America’s Age of Empire: The Liberal Challenge

For liberals who oppose Bush’s imperial strategy, it’s time to come up with a foreign policy vision of their own.

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Long ago, 50 years or more, America had a liberal foreign policy. It came out of the war against fascism, the containment of communism, and the postwar international organizations that the United States led into existence. Near its peak, in 1949, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gave the philosophy of liberalism underlying this policy an extensive justification in his book The Vital Center. Today we tend to think of the post-war period as a time of soaring American confidence, but the real subject of the book is anxiety. It wasn’t just totalitarianism abroad that threatened American democracy, Schlesinger realized, but a loss of nerve at home. To confront them both, America needed “a rededication to concrete democratic ends; so that the exercise of democracy can bring about a reconciliation between the individual and the community, a revival of the élan of democracy, and a resurgence of the democratic faith.”

Democracy, in other words, wasn’t merely a political system, but a spirit, a worldview — an affirmation of individual liberty and human solidarity. From Woodrow Wilson’s vision of freedom under international law to FDR’s struggle against totalitarianism, the liberal tradition in foreign affairs inspired people around the world. Now its ideas are suddenly more relevant than ever, and they point a way out of the current liberal impasse over America’s role in the world.

For more than a year we’ve been quietly living in continual crisis. The mood was expressed by a Russian woman who, after her release from three nights of captivity by Chechen terrorists in a Moscow theater, went to a café and found that “people were drinking coffee and having fun. It was a totally different life.” Theatrical terror on one side of a wall, daily banality on the other. For the first time in over a generation, this reality has forced foreign policy on a superpower whose citizens would rather think about other things. But there is only one coherent response in play, contained in what’s come to be called the Bush doctrine — a blend of aggressive nationalism and incompetent imperialism, led by people who want dominance without responsibility.

The Democratic Party has no foreign policy. It hasn’t since Vietnam. The usual response is to moan about the party’s spineless leaders, but their failure to stand up to the Bush juggernaut is more symptom than cause. They can’t stand up because they have nowhere to stand, no alternate vision of what purpose America’s enormous power in the world should serve. And so, with very few exceptions, the Democrats have been reduced to reaction, me-tooism, and, it sometimes appears, sheer hope that the crisis will go away.

It won’t — not for a long time. America will go on being the superpower, and radical Islamists will go on trying to kill Americans and reestablish the seventh-century caliphate, whether George W. Bush is president or not. Liberals need to begin asking themselves hard questions about how they would handle this threat if they were in power. I’m not addressing doctrinaire leftists, who know what they think about American foreign policy — they’re against it and see no useful American role in the world other than disarmament and withdrawal. A precondition for a viable liberal foreign policy is a clean break with this view.

Unlike dogmatists of the right and left, American liberals lack a systematic worldview and fall back instead on certain habits of thought and feeling. These include proceduralism, the belief that decency in the world depends on following the rules; relativism, which asks, “Who am I to say that my way is better than yours?”; and wishful thinking, which demands a better world while shrinking from the compromises necessary to get there.

All these tendencies labor under serious constraints and illusions, and these days they often lead to positions that are barely distinguishable from those of cold-blooded “realists” like Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Yet for decades they have flourished behind the wall of wealth and power that has kept Americans protected from history.
Then came September 11. “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield,” Orwell wrote in a little essay called “In Front of Your Nose.” Events of the past year have exposed the weakness of liberal attitudes toward American power for all to see — a party in disarray and constantly on the defensive, an antiwar movement with little to say to Americans’ fears for their own safety. Meanwhile, the Republicans have enjoyed an astonishingly free hand to dictate national terms.

The administration wants to wage war on terrorism and still preserve all the privileges and injustices of a low dishonest age. It wants lockstep unity and unequal sacrifice. We are fighting the wrong fight if corporations can move offshore to avoid taxes while the vice president’s former company profiteers off the war; if millionaires can buy elections here while generals win them by fraud and force overseas; if Saudi oil princes are coddled while Muslim students can’t get U.S. visas; if Afghan warlords are left in power while returning refugees are allowed to starve. In the long run, we will lose if this fight isn’t for something. It ought to be for democracy. And about this, liberals should have a good deal to say.

A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want for themselves and their own country — liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society — should be America’s goal for the rest of the world as well. This is hard-boiled self-interest as well as idealism: American security in the age of globalization depends more and more on expanding political freedom and a minimally dignified life elsewhere, as opposed to protecting what we have behind increasingly impenetrable borders.

A liberal foreign policy would require more commitments than Bill Clinton dared to make, and different commitments from the ones George W. Bush wants to make. It would require nation building on a far greater scale than we’ve seen — not just peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but economic development in Uganda and support for democratic forces in Iran. Clinton’s foreign policy — globalization plus crisis management — neglected long-term threats to democracy such as political Islam and Arab client-state dictatorships, while it allowed economic inequality in much of the world to worsen. In the war for democracy, economics isn’t a sideshow.

Labor rights; environmental protections; genuine rather than one-sided free trade; checks on capital flow, privatization, and corporate power; an end to the market fundamentalism of the IMF and the World Bank — these aren’t luxuries. They go together with democracy; they will make it possible for poor people in places like Brazil and Senegal to experience the modern world as liberating and fulfilling rather than as an insult to their dignity and identity.

But liberals should be under no illusions that a fairer international economic system would solve the problem of Islamist extremism by “draining the swamp” or eliminating “root causes.” Al Qaeda and similar groups are implacable enemies of democracy and the only answer to them is force. Multilateral action with other democracies should be at the core of a liberal foreign policy, for practical as well as principled reasons.

Multilateralism requires Amer-ica to put teeth in bodies like the International Criminal Court and U.N. peacekeeping operations, instead of undermining them as Bush has relentlessly done. It also requires Europe to face up to its responsibilities for the unruly world beyond its walls. American power needs both European diplomacy and European power — and liberals who think that Europe must tame cowboy America should consider that, in some circumstances, America must shame complacent Europe. This should have become clear with Bosnia and Kosovo.

Won’t American activism throw gasoline on anti-Americanism? In some places and among some people, yes — Saudi Arabia, political Islamists, European snobs of the left and the right. But activism can take different forms: One goal of a liberal foreign policy — here, too, Clinton failed — should be to avoid emergency military interventions by paying attention before matters reach a crisis. The Cold War ended partly because America found and supported dissidents in the East Bloc. Why can’t we do the same in Muslim countries? The National Endowment for Democracy, a private, government-funded organization that gives money to democratic groups in undemocratic places, has been accused by both the left and the right of meddling in other countries’ affairs. But meddling on behalf of democracy is exactly what we need, and the endowment should play a much larger role in the war on terrorism. So should a serious policy — Jimmy Carter was the visionary in this case — of reducing our dependence on oil. But to avoid activism in order to keep from making enemies, while our “friends” remain such staunch democrats as the Saudi elites, is absurd.

When should American activism come armed? To answer that question, you first have to accept that action and inaction both have consequences; every choice is between evils, and none ought to leave you feeling particularly righteous. To invade Iraq without immediate provocation is wrong and dangerous; to allow Saddam to threaten his own people, his neighbors, and us is wrong and dangerous; to lift sanctions strengthens him; to leave them in place hurts Iraqis; to disarm him through inspections perpetuates his people’s suffering. There is a case to be made for removing a tyrant with a demonstrated willingness to use chemical weapons and a single-minded desire to acquire nuclear weapons, when there’s a decent chance of a democratic opening. But the wrong people are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The Bush administration’s motives are not democratic and internationalist, and so the consequences of a war are unlikely to be, either.

More than particular policies, what matters is the mental landscape in which we operate. The loss of faith in democracy that Schlesinger began to notice here in 1949 has steadily increased among people who think of themselves as liberals. We urge America to live up to its democratic ideals, and yet we abandon the conviction that these ideals should be extended to others. Relativism, and a fear of imperialism, and perhaps too much comfort and security, have sapped all the juice out of the civic religion.

From its beginning, this faith wasn’t only the possession of Americans. It was a universal creed: “All men are created equal.” It was a revolutionary force, and it still is, far more than American triumphalists — and their critics — realize. Complacency and contempt toward liberal democracy are equally calamitous now, when it’s become clear that our security depends on its expansion abroad.

When you travel overseas, especially to poor countries, you can’t help being struck by the scope of American influence — at home we really have no idea how far it extends. Regional assistant secretaries of state, unknown here, are famous abroad. Such influence breeds resentment, especially when it comes in the form of bullying, know-nothing arrogance, or disastrous interventions like Vietnam. On the other hand, in my experience, poor or oppressed people are more likely to resent America for not using its power enough than for using it too much. Citizens of every war-torn African country ask why we didn’t do for them what we did for Kosovo.

The tradition of liberal internationalism that began with Wilson’s Fourteen Points and continued through Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Truman’s Marshall Plan is a great, forgotten tool waiting to be picked up and used. That the Bush doctrine has shanghaied some of its language in a false and self-serving way is all the more reason not to cede the ground to dangerous impostors. Until liberals show that they will make the world safe for democracy — for their fellow citizens, and for citizens around the world — the American people won’t give them the chance.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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