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The Demise of Liberal Internationalism

Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz have an article in the new International Security declaring that liberal internationalism is dead.

The prevailing wisdom is that the Bush administration’s assertive unilateralism, its aversion to international institutions, and its zealous efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East represent a temporary departure from the United States’ traditional foreign policy. … Indeed, influential think tanks and foreign policy groups are already churning out action plans for reviving liberal internationalism. …We challenge this view and contend instead that the Bush administration’s brand of international engagement, far from being an aberration, represents a turning point in the historical trajectory of U.S. foreign policy. It is a symptom, as much as a cause, of the unraveling of the liberal internationalist compact that guided the United States for much of the second half of the twentieth century. The polarization of the United States has dealt a severe blow to the bipartisan compact between power and cooperation. Instead of adhering to the vital center, the country’s elected officials, along with the public, are backing away from the liberal internationalist compact, supporting either U.S. power or international cooperation, but rarely both. … Prominent voices from across the political spectrum have called for the restoration of a robust bipartisan center that can put U.S. grand strategy back on track. … These exhortations are in vain. The halcyon era of liberal internationalism is over; the bipartisan compact between power and partnership has been effectively dismantled.

I have complicated feelings about liberal internationalism (short version: I think it’s way better than the neo_con/Bolton_and_Krauthammer_realist amalgam that we’ve seen dominating US foreign policy over the last few years, but it has an awfully convenient tendency to assume that the economic and political interests of the US and the rest of the world are magically as one), but I think that Kupchan and Trubowitz seriously overstate their case. They throw in some arguments about unipolarity, but their main case is rooted in an argument about domestic political polarization in the US. According to them, it used to be that liberal internationalism created a synthesis between military power and international institutions - now Republicans are all about the exercise of power, Democrats about reliance on institutions, and there’s no common ground between them.

This may well turn out to be true of Republicans if (gods forbid) Giuliani gets the nomination or is able to shape the foreign policy debate from afar. It’s also possible that the crazies will get locked up in the asylum again, as Snyder et al. argue in a paper I linked to a couple of months ago.

But Kupchan and Trubowitz’s claims certainly aren’t true of the Democrats. All three of the candidates who have a hope of getting the nomination are liberal internationalists of one kind or another (and obviously willing to posture on their toughness, willingness to use force in pursuit of American interests etc). Furthermore, what survey evidence there is suggests that a large majority of Democratic voters do support the use of force - as long as it is to support the UN in upholding international law. You can’t get much more liberal internationalist than that. In the end, Kupchan and Trubowitz seem to me to be giving another version of the polarization-is-screwing-up-American-politics story - without recognizing that polarization has worked in very different ways on the left and right (specifically, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have pointed out, the right has gone a lot further away from the center than the left has). While they’re likely right that liberal internationalism faces tougher challenges than it used to, they’re wrong about what the challenges are.

[Crossposted from Crooked Timber

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