Calling ‘liberal internationalism’ what it is: American primacy
Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry’s recent attack on the rising camp of restraint in U.S. foreign policy (which they label the “Quincy coalition”) is peppered with tangential, inaccurate, and simplistic assertions.
The authors argue instead for “liberal internationalism,” better characterized as primacy, or armed global dominance, of the liberal variety. However, liberal primacy, a major influence in Washington for decades, is itself partly responsible for the crises of the current world order and is now enhancing risks of great power conflict. Moreover, liberal primacy marginalizes alternative and quite different versions of internationalism, including those well within the American tradition, which have much to contribute to achieve a world of security and prosperity.
Deudney and Ikenberry’s main arguments are as follows: The restraint camp remains hostage to its critique of the American “blunder” in Iraq. It is moreover incoherent due to its dissimilar factions of libertarians, balance-of-power realists, and progressives, and thereby offers only a negative agenda for shaping the future world order. Restrainers purportedly provide no solutions to problems generated due to industrialization and high interdependence, such as inequality and climate change. Moreover, they resist defending and promoting democracy in a world threatened by a rising and authoritarian China. “Liberal internationalism” with its focus on democracy promotion, institutions, and regulated capitalism is the only model that can solve the world’s problems.
Let us put aside for a moment the authors’ misrepresentation of positions of restrainers more generally, and those of the Quincy Institute specifically. Let us also acknowledge the positive aspects of the broader liberal project, which do not contradict a grand strategy of restraint (and which the Quincy Institute supports.) Individualism and democracy are welcome antidotes to social and political repression, diversity mostly enriches societies, institutions help solve problems, and versions of capitalism have proven superior to communism. Liberal primacists’ prioritization of collective action problems such as climate change is also on the mark. But a closer examination reveals that some of these supposed achievements are more rhetorical than real.
Liberal primacy’s stress on democracy would be credible — if only its deeds matched the claims. Washington is tough, even militant, on violations of rights by its geopolitical adversaries, with sanctions and harsh rhetoric routinely employed as a tool. Liberal primacists indeed seem to be concerned with the fate of democracy in what they call the “core” — a reference to European allies. But when it comes to U.S. allies and partners in the Global South, they rarely go beyond nudges and occasional slaps on the wrist.
Objective observers can conclude that, outside of the Atlantic area, democracy and human rights are only of marginal importance in the liberal primacy project, except when they can act as force-multipliers in the great power competition framework. Restrainers on the other hand genuinely support democracy by directing the United States to perfect its own model at home so that it can lead by example. Restrainers also have a well-founded suspicion of the true motives of Washington’s actions (or any power that claims to be acting out of altruism) and, in general, hold a pessimistic view of achieving changes in the domestic politics of other societies through coercive measures.
Deudney and Ikenberry greatly stress liberal primacy to achieve global economic equity and avert environmental catastrophe. However, under liberal primacy’s long innings in Washington, these challenges have only multiplied at home and abroad. The United States, under the major influence of primacists of all shades, did not by itself create all these problems. But its disproportionate power and wealth means that it is more responsible than any other single actor. Moreover, when liberal and other primacists make extraordinary claims of global leadership and explicitly seek to preserve unipolarity, they should also accept a corresponding level of responsibility for all that has gone wrong under their watch.
Liberalism is also by no means necessarily tied to U.S. primacy. The work of scholars such as Stephen Wertheim (a co-founder of the Quincy Institute) and Michael Kazin has cogently highlighted a very different American internationalism in the pre-WW II era that opposed primacy in the long national tradition (notwithstanding a few exceptions) of staying away from foreign wars and advocating diplomacy to resolve disputes in extra-hemispheric conflicts. Nowhere do Deudney and Ikenberry seriously engage the core argument of restrainers of armed dominance detracting from domestic priorities and raising risks of regional and global conflict.
Liberal primacists have belatedly come around to reducing (though not eliminating) the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East. But, as Quincy Institute president Andrew Bacevich has laid out, few lessons appear to have been learned from the Iraq war, which was not so much a “blunder” as a flagrant violation of international law and American values. Nearly two decades after that fateful step, primacists (liberal and otherwise) show little desire for accountability from actors who supported and executed this war ridden with illegal actions, a reluctance that severely undermines their justifications for prosecuting violations of other states.
It is on China, however, that liberal primacists flirt with the greatest danger to the international order. A rising China is framed as a threat, predominantly due to its authoritarian system as also its recent actions in the region. Domestic and foreign policies of most states are indeed linked, but they may manifest in apparently inconsistent ways. For example, powerful, authoritarian states may not necessarily seek global conquest or even dominance (for example, China in the 15th century) just as major democratic states may disavow global hegemony (the United States itself from the late 19th century until World War II). Democratic powers may also empower tyranny, as was seen with Israel’s export of the cyber-weapon Pegasus to several authoritarian governments recently. Liberal primacy has a deterministic, inflated view of Chinese power and threat and little space for the major uncertainty in Chinese capabilities and intentions two or three decades in the future.
Whereas Washington is stepping up on framing China in stark cold war-type language, much of the world, including many U.S. partners, has a much more nuanced viewpoint of the competition. The reluctance of Southeast Asia or treaty ally South Korea to join the U.S.-led Quad and the general lack of support across much of the world for the monochromatic view of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as an exploitative debt trap are two examples. Prominent Southeast Asian voices in particular are increasingly worried at the turn liberal primacists’ China strategy is taking.
Whittling away at the time-tested One-China policy, over-militarization of relations with the Quad states, and aggressive, publicly announced military FONOPs close to the Chinese coast are only some of the ways in which liberal and other primacists are helping raise risks of great power conflict. China is not an existential threat to the United States. This is not to say that China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea, coercive pressure on U.S. partners including Taiwan and India, exploitative deep-sea fishing, cyber-attacks on the homeland, and certain trade practices should not be of major concern. But it takes two hands to clap. When it comes to China, liberal primacy’s reign in Washington feels as escalatory as the Trump era.
Liberal primacy is also less than international, with its continuing Euro- and Global North-centric tendencies. Alternative internationalisms include those from the Global South, where most of humanity lives. Southern internationalism matters to the U.S. national interest because, in an increasingly multipolar world, regional and middle powers have enhanced autonomy and capability to exercise veto power if their views of the world order are not taken into account.
As seen from the South, spreading democracy, managing interdependence, and containing the rise of China — Deudney and Ikenberry’s principal problematiques — is a part-erroneous, part-limited list. A view from Johannesburg, Dhaka, or Jakarta might argue that achieving domestic stability, economic “catch-up” with the wealthy world, and avoiding another militarized great power competition are more pressing concerns (along with those of climate change and pandemics, correctly identified by Deudney and Ikenberry). Moreover, U.S. interventionism and coercive strategies of extraterritorial sanctions (often backed by liberal primacists) might be seen as equally or more threatening than the rise of China. In general, Southern internationalism stresses sovereignty, solidarity, and a search for compromise rather than coercion in great power disputes.
Southern internationalism has led to many initiatives of varying success – from decolonization itself, to Afro-Asian frameworks such as Bandung, the push for a New International Economic Order, Tricontinentalism, and the Nonaligned Movement. More recent examples include the Like-Minded Developing Countries coalition in global climate negotiations. While some practitioners of Southern internationalism were domestic autocrats, paradoxically, their banding together also enabled a somewhat more democratic world order by placing limits on the extent of bipolarity or unipolarity. Liberal primacists, either largely ignore or oppose other internationalisms, domestic and foreign, thereby revealing their own paradox – while democracy is backed at home, a diversity of ideologies across states is distinctly unwelcome.
Deudney and Ikenberry are correct in that there are differences among restrainers. But coming from advocates of the “Roosevelt School” this is downright bizarre if not a sign of amnesia. FDR’s multi-decade imprint owed largely to his phenomenal success at crafting a diverse coalition at home to address the central challenges of his time. Building – and sustaining – such coalitions signifies maturity, not incoherence.
Restraint is a grand strategy comprised of first and foremost disavowing armed global primacy and stressing diplomacy for conflict reduction and management. This, by itself, is an enormous task that, if achieved, would be a major accomplishment and greatly diminish risk of a great power war. But beyond this common agenda, the young coalition will naturally engage deeply with itself over time as it grows. Indeed, primacists of the liberal and non-liberal variety who have been at this for much longer than restrainers, are themselves characterized by differences. The Quincy Institute, for its part, has laid out positive agendas for achieving peaceful co-existence in East Asia (including its maritime domain), South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. These involve reversing armed global dominance, stressing diplomacy and institutions, letting regional players lead in solving their problems, abandoning coercive attempts to spread American political values, and energetically constructing confidence-building measures with major powers China and Russia.
In sum, liberal primacy, at best, is mostly a status-quoist ideology that is likely to only compound emerging global challenges. At worst, it is a thin veneer over a deeper intent of perpetuating unipolarity for its own sake. Either way, it is an outmoded approach to our time of uncertainty, increasing multipolarity, and a planetary crisis. Restraint may be, as Deudney and Ikenberry state, a “radical challenge to the main course of American foreign policy.” But it is exactly the corrective we need to American grand strategy that can pave the way for a more secure and prosperous world order.