they think that we can construct, over time, a world in which inter-state conflicts are resolved peacefully as a normative matter, by building up transnational opposition to aggression that would ultimately be backed by force. Moreover, they believe, the global spread of liberal democracy will be conducive to peace as such, and therefore it is in our enlightened interest to promote the spread of liberal democracy by any means we have available.
Liberal internationalism was never the sole ideology of American foreign policy, but it held a particularly prominent place at both the beginning and the end of the Cold War, and in the decades since. Ignatieff argues that what went wrong with liberal internationalism is basically three things. First, it ran up against the limits of power. We hubristically thought we could nation-build in places like Afghanistan, and we couldn’t. Second, it ran its own democratic deficit, treating American power as an instrument that could be wielded at will for a good cause rather than an instrument that properly belonged to the American people, whose active support and not merely tacit consent was required for policy to be sustainable. Third, it lost the plot, focusing attention on what are ultimately peripheral threats to that liberal order while much larger threats—primarily from China—grew nearly unchecked.
Now, American hegemony is in clear decline, while authoritarian challenges to liberalism are burgeoning. Therefore, he argues, liberals have a choice. They could embrace realism whole hog, and abandon any commitment to a rules-based order, democracy and human rights. This, he believes, would be a tragic choice to make, but would also fail on its own terms inasmuch as a narrow pursuit of the national self-interest would usher in a world more congenial to our authoritarian rivals. Meanwhile, recalling the Nixon-Kissinger era, he warns that realism offers no assurance that it would keep America out of unnecessary conflicts. Alternatively, he suggests, liberals should reconfigure their commitments for a more defensive era. They should stand firm for human rights and democracy in principle, and support foreign regimes on the basis of their commitments to those ideals. But they should abandon the pretense of global hegemony and focus instead on building popular support for collective self-defense among allied democracies, while using diplomacy to preserve the peace.
A less-hubristic liberal internationalism would certainly be an improvement over what we’ve had since the end of the Cold War, and I think Ignatieff has recognized some essential and important things. But if we’re doing a reckoning, we should reckon with the whole record, and not just the easiest-to-digest parts of it.
Start with a simple fact. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has repeatedly and flagrantly violated the rules-based international order that it claims to uphold and that is the centerpiece of liberal internationalist thinking. Indeed, in this period of promiscuous militarization of American foreign policy, we fought only two significant wars that were clearly justified according to the principles of the rules-based international order: the first Gulf War against Iraq, which was explicitly authorized by the United Nations, and our war in Afghanistan, which was a direct and entirely proportionate response to al Qaeda’s attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
By contrast, America’s 1989 invasion of Panama to depose President Manuel Noriega—which was our first post-Cold War adventure, begun only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall—had no justification according to those principles, and was denounced by the United Nations and the Organization of American States as a clear violation of international law. It was quickly forgotten because it was so short and successful, and because its realist rationales were so obvious: the Panama Canal was too strategically important for us to be indifferent to the regime that controlled it, and Panama lay within America’s sphere of influence, a concept we no longer recognize formally but have long practiced in the Caribbean and Central America. Nonetheless, if Russia did something similar in Ukraine or China did something similar in Myanmar, we would understand immediately how clear a violation of the rules-based international order it was.
Our war in Kosovo, similarly, had no justification or warrant under international law. Launched by President Bill Clinton, the war transformed NATO from the defensive alliance it was originally designed to be into a mechanism for power-projection. It very nearly led to direct conflict with Russian troops, and put the final nail in the coffin of Russian liberalism and the possibility of a constructive relationship with the United States. But most important, it laid down a marker that the United States and its allies considered themselves the arbiters of when military action was morally justified. That’s the opposite of a rules-based approach to international order.
President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq had a fig leaf of international legitimacy inasmuch as, on paper, the war was launched to enforce international agreements and the declarations of the United Nations. But this fig leaf was easily torn away when the tendentious and deceptive nature of the case for war became clear, and when the conduct of that war and of America’s larger effort to destroy al Qaeda, which included forthright embrace of torture, became known. In a larger sense, though, the Bush administration’s rhetoric made clear that the rules-based order was now viewed as more an impediment to than an expression of America’s vision of a more democratic world. International trust in American intentions plummeted among our allies and our rivals alike, but hopes remained high that the next administration, led by President Barack Obama, would act to reverse that decline, and restore America to its proper place as the linch-pin of that tattered rules-based order.
Ironically, however, the Obama administration may have done as much damage to that order as any of his predecessors, partly because of his conduct shattered these raised expectations. Most notably, NATO’s war in Libya had no warrant under international law, no authorization from the United Nations, was an operation conducted outside of NATO’s normal theater and was an aggressive (sorry: preemptive) attack rather than a response to a provocation. Both China and Russia, who had supported a more limited resolution from the U.N. that did not authorize a war to remove Qaddafi’s regime, vocally expressed their convictions that NATO had brazenly hoodwinked them, intending all along to exceed its legal mandate for action. Combined with President Barack Obama’s robust expansion of America’s drone-based assassination campaign from Pakistan to Yemen, and its deployment of Special Forces across Africa, the precedent was set that the United States considered the entire world a legitimate theater of operations for its military. It’s hard to square that with any notion of a rules-based order.
None of this was reversed under President Donald Trump, who articulated open disdain for the very idea of rules. Some of it is being reversed now: the drone campaign, for example, has been dramatically scaled back, and America has finally withdrawn from Afghanistan. But the precedents have already been set, and the damage done. And they have been set, substantially, by people who claimed to be acting to uphold the rules-based liberal international order.
How can that possibly be? It’s not just a matter of hypocrisy, though that of course plays a role. There is a fundamental contradiction in liberal internationalism that any reckoning needs to face up to. On the one hand, liberal internationalism upholds the idea of rules in international affairs: no wars of aggression, no targeting of civilians, etc., all built on top of the Westphalian system of respect for state sovereignty. On the other hand, liberal internationalism also upholds the idea that democracy is the only truly legitimate form of regime, and that states have no right to violate human rights within their own borders—not merely that doing so is bad, but that states don’t have the right to do so. In effect, then, liberal internationalists say that wars of aggression are illegitimate except when undertaken to spread democracy or protect human rights. That’s the exception through which successive American administrations have driven a Mack truck’s worth of violations of the rules-based international order.
Then, of course, there’s the question of hypocrisy. Back during the Cold War, Jeanne Kirkpatrick articulated a rationale for preferring authoritarian regimes to totalitarian ones—the former, supposedly, were not an inherent threat and were potentially reformable, where the latter derived their legitimacy from aggressive ideologies and so were inherently threatening and immune to reform. That supposed principle can easily be mocked; it looks an awful lot like a post-hoc rationalization for supporting nondemocratic regimes that were antagonistic to the Soviet Union while opposing those that were allied with it. But at least since Nixon’s opening to China, the United States never even followed Kirkpatrick’s stated rule. Today, meanwhile, articulating any such rule would be essentially impossible. We are currently allied, implicitly, with India and Vietnam against China, even though Vietnam, like China, is a communist dictatorship, while India is backsliding rapidly on democratic principles to embrace a violent nationalist ideology. We are also allied, explicitly, with Turkey in the implicitly anti-Russian NATO alliance, even though Turkey and Russia have followed very similar paths away from liberalism and toward autocratic nationalist dictatorship.
An ideology fundamentally at war with itself, and that as a practical matter cannot (and never really was) practiced in a principled way, is going to have a hard time convincing skeptics that it is anything other than propaganda. But I think it is much more than that—or, it was, and could be again. I said that I think liberal internationalism has much good in it, and I do believe that’s the case. At its best, it inspired profound trust among former enemies, and helped shepherd multiple nations in a more peaceful and democratic direction. To get back to a place where it could do that again, I think liberal internationalists need to reckon much more deeply with their own record and with the incoherence of their articulated principles. Once they have done so, I think they’ll wind somewhere like the following.
First, the “rules-based international order” is fundamentally liberal only in the sense that it is based on an enlightened conception of self-interest. It is, therefore, built upon a Westphalian foundation, and we can’t attack that foundation without destroying the edifice. The “responsibility to protect,” therefore, cannot be an obligation that binds us in any meaningful sense, not only because you cannot have a responsibility that you are practically unable to discharge, but because it is not a principle that can be generalized without destroying the possibility of international order as such. (Did Russia, after all, not have a “responsibility” to protect the Serbs against NATO aggression?)
We should seek to uphold such an order not because it promotes democracy or human rights, but because it promotes the peace within which there is a chance for democracy to flourish. The more complicated challenge lies a step further. Ignatieff denounces the idea of peace at any price, but unless he means there is no price he would pay, the question is what price is right, and the important currency is one that Ignatieff himself finds valuable. If we believe in a rules-based order, then, inasmuch as we should sometimes be willing to sacrifice justice for peace, we should strive to do so within this framework rather than in a way that damages the framework.
What does that mean in practice? Since China, Russia and India are all rising powers, they are going to seek to alter the terms of international politics in their favor. That is only natural, and if we oppose them doing so in principle then we might as well junk the idea of trying to preserve peace at all. But facilitating that—which is likely necessary to preserve peace—will almost certainly mean sacrificing the interests of some front-line democracies. If we are going to make that sacrifice, then, and we care about preserving and strengthening the rules-based international order, we should do so in such a way that builds up the rules-based order rather than rewarding its violation, so that these rising powers come to believe that a rules-based order is worth upholding rather than tearing down.
If you see where this is going, you understand what its implications are. It means things like saying that, while we oppose the use of force against Taiwan, we’re not going to intervene directly because we don’t believe Taiwan is an independent country. It means things like saying that, if Russia believes eastern Ukraine is really part of Russia, there should be an internationally-monitored plebiscite to determined whether the population of that region agrees, with pressure brought to bear on both Ukraine and Russia to accept such an arrangement as preferable to war. That all probably sounds a lot like appeasement—because it is. But that’s precisely what you would favor if you thought shoring up a rules-based order in the context of rising, revisionist powers was a paramount objective.
I don’t think that’s what Americans want to do. Nor do I think it’s what Ignatieff wants to do. And it’s mostly irrelevant anyway, because the United States is in a terrible position to do anything like this precisely because of all the damage we’ve done to the rules-based order over the past thirty years. Europe, though, is a different story. If, then, the United States really does want to rebuild a rules-based order, which would require accommodating China, Russia and and India within it, what we should want is a more independent, militarily and diplomatically capable Europe that could actually play a constructive, even leading role in that process rather than just carping from the sidelines about American behavior. Since such a capable Europe is also America’s best hope of a liberal and democratic ally capable of shouldering some of the burden of defense if the world order does fully break down, pursuing that goal should be a priority regardless.
What, then of democracy and the protection of human rights? These are not principles that bind us in international affairs. Rather, democracy and human rights are goals that we pursue—and that we will not always choose to pursue. The choice will always be a pragmatic one where we have to debate the odds of success, the short term costs and the potential long-term benefits (since a more just and humane world is good for us in the long term). The real question is how we will choose in the short term: whether we pursue the goal of greater democratization at the expense of short-term commercial or military advantage, or whether we decline to make that sacrifice. The role of liberals will be to push the envelop further toward making those sacrifices, while the role of conservatives will be to push the other way. I hope the liberals win that debate at least some of the time, but fundamentally it’s a matter of weighing different legitimate goals in the balance, not a matter of binding principle.
Inasmuch as we do want to be bound by our values to pursue the goal of democracy-promotion and the protection of human rights, though, what binds us first and foremost is to not be an accessory to crimes that we abhor. That, too, has certain implications in terms of where democratization fits in foreign policy. If we are choosy, say, about how close we align ourselves with nondemocratic regimes, that provides an incentive for other regimes to democratize so as to reap the benefit of a closer relationship with the United States. The price we pay, of course, is that we forego the benefit of a closer relationship with less-savory regimes who might be eager to align with us for reasons of realpolitik. What articulating the question this way should make clear is that a choice to expect our allies to follow democratic norms and principles is an expression of confidence on our part, a conviction that we can afford to lose friends and allies that we don’t need, and/or that we won’t lose those friends and allies after all because our friendship is too valuable to be ditched. The more we feel we are are up against it, the less-choosy we are going to be—and the less-choosy we are, the more we are communicating that we feel we are up against it.
This, then, has deep implications for how we approach China particularly. I’ve written before about how I have reluctantly become more hawkish on China. For years I thought America’s preeminent foreign policy challenge was figuring out how to accommodate China’s rise while avoiding war. Now, I feel like our preeminent foreign policy challenge is figuring out how to check China’s rise while avoiding war—the second part, avoiding war, still being essential. Fundamentally, my change of heart relates to the fact that China has changed in the opposite direction from what its American friends hoped: far from liberalizing, it has become more nationalistic, more repressive, more of an autocracy, and in more of a hurry to achieve its aims. A realist would say that China’s rise as such makes it too threatening to simply accommodate (whereas Russia and India could more readily be accommodated, and should be if that would woo them toward us and away from China). A liberal internationalist would say that it’s the nature of the Chinese regime that makes its rise too threatening to simply accommodate (and would probably say the same about Russia; I don’t know what excuses they would make for India). I have a foot in both camps, and on China the two camps have kind of become one.
Except that the reality of China’s rise requires more compromise from liberal internationalism than it does from realism. If, then, we are in fact “up against it” in a zero-sum competition with China, our internationalism is going to get a whole lot less liberal—and our liberalism may need to get a whole lot less internationalist. We’re going to wind up allying with regimes like Vietnam’s and India’s that do not fit neatly into a framework of an “alliance of democracies.” We’re going to recognize that Russia has us caught in a neat Catch-22 with respect to the parallelism between Taiwan and Ukraine, one we’re going to struggle to get out of. We may decide we need to preserve Taiwan’s practical independence from Beijing, but if we do we cannot delude ourselves that China or anyone else will understand that action in anything but realist terms, which is precisely why it might well provoke precisely the conflict it is intended to prevent. And inasmuch as we do strive to uphold the tattered rules-based order, it will be because that order restrains China, and because that aspect is appealing to a broad array of other states, not all of them democracies, who are worried about China’s rise.
Most important, we’ll need to focus less on promoting democracy abroad and more on fostering it at home—along with fostering greater state capacity and economic independence. We could cast our rivalry with Beijing as another struggle against a great illiberal power, which it is. But inasmuch as it is a struggle for China’s soul, the main weapon will be our own example rather than any pressure we might bring to bear.
And there is plenty of work to do on that example. One of the most striking findings of the recent Pew poll of multiple countries on the subject of democracy is that overwhelmingly the United States is no longer viewed as a good model for democracy. From Canada and Australia, to Germany and the U.K., to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, outright majorities of our democratic allies believe that while America used to be a good example for other countries to follow, we no longer are. And Americans overwhelmingly agree: while only 8% of us think we were never a good example (fewer than any other surveyed country), fully 72% think we have fallen away in recent years (more than any other surveyed country).
It’s hard to see how the United States can promote a liberal, democratic international order, or lead an alliance of democracies, when neither we nor our allies see us as a democratic exemplar. So liberals should have plenty to keep them busy—too busy, I hope, to go abroad any longer in search of monsters to destroy.