Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wilsonianism resurgent

The presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) was not particularly successful. Nonetheless, it has left an enduring legacy that I find insidious,

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


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."




Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

You seem a bit obtuse here. "... then the US is set to pursue world domination for the foreseeable future."

We already dominate the world. The question is whether we exercise a progressive influence, spreading the benefits of the enlightenment, like democracy, secular government, etc., or we let our interests and those of the population of the world at large (who largely share our core ideals) wither on the vine of apathy and overly myopic self-interest.

The Libya process has been handled in ideal fashion, with minimal involvement from us, and with legitimate and crucial involvement by the freedom-fighters (truly, they are that) of Libya.

And when the next nascent rebellion of a people against despotism appears on the world scene (maybe North Korea?), we should stand with them as well.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

If you would bear with an addition, the real debate seems (to me) to be between those who want to use US power for strictly short-term gain- to get all the oil for ourselves, screw the climate change folks, and live it up as long as we can.

Vs the those playing a longer game, which means extending US leadership over the long term by sticking to principles seen broadly all over the world as benign and legitimate, i.e. the aspirations of self-determination and decent political/economic conditions shared by as may people as possible.

The key is China- how to we shape the long term global system so that when our power wanes, our principles remain in place in the face of other powers who have to date had rather shaky commitment to freedom, rule of law, etc. The way to do that is to bake our principles into the cake of as many countries as possible as soon as possible.

This doesn't mean that Iraq was the right thing to do- it was a total disaster in practically every respect, mostly because we were unrealistic, trying to do far too much with way too little brain-power. The balance in Libya has been far better.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

In my view considerable light has been thrown on these issues by Paul Kennedy (born 1945), a British historian who teaches at Yale University. His 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers offers a broad panorama of comparative European history starting in the sixteenth century. Kennedy holds that economic strength and military power have been strongly correlated in the fate of major nations. In several salient case histories involving the Habsburgs, the British Empire and other entities, he portrays a kind of iron law of decline. Expanding strategic commitments lead to increases in military expenditures that eventually overburden a country's economic base, spelling its long-term retreat.

His book reached a wide audience when it suggested that the modern-day United States and the Soviet Union were experiencing the same historical dynamics that previously affected Spain, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and Germany, and that the United States must come to grips with its own "imperial overstretch."

Yet the end of the Cold War two years after Kennedy's book appeared seemed to offer only partial confirmation of Kennedy’s thesis: yes, for the USSR; and no, for the US, which ascended to a peak of power in the 1990s.

Yet now it looks as if the other shoe has fallen. As our infrastructure crumbles and our economy stagnates we are caught up in the very dilemma that Kennedy described. Operating in tandem with Wilsonianism, the military-industrial complex has us firmly in it grasp. Both political parties are committed to a policy of unceasing interventionism abroad, a policy that changes its tactics but never its goals.

When will we realize that we cannot afford to continue this extravagant hubris? It is killing us.

5:57 AM  

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