The Duck of Minerva

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More on Neoconservativism and Liberal Internationalism

July 31, 2005

John Ikenberry has more to say about the differences between neoconservativism and liberal internationalism. John follows up on a post by Michael Lind, the upshot of which is that Wilson, FDR, and Truman were not big on democratic enlargement as a guiding principle of American grand strategy.

Lind points out that although Wilson thought a more democratic world was a good thing, American involvement in World War I was not motivated by a desire to democratize Germany and Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” didn’t mention democratization. John concurs, but also argues that:

what distinguishes Bush from the great past liberal war presidents – Wilson, FDR and Truman – is that these earlier presidents sought primarily to build liberal order not simply expand democracy. In the case of Woodrow Wilson, my sense is that he didn’t champion democracy promotion – as such – because he was under the belief that a world-wide democratic revolution was unfolding, certainly after 1917 or so. His world order project was premised on the spread and deepening of democracy in Europe and beyond. His peace plans were premised on a rising tide of democratic support in Europe and the coming to power of liberal and center-left governments who would embrace Wilson’s ideals…. Vague, to be sure, but it was tied to a belief in an expanding community of democracies.

FDR and Truman had an updated vision of liberal order – more complicated, multidimensional, tied together with global and regional economic, security, and political components. It incorporated more room for great power authority within the master architecture. Importantly, it was more directly linked to the Atlantic world. It was a vision of order anchored in a community among the Western democracies. It evolved in the hands of diplomats, architects, and in the face of changing circumstance. It had ideas about open markets, managed internationalism, cooperative security, etc.

Indeed, my sense is that Lind doth protest too much. The fact is that, after World War II, the US engaged in an incredibly successful project of democratic enlargement and consolidation in Europe and Japan. This was an unprecedented step for an occupying power to take; in many ways, it would have been cheaper (in the short term) for the US to have installed pliant authoritarian governments.

Whatever differences in rhetoric vis-a-vis democracy promotion that we can detect between the four Presidents, they are, I submit, comparatively minor. All of these guys embraced the principles of democratic enlargement. Lind’s argument is that only Bush has begun a global crusade for democratization. But one has to wonder: what kind of “crusade” involves two countries?

Think about the fact that almost any American President would have invaded Afghanistan after September 11th, and that such an invasion would likely have led to some form of democratization of that country. In some ways, we’re left with a “global crusade” involving exactly one state: Iraq. The rest has largely been in the form of rhetorical and diplomatic pressure by the administration on other states – not to mention a fair amount of waffling when it comes to exerting that pressure on key allies in the GWOT/GSAVE.

Count the number of times the US has been intimately involved in expanding or consolidating democracy under past presidents. Bush’s track record just isn’t that good, and it doesn’t look like such a massive departure from the activities of his predecessors.

Finally, consider the constraints that Wilson, FDR, and Truman operated under – whether in terms of domestic politics, the distribution of power internationally, or the security environment – and ask what they would have done if the United States had been the only great power with no immediate strategic rivals. It is that kind of counterfactual, no matter how difficult to contemplate, that would help get at the fundamental differences in international outlook between leaders we recognize as being in the liberal internationalist tradition and those we label neoconservative.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.