What’s Left of Liberal Internationalism without military intervention? …A lot

7 December 2021, 1033 EST

Canadian scholar and politician Michael Ignatieff had a piece in Persuasion recently on the “collapse of liberal internationalism.” For Ignatieff to admit this (as one of the strongest proponents of this foreign policy orientation) says a lot. However, he inadvertently gives too much of the argument away. Liberal internationalism is more than military interventions, something both its critics and proponents seem to have forgotten.

The fall of liberal internationalism

Liberal internationalism is the claim that state interests are best served by engaging with the world to advance liberal values. In America, it had primarily been associated with the Democratic party, in contrast to the more “realist” Republicans. This got fuzzy with the moral grand-standing of Ronald Reagan, and fell apart with George W. Bush and his neoconservatives. The neocons agreed on the importance of international engagement and liberal values, but argued America needed to advance them through unilateral military force.

The Bush years left many liberal internationalists in a quandary. This included me, a (then) idealistic college student. We wanted to cheer the recognition that America’s values are in line with our interests. But we were uncomfortable with the rush to invade Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq without UN sanction. Some, however (like Ignatieff) initially cheered Bush’s plans for Iraq.

If liberal internationalism is military intervention and nation-building then of course liberal internationalism is in crisis. But there is more to liberal internationalism!

To many, this revealed the problems with the liberal internationalist project. In order to have “teeth” and avoid being caricatured as feckless idealism we needed to resort to military force. But it was often too easy to rush into the use of force at the expense of our ideals.

So liberal internationalism struggled. Obama tried to distance himself from both Bush and his party’s history of liberal internationalism. But he didn’t have a clear positive strategy, leading to a confused and often ineffective foreign policy. Many on the left were wary of Hillary Clinton as a “liberal hawk,” while Trump supporters hoping he would end endless wars grew frustrated as well. It’s still a little unclear what Biden’s foreign policy approach will be. Meanwhile, voices for restraint in US foreign policy have grown in intensity and diversity.

It would seem that Ignatieff’s piece, presenting a path forward for liberal internationalism, is well-timed. Or is it? First I should applaud Ignatieff for writing this. It takes a lot of integrity to admit when you’re wrong (I once attracted the ire of a prominent foreign policy expert on the DC Metro for unknowingly complaining about his inconsistency while he was sitting in front of me). He rightly points out issues with realism. And he suggests alternate approaches for this paradigm. But I think he misses a few things.

Afghanistan, Iraq and Obama

First, he suggests the failure of the Afghanistan intervention doomed liberal internationalism. While the US mission in Afghanistan did fail, I’d argue the bigger issue for liberal internationalism was the invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan was in response to an attack on America–it was the best way to neutralize the threat–while the invasion of Iraq was completely a war of choice justified (partly) on liberal grounds. The invasion of Iraq also diverted needed resources from the US mission in Afghanistan. The fact that liberal internationalists supported the war in Iraq (just as some supported Trump’s later knee-jerk bombings of Syria) is a serious issue for this foreign policy approach. But it has little to do with Afghanistan.

His framing also overlooks Obama’s real attempts to get America out of Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the failure of anyone to back him up on this. Obama followed the status of forces agreement negotiated under George W. Bush that would have US combat troops out of Iraq by 2011. For this Republicans furiously attacked him. Obama conducted a review of US policy in Afghanistan after years of drift under Bush. While he did send in more troops, this was primarily due to pressure from the military and he was still accused of “dithering” by Republicans.

This may feel like I’m arguing a minor point, but it’s important. The story some are now telling of liberal internationalism is that it led to a prolonged mission-creepy intervention in Afghanistan; the withdrawal from Afghanistan signaled liberal internationalism’s limits.

That’s just not true. Yes, the war in Afghanistan continued too long, and US interventions in the Middle East became muddled. But that was not due to liberal internationalist goals; it was because–ironically given current appetite for restraint–no one was cheering Obama’s attempts to limit US presence there.

There’s more to liberal internationalism than military interventions

It is true, however, that liberal internationalism struggled to come up with an alternative, and liberal internationalists have rushed to support military action.

We can see this even in Ignatieff’s piece. He argues that the “signature projects” of liberal internationalism are “military intervention” and “nation-building.” Remember, this isn’t coming from a Quincy Institute attack on liberal hawks; this is one of liberal internationalism’s strongest proponents. If liberal internationalism is military intervention and nation-building, and they do not work, then of course liberal internationalism is in crisis.

But there is more to liberal internationalism!

The real core of liberal internationalism, also from Ignatieff’s piece, is the effort to “promote democracy and strengthen a ‘rules based international order.’” A particular variant of liberal internationalism emerged in the ’90s that saw military interventions as the primary way to accomplish these goals. I don’t have enough space to figure out why, but I suspect part of it comes from liberals’ and Democrats’ perennial fear of seeming weak.

Liberal internationalists need to avoid allowing critics to define their approach to foreign policy.

There are other ways to promote democracy and strengthen a rules-based international order, however. These include:

  • Work through the United Nations: Remember when Trump withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and there were howls of outrage from liberals? Remember when Democrats blocked John Bolton’s appointment to the UN because of his dismissive views of the organization? This is because liberal internationalists believe the United Nations is a powerful force in the world, and America benefits when we work through it. It can provide greater legitimacy for our actions and ensure greater participation in international initiatives.
  • Prioritize diplomacy: Diplomacy is not “weak” and it is not “soft power.” It is an essential tool through which states can advance their interests. It may take more time to work out an agreement than launch a cruise missile, and the resulting compromise may be less satisfying than watching something blow up. But diplomatic agreements have contributed to US security since the Cold War.
  • Leverage existing treaties and relationships to promote human rights: There are other ways to spread democracy and human rights than military interventions or economic sanctions. Many states around the world are dependent on the United States for their security; what if we placed liberal conditions on that support instead of continuing to give them a blank check? Many states would love to have preferential trade deals with America, and placing human rights conditions on them can be an effective way to spread our values.

Liberal internationalists need to avoid allowing critics to define their approach to foreign policy. Instead, they should work to rehabilitate liberal internationalism by emphasizing all the policies it proposes that do not involve air strikes and invasions.

The crucial democratic deficit

But this brings us back to Ignatieff’s diagnosis of what went wrong. Most Americans do not support endless wars (even if they, frustratingly, do not support attempts to end them). This extends to broader liberal goals. A report from the Center for American Progress found that very few Americans rank the spread of democracy as a top foreign policy priority, and most believe the US government should focus on domestic issues rather than internationalism. This wariness extends abroad; as a recent piece from The Liberal Patriot shows, many around the world are “skeptical” of a democratic coalition against authoritarianism.

Much of this weariness, however, has to do with the wars supposedly fought to advance liberal goals. If liberal internationalists emphasized the above alternative policies they may find greater public support. Ignatieff presented some alternatives framings as well, but he (and other liberal internationalists) need to start by remembering there is more this paradigm that military interventions.