The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Liberal internationalists: evil imperialists or mushy multilateralists?

November 2, 2005

A minor brouhaha over at America Abroad. David Rieff sent an email to Anne-Marie Slaughter (short version: liberal interntionalism inevitably leads to neoconservativism, so stop enabling!). Today, John Ikenberry summarizes Reiff’s argument:

Behind Rieff’s comments is his own intellectual journey away from the liberal interventionism of the Clinton years chronicled in his recent book, At the Point of a Gun. The Iraq war has led Rieff to question the entire “project” of humanitarian intervention. His basic claim appears to be that the ideals of liberal interventionism – carried out for legitimate humanitarian reasons in cases such as Kosovo – can all too easily be adapted by neo-conservatives to justify military adventures such as Iraq. Liberals and neo-cons belong to the same “interventionist family.” Liberal interventionism can turn all to easily into liberal imperialism and militarism. In a chapter in his book entitled “The Specter of Imperialism: The Marriage of the Human Rights Left and the New Imperialist Right,” Rieff argues that “human rights has become, however inconsistently applied, the official ideology of the American empire – something conservatives have understood, even if most activists themselves have not.”

The short answer is… well, yes. Liberal interventionalism interventionism can turn into liberal imperialism. Indeed, by the very act of engaging in humanitarian intervention or regime change, the US (or any other liberal polity) creates an imperial relationship with the subjects of intervention, one justified by a universalist mission.

However, that does not invalidate liberal internationalism. Nor, I should add, does the potential for neoconservative abuse.

Ikenberry again:

[H]ere is where I would part company with Rieff. The Iraq war itself was not really a case of failed humanitarian intervention – so it can’t really be used to discredit the whole enterprise. Bush rationalized the war on other grounds. He has come lately to a sort of neo-Wilsonian defense of Iraq and painted it as part of a larger effort to transform the Middle East and bring freedom and democracy to this region. But this is ex poste justification. Perhaps Paul Wolfowitz believed it from the start, I don’t know, but few others in the administration did. Liberal internationalists should not question their own vision. Rather they should express outrage at how the vision and ideals they embrace have been misused by others….

Ikenberry advances of a number of other arguments, including his well-articulated distinction between, on the one hand, the commitment to a liberal international order and democratic enlargement and, on the other, the embrace of democratic enlargement in the absence of a liberal international order. The former, he contends, is liberal internationalism; the latter is neoconservativism.

What Ikenberry does not say, however, is that “humanitarian intervention” and “regime change” are different animals. The primary aim of humanitarian intervention is to avert a human crisis that the target state can not or will not stop (perhaps because the target state is responsible for the crisis in the first place). In other words, humanitarian interventions are about stopping or preventing genocide, famines, ethnic cleansing, and so forth. Humanitarian interventions may, of course lead to regime change. The intervening state might have to overthrow the regime in question if it wants to achieve its humanitarian aims. The intervention may also indirectly cause regime change by, for example, destabilizing or otherwise undermining the target state’s government. Even in the former case, however, regime change is a means to a humanitarian end. (Reiff himself has articulated aspects of this distinction.)

My understanding of the justifications offered by the Bush administration prior to the Iraq War is that any humanitarian benefits were, essentially, a positive externality of regime change. The primary purpose of overthrowing Hussein, as best I can tell, was to eliminate a threat to the United States and – if all went according to plan – to transform the political geography of the Middle East in ways favorable to American interests.

Looking back at the last decade or so, one can find many instances of neoconservatives opposing humanitarian interventions. A lot of neoconservative rhetoric about the dangers of “nation building” reflected this antipathy – their use of the term “nation-building” being, in essence, a code word for humanitarian intervention.

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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.