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The Collapse of Liberal Internationalism
What went wrong, and where to go from here.
What’s a committed liberal internationalist like myself to make of the collapse of our hopes?
Liberal internationalism promised to promote democracy and strengthen a “rules based international order” with other countries. Rather than turning inwards, it envisioned an active role for the West, as a champion of human rights abroad. But its signature projects, military intervention and nation-building, have failed in Afghanistan, just as they did in Syria and Libya. As a painful demonstration of the limits of American military might, liberal internationalism’s collapse has accelerated the decline of Washington’s global power too. What went wrong?
At its heart, liberal internationalism suffered from a democratic deficit. It was a product of what the political scientist Stephen Walt has called “the blob”, the bipartisan foreign policy elite that dominated policymaking during the Cold War and beyond. But “the blob” forgot that power-projection overseas depended ultimately on the willingness of Americans to fight and pay for it. American domestic support, never robust anyway, drained away as body counts mounted in Afghanistan and the “forever war” blundered on without end. When divorced from the pursuit of vital American security interests, which might have carried the backing of the electorate, liberal internationalism degenerated into boutique virtue signaling, social work in places we understood poorly and had no essential reason to be in, anyway.
Alongside its lack of domestic support, liberal internationalism suffered from a fatal case of “mission creep”—the tendency to expand objectives beyond their initial parameters. If the U.S. had limited its aims in Afghanistan to countering the terrorist threat and had withdrawn when the threat had been contained, military operations there would have served American vital interests and maintained sufficient domestic support. Instead, the U.S. and its allies let themselves be drawn into an objective—a stable and democratic Afghanistan—which was never realizable. Both the U.S. military and the international civil society that flooded in to “rebuild” Afghanistan failed to grasp the political canniness of their Taliban foe or confront the inveterate corruption of their Afghan political friends. American aid agencies and NGOs raised the hopes of their Afghan partners, and then, once the game was up, the United States abandoned them all.
In the bleak clarity of hindsight, nation building in Afghanistan was worse than a mistake. It was a side-show. The main strategic challenge was China. Instead of developing a long-term strategy to deal with its first serious competitor since the end of the Cold War, America wasted time, money and lives on a peripheral enterprise that could only end in failure.
Though Afghanistan sounded the death knell of liberal internationalism, the bells had been tolling for some time. The rise of authoritarianism, the failure of concerted action on climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges that liberal internationalism lacked the tools to deal with. Liberal activism’s characteristic response—human rights “naming and shaming”—became irrelevant as authoritarians grew shameless, consolidating their grip within global powers like Russia and China, as well as smaller players like Turkey and Venezuela.
The prime objective of a liberal internationalist foreign policy—the strengthening of a “rules-based international order”—foundered against this new reality. Great powers began acting like rogue states. China took hostages to force the release of one of its nationals; it lied about the pandemic, stole intellectual property from its competitors, extinguished freedom in Hong Kong and threatened Taiwan with invasion. In Russia, Putin’s regime poisoned adversaries in foreign countries, used cyberwarfare to spread disinformation in American domestic elections and gave rebels in Ukraine the weaponry to shoot down a commercial airliner, sending hundreds of people to their deaths. Nor was “our” side immune to the temptations of rogue behavior. The U.S. and its Israeli ally used targeted assassination against scientists and military commanders in Iraq and Iran. If we add all these pieces together, they tell us the world long ago left “the rules based international order” behind.
Given this turn of events, it’s tempting for a liberal internationalist like myself to give up, throw in the towel and join the realists: those who believe conflict and power struggle must define international relations. The appeal of this realpolitik to disillusioned liberals is its promise to set aside those moral impulses which so often distract democracies from the single-minded pursuit of national interest. The sanctimonious and self-deceiving moralism that besets American foreign policy has been the despair of some fine minds, from realism’s star thinker Hans Morgenthau to Cold War strategist George Kennan, men who were not without liberal feelings, but who believed that the duty of statecraft was to keep these impulses firmly in check.
But before we fully embrace realism, let’s be clear what abandoning a liberal foreign policy would mean in practice. A “realist” foreign policy would jettison any commitment to defend human rights and democracy overseas. The U.S. would keep democracies as its allies of preference, but it wouldn’t waste time promoting fair elections and human rights among democratic backsliders or fragile states. America’s goal would not be freedom, but stability, even at the cost of enabling authoritarians. The undeviating focus of policy would be to re-center the military, the state department, and even our foreign aid, around the long game of counterbalancing America’s prime competitor, China.
Even assuming we’re comfortable with embracing realism’s astringent amoralism, it’s far from clear that the realist alternative is always more rational. National interest is not the lodestar it promises to be. Calling an objective a national interest does not make it so. In fact, it’s a strangely changeable concept, no less likely to be infected with crusading zeal than a liberal’s moral imperatives. In the Cold War, realists waged a fervent anti-Communist crusade, which, freed from moral scruples or self-doubt, led to “realist” adventures like Vietnam. We are still living with the consequences of such realist follies, which many liberals at the time opposed. If liberal internationalism is dead, a value-free realpolitik is no refuge for the disillusioned.
Nor should nationalism and national interest be the only aims of a credible foreign policy. No liberal would quarrel with prioritizing the interests of our fellow citizens, but domestic priorities aren’t the limit of citizens’ concerns. Realism disparages the claims of human universalism—we are one species—and fails to grasp human interdependence—we live on one planet. Even a foreign policy that puts its own people first will need international cooperation to tackle pandemics, climate change and migration, so that problems that at first appear far away don’t end up overwhelming our capacity to cope at home. Without a foreign policy that recognizes the universal threats we face and tries to build alliances to fend them off, we may be unable to protect even our own citizens.
So if realism provides no clear solution, where should liberal foreign policy go from here? First, there should be no abandonment of our fundamental principles. A liberal foreign policy should certainly forswear intervention and military adventurism in the name of caution. But a policy that says and does nothing about human rights abuses and the global democratic recession will allow authoritarian regimes to spread until democracy becomes so isolated it can no longer defend itself. A day does not pass without Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and minor players like Viktor Orbán trumpeting the decadence of the liberal democratic model and predicting the inevitable triumph of the authoritarian way. When they declare the superiority of regimes built on intimidation, manipulation and fear, it’s simple prudence on our part to defend governments based on consent of the governed.
Fighting against the rising tide of authoritarianism is more than just principle. In fact, it’s common sense. We can curb hubris and repent of the tacit moral imperialism of many liberal impulses to set the world to rights, without forgetting that how a regime treats its own people is a predictor of the threat it poses internationally. We worry about China not just because it is powerful, but because it is savage towards its minorities, contemptuous of the democratic traditions of Hongkongers and so afraid of its own people that it crushes any whisper of dissent. The realist injunction that we should ignore this behavior because it is not our business to let moral concerns infest our foreign policy ignores the fact that how a state behaves at home is a sign of its threat abroad.
Rebuilding domestic support for any liberal foreign policy will be difficult. A continental republic, protected by oceans to the east and west, and friendly neighbors to the north and south, has often been isolationist by instinct and internationalist by reluctant choice. The last time an American electorate truly embraced international engagement was between 1942 and 1948, a period when Americans faced a mortal threat and knew that their economic and military power would be key to victory. As American hegemony slowly passes, persuading Americans to sustain their commitments abroad will be doubly hard. President Biden’s efforts to rebuild consensus through a “foreign policy for the middle class” is a good place to start. Persuading Americans to sustain a global alliance of democracies because it will help their pocketbooks and keep them safe is part of the rhetoric needed to rebuild faith in an outward-facing America. The deeper challenge is to habituate Americans to the idea that though the power of the U.S. has declined, it remains substantial enough to lead its friends and deter its foes.
Beyond rebuilding support at home for engagement abroad, liberal internationalists need to focus on another fundamental good: peace. Liberal internationalism’s paramount objective should be to prevent war, regional or global, from sweeping away the vast edifice of prosperity and opportunity that has been built on the ruins of 1945. That means a renewed focus on arms control and non-proliferation, and a continued effort to break the deadlock that commits China, Russia and the U.S. to a lethal arms race. Where that fails, as it may well do in Iran, we need credible deterrence against the adventurism that the possession of nuclear weapons can encourage. The U.S. should be focusing such political leverage as it has in smaller states in Africa and Asia to prevent small wars from becoming bigger ones. Working with African leaders to keep Africa peaceful is the most important thing the U.S. can do to help the continent rise and grow.
This doesn’t mean abandoning our military strength. Peace requires credible deterrence. It is a right-wing canard, so often repeated that liberals themselves sometimes believe it, that liberalism is soft on defense. Cold War liberals were among the clearest defenders of robust military capacity, and today in the 21st century we need an activist diplomacy backed up by advanced military and cyber capabilities but disciplined by democratic control, which scrutinizes the budgets and ambitions of our military commanders.
Putting peace first, let us be clear, should not mean peace at any price. In Taiwan, there is a successful democracy that faces a giant, a hundred miles away, bent on completing Mao’s revolution and forcing its integration with the mainland. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan should be deterred for the sake of global stability but also in the name of a free people who want to remain so.
Perhaps what a liberal foreign policy needs most is a long historical memory: both a memory of our successes, like the Marshall Plan, and an unsparing reckoning with our failures, like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The past is the best cure for hubris and the illusion that history is on our side. We fell prey after 1989 to the illusion that world politics was the story of freedom. We have learned since that history is actually the story of empires rising and falling, of order achieved by violence slowly giving way, once again, to chaos. The empire slowly falling in our time is America’s and a liberal internationalism that hitched its star to its ascent must now make peace with its passing and strive, without illusion, to keep chaos at bay.
Michael Ignatieff is Rector Emeritus of Central European University in Vienna and the author of the forthcoming book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Hard Times.