The Demise of Liberal Internationalism

by Henry Farrell on October 18, 2007

Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz have an “article”: in the new _International Security_ declaring that liberal internationalism is dead.

The prevailing wisdom is that the Bush administration’s assertive unilateralism, its aversion to international institutions, and its zealous efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East represent a temporary departure from the United States’ traditional foreign policy. … Indeed, influential think tanks and foreign policy groups are already churning out action plans for reviving liberal internationalism. …We challenge this view and contend instead that the Bush administration’s brand of international engagement, far from being an aberration, represents a turning point in the historical trajectory of U.S. foreign policy. It is a symptom, as much as a cause, of the unraveling of the liberal internationalist compact that guided the United States for much of the second half of the twentieth century.

The polarization of the United States has dealt a severe blow to the bipartisan compact between power and cooperation. Instead of adhering to the vital center, the country’s elected officials, along with the public, are backing away from the liberal internationalist compact, supporting either U.S. power or international cooperation, but rarely both. … Prominent voices from across the political spectrum have called for the restoration of a robust bipartisan center that can put U.S. grand strategy back on track. … These exhortations are in vain. The halcyon era of liberal internationalism is over; the bipartisan compact between power and partnership has been effectively dismantled.

I have complicated feelings about liberal internationalism (short version: I think it’s _way_ better than the neo_con/Bolton_and_Krauthammer_realist amalgam that we’ve seen dominating US foreign policy over the last few years, but it has an awfully convenient tendency to assume that the economic and political interests of the US and the rest of the world are magically as one), but I think that Kupchan and Trubowitz seriously overstate their case. They throw in some arguments about unipolarity, but their main case is rooted in an argument about domestic political polarization in the US. According to them, it used to be that liberal internationalism created a synthesis between military power and international institutions – now Republicans are all about the exercise of power, Democrats about reliance on institutions, and there’s no common ground between them.

This _may_ well turn out to be true of Republicans if (gods forbid) Giuliani gets the nomination or is able to shape the foreign policy debate from afar. It’s also possible that the crazies will get locked up in the asylum again, as “Snyder et al.”: argue in a paper I linked to a couple of months ago.

But Kupchan and Trubowitz’s claims certainly _aren’t_ true of the Democrats. All three of the candidates who have a hope of getting the nomination are liberal internationalists of one kind or another (and obviously willing to posture on their toughness, willingness to use force in pursuit of American interests etc). Furthermore, what “survey evidence”: there is suggests that a large majority of Democratic voters _do_ support the use of force – as long as it is to support the UN in upholding international law. You can’t get much more liberal internationalist than that. In the end, Kupchan and Trubowitz seem to me to be giving another version of the polarization-is-screwing-up-American-politics story – without recognizing that polarization has worked in very different ways on the left and right (specifically, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have pointed out, the right has gone a lot further away from the center than the left has). While they’re likely right that liberal internationalism faces tougher challenges than it used to, they’re wrong about what the challenges are.



alphie 10.18.07 at 7:45 pm

A dispatch from the bunker?


John Quiggin 10.18.07 at 8:02 pm

The real problem is the equation of liberal internationalism with US use of military force. Kupchan and Trubowitz and most “centrists” assume that this implies fairly regular use of force, but if you confine it to occasions when the UN has authorised military force to uphold international law it’s going to be very rare.


c.l. ball 10.18.07 at 8:30 pm

When anyone — in academic or the wonk-world — says “liberal internationalism,” I always wonder whether they mean the ideal form of how the US should act or how the US acted from the post-WWII until say the Vietnam War. K&T define LI as “dual commitment to power projection and international cooperation” and argue inter alia that LI consisted of support for “large military establishment, a sizable defense budget, and the potential sacrifice of U.S. lives in distant missions” and “committing the United States to collective security pacts, alliances, and multilateral economic institutions.”

It is unclear when deviations from, say, lack of support or non-compliance with the GATT/WTO or IFIs count as deviation from liberal internationalism and when they don’t. Does NATO expansion count as an increase in LI or not? Does increasing Democratic disdain for FTAs and the WTO a sign of weakening LI? Does Republican support for them count as greater LI? Does Democratic movement for less defense spending or intervention overseas make them less supportive of LI?

I don’t necessarily disagree w/ K&T that LI has lost geopolitical and domestic support, but I’m not sure what we are counting as LI-compliant and LI-defiant.

I am also wary of what polarization means in the context of LI. The DW-NOMINATE scores show that the parties are more divided, but I am not sure that Blue Dogs, who count as moderates under DW-NOMINATE coding are the archetype of LI supporters. Of course, part of what K&T are saying is that LI did not gain domestic support because Congress believed in LI as an ideology of foreign policy, but because they supported some elements are were not opposed to other elements — the classic logroll. The LI ‘consensus’ was more pragmatic than ideological.

The question becomes whether we in fact need majority ideological support for LI today or simply a similar pragmatic configuration. Put differently, Democrats in Congress don’t need to be LI adherents and neither do Republicans, but if enough of them logroll on defense and economic issues in the right way, we could still see LI outcomes.


Lev 10.18.07 at 11:24 pm

I am sick to death of hearing the fake opposition Dems in Congress moan about not having enough votes to end the war in Iraq. They give lip service to the myth that the only way to end the war is to write a bill saying “the war is now over” and send it to Bush for a prompt veto, then override the veto. They then throw up their hands, saying “Well, as you can see, we don’t have the votes to override any veto, so there’s no way to end the war. Sorry folks.”

This is disingenious and vividly illustrates who the Dems are really serving: the establishment, not their constituents.

Here’s how to end the war: No bill specifically ending the war is even necessary. Remember those supplemental funding bills the Cheney regime has to constantly ask for, to continue funding the Iraq war piecemeal instead of in yearly lump sums attached to the actual defense budget? That’s the achilles’ heel of their war effort. The next time Bush asks for another $80 billion or whatever to keep the Iraq bloodbath going, all the Democrats have to do to end the war is to say: NO. To say “We won’t allocate one more penny for your illegal war”. Last I checked the Dems have a wafer-thin majority in both houses. With no Dems voting for the next spending bill it won’t be passed and thus it won’t make it to Bush’s desk for signing. Bush (and especially his puppetmaster Cheney) may have concentrated an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the executive branch, but even they can’t send spending bills to their own desk. That necessarily has to come from Congress. If it never reaches his desk he can’t sign it, and will have 2 choices: 1.pull the troops out while there is still enough money left in the pipeline so to speak to allow an orderly withdrawl (and anyone who has five or more brain cells knows that the money isn’t going to run out the next day, that’s a non-issue that the right wing tries to use as a scare tactic but it is ridiculously dumbed down and simply not true; they don’t wait until they have $5 left before asking for another supplemental OK?); or 2.don’t pull them out right away, and leave them to wither on the vine in Iraq until the money DOES completely run out and they have to withdraw from Iraq chaotically, burning their supplies and vehicles. Either way the war will end pretty soon if the Dems refuse to vote on supplementals. They don’t have to write a bill saying they are cutting off funding; this is only a fig leaf so they can pretend to be doing something to end the war when all they are doing is purposely spinning their wheels. All they have to do is to NOT VOTE ON SUPPLEMENTALS. Pretty effing simple. The people NOW need to DEMAND in so many words that if the Democrats are a genuine opposition party that they will carry out the will of the people and NOT VOTE on supplementals. If they are a fake opposition party as I feel they are, and are acting not in the people’s interest but playing for the same team as the Republicans, then continue with more of the same hand-wringing and impotent nonbinding resolutions that resolve nothing. Decision time Democrats. Which are you? Genuine? Or fake opposition? I think I already know the answer to that one but why don’t you surprise me?


Ben Alpers 10.18.07 at 11:48 pm

About fifteen years ago, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., gave a talk at my graduate institution in which he mourned the passing of liberal internationalism. Like Henry, I think its death has been greatly exaggerated (as it was that evening a decade and a half ago). But that exaggeration itself is symptomatic of an important strain in post-WWII liberal internationalism, namely the fear that the American public, left to its own devices, will embrace some form of isolationism (this was Schlesinger’s argument that night), which would (at least in the mid-20C versions of the story) almost inevitably lead to another World War.

Fears for the future of liberal internationalism have thus underwritten a vision of US foreign policy that strives to remove it from democratic oversight and reinforce the power of foreign policy elites.


derrida derider 10.18.07 at 11:50 pm

The US is a declining power relative to others, and like most declining powers is desperate to throw its weight about to prove to itself that it is not declining. Of course that’s precisely the wrong strategy in those circumstances – overstretch becomes inevitable, risking the relative decline becoming an absolute decline, and the number of unsuccessful and destabilising wars becomes larger.

On present growth rates the Chinese economy will be bigger than the US’ in about 15 years (bye bye Taiwan). A combination of demographics and poor macroeconomic policy (ie big and sustained budget deficits) means that US growth over the same period is likely to slow markedly, so the crossover point could easily be sooner. India is also showing signs of starting a real takeoff. High commodity (especially oil) prices will further undermine the US’ relative position – look for Russia to do well. And it’s only a matter of time before relative military power begins to reflect relative economic power.

The Americans would do much better trying to play Greece to others’ Rome – ie to influence by example, not intimidation.


roger 10.19.07 at 1:05 am

“Fears for the future of liberal internationalism have thus underwritten a vision of US foreign policy that strives to remove it from democratic oversight and reinforce the power of foreign policy elites”

Ben – bingo. That’s why liberal internationalism tends to be very bad for American democracy. This is also why the crocodile tears shed by the liberal war hawks about the unsuccessful implementation of their little war in Iraq are so nauseating. Far from being some aberration from the plan, the disaster stems from the heart of the plan, which was to use the pumped up executive and the new, stripped down, lean mean American military to create a sort of superhero democracy-n-free markets invasion force immune from public opinion, and doubly insulated because it would be so cheap and depend on a volunteer force that would not be especially noticed by the public consciousness – thus, the public would only notice the celebrations and the entertainment of watching another capital city fall to some spectacular shock and awe on tv. They wished for it – they got it – and, of course, it was an unmitigated disaster. But they are still wishing for it. On a very basic level, the liberal internationalists don’t like checks and balances. They like a more charismatic form of democracy with ‘dynamic’ leaders.


Quo Vadis 10.19.07 at 2:06 am

a large majority of Democratic voters do support the use of force – as long as it is to support the UN in upholding international law.

Let’s inject a bit of reality into this discussion: The US military will never become the enforcement arm of the UN. No US government would risk placing troops in harms way unless the mission could be justified by US interests directly. The mission must be sold to the American public and few Americans are sufficiently enamored of international law and international institutions to fill body bags and incur other war costs solely in support of international law. Of course, it doesn’t look like the people of any other country are willing to take on the responsibility either. Who knows, maybe the Chinese will be different – or not.


rea 10.19.07 at 2:53 am

Lev: You remind me of Owen Glendower

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

An attempt to defund the Iraq War would be just the beginning of a confrontation between Congress and the Bush adminstration. You can refuse to pass a supplemental appropriation, but how are you going to enforce it? The Bush adminstration will say that Congress is infringing on the president’s powers as commander-in-chief, and take the money from elsewhere, all the while complaining that the troops are being stabbed int eh back.

The Democrats don’t have the votes to impeach Bush and Cheney.Nothing less than that will bring the war to an end before the expiration of buhs’s term.


Aldous 10.19.07 at 6:08 am

“Furthermore, what survey evidence there is suggests that a large majority of Democratic voters do support the use of force – as long as it is to support the UN in upholding international law. You can’t get much more liberal internationalist than that.”

I think that there’s an important question as to whether there are enough liberal internationalist-sympathizers left in the general electorate. There’s a paper in the works from Rick Herrmann (an early version is available here) which explores ideology in the American public in relation to foreign policy questions (centered on Iraq). In my understanding the current version of the paper argues that ideological polarization on FP issues has actually solidified, and the results seem to also confirm that liberals continue to be more internationalist than their conservative counterparts. Unfortunately their data is taken from a survey conducted in 2004. Similarly the survey you cite is from 2005. It would be very instructive as to whether the liberal internationalist sentiments of the American electorate have waned since then, because intuitively I would expect that it has. Anyhow, this may be a bit of a non sequitar but I thought the paper was interesting and relevant to this question.


MFB 10.19.07 at 6:59 am

Liberal internationalism depended on the United States being the big gorilla. During the Cold War it was the big gorilla in what was quaintly called the Free World, and thus could bully people into doing what it wanted. After the collapse of the USSR it was the big gorilla in the whole world, although it was a little overstretched, but that collapse so demoralised opponents to the US that the US, with a little bribing and schmoozing, could still do what it wanted with outside support.

That consensus is unravelling. It is not, however, being driven by the US. It is being driven by the declining state of the US in the world. The response of conservatives is to blame the system and claim that if only more violence were used everything would be all right. This is their standard response to every problem, and as usual it is wrong.


Guano 10.19.07 at 11:31 am

Quo vadis has it exactly right. No US government would risk putting troops in harm’s way unless the mission could be justified by US interests directly. Thus talk of liberal internationalism and humanitarian interventions have a distinctly surreal feeling.


Sebastian Holsclaw 10.19.07 at 4:15 pm

” as long as it is to support the UN in upholding international law. ”

This is one of those things that almost anyone will support in theory, because it is fuzzy enough to mean almost anything. The question is: what does it mean in practice? You could get a large majority in the US to agree to “an appropriate level of abortion restrictions when the fetus is developed enough” but the definitions of “appropriate” and “enough” vary wildly such as to make abortion a rather polarized subject.


Alex Higgins 10.19.07 at 5:20 pm

“The halcyon era of liberal internationalism is over…”

When was this halcyon period meant to have taken place?


aaron 10.19.07 at 6:33 pm

lev – wasn’t there just a conflict between the Dems and Bush over funding? (you may have read about it, it was that conflict where the dems insisted on tacking a concrete withdrawal date onto their funding bill). Eventually, after a protracted battle, the Dems gave way, although winning some concessions in the process (in my opinion, this was the right decision, as they had no chance to actually win that battle). So, good as your solution is, it’s been tried. The truth is that we’re not going to pull out of Iraq while Bush is in the White House.


aaron 10.19.07 at 6:39 pm

Clinton’s foreign policy was the closest thing we’ve had to liberal internationalism, but it mostly consisted of postponing problems, rather than actually solving them. This is what happens when your foreign policy consists of listening to the UN and encouraging freer markets around the world.
So I suppose Clinton’s presidency was the halcyon period of liberal internationalism, but there was definitely some room for improvement.


Martin James 10.19.07 at 6:50 pm


I agree with your analysis except for the part about them not giving voters what they want. I would cite Sen. Lieberman as an example.

An independent that supports the war beats a “True Democrat” that wants to withdraw above all else in most statewide votes.

Your beef should be with the average voter.


jack strocchi 10.20.07 at 9:41 pm

Liberal internationalism will work well so long as the US is the world’s supreme superpower and has surplus power to dedicate towards humanitarian causes eg Bosnia, Timor etc.

But once the PRC catches up to the US it is more doubtful that the superpowers will want to allocate strategic resources for good deeds. They will be more interested in maintaining the edge on their rivals.


jack strocchi 10.20.07 at 9:41 pm

It is unlikely that other states not part of the British EMpire would have much interest in liberal internationalism. This movement was anchored in religious or quasi-religious sentiment.

Liberal internationalism of the Wilsonian kind has had a strong following in the US because of the influence of Yankee Quakers and the like. You could say that the War between the States over slavery was its test run.

Even the formation of the UN was a liberal internationalist idea. It came out of the Four Freedoms cooked up by Churchill (1/2 American) and Rooseveldt. Churchill was quite clear that the UN was bascially the Platonic form of the British Empire.

I dont see the PRC much interested in strategic do-goodism. The communists have done their utmost to extinguish that kind of thinking from the Chinese culture.


jack strocchi 10.20.07 at 10:00 pm

Walter Russel Mead types US foreign policy into four classes:

– Jeffersonian: idealist nationalism,
– Wilsonian: idealist internationalism
– Hamiltonian: realist internationalism
– Jacksonian: realist nationalism

Read argued that US foreign policy went through cycles where one or some combination of these types had predominance.

Bush’s foreign policy is a strange mixture of Wilsonian idealist internationalism and Jacksonian realist nationalism. (Krauthammer has dubbed it “democratic realism”).

The Wilsonian dream of promoting liberal democracy in Mesopotamia has turned into a flop. So I see Republicans getting twice shy with that bug.

I dont see the Democrats embracing Wilsonianism anytime soon. At most they will probably push towards embracing some descendant of Kyoto. Not exactly the kind of move to set pulses racing.

Meanwhile the Republicans will move towards their default Hamiltonian position: the use of US power abroad to advance US corporate interests at home. Political value for money.


jack strocchi 10.20.07 at 10:02 pm

There is little doubt that US citizens and its institutional leaders will have much appetite for international military adventures in the short to medium term. It is just not practical given the current stock of martial and fiscal resources.

For a start these peace-keeping ventures place a heavy demand on man-power. The US military is now stretched to the limit and needs every man on deck for core tasks.

Taxes will have to be raised to repay the national debt. Who wants to blow money away helping foreigners who repay the kindness with anti-Americanism?

The US’s global system of military bases will have to be substantially retrenched, because of local political hostility if nothing else. About the only place where the US is welcome these days is AUS.

Also, the US finds its sovereignty increasingly compromised by the illegal trade in workers and drugs coming from South AMerica. The political pressure is on to stem that rising tide, using whatever military resources are at the disposal of national authority.

Invade the World is unpopular abroad. Invite the World is unpopular at home. So I see the US military “coming home” big time in the medium term.


Ginkgo 10.22.07 at 10:46 pm

“The US’s global system of military bases will have to be substantially retrenched, because of local political hostility if nothing else.”

God, I wish! Remember the hilarious yammering and caterwauling from that trade union group in Germany at the really big drawdown on bases? Then there was the sound of jaw-dropping when the US actually pulled out of bases in the Philippines, often from the very people who had been calling for it. Both moves were long overdue and smashing those iron rice bowl was a side benefit.

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