February 19, 2019


The Future of the Liberal Order Is Conservative: A Strategy to Save the System (Jennifer Lind and William C. Wohlforth, March 2019, Foreign Affairs)

After the Cold War, the liberal order expanded dramatically. With the Soviet Union gone and China still weak, the states at the core of the order enjoyed a commanding global position, and they used it to expand their system. In the Asia-Pacific, the United States strengthened its security commitments to Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and other partners. In Europe, NATO and the EU took on more and more members, widened and deepened cooperation among their members, and began intervening far beyond Europe's borders. The EU developed "neighborhood policies" to enhance security, prosperity, and liberal practices across Eurasia, the Middle East, and North Africa; NATO launched missions in Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden, and Libya. 

For liberals, this is simply what progress looks like. And to be sure, much of the order's dynamism--say, the GATT's transformation into the more permanent and institutional World Trade Organization, or the UN's increasingly ambitious peacekeeping agenda--met with broad support among liberal and authoritarian countries alike. But some key additions to the order clearly constituted revisionism by liberal countries, which, tellingly, were the only states that wanted them. 

Most controversial were the changes that challenged the principle of sovereignty. Under the banner of "the responsibility to protect," governments, nongovernmental organizations, and activists began pushing a major strengthening of international law with the goal of holding states accountable for how they treated their own people. Potent security alliances such as NATO and powerful economic institutions such as the IMF joined the game, too, adding their muscle to the campaign to spread liberal conceptions of human rights, freedom of information, markets, and politics. 

Democracy promotion assumed a newly prominent role in U.S. grand strategy, with President Bill Clinton speaking of "democratic enlargement" and President George W. Bush championing his "freedom agenda." The United States and its allies increasingly funded nongovernmental organizations to build civil society and spread democracy around the world, blurring the line between public and private efforts. U.S. taxpayers, for example, have footed the bill for the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights in China, Russia, and elsewhere. Meddling in other states' domestic affairs is old hat, but what was new was the overt and institutionalized nature of these activities, a sign of the order's post-Cold War mojo. As Allen Weinstein, the co-founder of the National Endowment for Democracy, admitted in a 1991 interview, "A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA."

As never before, state power, legal norms, and public-private partnerships were harnessed together to expand the order's--and Washington's--geopolitical reach. Perhaps the clearest example of these heightened ambitions came in the Balkans, where, in 1999, NATO harnessed its military power to the emerging "responsibility to protect" norm and coerced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to acquiesce to Kosovo's de facto independence--after which the United States and its allies openly joined forces with local civil society groups to topple him from power. It was a remarkably bold move. In just a few months, the United States and its allies transformed the politics of an entire region that had traditionally been considered peripheral, priming it for incorporation into the security and economic structures dominated by the liberal West.

To say that all of this represented revisionism is not to equate it morally with, say, Beijing's militarization in the South China Sea or Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and electoral meddling in the United States and Europe. Rather, the point is that the order's horizons have expanded dramatically, with state power, new legal norms, overt and covert actions, and public-private partnerships together stretching the order wider and pushing it deeper. No country these days is consistently interested in maintaining the status quo; we are all revisionists now. Revisionism undertaken by illiberal states is often seen as mere power grabbing, but revisionism undertaken by liberal states has also resulted in geopolitical rewards: expanded alliances, increased influence, and more perquisites for the chief sponsors of the order, the United States above all. [...]

One might wonder whether an order grounded in liberal principles can in fact practice restraint. In the mid-eighteenth century, the philosopher David Hume warned that the United Kingdom was prosecuting its wars against illiberal adversaries with "imprudent vehemence," contradicting the dictates of the balance of power and risking national bankruptcy. Perhaps such imprudence is part and parcel of the foundational ideology and domestic politics of liberal powers. As the political scientist John Mearsheimer has put it, "Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them."

Indeed, the principles of liberalism apply to all individuals, not just those who happen to be citizens of a liberal country. On what basis, then, can a country committed to liberal ideals stand idly by when they are trampled abroad--especially when that country is powerful enough to do something about it? In the United States, leaders often try to square the circle by contending that spreading democracy actually serves the national interest, but the truth is that power and principle don't always go together.

Because liberal convictions are part of their identity, Americans often feel they should support those who rise up against tyranny. Perhaps in the abstract one can promise restraint, but when demonstrators take to Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan in Kiev, or Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, many Americans want their government to stand with those flying freedom's flag. And when countries want to join the order's key security and economic institutions, Americans want the United States to say yes, even when there is scant strategic sense in it. Political incentives encourage this impulse, since politicians in the United States know that they can score points by bashing any leader who sells out lovers of liberty. 

The conceit being that we can stop Asians, Arabs and Africans from insisting we fulfill our own ideals.

Posted by at February 19, 2019 12:01 AM