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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Was Bush Doctrine Just a Little Bit of History Repeating?

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Or did the Bush years merely demonstrate, in exaggerated form, impulses that were already present in the U.S.'s dominant foreign policy traditions? Particularly, was the Iraq war an expression or a betrayal of the liberal internationalist tradition of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)?

These questions have taken on special relevance given the high hopes attached to the inauguration of Barack Obama. If his administration will mark a return to the U.S.'s liberal internationalist heritage, as Obama seemed to suggest in his inaugural address, will this be sufficient to avoid future debacles of the sort that marked the Bush years?

In the new anthology "The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century" (Princeton, 2009), four prominent U.S. political scientists - G. John Ikenberry, Thomas Knock, Tony Smith, and Anne-Marie Slaughter - debate these questions. Knock and Slaughter aim to defend the liberal internationalist tradition and differentiate it from Bush's foreign policy, while Smith argues that liberal internationalism actually set the stage for Bush and the neoconservatives.

What this thought-provoking but ultimately frustrating volume demonstrates, however, is how little consensus there is about what Bush really represented - or, for that matter, what Wilson really represented. With so little agreement about the basic terms of debate, there are few satisfying conclusions to be drawn about how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past eight years.

The primary point of debate between Knock and Slaughter on the one hand and Smith on the other is whether a reliance on multilateral institutions or democracy promotion is more fundamental to Wilson's internationalist vision.

If Wilsonianism is fundamentally about multilateralism, then the (relatively) unilateral Iraq war would fail to qualify as Wilsonian. But if Wilsonianism is fundamentally about democracy promotion, this might seem to open the door to democratisation by force of arms, as in Iraq.

But this question raises others that are equally difficult to resolve. For one, how relevant is Wilson's original vision to liberal internationalism as it developed over the course of the twentieth century?

As Ikenberry and Knock point out, the peaceful global community that Wilson envisioned never came to pass due to the imperatives of Cold War geopolitics. Instead of a single law-governed international community, the Cold War years saw the development of two separate international systems: a cooperative set of "inside" relationships between Western democracies under U.S. dominance, and a competitive "outside" system governed by force and realpolitik, in which the West battled communism and postcolonial nationalism.

Knock argues convincingly that this Cold War order was a betrayal of Wilson's vision. A U.S.-dominated military alliance like NATO was a far cry from the sort of multilateral institution Wilson had in mind.

But liberal internationalism in practice has always had an ambivalent relationship with its idealistic origins. While paying homage to the goal of an egalitarian and cooperative global community, liberal internationalists have nevertheless tended to fall back pragmatically on those multilateral institutions that have been more pliable as instruments of U.S. power. Liberal internationalists therefore often talk as if the answer to Bush's unilateralism is simply to update the Cold War status quo and win back European allies in support of U.S. power.

But is this Wilsonian? More importantly, does it resolve any of the problems with Bush's foreign policy, or simply provide it with a sheen of legitimacy? It is quite possible that, with a bit more humility and diplomatic finesse, Bush could have won over France and Germany and perhaps gotten an additional Security Council resolution in support of the Iraq war. But would this have made the war just, or wise? If not, it suggests then multilateralism as such cannot provide the answers to these problems.

Slaughter's essay illustrates some of the difficulties involved in separating liberal internationalism from Bush-era foreign policy. Slaughter's views are of particular interest since she has just been appointed head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, making her Hillary Clinton's house intellectual at State.

Although she initially supported the Iraq war, Slaughter is now adamant that it could not be in any way justified under a liberal internationalist framework. Wilsonianism is built upon the self-determination of peoples, not their democratisation by force; U.S. leadership, not U.S. hegemony; legitimate multilateral institutions, not coalitions of the willing.

But these apparently sharp distinctions come to seem fuzzier in practice. The line between U.S. "leadership" and "hegemony" is often ambiguous, and since World War II the former has often been a euphemism for the latter.

Furthermore, Slaughter argues for U.N. reform to provide the world with a single arbiter of legitimacy, but concedes that in the absence of a more pliant U.N. the U.S. must settle for "broadly representative regional institutions" such as NATO instead of ad hoc alliances. But if the U.S. accepts the authority of whatever reasonably legitimate international body is willing to sanction its plans, is this so different from an ad hoc coalition of the willing?

Although Slaughter is adamant that democracy cannot be imposed by force, she does maintain that the international community - or its more conscientious members - have a "responsibility to protect" populations by force from atrocities committed by their rulers.

And if the "cornerstone of Wilsonianism" is, as Ikenberry sympathetically claims, the conviction that autocracies make war and democracies make peace, this would seem to give the U.S. not merely a moral imperative but a compelling national security interest in spreading democracy however it can. This goes beyond "making the world safe for democracy" to imply that democracy can only be safe when it is universal.

Smith's essay effectively critiques Wilsonianism along all these lines, showing how these arguments easily slide into those used to justify Iraq. But his attack on liberal internationalism, like Slaughter's defence of it, suffers from a simplistic view of what the Iraq war was about.

Whereas for Slaughter, the essence of the Bush years was unilateralism, for Smith, it was democracy promotion, plain and simple. This naturally suggests - although Smith never quite states it - that what the U.S. needs is a return to realism, a focus on the national interest rather than utopian dreams of democratisation abroad.

It is far from obvious, however, that democracy promotion was the essential motivation for the Iraq war rather than an ex post facto justification. The war was initially argued for in terms of threats rather than ideals, WMDs rather than human rights, and most of the war's architects appear to have been motivated less by democratic idealism than by a grandiose and aggressive conception of the national interest.

This is why a simple end to democracy promotion and return to realism may not be a cure-all. It is likely that the next push for war, wherever it is, will be justified as a hard-headed response to external threats rather than an act of humanitarianism. What is needed is therefore not simply a renunciation of liberal internationalism but a more realistic assessment of the U.S. national interest and the threats to it.

As the Obama years begin, we are faced with a widespread consensus that the Iraq war was wrong, but little agreement on how or why it was. As the essays in this volume indicate, neither Wilsonians nor anti-Wilsonians seem to have any clear solutions for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past eight years.

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