Liberal Internationalism: The Twilight of a Dream
Published on: April 1, 2010
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  • Luke Lea

    “Western concepts of bureaucratic institutions date back to the Roman Empire”

    A small point — and correct me if I am wrong — but I was taught that the Roman Empire, at least in the time of Caesar, was very much lacking in bureaucratic institutions. There were no police to enforce the law, for example, and the state had to resort to tax farming to raise revenue.

    At any rate, count me as a believer in liberal internationalism. Reports of its demise — along with Europe’s — are greatly exaggerated. It is the great Hebraic project for being and has a 3500 year old history behind it.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      The empire was more bureaucratic than the republic.

  • nadine

    While I heartily agree that liberal internationalism is an idea whose time has passed, I don’t think you have addressed the pernicious effects of multi-culturalism upon the current version of liberal internationalism.

    Woodrow Wilson could quite confidently assert that American civilization had something to teach the less developed world about democracy and human rights; but today’s liberal internationalists have been brought up on a multi-culti diet of America as a litany of sins: slavery, racism, colonialism, orientalism, etc, and have been strictly instructed to “see no evil” in the cultural customs of non-Westerners, however abhorrent they may be by Western standards.

    Thus you wind up with the strange situation of soi-disant “human rights activists” routinely taking the side of non-Western bandits, terrorists, and religious fanatics against democracies such as America or Israel. Recall the various lefties who called the Al Qaeda-led insurgents of Iraq “freedom fighters”, or all those who reflexively side with Hizbullah and Hamas today.

  • Roy

    It seems like there is tinge of Nietzschean ressentiment with regard to the United States. Other countries feel relatively powerless, so they exalt that weakness as a virtue, and decry our willingness, and ability, to project our will globally, through arms and trade and the media. We are an “empire”, and are guilty of all the sins characteristic of one. What’s more, our Anglo-American values are alien to native political culture, by this reasoning. But as Nietzsche suggested, this is as much a stratagem as a conviction. Who is to suggest that an emerging power like Brazil won’t behave like a regional hegemon in a few years? Will they really heed their own rhetoric about Western arrogance, and be content with a limited role on the world stage, if it’s in their power to wield greater influence?

    I wonder if accepting a diminished role internationally, on account of the inevitable waning of our influence, doesn’t sell democracy short. Walter’s Council on Foreign Relations colleague, Steven Cook, wrote an interesting piece recently suggesting that democracy was one of the things neoconservatives got right about the Middle East–at least in principle, if not in implementation. That, in fact, there is a real hunger for representative government in countries accustomed to decades of monolithic, one-party rule. Evidence in Lebanon, for example, would seem to bear that out.

    One issue of regional importance that I would like to see devolve to local powers is North Korea; isn’t it in China’s interest to see that they don’t continue to be provocative with the threat of nuclear weapons?

  • Roy

    Can somebody please explain to me what John Kerry knows that everyone else doesn’t when he declares that Syria is interested in and ready for peace, based on his conversations with Bashar Assad? What is his secret plan?

    There must be one, given that he can’t possibly have fallen for the same lip service to peace that the Assads have been fobbing off on diplomats for decades, while they openly and covertly wage war against their neighbors.

    The Assads murdered democracy in Lebanon, starting with the assassination of Rafic Hariri, and by Kerry’s own admission, are supplying weapons to Hezbollah. What am I missing?

    Michael Young, with Reason Magazine and The Daily Star in Lebanon, is invaluable on Syria, as is Michael Totten.

  • Norm

    A Roman aside: Civic responsibilities eventually came to be hereditary and eventually, the financial obligations overwhelmed the nominal magnates leading to decay. One is tempted to draw a parallel to federalism and the increasingly straight-jacketed state fiscs with unfunded federal mandates – but this leads us back into the collapse of the blue model.

    A different point more in line with discussion is Charles Krauthammer’s “Unipolar Moment” discussion from the early 1990s. It seems to me that the regional alignments discussed by Dr. Mead could coelsce into genuine Great Powers over a period of time. Rather than a US dominated world order as we saw from 1991 to 2006 (the Iraqi insurgency marking one possible end of the era) and this leading to a WTO McWorld, we see 10-20 genuine sovereignties – in some cases leagues of culturally similar nation-states – who will find themselve negotiating as equals with one another and ultimately acquiring nuclear weapons as a military means to assure sovereignty and deterrance.

  • Karl Maier

    I think the Neoconservative Wilsonians have gained a clear strategic win with the seeding of Iraq and Afghanistan with Democracy. This example of cultural Judo is reverberating through the entire region and the world. Authoritarian governments everywhere are now under greater pressure from their own people because of these actions. Having now seen them in action for the first time in a generation, American military forces are deeply admired and feared by our enemies, and they seek both to understand why we are so deadly, and to imitate us. It’s the imitation that we want, as this means they will change their culture to something more like and agreeable to us. As a Jacksonian Libertarian, I supported the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan not just because I was enraged by the Muslim attack on 911 and wanted to show them our power, but because I recognized the cultural judo this would entail.
    The Liberal Internationalist Wilsonian’s program lacks this cultural judo, and the Authoritarians will only go along with it as long as they get paid. And I as a Jacksonian Libertarian don’t want to join together with those who are my cultural inferiors, and so I will not support international courts, global warming, the UN, and any trade agreements that don’t recognize that the global trading system is an American trading system, we pay to protect it, and we must always profit from it.
    Those who think America is in decline are just not paying attention. “I see TEA Parties” American culture is the most dynamic bleeding edge culture in human history, every other culture on Earth is eating our dust.

  • fw

    If we accept that we will have a diminished capacity to steer political events overseas, as our relative power declines, how do we go about securing our interests?

    After all, our military engagements are prompted not only if at all by a desire to spread democracy but by a need to secure our interests, especially after 9/11, when we acted in order to preempt another domestic attack against the U.S.

    Or, to put it another way, if spreading democracy is a means to securing our interest, rather than an end in itself that is a good in its own right, how do we continue to protect the things that are important to us with limited influence?

    Can we retreat completely within our borders, and continue to live safely and in peace? Will world affairs run smoothly without the expected intervention of the United States?

  • WigWag

    Is the European preference for liberal internationalism and increasingly powerful worldwide bureaucratic institutions rooted in “Kantian visions” or is it rooted in something much more pragmatic than that?

    It seems to me that Europe’s affection for international institutions only began to grow in earnest as Europe’s ability to influence the world began to wane and then eventually collapsed. I’m not sure that it was tradition or history that motivated Europe’s enthusiasm for these institutions, I think it was the hope that through these institutions, Europe could still maintain a modicum of influence on world affairs.

    After all, prior to World War I, neither Europe’s Kantian traditions, nor its rootedness in Roman history nor its Christian heritage motivated a strong interest in international institutions. Prior to the Great War, the Europeans did things the old fashioned way; they used blunt military power to get their way.

    Only after the War, with its infrastructure in shambles and its economies in extremis, did the Europeans develop a fondness for the League of Nations. The newly powerful Americans on the other hand, saw little need for an institution like the League of Nations so they rejected it, despite the fact that Woodrow Wilson was its creator. This makes all the sense in the world; the Americans were able to rely on their own power; the Europeans were not.

    Of course European power was not completely eviscerated until the second part of the great Civil War of Europe was completed at the end of World War II.

    By then, Europe had self-immolated. For its voice to be heard at all, international institutions were all that was left; going it alone was no longer feasible because European weakness was on display for all to see; a situation that continues to this day.

    Give Kant the credit if you want to, but it was the diplomatic incompetence that led to World War I and then Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini who are really esponsible for Europe’s drift towards liberal internationalism.

  • Luke Lea

    Since the rise of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia history has been little else than the history of warring states in a relentless competition for power. There is no reason to think this process will end before we have a Kantian world of perpetual peace.

    It might me a decentralized network of international institutions (like the WTO and our international financial institutions) or a world parliament of democracies or even a bilateral equilibrium between two equal powers that divide the world between them. What it will NOT be is a multi-polar world with three or more actors.

  • Peter

    Mr. Mead is right; world government as the liberal Wilsonians envision is a pipe dream.

    And so is Luke Lea when he observes, “Since the rise of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia history has been little else than the history of warring states in a relentless competition for power.”

    The trouble with the Omami (Wilsonians) is that they are willing to sacrifice the national interest of the U.S. in pursuit of their cockamamie dream.

  • Norm

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding Luke Lea, or exposing my own prejudices here. I don’t think a Kantian state of world peace is possible with the crooked timber of human nature as it exists. I can conceive of a universal empire like the Roman or Chinese regional empires at a global scale (not a particularly attractive prospect to my taste). Had the Soviet Union triumphed in the Cold War that would have been an approximate condition subject to successful consolidation. I can also see various stable multi-polar arrangements.

    I think we’re moving out of the “Unipolar moment” and into a new multipolar environment. At a minimum, the five great powers are now the US, EU, India, China, and Russia – all with nuclear deterrants that make bullying them into compliance with any given policy an exercise in futility. Copenhagen was a practical example where the latter three powers simply refused to go along with the architecture the US and EU endorsed.

    Iran is an aspiring great power. So is Brazil. Japan is an economic great power under a US security umbrella. If the US pulls back, Japan will be compelled to acquire a means of military deterrance themselves. Brazil and other potential leagues in Latin America and Africa will eventually have to determine if they want to be a client of an existing great power or have genuine sovereignty in the 21st Cenury with sufficient military power.

  • RussS

    Thiis a good summary of the challenges liberal internationalism will face. It is not a good argument agains liberal internationalism.

    Realists have been arguing for a cut-to-the chase interest-driven foreign policy ever since there was argument over foreign policy. But even if we did that, the best path to achieve our national goals is not always clear.

    Sometimes it is better to use the forum of the UN security council than to go it alone. At other times it is better to go it alone. I don’t think pursuing liberal internationalism is at the expense of our interests. Few people (and few liberals) believe in world government anymore.

    But I do believe in cooperation, and in our global economy there has to be more of it. Pursuing our interests in a liberal, international way will get us there more easily than going it alone. The risk of a pure realist foreign policy is that our own arrogance and cultural insensitivity make us underestimate the powers that oppose us.

  • ViperMD

    Many, many reasons to understand the extraordinary strengths of the US and for optimism in the future:

    1) The US is the world’s largest manufacturer, with a gross output of nearly $5 trillion ( >$2 trillion in GDP contribution) producing 20% of all the world’s manufactured goods, a market share it has held for decades – Japan and the EU have had their shares decline precipitously, something rarely noted – also America produces one-third of all the world’s high tech goods. (manufacturing jobs have been lost in less competitve industries, yet has remained strong in higher and higher value industries)
    2) Spends 45% of the world’s research and development money, guarenteeing future prosperity
    3) At $15 trillion, it remains by far the largest economy in the world, 4x’s larger than China
    4) The US is deliberative, self-critical, and self correcting, and so unlike incessantly criiticizing Europe and the Middle East, it is dynamic and fluid, changing as it needs to–identifying problems and rapidly fixing them
    5) Its unmatched culture of leading universities, think-tanks, public debates, entrpreneurship, coupled with its domination of technology and science provides it with an extraordinary productivity and potential.
    6) Despite what some may say, the US, without imposing, has the most attractive culture the world over; this is a reflection of the overt and subtle things about America and Americans which makes it so emulated and great.
    7) The net worth of Americans even after the ‘Great Recession’ is some $60 trillion, a sum equivalent to the entire world’s annual output (GDP).

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  • EJM

    Liberal internationalism was exploded by the failure of the League of Nations and the naval treaties of the 1920’s which did nothing to prevent the rise of Hitler and Japanese agression in Asia. After WWII the UN was a creation of the victorious allies with an internationalist veneer. Its only serious actions outside of health campaigns was when the US had a coalition for action, such as in Korea (and that only after the USSR walked out). Otherwise it is dominated by anti-democratic authoritarian states eager only to embarass and milk the West. While Bush made overtures to the UN and paid respect to its resolutions, it is clear that they are meaningless without US military enforcement. The Iraq War ended all pretense of relevance for the “international community” and liberal internationalism. It is the obviousness of this conclusion that so enraged liberals against the Bush administration in Iraq, and led to their fierce opposition to a project in line with their historical objectives: the spread of democracy in Iraq and particularly the liberation of women in Afghanistan from the clutches of the Taliban.

    The twilight of liberalism internationally eclipsed only by the dusk of “progressivism” domestically. The welfare state is failing or has already failed in Greece and in New York, Michigan and California. Obamism is its last hurrah. Debt and deficits have reached unsustainability, even many liberals now concede. The United States is in for some difficult times as it divests itself from damaging mythologies of liberalism. The generation coming of age will have to reject these myths in order to survive in a new competitive world. Once they do, “progressivism” will be consigned to the same ashbin of history as fascism, communism and socialism, as relics of 20th century failures, and a new century will dawn a decade or two delayed. The United States is the freest, richest and most resourceful of any nation on earth, and will do just fine when it cleanses itself of “progressive” orthodoxy and superstition both in its international and domestic policies.

  • thibaud

    Excellent diagnosis, but the prognosis is a bit weak on the collective security side. It would be interesting to hear Mead’s opinions about the role of American military force and interventionism generally as regards the rise of regional powers in Asia and other regions.

    It seems obvious that balancing against China, esp with India, is the smart choice in Asia, but in Latin America, Mead’s analysis would seem to argue for continuing the Monroe Doctrine, if not actually working to keep the Latin American nations divided wherever possible (via bilateral trade deals, for instance).

    The problem with offshore balancing, or divide et impera, if you prefer, in the post-Obama era will be whether America will be able to afford force projection into so many regions. If not, then the US will need to figure out how to sharply reduce its military commitments in at least one non-European theater and also reduce its European commitment to the bare minimum.

    This reduction won’t happen in the Middle East so long as Iran seeks to dominate the middle east and Saudi Arabia and the world’s oil supply remain vulnerable to violent fundamentalists, and there must be no reduction in US influence in Latin America, a region that remains and will remains chaotic and prey to non-western mischief and interventionism, as with GazPutin’s arms sales, billion-dollar loans and nuclear technology transfers to the madman in Caracas.

    So that means the US will have to focus on India and Russia, specifically:

    a) building up India’s military capabilities (esp its navy) and international influence to eventually allow India to take a leading role alongside the US in stabilizing the broader region ie SW and East Asia; and

    b) bargaining with, co-opting, thwarting where possible and bribing where necessary a Russian bandit-run regime that is completely corrupt and cynical, with no real vision of national interest beyond bullying anyone at the other end of its pipelines, but that nonetheless has deep pockets,d popular support, and weak and equally (if not more) corrupt neighbors to its south.

    I doubt that the Obama administration is up to the task. They’ve already done their level best to ruin the nascent US-Indian alliance that the Bushes and Clinton worked so hard to develop, and Putin is toying with them on Iran, missiles and now Venezuela.

    Time to get creative, and get focused on India and Russia. Any suggestions, Mr. Mead?

  • davelnaf

    The key point the author makes is that both liberal and conservative American administrations continue to waste US resources and lives on the difficult to achieve guest for promoting democracy abroad. It will take a sea change in the way government careerists think about foreign countries to end this practice. To these people a proper nation-building effort in any of the world’s hot spots democracy is a worthy goal in and of itself. But they rarely deal with the ordinary citizens of foreign countries. They deal with people that pretend to share their values, but most emphatically do not.

  • g50

    I have been reading Dr. Mead for quite some time. He’s a preeminent thinker and strategist for those who want America to use its strength effectively in the world. But in this situation I must disagree, precisely with the broad-strokes “vision” he outlines.

    Yes, development and growth which adds heft to national governments like those of India and China and several in South America, may lead to more forceful pressing of national interest that could disrupt expectations of internationalism. Of course that makes sense – but at the same time, the “content” of that development and growth is, basically, homogenization and standardization of quality of life for the people of these countries. Media, consumer, employment, etc., patterns, all converging around those of the “Tri Lateral” nations. So to be sure, a stronger India may make decisions which complicate the international process, but it would only do so in a context in which Indians are more like North Americans and Europeans than ever before. And same with China and South America. And further, the scenario of these nations challenging the neoliberal world order is predicated on the same nations rising fundamentally by adhering to the neoliberal norms. That says to me that there is that much more common ground ahead on which the global public can constitute itself. Maybe global governance doesn’t need the UN headquarters, flags and big treaty signing ceremonies to realize the liberal vision – google’s headquarters, global brands and big Apple product releases operate much the same way in terms of the World Civil Society. I think liberal internationalists are flexible enough to praise the role of nonstate actors in creating a global superstate.

    As just one neoliberal, I don’t think America needs to insist on the international process like the Europeans do. But on the other hand it does not hurt at all to pay homage, to honor the ritual, of international processes even as we act on the decisions we have already made. And, it can help just to go through the motions. For example, the Iraq question was driven by discussion of what the Security Council and United Nations role was to be. And, at worst, the UN strategy was a relative success – perhaps moreso for the domestic audience than the international audience, but that is all part of the balancing act. As we might say, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The core of Kantianism is order and authority as the driver of development. Liberal Internationalism is the language of realizing that grand vision given the tools at our disposal of democratic national governments and a capitalist economy. While nobody would want to sacrifice the national interest of the United States to save this vision, I don’t really think that anybody is saying this. It seems what is on the table is accepting the brutality and self-interestedness of the world, but denying ourselves the visionary salve that makes hard-won pain and progress worthwhile. This sounds horrific for precisely the reason Dr. Mead cites – without the vision, the people will perish.

  • jschmidt

    The world will still look to the US as the protector. But with the Obama adminstration afraid of its’own shadow and apologizing for previous bosses, there will be no action from DC. Our friends and our enemies understand we have a weak administration who would rather call a meeting that call for action. Our allies have been insulted and abandoned. Our enemies see possible inroads such as Putin and Iran aligning themselves with Chavez. The liberals are embarrassed by the strengths of the US and feel we should be world centric. Most of us don’t feel the need to apologize for help saving the world from totalitarianism in 2 wars in the last century. If we make a mistake, we put it out in the open and fix it. But in the end, it will still be the US that is asked to oppose tyranny. There is no one else.

  • WM

    It will be interesting to watch the turning around of the ship onlookers have identified as U.S.S. American Decline. The current administration is putting in place structures and policies that prepare for, if not pave the way to, a post-American world.

    The next President, who will be elected in 2012, will not accept the post-American premise. AT. ALL. When he does a 180 and reverses the mangled and tangled webs that have been put in place over the past four years, countries that had become comfortable with the chaos may well experience a kind of culture shock.

    Foreigners, get ready. Don’t get too comfortable with the absurdities coming out of D.C. today.

  • “Wilsonian, once an ideology of rising American power, becomes a strategy for smoothing America’s decline.

    This idea is, I think, pretty influential among some of the people in the Obama administration. It may even have a place in the President’s thinking.”

    Pure horse manure, Walt. Obama’s a pragmatist and his foreign policy is based on mutual national interests.

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  • Mr. Mead:

    A thoughtful and restrained analysis, which I’ve come to expect from you.

    This could be the subject of a book, because the history of Wilsonian Progressivism is merely the continuation of efforts to achieve regioinal and later, global stability.

    However, the motivation to achieve that stability is itself hostile to America’s civic unique form of government. At its core, it’s a polity that posits that American exceptionalism is an expendable relic which is superseded by the enlightened Progressives who, a priori, know what’s best for us.

    Wilson’s 14 Points (the League of Nations, in particular) is best viewed as the inevitable policy punctuation at the end of a barbaric war, which periodically–read, predictably–arises as a visceral (i.e., purblind) attempt to bring order and stability to an otherwise chaotic world.

    Witness what happened after the 30 Years War in 1648 (which began as a war between Protestants and Catholics, but which evolved into dynastic/nationalistic sub-wars)—the Peace of Westphalia–which, besides asserting national sovereignty as a trans-national value, sought to bring balance and safety after the devastation the killed millions.

    The next major set of wars in Europe were Napoleonic, and out of that came the Congress of Vienna (1815), yet another quixotic attempt to bring order and stability, that depended, as such efforts always do, upon the good will of the contemporaneously motivated few who desire it.

    The list goes on, right up to the Treaty of London (1839), which guaranteed Belgium neutrality, and which created the exquisite balance that effectively ensured war would break out between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance in 1914.

    After the Treaty of Paris and the development of the League of Nations, came the Treaties of Locarno (1925), which provided the premise for a revanchist Germany to rebuild militarily through a stronger economy, then the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy, which lasted all of three years till the Japanese invaded Manchuria…and on and on.

    The Wilsonian instinct, advanced by those who ignorantly believe it’s a plausible solution to the dangers of an economically complex and, if you will, progressively difficult to manage world, is but the latest chapter in the evolution of nations desperately–and naively–responding to instability with the goal of reducing the chances for global conflict.

    Obama, with his transparent support of international conventions and laws that supersede national sovereignty, is just the post-modernists’ answer to the same yearning, which two-plus thousand years of history has shown is a costly fantasy.


    Phil Mella

  • Russ Wood

    Nadine makes a great point: Liberalism’s multiculturalism has cut the intellectual foundation from under liberal internationalism.

    As practiced for years now, multiculturalism finds no absolute values or standards to be enforced (or used against) anyone but the US and its allies (e.g., Israel).

    Yet, the entire point of liberal internationalism is that there are values and standards that should be enforced across cultures: hence the need for international organizations to enforce them.

    I’d love to hear Prof. Mead’s thoughts on the effect of multi-culti on Wilsonianism.

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  • Very interesting info !Perfect just what I was searching for! “I have great faith in fools — self confidence my friends call it.” by Edgar Allan Poe.

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