“Liberal Internationalism” & the rest of the world

There is a fantastic new discussion on liberal internationalism as part of the H-Diplo/ISSF Policy Roundtable series. And Anne-Marie Slaughter has a sharply-written essay on “The Return of Anarchy?” in the Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Though there is a lot of variation across these various pieces, one thing that strikes me is the curiously sunny, uplifting view of post-WW2 American foreign policy. I’m no Noam Chomsky, and am definitely more comfortable with the use of force than many of my colleagues, but it makes me wonder if “liberal internationalism” ever existed beyond a fairly small circle of wealthy Western allies of the US (and their intellectuals).

Consider Slaughter’s description of American foreign policy since 1945:

“The post-1945 world order that is now coming to an end required a hegemon, a nation among nations that was willing to absorb the costs of making the global machinery work, insisting that other nations meet the commitments they had agreed to. Those costs include the direct costs of leadership—the willingness to negotiate, spend, and fight at the head of a coalition—and indirect costs, including the side payments to other nations necessary to keep them on board in a sanctions regime or another diplomatic or military venture that is costly for smaller players.

After hegemony, to borrow the title of Robert Keohane’s most famous work, the institutions of the post-World War II order continued as useful platforms that reduced transaction costs for all nations in situations in which they shared common interests in reaching a Pareto-optimal outcome. They acted as “intervening variables,” not driving international outcomes but instead enabling them when national interests were already aligned. But when it took a bit of “help” to align those interests, active leadership was still required to push, prod, pressure, and pay off. The United States was still willing to play that role, most frequently joined by Europe and Japan.”

Or Milner, Chaudoin, and Tingley in the H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable:
“Instead the liberal component of internationalism embodies many bi-partisan principles: support for freedom, democracy, human rights, a free press, as well as an open world economy for the movement of goods, services, people, and idea”

Perhaps this was in a fact a real thing that made everyone better off. But from the perspective of much of the world, this is a rather baffling understanding of the American role in the world – the benevolence, selflessness, and self-proclaimed leadership of the US in Slaughter’s framing is instead perceived as a frequently hypocritical, deeply self-interested, and often recklessly violent nation that outside of the Western core of Western Europe and, to some extent, East Asia simply did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted.

Yet American scholars in particular seem to have talked themselves into a world in which all good things go together, with the US leading the charge as a “Liberal Leviathan.” The rest of the world, especially the poorer and browner parts, have almost no role in mainstream IR, other than the tiny number of China and India scholars dotting the occasional department (there are almost no Russia/IR people under 50 around). Most of IR is thus remarkably America-centric, both in terms of theoretical assumptions and its normative biases.

For instance, Indian and Pakistani policymakers during the Cold War and after would have wondered in bafflement about what this “rules-based international order” was, and how they could have gotten in on it.When the USS Enterprise sauntered into the Bay of Bengal, Indira Gandhi did not genuflect toward the legitimate keeper of international order in recognition of its crucial role managing externalities. India’s skepticism of many international institutions (“nuclear apartheid,” anyone?), and its turn to bilateralism rather than an embrace of international institutions, is not due to it being deeply illiberal. The US-Indian rapprochement since 2000 has been weakly institutionalized and viewed as a way of getting around the exclusion and domination built into the international order.

America’s wildly oscillating Pakistan policy in recent decades seems distinctly orthogonal to the charge of advancing democracy and liberal principle overseas. Nuclear weapons and terrorism have been at the heart of this relationship, which has operated entirely de-linked from the ostensible international order. Pervez Musharraf and Yahya Khan would surely be amused to hear that America views “democracy as the most desirable system of governance that supports human freedom and U.S. interests” (Busby and Monten in the H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable).

Last but not least, large piles of corpses in Vietnam, Indonesia, Iraq, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and more than a few other places would be intrigued to learn that freedom, democracy, the free press, and human rights have been central to post-1945 US foreign policy. I’m not sure what the ritual incantation of these virtues is intended to do for non-American audiences; I can assure anyone interested that at least very substantial parts of the affected world find it more grating than inspiring. For those in the gunsights of American power, the idea that we are only now “returning to anarchy” would be news indeed.

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