TCS Daily


Against Illiberal Internationalism

By Carroll Andrew - February 20, 2004 12:00 AM

In his recent Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Krauthammer laid out four foreign policy choices for the United States. Three of the four choices bear familiar names. There is the always present but presently rejected isolationist choice; there is the realist choice of pure power politics; and there is the liberal internationalist choice of multilateral legalism. Krauthammer argues that none of these traditional rubrics is adequate for dealing with the post-September 11 world. These single phrase summaries of America's major foreign policy schools of thought do not do justice to the insight conveyed in Krauthammer's argument. (Please read his lecture for yourself if you have the chance.)

To these traditional schools, Krauthammer adds a fourth choice. He labels this choice -- the foreign policy of the Bush administration -- democratic globalism. The essential difference between democratic globalism and the more traditional schools of thought is the unabashed addition of a moral component to foreign policy. Krauthammer does not claim that democratic globalism is a new force in American foreign policy -- it was arguably a force in the Truman administration -- he claims that it has never previously been called by name. Democratic globalism has never (until Krauthammer's lecture) been concisely articulated in its own right, never properly distinguished from its rivals.

Schools of Thought

Is the naming of a "new" foreign policy school of any importance? Does it matter what you call what you do, so long as you go ahead and do it? Despite the usual clich├ęs about avoiding labels, within a democracy, the classification of ideas is important. Within a democracy, the governing and the governed must share ideas about what policies to pursue. There must be some broad societal agreement about which goals justify the sacrifice of blood and treasure.

The body politic forges its agreements using categories it is familiar with. It prefers the names it knows from the past. Framing the debate in terms of a realist/liberal internationalist dichotomy has created a blind spot in the public debate about the means and the ends of American foreign policy. Conservatives with realist tendencies (see George Will, for instance) have viewed democratic globalism as a form of liberal internationalism. They fear democratic globalism leads to an unsustainable foreign policy of Wilsonian nation building. Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, pigeonhole democratic globalism as a form of realism. They fear that democratic globalists are using democratic rhetoric as an excuse to expand the power of America whenever the power calculus says such expansion is convenient.

These views are understandable, if you accept that every foreign policy option is a manifestation of either realism or liberal internationalism. But, as Krauthammer argues, these choices are not the only choices for engaging the world. Democratic globalism allows for a different path, a path that is neither realism's never-ending accumulation of power, nor liberal internationalism's unenforceable legalism. Recognizing the moral component to foreign policy that makes democratic globalism unique leads America down a different path to different ends than either realism or liberal internationalism would.

The identification of democratic globalism as a unique school of thought makes Krauthammer's speech important. Krauthammer's taxonomic structure for foreign policy thought is equally as impressive. The best classification schemes transcend mere explanation of the previously observed; they point to possibilities yet to be identified. In the natural sciences, the classic example of this was the prediction of new chemical elements to fill the gaps in the original periodic table of elements. In political science, a good classification scheme helps fill gaps in the prevailing worldview. By extending Krauthammer's categories, we can identify a fifth school of coherent American foreign policy thought -- an influential school of that has escaped scrutiny because it has never been called by an accurate name.

Illiberal Internationalists, Oligarchic Globalists

Krauthammer's categories of "liberal internationalist" and "democratic globalist" suggest a natural extension. They imply the existence of internationalists and globalists who are neither liberal nor democratic, "illiberal internationalists" or "oligarchic globalists." Starting from Krauthammer's description of liberal internationalism, where he generously suggests that liberal internationalists are not motivated by "anti-Americanism, or lack of patriotism or a late efflorescence of 1960s radicalism," but seek "to turn the state of nature into a norm driven community. To turn the law of the jungle into the rule of law," we can identify a school of thought that fits into an illiberal internationalist or oligarchic globalist category.

Despite their high-minded rhetoric, respect for the rule of law and the expansion of humanitarian norms is not the most important item for many contemporary internationalists. The de facto primary goal of the present international system is ensuring that the world's borders do not change. When this goal is assured, the next highest goal is the protection of continuity of government within the existing borders -- even when that means defending the legitimacy of brutal totalitarian states. The protection of individual freedom and democracy places a distant third, at best. Occasionally, in a Liberia or a Haiti, when civil government utterly collapses, the international community will call for coordinated action, but these cases are the exception, not the rule. Humanitarian goals are pursued only when they can be done without interfering with the decidedly illiberal goal of preserving existing state structures at any cost.

Ultimately, a school of thought that claims that "rights" of states trump the rights of individuals cannot claim the mantle of liberalism. A true liberalism would find means to act against massacres of individuals perpetrated by the governments of Iraq and Zimbabwe, to remedy chronic violations of human rights perpetrated by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Cuba. This does not require supporting war in each case, necessarily, but it does require advocating something more effective than waiting for dictators to die and hoping that something better replaces them.

Perhaps this model of global engagement is the twenty-first century heir to isolationism. In past centuries, isolationism was the policy of choice of those who dreaded foreign entanglement. Recognizing that isolationism is practically impossible and that America cannot fully disengage from the world, those who fear further entanglement now attempt to freeze the international system in its present state.

Though no American leader, at least in the foreseeable future, will openly admit to belonging to an illiberal internationalist/oligarchic globalist school of thought, many will base their foreign policy on its principles. There will be no doubt that these leaders are willing to engage the world; they will proudly accept an internationalist or globalist label. Their utter refusal, however, to challenge the permanence of any existing state or the legitimacy of any existing government will limit their terms of engagement to winning the approval of as many states as possible.

In an international system that insists all are states are equal, that there is no meaningful difference between tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies, this is the death of a liberal and democratic internationalism. Consensus based on meaningful respect for international law and humanitarian norms is impossible -- too many states show blatant disregard for such norms in their treatment of their own populations. The only way to guarantee consensus is to choose a path that subordinates freedom and democracy to the international community's only truly agreed upon norms -- border stasis and continuity of existing government at any price. America must be wary of unthinkingly carrying out a foreign policy specifically designed to please undemocratic governments, of unwittingly subscribing to an illiberal and oligarchic school of thought.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about the ACLU.


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