Yesterday I wrote about a pattern of choices in our foreign policy that may make sense individually but that overall project an image of weakness before our enemies, disloyalty to our friends.
Today I want to write about something bigger: a strategic mistake that leads a lot of people inside the administration and well beyond it to make consistently bad decisions about American foreign policy.
It is, like all truly great mistakes, a vision thing. “Where there is no vision the people perish,” says the Book of Proverbs (29:18). It’s even worse when the vision is wrong: when your light has turned to darkness. That, unfortunately, is where a lot of America’s Wilsonians are right now.
As I wrote in Special Providence, Wilsonians are the Trotskyites of the American revolutionary tradition. Just as the Trotskyites thought the Bolshevik revolution wasn’t safe unless communism conquered the whole world, American Wilsonians believe that the success and the security of the democratic American revolution at home depends on the triumph of democracy worldwide.
Wilsonians come in more than one flavor. Liberal internationalists (like Woodrow Wilson himself) believe simultaneously in the spread of democracy and the establishment of a world order that looks a lot like world government. (Sometimes they go all the way and think that the establishment of a single world government is the key to humanity’s future.) They believe, passionately, that only international law can save us from chaos, violence and, hopefully, war. A strong body of international law, enforced by international courts and obeyed by national governments is the way to make war less likely and less dreadful when it occurs; it can also deter torture, human rights violations and a whole host of other bad things.
Liberal internationalists want the world to become a more orderly and law abiding place. Ideally many would like the United Nations or some other international organization to evolve into something a little bit like a world government: the European Union on a global scale. But failing that, liberal internationalists would like to see better enforcement mechanisms for documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They would like the ‘laws of war’ to become ever more clearly codified and ever more effectively enforced. They look to the day when power shifts from national governments to international bureaucracies and institutions.
Neoconservatives, on the other hand, are Wilsonians who think, among other things, that the twin goals of democracy promotion and the development of global institutions can’t always be pursued simultaneously. With for example, two non-democratic powers on the Security Council, the goal of democracy promotion might sometimes come into conflict with the goal of making the UN the supreme arbiter of world politics. Otherwise you are saying that China and Russia can veto your efforts to promote freedom worldwide: you are giving the keys of the prison to the bad guys.
The Bush administration wrestled with the consequences of ne0conservative ideas; in the Obama administration it is liberal internationalists who are trying to steer history their way.
During the neoconservative years of the Bush administration, liberal internationalists were developing a new variation on their point of view. In the past, Wilsonian visions have been linked to the idea that the United States was a rising power. As America’s power and influence grew in the international system we had more ability to shape the flow of history; liberal internationalists wanted us to use this rising power to build a steadily more democratic and law-bound world. But what if America is in decline? What becomes of the Wilsonian project then?
Some liberal internationalists have come to see a more institutionalized and organized global polity as a strategy for dealing with what they see as America’s relative decline in the twenty first century. While the United States is still strong, they argue, we should use our power and influence to promote global institutions and governance with agreed rules and procedures. That way the transition from an American world order to the coming post-American system can be made smoother, less dangerous and, from an American point of view, much more pleasant. Entranced by the aura of legitimacy surrounding these august institutions (and, to be fair, appreciative of the benefits provided by orderly methods for settling trade and other disputes), the rising new powers will continue to lead the world down the path the Americans laid down. Wilsonian, once an ideology of rising American power, becomes a strategy for smoothing America’s decline.
This idea is, I think, pretty influential among some of the people in the Obama administration. It may even have a place in the President’s thinking.
It could not be more wrong. The world is inexorably developing in directions that undermine the authority and efficacy of big international institutions, and American power (not, I think, doomed to decline) will increasingly have to operate outside of institutional frameworks, like it or not.
There are three big factors in world affairs that make the liberal internationalist path increasingly problematic going forward.
First, the decline of two of the three Trilateral powers (Europe and Japan; the United States is in a different category) means that we increasingly live in a post-Trilateral world, and that world is much less hospitable to institutions and ideas that are rooted in the Kantian visions that have been so influential in European and American history. Western concepts of bureaucratic institutions date back to the Roman Empire and the concept of law that guides them also has Roman roots. Angl0-Americans sometimes bristle at this with our own cultural preferences for common law and (we like to think) common sense approaches; nevertheless, Europeans and Americans both find the Kantian vision of a bureaucratic world state incorporating basic European cultural ideas about states and laws very natural. Outside the old West, these ideas and institutions don’t seem nearly as natural. Both because Europeans (and whites generally) are over-represented in the existing global institutions and because the institutions themselves evolved out of the era of western colonial dominance along western ideological and cultural patterns, the liberal internationalist vision has a limited appeal in countries like India and China. With non-Euro-American cultures becoming more capable of shaping the international system and more confident in their own values and histories, we cannot expect that Euro-American norms and cultural preferences will do anything but decline as factors in international life.
Second, the increasing complexity of international life combined with the world’s deep-seated cultural differences to make global institutions less and less useful for handling international business. There is a tremendous hunger for regional institutions around the world; Latin America, Africa and various parts of Asia are all trying to emulate the success of the European Union. But nobody likes the idea of having global institutions interfere with one’s local affairs. This makes sense. East Asians responded to their experience with the IMF during the 1997 financial crisis by taking a series of steps to ensure that the IMF would never again take charge of Asian economic policy during an economic crisis. Global institutions are seen as too much under the influence of outside powers and too little attuned to regional preferences and priorities. While the global financial institutions are (occasionally) effective as well as unpopular, the hapless United Nations is a terrible forum for almost all purposes. Only those who have no other option turn to it; UN peacekeepers are too often poorly led, poorly trained, poorly supported and poorly behaved. Africans dream of the day when Africa can manage its own security affairs without the blue helmets; as regional institutions develop in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the role of the UN is more likely to decline than to grow.
Third, the world economy is evolving in ways that undermine the ability of international institutions to manage it. Until and unless countries like China are ready to accept international oversight and constraints on their domestic economic policies (which will be roughly the 12th of Never), such institutions cannot hope to fill the macroeconomic role that Keynes, for example, hoped international institutions would play after World War Two. Ever since the Bretton Woods institutions were established, the world economy has been slipping steadily out of their grasp.
Although specific international agreements affecting common problems will continue to be reached, the economic interests and concerns of the world’s countries are so different that the degree of common governance to which they will submit will remain small. Even within the eurozone we see that Greece and Germany are unwilling and unable to coordinate their policies or agree on a common vision for how the economy should work; yet by world standards Greece and Germany are practically cultural and economic twins. As more emerging markets and countries are able to speak for themselves and advance their interests with confidence in the international political arena, we are going to see less consensus and less agreement on international rules of the road, not more. At bottom, this is the process that is making the Doha Round of international trade negotiations so slow to progress. As more interests are brought to the table with more conviction and more confidence, agreement gets harder to reach.
The United States may try to swim against this current, but it won’t have much success. The new dynamic in American foreign policy was clear at the Copenhagen climate summit last fall. The Europeans, dreaming of a global and institutional solution to the climate change issue, wanted formal negotiations leading to a binding treaty. It became unmistakably clear during 2009 that this was out of reach; in the end, President Obama stitched up an informal, backroom deal with Brazil, China, India and South Africa. The terms of the agreement were vague; the effect was to underline the difficulty of getting a global treaty rather than to make progress on hashing one out. The process-loving, Kantian Europeans weren’t even in the room.
In the future, American diplomacy will work better if we cut to the chase. Rather than chasing liberal internationalist mirages, we should focus on what we want and need, think about how we can get as much of it as possible at the best price — and go for it in the most efficient way possible.
This is by no means the end of Woodrow Wilson. The protection of human rights and the spread of democracy will not disappear from America’s list of objectives. It is not even the end of international institutions; global institutions will continue to exist and will always have a role, and regional institutions are likely to grow more important and more effective. But it does mean that the construction of a legal world order is going to look less and less feasible.
The shift might even be good news for embattled Wilsonians. To the degree that regional institutions are more effective than universal ones at building peace and promoting democratic development around the world, Wilsonian values could flourish — and the world could become a more peaceful, prosperous and happier place. Probably, however, some regions will be more successful than others at building strong and effective institutions. And because the regional institutions will be rooted in the values and political histories of different parts of the world, they will have very different sets of weaknesses and strengths.
All that is for the future. Of more immediate concern is the possibility that American foreign policy makers, unable or unwilling to give up on the old liberal internationalist vision, will waste the resources, energy and political capital of the United States pursuing an unworkable agenda. Perhaps worse, they will make the mistake of believing that the liberal international vision is more acceptable to countries like China and India than neoconservatism was. Generally speaking, Europeans like liberal internationalism and hate neoconservativism. In much of the rest of the world the similarities of these two ideologies seem more important than the differences. In both cases, China sees a threat to its political order at home and to its ambitions abroad. For Islamists, the two ideologies look like two different strategies to achieve the same goal: the subjugation of the Islamic world to a set of ideas rooted in Christian culture and, ultimately, faith. For much of Latin America, the question is how to assert an independent voice and presence in world affairs — and the conviction among many Latin leaders (and not just the Bolivarians) is that this requires limits on US influence in the hemisphere.
These days, liberal internationalism is a solution in search of a problem: it is an idea whose time has passed. Liberal Wilsonians must take a long hard look at a world that is not moving toward global governance in any serious way and think about how the values at the heart of the Wilsonian vision can be advanced in a new century.