From “Wilsonian” to “Rooseveltian” Liberalism

Jul 9, 2021

Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry recently published a ‘big think’ article in Foreign Policy. They note that the Biden administration’s approach to foreign and domestic policy – including its particular understanding of the relationship between them – is best understood as “Rooseveltian” in character.

The bulk of the essay is devoted to elaborating the “Rooseveltian” tradition, which they see as a pivotal moment in the evolution of liberal internationalism:

More than anyone else, Roosevelt laid the foundations for Pax Americana and inaugurated what became known as the American Century. The Rooseveltian revolution was decisive in the development of modern liberalism and internationalism, but it built on predecessors, such as Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Wilson’s New Freedom, and was in turn built on by successors, including Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. It was this political project—to which Biden has returned—that brought the United States to its peak of greatness.

For them, the “Rooseveltian” emphasis on interdependence, born out of the transnational political and economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, is what sets it apart from prior liberal internationalisms. Such interdependence, especially of the ecological variety, has only become a more pressing policy concern.

The move of modern liberalism and liberal internationalism is to secure and realize basic liberal values in these radically changed industrial and global circumstances. Modern liberals and internationalists hold strong versions of basic liberal values and goals, but are distinctive in attempting to link these core commitments to a fundamentally new set of global developments. In contrast, the realpolitik approach to politics that focuses on relative power fails to register the epochal shift in the absolute levels of power generated by industrial modernity. In these highly interdependent circumstances, laissez-faire and anarchic systems are simply unable to provide appropriate and adequate mechanisms for restraint and cooperation. Traditions that arose and thrived in a low-interdependence world are utterly ill-suited for providing insight and guidance in a highly connected world.

There’s an interesting move here. When it comes to political economy, realism tends to emphasize autarky. Great powers should want to limit economic interdependence, as it increases their vulnerability to other governments and decreases their policy autonomy. We see this logic in U.S. efforts to restrict the reach of Chinese-constructed 5G networks and reduce dependence on foreign microchip production. Laissez-faire is pretty much the opposite.

This argument also strikes me as a bit off. Both liberal internationalism and realism have pre-industrial antecedents; their contemporary flavors are deeply inflected not only by the experience of the 1920s and 1930s, but by the nuclear revolution of the 1950s. In this sense, I think it’s unpersuasive to claim that liberalism is modern but realism is atavistic.

It won’t come as a surprise that I simultaneously – and perhaps contradictory – agree with the general thrust of the essay while finding its historical narrative a bit too credulous of liberal myth-making. Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, the article is definitely worth reading.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article lies in its subtext. Deudney and Ikenberry are right that international-relations scholars and analysts don’t write a lot about a “Rooseveltian” tradition. That’s not because they don’t consider FDR a crucial figure in the development of liberal internationalism and what people now call the “liberal international order.” It’s because they have tended to locate him within the “Wilsonian” tradition. In the stylized version, Wilson got it right, but couldn’t sell his vision at home; this failure paved the way for World War II and, perhaps ironically, created the conditions for Roosevelt to put liberal internationalism into practice.

Given the total collapse in Wilson’s reputation, this story is at lot less appealing than it used to be. Shifting from Wilson to Roosevelt makes sense on substantive ground, as well as in light of current international circumstances, but I can’t help but think that these aren’t the only reasons why two of the foremost theorists of liberal internationalism are now writing about a “Rooseveltian” tradition.

Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns & Money.

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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.