Wilsonianism (sometimes honorifically termed “Wilsonian idealism”) holds that the internal political policy of a state should also find expression in its foreign policy. If one favors vigorous intervention in domestic affairs, as Wilsonian liberals generally do, then the same principle applies abroad: state building at home and abroad.
Those adhering to this trend are usually characterized by their belief in progress. In this light, they held that the system of international relations that had given rise to World War I could be reformed: it was capable of being reshaped into a more peaceful and just world order. This transformation would involve the awakening of democracy, a term often brandished, with little justification, in this discourse. At one time much hope was placed in the League of Nations, a hope transferred for a time to the United Nations. Now that the prestige of the latter body has dimmed, the hopes have been transferred to an amorphous entity known as the “world community.” For its own good, of course, that community must be managed by the United States. In fact, Wilsonians often embrace the ideal of American exceptionalism.
Stripped of the “idealist” rhetoric, this current of foreign-policy thought yields the imperative that the United States must be the world’s policeman. In taking us into Iraq, the neo-Conservatives displayed a muscular version of Wilsonianism. However, there is another version that relies more on soft-power, including diplomacy, arm twisting, and foreign aid. This version has long flourished within the ambit of the Democratic Party. In this way those who are skeptical of Wilsonianism are confronted with a kind of Tweedledum-Tweedledee problem: do we want the hard or the soft version? No other is on offer.
The disastrous adventure in Iraq should have produced a fundamental challenge to the Wilsonian project. However, just as in the case of the Vietnam catastrophe, the discomfort is proving to be only temporary. The marvelous sway of “idealism” is reasserting itself.
This point is brought out by the reaction of politicians and pundits to the Libya affair. To be sure, the neo-cons are not happy. According to the hawkish Senators McCain and Graham, Obama’s approach was too timid: "[We] regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our air power."
That aggressive approach reflects the old (Iraq) model. Yet our latter-day Wilsonians--those of the liberal stripe--take a different tack, among them Fareed Zakaria: “[T]he Libya intervention is so significant precisely because it did not follow the traditional pattern of U.S.-led interventions. Indeed, it launched a new era in U.S. foreign policy." That is a frightening prospect. In other words, as long as we can whomp up some indigenous rebellion and get some other foreign powers to take the (apparent) lead, even as we egg them on and provide the cash, then the US is set to pursue world domination for the foreseeable future. See Zakaria’s opinion piece in this week’s Time Magazine.
Michael O’Hanlon holds a similar view: "Obama can point to Libya now as a signature example of how to lead multilaterally [sic], encourage others to do more and avoid the Hobson's choice of doing everything ourselves or retreating into defeatism or isolationism."
As the saying goes, a little bit of sugar makes the pill go down. Yet this is a pill we should not be taking.
UPDATE (Aug. 27, 2011). There is more evidence of the prevalence of this troubling analysis. I quote from Josh Rogin in foreignpolicy.com.
This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with Foreign Policy. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
END OF QUOTE
Labels: US foreign policy