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When 'internationalism' became a dirty word

Neocons and liberal interventionists have perverted the term to mean primacy and global power projection of the worst kind

Analysis | Washington Politics

There are few words in contemporary foreign policy debates that are more abused than “internationalist.”

Internationalism should refer to a foreign policy approach that prioritizes resolving conflicts peacefully, respecting international law, strengthening international institutions, and eschewing coercive policies as much as possible.

As it is commonly used in Washington today, however, internationalism often means almost exactly the opposite. It is a euphemism that advocates of U.S. “leadership” use to describe their preferred policies of pursuing dominance, dictating terms to other states, and routinely using force or the threat of force to get their way. The label internationalist has become code for supporting militarism and interference in the affairs of other countries, which is just about as far from what it used to mean as it is possible to get.

The internationalist label is usually paired with and opposed to the “isolationist” slur used to dismiss critics of U.S. foreign policy. To be considered an internationalist in Washington, one needs to be comfortable endorsing the extensive use of American power, including and especially the use of hard power. Expressing doubts or asking questions about the wisdom or necessity of this extensive use of power is one of the quickest ways to earn the “isolationist” tag.

According to this warped set of definitions, the so-called internationalists are the ones that seek to impose Washington’s will on other nations while the “isolationists” are the ones that respect their rights and sovereignty. Even generally hawkish presidents will be accused of “isolationist” leanings if they “fail” to order military action somewhere, as we saw with Barack Obama and the red line episode in 2013. Meanwhile presidents will be praised for their "internationalism" when they order illegal attacks.

It is common for analysts to conflate support for U.S. primacy with internationalism. Earlier this year, Foreign Policy magazine published a long article by Ash Jain classifying different foreign policy camps and putting them under the headings of “internationalist” or “non-internationalist.” In one of the more bizarre examples of how this worked, the “unilateral internationalists” represented by the likes of John Bolton and Dick Cheney, were included among the internationalists because they were champions of power projection, but restrainers were deemed “non-internationalist” because they favored fewer commitments and a less ambitious overall strategy.

Nothing could better demonstrate how absurd the contemporary use of “internationalist” has become when someone like Bolton, who has a record of despising international law and institutions, can be considered an internationalist while defenders of international law are not.

The conflation of support for primacy with internationalism goes all the way back to the remaking of U.S. foreign policy in WWII. As Stephen Wertheim explained in Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, "officials and intellectuals redefined armed supremacy as the epitome of internationalism and the core of international organization.” That redefinition was made because internationalism had meant something profoundly different in the past. Unfortunately, the redefinition stuck, and the more older understanding of internationalism faded into obscurity.

That has had serious long-term consequences for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. The distortion of internationalism into a project of global power projection fed the worst impulses of U.S. policymakers. As Wertheim explained, “to install one’s dominance in the name of internationalism is something else. It effectively turns one nation’s military supremacy into the prerequisite for a decent world. This kind of internationalism denies that armed force can obstruct cooperation and provoke others. It also attenuates the value of international rules and bodies.”

Such a deformed, militarized internationalism will not be a stabilizing force, but will often become a threat to the international peace and security that its adherents claim to defend.

As long as the world’s leading power refuses to respect the limits of international law, it will always be a destabilizing force in the world and a contributor to future conflicts. A principled internationalist approach to the world requires that the U.S. not only follow the laws that it expects others to follow, but that it should also hold itself and its clients to the highest standards. Any attempts to carve out exceptions or to create loopholes for the U.S. and the states aligned with it will serve to undermine international law and encourage more violations.

That is what is happening with the war in Gaza right now as the U.S. makes a mockery of international law by enabling a devastating military campaign that has already killed well over 10,000 civilians.

Many self-described internationalists are quick to invoke international law and the U.N. Charter when it comes to the actions of U.S. adversaries, but then become suddenly mute when a U.S.-backed government begins trampling on the same things. The champions of the “rules-based order” evidently do not believe that international law applies to the U.S. and the governments that it arms and supports, and they have no intention of doing anything to hold those violators accountable. If the U.S. is going to take international law seriously, it can’t keep doing this. Washington must not play favorites by giving some states a free pass to commit terrible crimes.

The U.S. would benefit a great deal from the recovery of a genuinely internationalist approach to the world. It would still be deeply engaged around the world through commerce and diplomacy, but it would have a far less militarized and less coercive foreign policy. Because it would be taking sides in very few conflicts, it would be in a stronger position to act as an effective and trusted mediator in whatever conflicts did arise.

If the U.S. made a habit of adhering to international law and did not selectively trample on it when expedient, it would likely find a much more receptive audience in foreign capitals when it appealed for their support in a dispute. The U.S. would not be cutting itself off from the world, but it would also not be overcommitted and constantly embroiled in wars, whether they were its own or those of its clients.

Recovering an internationalism that prizes peace and cooperation rather than the pursuit of dominance and rivalry is crucial for the U.S. in the coming decades to face the global threats of pandemics and climate change. America and the other nations of the world can ill afford to squander this century in fruitless contests for supremacy. To that end, Americans need to rediscover the internationalist tradition that flourished in this country a century ago.

"Malabar 2021" featured tactical training with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Special Guard, U.S. Navy Pacific Special Command, and Indian Navy Special Operations Forces. (Government of Japan/Creative Commons/Twitter)
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