TCS Daily


Liberalism's Dilemma

By Carroll Andrew - June 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Peter Beinart, editor of the liberal flagship The New Republic, is worried that liberalism is "sowing the seeds of its own destruction" ("A Fighting Faith", The New Republic, 13 December 2004). The problem, according to Beinart, is not a superficial one of flawed candidates or poor message tactics. The problem is that liberalism is following an agenda set by its "soft" wing, whose main concern is that fighting totalitarianism abroad detracts from the liberal agenda at home, and who discredit all of liberalism with their willingness to "make common cause with the most deeply illiberal elements on the international left". But even if Beinart achieves his goal and liberals "take back their movement from the softs", it will not be enough to truly transform liberalism. Liberal disaffection from the war on terrorism, and foreign affairs in general, has its roots in principles shared by hards and softs alike.

Contemporary liberalism, hard liberalism included, is really a fusion of classical liberalism -- the belief in the primacy of individual freedom -- with the institutionalism of Woodrow Wilson. For Wilsonian internationalists, liberal intentions are not enough. Liberal intentions must be carried out through a particular set of institutions: sovereign, indigenous governments whose internal dominion cannot be challenged for any reason and supranational institutions to regulate relations among governments. European history helped set Wilson's principles into action. After World War I, the victorious powers carved up the Ottoman Empire into a set of League of Nations mandates, which eventually became independent states. After World War II, the victorious powers, exhausted from years of total war, rapidly withdrew from their colonial possessions.

Before decolonization, it was possible to believe that colonial rule was as bad a form of illiberality as could exist. After decolonization, indigenous illiberality proved to be as bad as or worse than the colonial version. In much of Asia and Africa, states under the control of indigenous madmen and kleptocrats became instruments for repressing human liberty and destroying human life. Life in many newly independent states became nastier, more brutish, and shorter than life under colonial governments. Beyond providing humanitarian aid to cross-border refugees, supranational institutions did little to stop the carnage.

Liberalism has been unable to put together a program for engaging the world of failed and repressive states -- the world that spawns modern terrorism -- because liberalism has not come to terms with, or perhaps even accepted, the limitations of its Wilsonian principles. Despite the mounting historical evidence, liberals continue to insist that the theoretical illiberality of foreign intervention and administration always outweighs the actual illiberality of state-sponsored violence and repression.

The original idea behind liberalism -- freeing the individual from being suffocated by traditional institutions -- has fallen to a distant third amongst liberal priorities. Defending the sovereignty of other states and strengthening supranational institutions take priority over protecting the lives and rights of individuals. The supposed enemy of liberalism, President George W. Bush, gives liberal ideals a higher place in his international decision making than most liberals do. (As Beinart notes, President Bill Clinton did undertake a war in Kosovo, "without U.N. backing...in response to internal events in a sovereign country", in contravention of Wilsonian principles, but this never evolved into a liberal doctrine that could be applied to future situations.)

As long as liberals cling to the belief that advancing liberal ends and defending the absolute power of indigenous governments are one an the same, deference to government authority will force liberals to retreat from violent conflicts -- like state sponsored campaigns of terrorism -- that do not involve conventional interstate warfare. The result is the liberal movement that exists today, a movement disengaged from foreign affairs because it is unwilling to confront the conflicting nature of its priorities.

Beinart, who wants liberalism to vigorously reengage the realm of foreign policy, presents nation-building via "an updated Marshall Plan and an expanded Peace Corps for the Muslim world" as the outline of hard liberalism's solution for systematically addressing terrorism. Nation building in the form of foreign aid is a perennial favorite among liberals concerned with foreign affairs. Foreign aid does not challenge Wilsonian principles; it involves cooperation, or at least a lack of obstruction, from foreign governments. Citing the Bush administration's minimal commitment of resources to post-Baathist Iraq, Beinart argues that liberals are better suited to carry out the nation building that will eliminate terrorism in the long run.

The problem is that the front lines of the war on terrorism -- state sponsors of terrorism like Syria and Iran, and Middle Eastern autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- are not places controlled by governments that are open to being changed by development aid. A liberal program for smothering terrorism with nation building cannot begin until liberals sign on to a plan for deposing regimes that view the creation of liberal institutions as a threat to their power. Liberals who remain absolutist in their Wilsonian faith will never get their opportunity to prove they are the better nation builders, unless they believe they can talk terrorist sponsoring states into abandoning violence for political gain -- the attitude of the softs that Beinart rejects -- or they wait for another attack on America that justifies immediate action against a regime harboring terrorists, or they pursue a Carterite policy of ignoring enemies and fight a war on terrorism solely against allies willing to accept aid.

Liberalism needs a generation of leaders who realize that they have been cheated in their Wilsonian bargain; the community of liberals defends the rights of states, but the community of states does not reciprocate by defending liberal values. Leaders willing to challenge the idea that Wilsonian means are the only legitimate path to liberal ends would ignite the debate within liberalism that Beinart wants. Eventually, liberals would decide which Wilsonian commitment -- defending the absolute power of states within their domestic realms, or defending the final authority of supranational institutions -- should be relaxed when abused. They would choose a direction for advancing their revolution, either from the bottom-up, actively pursuing the transformation of illiberal governments into forms more liberal, or from the top-down, participating only in international forums that pay heed to liberal principles. They would find their way to a path for engaging the outside world.

This argument may be misperceived as an argument that liberals can only achieve success by abandoning their principles, endorsing re-colonialism and taking up the program of their diametric opposition. This is not the case. To advance their revolution, liberals must return to their most fundamental principles. They must celebrate the universality of individual freedom and cease a century-long tradition of deference to institutions that pursue illiberal ends.

The author writes frequently about foreign policy and foreign affairs. He is a TCS contributing writer. He recently wrote about The UN: The World's Greatest Trade Association.

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