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October 11, 2005

After Liberal Internationalism, What?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

There's quite a growing trend, among people who would describe themselves as liberal internationalists, to describe that worldview as dead or on life support.

John Ikenberry over at America Abroad has an interesting post recounting a conference he helped organize debating the future of liberal internationalism.  I'll offer an excerpt:

Why the pessimism? Republican internationalists are increasingly rare and Democrats have lost the southern states that were part of the Cold War liberal coalition – twin developments that reduce national electoral incentives for bipartisanship. The Cold War itself was critical in generating support for America’s postwar global security, political, and economic commitments. Cold War threats made American officials more willing to listen to allies and settle economic and political disputes with European and Asian partners. As Peter Trubowitz noted, the rise of American unipolarity and the decline of traditional great power threats have given American leaders more geopolitical "slack" with which to pursue idiosyncratic policies or use foreign policy for partisan political gains. Indeed, one journalist at the workshop noted that American foreign policy has increasingly become a sort of offshoot of domestic social policy struggles – and this has exacerbated the conservative-liberal divide over foreign policy even in the face of new security threats.

Georgetown’s Charles Kupchan was perhaps most pessimistic, arguing that the declining influence of the World War II generation and the growing power of the heartland at the expense of coastal elites has – together with lots of other factors – eroded the constituency for liberal internationalism. No one really disputed the argument that America still had compelling national interests in a liberal internationalist foreign policy – as opposed to, say, neo-conservative or nationalist alternatives – but most agreed that it is getting harder and harder to build a political coalition around such a foreign policy orientation.

Suzanne Nossel's description of a Princeton conference last week had a somewhat similar flavor.  And I have been mulling over for a month now my surprise at some of the commentary that emerged during a sojourn at Wye River put together by the New Republic and Third Way: A Strategy Center for Progressives  (yes, the same Wye River where Yassir Arafat shuffled about in a golf cart back in the land before time, 1998.  It's an alluring place to have a conference, thanks to its Aspen Institute sponsors.)

At Wye, I – and others in the room – were rather surprised during a discussion of multilateralism to have several Names You Would Recognize get up and assert, broadly, that “everyone knows” that the UN isn’t good for much of anything and progressives shouldn’t spend much energy defending it, or multilateralism per se.  In another session, sophisticated progressive commentators argued that democracy promotion -- not merely a la George W. Bush, but in general -- was harmful to US national interests.

So what's going on here?

First, we need to remind ourselves that people have not been voting for W. because they endorse a unilateralist view of the world.  Quite the opposite, as Steve Kull reminds us.  Majorities of Bush supporters in '04 favored the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto global warming treaty, and the inclusion of labor and environmental standards in free trade pacts.  Ruy Teixeira reminds us that the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as internationalist has not changed since... the late 1940s.  Not all progressives are as familiar with these bedrock facts of public opinon as they should be.  I would argue, for instance, that the polling data invalidates the "heartland vs. coastal elites" theory presented above.

Still, internationalist narratives are not capturing the headlines and not winning anybody elections (though arguably, they never did).  There's also the Lakoffian point that neocons and unilateralists have done a much better job at telling their story than liberal internationalists -- a problem that is only going to get worse if we don't believe our own story anymore.

As Ikenberry notes, it used to be that the Cold War provided the back story for liberal internationalism.  Recently, some have tried to make the "war on terror" serve a similar purpose for everything from democracy promotion to anti-AIDS drugs.  But I don't think this has actually worked, and it has created some revulsion and backlash toward those policies among the very progressives who ought to be supporting them.  Way back in 2001, the Kaiser Family Foundation and CSIS' HIV/AIDS Working Group did some polling which suggested that either you bought into the link between poverty and disease on the one hand, and war and terrorism on the other, or you didn't.  New information didn't do much to change that.

So, point one:  we don't have a bumper-sticker answer to the question why internationalism.

Second, and I think more importantly, people who spend time thinking about these issues recognize that just about all the major institutions of internationalism must change.  We've beaten ourselves into a largely useless frenzy over UN reform, for example.  But now progressives are so aware of the UN's many flaws that we find it hard to champion the organization. 

Ditto the World Bank and the IMF, the WTO (the jury is still out, at least for me, on whether the Bush Administration's new agriculture proposals might accomplish anything or not), regional organizations, I could go on and on.  It's hard to get excited about multilateral institutions when we're achingly aware of how far they fall from our best shared ideals.

Third -- and this is easier to say from outside the Beltway -- I detect a certain amount of Stockholm Syndrome.  Some people who've been up close to five years of this Administration's assertions that we don't need "permission slips," that multilateralism is for wimps, etc are slowly getting worn down.

Fourth, we've all got a little Brutus in us.  "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves."  It's still easier for many of my fellow Clintonites, like someone at Wye, to get up and blame the UN for the Rwandan genocide than acknowledge that we, with some help from our French and Belgian friends, prevented the UN from taking action and thus bear responsibility.  Ditto Somalia, that other great "UN failure" brought on by bad national policy.  As for the current Administration, if they could blame the UN for the tiresome lack of WMD in Iraq, they would.

The crazy irony is that this Administration is building the foundations of a new internationalism -- not because it wants to, but because it has to, to find troops for Afghanistan, drugs to fight flu and AIDS, trade and financial arrangements to keep our deficit spending afloat, and so on.  Think of the creative things that NATO has done in recent years, or the pioneering new work against pandemics that is springing up out of need.  Non-governmental organizations are building the new internationalism.  The Nuclear Threat Initiative just initiated and split with Kazakhstan the cost of blending down that country's highly enriched uranium so it is no longer weapons grade.  That's a pretty serious contribution to international peace and security for a single not-for-profit.  And, of course, other countries are building the new internationalism around us -- it's hard to see the continued consolidation of the International Criminal Court any other way.

Ikenberry talks about the central challenge being the maintenance of a liberal international order which Russia and China might be convinced to join.  I'm certain there will still be such an order -- the question is whether the US will be in any position to do the convincing, and whether it will turn out to be something that is as friendly to our interests, because we helped shape it, as its predecessor was.


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Some people who've been up close to five years of this Administration's assertions that we don't need "permission slips," that multilateralism is for wimps, etc are slowly getting worn down.

This just seems like an insurmountable problem, one we haven't been able to solve since McCarthy. The unilateralists have just committed one of the biggest f**kups in American foreign policy, and yet it is the multilaterilists who have lost the argument and are warn down.

Brilliant post...

Some quick and dirty thoughts from someone who has no stake in progressive success (or failure, so you know I'm not secretly cheering for the other guys):

1. The brutal problem at the moment is that what is progressive internationally may require divorcing oneself from what is progressive domestically.

Most people agree with the internationalist view of the world...But, that view is increasingly carried by those whom they recoil at on the domestic side. Whether it be over abortion, gay-marriage, tax policy, or whatever...Which means that the two are emotionally if not cognitively associated. That's bad, because it means this very admirable message (in the heartland) will not be heard.

There is a correlation at the moment that nearly approaches 1, (wait for this, don't jump at me immediately) at least among those of prominence on the national political scene, which for foreign policy debates is the only one that matters. (Nobody thinks about Iraq when voting for Governor.) If one truly cares about getting one's international objectives accomplished, you have to be willing to accept at least a lack of progress on the domestic sphere.

2. Keep in mind that Joe Average has had his interests depressingly ignored in the arguments over classic international issues of our age.

On trade, everybody speaks of starving Africans when saying we should chop at farm subsidies.

Joe Farmer doesn't really care about some farmer in Ethiopia when he's struggling not to lose his farm.

But, weirdly, nobody brings up the point that could actually attract him.

Namely, it's not about the other guy being fed, it's about opening up markets to him and his crops. If he could sell (or try to sell) without barriers (beyond the customer) to Europe, he'd run with you on supporting NATO, Kyoto, the ICC in a heartbeat. Now, whether he'd actually make a sale is another matter. But, and maybe I'm odd, but I trust in the average American's ability to be a really good salesman. He can sell ice to Eskimos and make them want more ice...He just needs to be allowed to make his pitch.

Similarly, he *supports* the ICC. Even most soldiers, I'd bet, don't mind the idea.

But, it needs to be explained better. We need some way that allies (who might not be adverse to the idea) can say that, hey, the UCMJ is in fact a sufficient process to avoid an American in the Hague. (I think it is.)

Because while they like idea, the average American knows full well that a jury is 12 people too lazy or stupid to get off jury duty, and the judge is just the guy in the robe, with often no real qualifications beyond the fact that someone liked him and he happened to be a lawyer.

And a jury (or panel of judges) composed mostly of people whom the average American suspects hate us (or just don't like us) is one he's going to be nervous about putting his kids in front of.

Bumper sticker for internationalism:

Because our problems are too big for any one nation.

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