<em>Guest Post</em>: Liberal Internationalism’s Death — Untimely or Unlikely?


Andrew Lebovich is a research intern with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program.
Is Liberal Internationalism dead? Professors Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz certainly seem to suggest as much in a thoughtful paper published last year. Keeping in step with the ongoing Mahbubani/Ikenberry/Slaughter debate held here at The Washington Note, the authors postulate that changing domestic and external circumstances have brought about a fundamental change in the international system. These changes have rendered an American-led liberal internationalist order — one based on multilateral cooperation and institutions backed up by a willingness to deploy American military power — obsolete.
Domestically, they blame the collapse of the political center and the subsequent drastic decrease in bipartisan cooperation for making internationalism untenable. Democrats will favor international institutions but not support military force, while Republicans will tend to support the unilateral use of military force, but shortchange the value of institutions. Without bipartisan support, the authors argue, there can no longer be agreement on the kinds of pragmatic foreign policy that favored the emergence of liberal internationalism in the first place.
Internationally, the death of the Soviet Union helped solidify the decline of liberal internationalism. Without a clear external threat, Kupchan and Trubowitz contend, there has been no impetus for cooperation in Washington, and the parties have responded by becoming more extreme. There is also no reason for the average citizen to get involved; unlike World War II or the Cold War, the September 11 attacks engendered a small-scale military and covert intelligence response, and not a sustained citizens’ contribution, whether it is in the military or industry.
The authors seem to sidestep (though perhaps not discount) the tectonic shifts in the global order cited by Steven Weber, Parag Khanna, Fareed Zakaria, et. al. that have problematized the liberal internationalist model as rising powers seek to modify or add new rules to the game. Because of this, it seems some of the proposals Kupchan and Trubowitz offer — such as more restrained internationalism employing flexible rather than formal institutions — will still encounter resistance, coordination problems, and counterbalancing efforts like the Shanghai Cooperation Council.
For those interested, the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program is hosting a debate tomorrow, June 10 at 5:30pm, with Kupchan, Trubowitz, John Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney entitled “The Presidential Election and U.S. Foreign Policy: Is Liberal Internationalism on the Ropes?(Steve Clemons will moderate.)
— Andrew Lebovich


8 comments on “<em>Guest Post</em>: Liberal Internationalism’s Death — Untimely or Unlikely?

  1. Linda says:

    Actually 1992 was a turning point in Bush I’s last year when in that administration, Wolfowitz, Libby, and Khalilzad proposed new national defense guidelines that included preemptive war option to maintain US hegemony. That draft policy was leaked to NY Times in summer, 1992, and not adopted toward end of Bush I. I doubt that any members of Foreign Relations or Armed Services Commmittee asked any questions about that at Wolfowitz’s or Khalilzad’s confirmation hearings though I didn’t follow them that closely. So where were Clinton, Hagel, Biden, and all their staffs in 2001 before September?


  2. JohnH says:

    Linda, I agree. It all depends on how you characterize the decline of US influence. I see a kind of plateau or gradual decline from 1965-2003. Vietnam, oil shocks, and the end of the dollar-gold tie all marked reversals. The most salient characteristic of the period was the growth of Europe, Japan and the Asian Tigers which carried potential but unrealized challenges to US hegemony. The end of the Soviet Union marked a uptick in US status, which reached its zenith in about 2000. The precipitous decline started with “Mission Accomplished.”
    It’s true that Americans never wanted to be an empire, only to fulfill their Manifest Destiny. America’s leaders had different ideas, starting with the Monroe Doctrine, which clearly demarcated the Western Hemisphere as being in Washington’s sphere of influence.


  3. Linda says:

    John, Wigwag,
    I only disagree with you about the date. It’s surely before “Mission Accomplished” and before 9/11 and even before 1/20/01. I’ve always thought that it started forty years ago in 1968 with assassinations of MLK and RFK and election of Nixon. (Wigwag, Buchanan just might be correct.) Declines of world powers don’t happen overnight but very gradually. The sad part is that US never was and never wanted to be an Empire.


  4. JohnH says:

    My guess is that the danger of an American decline was known by Bush/Cheney from day 1. Cheney, after all, made a speech in 1998 that concluded that the world would become increasingly dependent on Persian Gulf oil. The impending oil squeeze was delayed several years because Russia ramped up production (Bush looked into Putin’s eyes…). Getting control of Iraq’s spiggot was designed to put off the crisis as long as possible, certainly past their administration, but their plans were soon overtaken by events–failure to ramp up Iraqi oil production and rise of Chinese demand.
    My guess is that historians will date America’s decline from Mission Accomplished, which marked the onset of America’s failure to quickly secure Iraq and the resulting need to borrow massively from China to fund ever spiraling defense budgets.


  5. Linda says:

    Very interesting comments and debate… I can’t help wondering if it is a debate about whether the glass is half-empty or half-full when maybe the glass is just too big (with credit to George Carlin) for the US in 2008. I wonder what date historians will decide upon as when the decline became inevitable. I’m inclined to agree with John that it is.


  6. JohnH says:

    Though written only a few months ago, this piece seems oddly quaint. It assumes that America is still the top dog and has its full arsenal of strategic tools at hand. It assumes that the US can still choose between the diplomacy-firsters, the militarists, and still have many options in between. But no longer. Options have become much more limited. And the cause is not domestic politics.
    In the good old days, there could be a debate on how and when to bring about the demise of an insubordinate regime. When diplomacy did not look promising, Nixon and Kissinger could rely on the Chilean military to take out Allende. Carter could demur on bringing down Torrijos and Roldos, preferring economic and financial pressure instead. Reagan in turn could choose a quick fix and have the jackals take them out ASAP. Bush 41 chose to invade Panama to get the canal back under US control, a good object lesson to any would-be recalcitrants. Then, of course, the Iraq wars, invasion when all else failed. All the tools, economic and financial, coups, jackals, and invasion were at the ready and implemented in their turn to make them credib;e.
    In today’s world, however, the US is in a corner. Economic and financial pressure can’t be deployed as in the good old days, because OPEC, Russia, China and Japan all hold tremendous assets and have made America dependent on them in significant ways. Witness the World Bank and the IMF, both key US tools, and their search for relevancy in today’s world.
    Meanwhile Iraq destroyed the credibility of invasion and occupation as an effective threat. The US may yet get what it wanted in Iraq, but the price was virtually Pyrrhic. Does anybody seriously think that the US is up to doing it again anytime soon? Who will lend it the money? Iran serves as a constant reminder of US impotence. All bluster and no action.
    Gone are the days of serial regime change in the Middle East (Iraq was supposed to be only the first!). And now Bush/Cheney, perhaps in desperation, talk of bombing, not invading Iran, though many think it would be ineffective and ultimately self-destructive.
    So what is left? Coups and assassinations? Would a successor regime be any better than its predecessor? A person can be ousted, but a country’s economic interests do not change. And without an effective financial, economic, and military arsenal, why would any successor regime toe Washington’s line? Why open their oil spiggots, when the price will only be higher tomorrow?
    Kupchan and Trubowitz can blame US politics for the change, but it was the Bush administration policies that accelerated the inevitable decline. And no amount of political resolve will bring back the good old days.


  7. WigWag says:

    Andrew, thanks so much for this very interesting post and for the link to the Kupchan article. It seems to me that Kupchan is writing off liberal internationalism a little too quickly. As far as I can tell, McCain and Obama are both liberal internationalists. They both agree with the recognition of Kosovo and having NATO act as the “country’s” police force, forever if necessary. I think this is a big mistake but Kupchan himself has applauded it. While they disagree on Iraq, Obama and McCain agree that the international community needs to stay in Afghanistan. They both believe that Nato should be expanded and they both believe that Turkey should be invited to join the EU. Every one of these positions is consistent with liberal internationalist thinking; and the Europeans agree with most of these positions (despite some disagreement about Turkey joining the EU).
    Kupchan is surely right that one thing that united liberal internationalists during the Cold War was fear of the Soviet Union. He fails to note that, despite the end of the Cold War, liberal internatonalists are still doing everything they can to antagonize Russia. In the long run, this will be a costly error.
    Moreover, just one post down from yours, Steve Clemons tells us that Senator Obama is appointing economic advisors who are card carrying members of the Bob Rubin school of finance and economics. McCain’s major economic advisor is Phil Gramm. The point is that the economic teams of both candidates are firmly in the free trade camp; the economic policies of both fit perfectly with what a liberal internationalist would support.
    It seems to me that Kupchan’s analysis of the history of foreign policy making since World War II is a little superficial. And I think commentators like him are too ready to extrapolate from what’s happened in the last 8 years to reach conclusions about what will happen in the future. Obama isn’t Bush; and though Washington Note readers don’t believe it, neither is McCain.
    Those who are interested in a different foreign policy perspective should read Pat Buchanan’s new book, “Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World.” It shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because Buchanan wrote it and most of us don’t like Buchanan, the pundit. He presents an interesting counterargument to the ideas of the liberal internationalists. He is especially critical of Churchill (who Kupchan fails to note is, with Roosevelt, one of the two fathers of liberal internationalism.) Kupchan is wrong, like it or not, liberal internationalism isn’t going away any time soon.
    ps: Is there any chance that the June 10 conference with Kupchan et al can be broadcast on the website or filmed for you tube?


  8. jonst says:

    The authors of the Report wrote: “Meanwhile,
    the Democrats have neglected the other side: many party stalwarts are uneasy with the assertive use of U.S. power. As the partisan gyre in Washington widens, the political center is dying out, and support for liberal internationalism is
    dying with it.”
    This is just sheer beltway nonsense. One would be hard pressed to identify what “party stalwarts” do to PREVENT, or even hinder, in any effective manner, the “assertive use of US power”. Clinton’s use of power in Somalia? Bombing the factories in Sudan? The Balkans? Haiti? And then the support by Dems for the Afghan and Iraqi wars. Where, oh where, are these “stalwarts” against the use of American power?
    The GOP has moved so far in their Nationalist frenzy, that even a hint of unease with the “use of American power” is seen as justification to say “the Dems this” and the “Dems that”. Would that the allegations are true. Would that there WERE party “stalwarts” who DID stand up to the GOP. Effectively. When Lamnont tried to do it the so called “party stalwarts” were terrified and sided, for the most part, with good ole Joe.
    When I see this tired meme played out, I, for one, think back to Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in Feb of 1860. He poses the question: What will satisfy them? [the supporters of slavery in the South] IOW…what could the GOP do in 1860 to assure the South of their good will? He answered:
    >>>>>>These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us<<<<<<
    This what the neo-cons, or zio-cons, or, as I call them, the Nationalists, want from the Dems. And when they do not get it….they say we “moving to the left” or “bitterly bipartisan”. People–erstwhile scholars– in the Village pick up the meme and buy into it. Including many self loathing liberals. And self censor themselves accordingly.


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