April 6, 2010


Liberal Internationalism: The Twilight of a Dream (Walter Russell Mead, 4/05/10, American Interest)

As I wrote in Special Providence, Wilsonians are the Trotskyites of the American revolutionary tradition. Just as the Trotskyites thought the Bolshevik revolution wasn’t safe unless communism conquered the whole world, American Wilsonians believe that the success and the security of the democratic American revolution at home depends on the triumph of democracy worldwide.

Wilsonians come in more than one flavor. Liberal internationalists (like Woodrow Wilson himself) believe simultaneously in the spread of democracy and the establishment of a world order that looks a lot like world government. (Sometimes they go all the way and think that the establishment of a single world government is the key to humanity’s future.) They believe, passionately, that only international law can save us from chaos, violence and, hopefully, war. A strong body of international law, enforced by international courts and obeyed by national governments is the way to make war less likely and less dreadful when it occurs; it can also deter torture, human rights violations and a whole host of other bad things.

Liberal internationalists want the world to become a more orderly and law abiding place. Ideally many would like the United Nations or some other international organization to evolve into something a little bit like a world government: the European Union on a global scale. But failing that, liberal internationalists would like to see better enforcement mechanisms for documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They would like the ‘laws of war’ to become ever more clearly codified and ever more effectively enforced. They look to the day when power shifts from national governments to international bureaucracies and institutions.

Neoconservatives, on the other hand, are Wilsonians who think, among other things, that the twin goals of democracy promotion and the development of global institutions can’t always be pursued simultaneously. With for example, two non-democratic powers on the Security Council, the goal of democracy promotion might sometimes come into conflict with the goal of making the UN the supreme arbiter of world politics. Otherwise you are saying that China and Russia can veto your efforts to promote freedom worldwide: you are giving the keys of the prison to the bad guys.

The Bush administration wrestled with the consequences of neoconservative ideas; in the Obama administration it is liberal internationalists who are trying to steer history their way.

During the neoconservative years of the Bush administration, liberal internationalists were developing a new variation on their point of view. In the past, Wilsonian visions have been linked to the idea that the United States was a rising power. As America’s power and influence grew in the international system we had more ability to shape the flow of history; liberal internationalists wanted us to use this rising power to build a steadily more democratic and law-bound world. But what if America is in decline? What becomes of the Wilsonian project then?

Some liberal internationalists have come to see a more institutionalized and organized global polity as a strategy for dealing with what they see as America’s relative decline in the twenty first century. While the United States is still strong, they argue, we should use our power and influence to promote global institutions and governance with agreed rules and procedures. That way the transition from an American world order to the coming post-American system can be made smoother, less dangerous and, from an American point of view, much more pleasant. Entranced by the aura of legitimacy surrounding these august institutions (and, to be fair, appreciative of the benefits provided by orderly methods for settling trade and other disputes), the rising new powers will continue to lead the world down the path the Americans laid down. 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.

It could not be more wrong. The world is inexorably developing in directions that undermine the authority and efficacy of big international institutions, and American power (not, I think, doomed to decline) will increasingly have to operate outside of institutional frameworks, like it or not.

There are three big factors in world affairs that make the liberal internationalist path increasingly problematic going forward.

The tragic fact that Wilson himself was more than happy to kick democracy in the colonies to the curb in favor of his own transnationalist project suggests just how inappropriate it is to think of "liberal internationalists" as what we tend to think of as Wilsonian. Indeed, the only two truly Wilsonian presidents we've had--at least since the 19th century--were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. And the most obvious idea that they shared was their Christian faith-- upon which their vision of universal liberal democratic protestant capitalism was based. Neoconservatives lack any basis for their ideas, so have to attach themselves to such leaders. But they are pilot fish, not pilots.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2010 6:04 AM
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