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What’s in a foreign-policy label?

May 17, 2006

Dan Drezner’s at Princeton discussing liberal internationalism, so he posts this rather interesting placeholder on his blog:

One question that came up at today’s sessions was pretty basic but rather important: how, exactly, would one define liberal internationalism? It’s one of those terms that foreign policy wonks like to throw around, but often means very different things to different people.

[So what’s your definition, smart guy?–ed. A marriage between the pursuit of liberal purposes (security, free trade, human rights, rule of law, democracy promotion, etc.) and the use of institutionalist means to pursue them (multilateral institutions of various stripes — not only the UN, but NATO or the G-7 as well).]

Why should foreign policy wonks be the only ones to debate this question? Readers, have at it.

I’ve written a variety of posts that touch on this topic (e.g., this one, this other one, this one here, and yet another one). My main concern with Dan’s definition is that he reduces the role of institutions to a “means” of spreading liberalism; certainly many liberal internationalists would view international institutions as an ends as well: liberalism’s writ spreads governance and law at the expense of international anarchy.

Beyond such objections, I wonder how far we can actually push the whole “what’s the best definition” question. Does liberal internationalism have an “essence,” or is it a shifting configuration of policies and rationales? Wilson’s “liberal internationalism” surely looks different from FDR’s, let alone George W. Bush’s.

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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.