Posts Tagged ‘liberal internationalism’

“Rule, Britannia!”


When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

It is mighty difficult to think of the topic of American grand strategy without accusations of imperialism flying about. If we’re to argue about the posture of the United States in the world we’re bound to encounter the disproportionate advantages that have redounded to the benefit of the country: benign neighbors, no major rivals in the Americas, two oceans worth of safety, a rich natural resource and human capital endowment, and an ascendant post-Cold War moment built upon an earlier post-World War II ascendant moment of even more ascendance.

With all these raw materials of outsize power floating about accusations of imperialism are bound to follow any American grand strategy (save isolationism). But just how accurate are these accusations of imperialism, particularly when aimed at the liberal internationalists? (Some critics, i.e. John J. Mearsheimer, go so far as to fold the slur into the name, hence “liberal imperialists” [1].)

Four Flavors of US Grand Strategy

As Colin Dueck eloquently puts it, there are probably as many American grand strategies as there are grand strategists [2], nonetheless four clusters stand out. So begins my ten cent tour of the four corners of American grand strategies. I’ll hasten to add the proviso that there’re thousands more words to be written about these schools: how they conceptualize international politics, who’re identified as the key units of analysis, the force structure that corresponds to each school, and so on. Alas, this tour will be worth scarcely more than the price of admission [3].

America First Committee logo

In one corner we have the “Why don’t we mind our business?” camp, also known as the isolationists, neo-isolationists, or strategic disengagement proponents. Narrowly drawn lines of US national interest limit the geographic scope of areas defined as strategically significant. Limiting the use of force to self-defense (narrowly construed) yields a limited force posture and a wide margin for neutrality and abstention from an array of conflicts.

In corner number two we have Machiavelli’s Princes, more formally the balance of power realists (Mearsheimer’s fits here) or selective engagement proponents. Here we find a broader definition of US national interests than the isolationists, but with an emphasis on states and geography. Clearly defined regions represent the core of US national interests (Europe, northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf), or alternatively, maintenance of a particular regional alignment of powers such that each regional aspirant has an adversary.

In corner number three we have the “make the world safe for democracy” camp, more formally the liberal internationalists or cooperative security proponents. Here the US national interest includes far more room for values especially democracy and human rights. Viewed as an interdependent state system, the internal dynamics of states link to behavior on the international scene and conflicts have destabilizing spillover effects for the international community as a whole. International institutions serve as the key mechanisms for managing conflict, but the US plays an integral role in using force when necessary.

One Ring to rule them all

In corner number four we have the “one Ring to rule them all” camp, formally the primacy, global dominance, or global hegemony proponents. Primacy aims for ongoing American hegemony deterring aspirants from even attempting to challenge US power. Primacy also exhibits a commitment to liberal principles like international law, human rights, democracy, free markets. But in contrast to the liberal internationalists, continued American power serves as keystone in promoting these ends. Overall, primacy remains suspicious of using international institutions to achieve those ends.

Altogether if the loose definition of imperialism is elastic enough to fit the liberal internationalist domain of thinking on American grand strategy, the charge imperialism fits realism equally well. Balancing, when married to the resources of the United States, also represents empire by another name when the words imperialism and empire are made into such capacious categories.

An imperial project? (an adapting of Modern Day Kiplings?)

There is a further reason why “liberal imperialist” is such a galling slur. It connects an era of reprehensible and heinous crimes to a vision of American grand strategy whose moorings are elsewhere entirely. Locating the tenets of liberal interventionism in imperialism is wrong. (Liberal internationalism, liberal interventionism, and the responsibility to protect don’t necessarily map onto one another one to one, but there are strong linkages across the three perspectives.)

The slur is about as accurate as calling a present-day anthropologist a phrenologist, or dubbing a present-day social worker a eugenicist. There was a point in time when an imperialist meta-narrative intersected with nearly every field of knowledge in the West. But as for anthropology, social work, and the responsibility to protect (R2P) today, the concepts doing the heavy lifting have moved well on from Kipling and the white man’s burden. Movement so far as to be a repudiation of their predecessors.

That is to say, it is true that at one point in time anthropology, social work, and R2P’s antecedents were intertwined with a meta-narrative reaffirming the white, Christian, male, West’s superiority to the Other; these linkages with white supremacy, patriarchy, and knowledge were also present for biology (e.g. Social Darwinism), geology and archaeology (e.g. the Piltdown Man hoax). Whole ways of understanding the world did double duty: explain the world and justify empire. Imperialism linked with phrenology, eugenics, and pseudo-sciences in general as a means of knowing the world that reinforced this meta-narrative of racial superiority. Thus imperial power justified its dominance with both pseudo-scientific and religious (bring Christianity to the heathens) underpinnings. A whole body of knowledge needed deploying in order to declare a great deal of the world no man’s land, terra nullius. Thus these “empty” spaces were ripe for capture, conquest, and “civilizing”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a word cloud (via Opinio Juris)

What distinguishes R2P from an imperial project?

Far from nullifying common humanity, R2P draws upon texts with the express purpose of identifying a space for human dignity in international affairs. The individual human is brought up; up from subjection to the sovereign to an object of international law in their own right by virtue of common humanity.

R2P forcefully says to states, “This far and no further.” Under R2P states have a great deal of latitude in organizing intra-state affairs. For all states sovereignty is modified in an important way. Sovereignty may not be used to shield atrocities from the gaze of the international human rights regime. Those exercising power are charged with combating gross human rights violations.

This duty is a result of an overlapping consensus derived from international law, international institutions, and the international human rights regime. Examining the history of the human rights regime (and the shorter history of R2P proper) we find participatory legitimacy by way of global contributions and procedural legitimacy by way of international institutions in the key phases: (1) the generative phase where the elements that would form the overlapping consensus on human rights developed; (2) the codification phase, the negotiations that yielded the key texts of the international human rights regime (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights conventions); (3) the interpretation phase, the institutions and processes that have repeatedly reaffirmed the key human rights texts (the UN General Assembly and treaty-monitoring bodies).

Imperial projects cannot claim similar global participation and procedural legitimacy. In the sense that empire included global participation, that participation hewed to a rigid hierarchy, a hierarchy that has no analog in the formulation and execution of the international human rights regime and R2P. Empire distinguishes between metropole and periphery, with the imperial metropoles of old (Britain, France, Spain, etc.) managing the affairs of entire continents with limited representation of the periphery (if any at all). Drawing borders, determining trade policy, extracting resources, and denying self-governance all reflected the ideas and interests of the metropole first and foremost. The periphery is exactly that, peripheral to the core concerns of the imperialist. Lastly, the imperialist is engaged in another enterprise entirely, the walling off of the owned and subjugated from the owned and subjugated of other empires. And where possible acquiring the owned and subjugated of other empires.

In terms of procedural legitimacy, what was once the periphery is now well represented in the corridors of power in international political institutions. The Western European and Others Group does not dictate to the UN General Assembly, in the UN System it is one regional group amongst the five.

What’s the matter with realism?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We ‘had’ to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.


Realism has trouble answering three key questions. How to account for ungoverned spaces, that is weak and failing states can’t be balanced – when the object of analysis, states, can’t be counted on to behave in strictly defined realism conceptualized fashion, what then? Second and relatedly, what to make of non-state actor foes? Third, how sustainable is a policy with a persistent values deficit?

On which, perhaps more later.

[1] Mearsheimer, John J. Imperial by Designthe National Interest, Jan/Feb 2011, p. 16-34 – via ProQuest

[2] Dueck, Colin Ideas and Alternatives in American Grand Strategy, 2000-2004 Review of International Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 511-535 – via JSTOR

[3] Posen, Barry and Ross, Andrew Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter, 1996-1997), pp. 5-53 – via JSTOR


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