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Against Liberal Internationalism

What is genuine liberal internationalism? It is neither a naïve idealism that ignores the realities of power nor a crude realism that ignores the power of ideals. ~Michael Lind

Oh, well, that clears things up nicely. There is a little more substance to it. Lind goes on to say:

Enduring international peace is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for liberal democracy. Why? In a world of recurring great-power conflicts or widespread anarchy, concerns about security may force even liberal democracies to sacrifice their freedoms to the imperatives of self-defense. This is what Woodrow Wilson meant when he said that the United States and its allies must make the world "safe for democracy." A world safe for democracy need not be a democratic world. It need only be a world in which democracies like the United States are not forced by recurrent world wars to turn themselves into armed camps.

Obviously, even by this lower standard that Lind sets for Wilson's foreign policy, it was nonetheless a magnificent failure, as the rest of the 20th century was to show. That will never dim the faith of the true followers in the wisdom of Woodrow's vision. Behold:

A world of many, mostly small and nonaggressive nation-states will be less dangerous than one of a few empires battling to carve up the world.

One wants to ask: less dangerous to whom? Everyone? Citizens of the great powers? Citizens of the small states? Who knows? Arguably, the age of a few great world empires was better, in terms of the prevention of armed conflict, for large swathes of Africa and Asia than the last century has been. For Europe, the disappearance of their empires has brought two generations of peace and prosperity (under the admittedly artificial conditions of the Cold War and U.S. protection). For Americans, it has been a decidedly mixed picture.

This idea might be worth considering, except that the new states are not necessarily nonaggressive and the record following the two waves of new, smaller independent states after WWI and WWII have not exactly supported the contention that a proliferation of states is necessarily conducive to "global peace" and a less dangerous world. Developing states and newly democratic states are among those most prone to resort to armed conflict, including both internal and international conflicts. For those living in the regions where these states are found, life often becomes more dangerous as a result of self-determination.

In the modern era, self-determination has been frequently driven by nationalism, which in turn can encourage irredentism and wars for national glory or the building up of national identity. Indeed, the proliferation of states--and the weakening and collapse even of some of these states created in the 20th century--and the increased incidence of armed conflict around the world seem closely matched. In any event, the increased number of independent states does not seem to have eliminated the causes of previously internal conflicts: for example, Eritreans warred against Ethiopians for their independence, and have since warred against them for territory and now engage in proxy wars throughout the region. Depending on how foolish idealists draw the borders, the creation of a number of smaller states may be--and have been--an invitation to revisionist wars, nationalist wars seeking to unify a people scattered among several states or separatist wars seeking to break up artificial states created by the fiat of liberal idealists in the name of this very same self-determination.

Here are some simple tests for the validity of the liberal internationalist vision: was Yugoslavia more peaceful before or after 1990? How about the Caucasus? Was Indochina peaceful after 1945?

The key problem with Lind's position, and that of his "genuine liberal internationalism," is the assumption that there could be a "liberal international order based on sovereignty and policed by a concert of status quo great powers." Status quo great powers policing the world and an order based on state sovereignty are actually quite obviously incompatible things. The great powers entrusted with these police powers have no incentive to respect the sovereignty of other states and sometimes have strong temptations to violate it. This arrangement trusts the powers that have the least interest in respecting other states' sovereignty with the role of guarding that sovereignty, but there is no mechanism that can check any one of the great powers if it abuses this role except for the intervention of another great power. By making the policing of the world the business of the great powers, this system expands the areas of interest of all great powers to include the entire world. As these spheres overlap and differing positions about how to police the world develop, they make great power conflict more likely, rather than less likely. The entire thing is a recipe for trouble.

It is not surprising that respect for sovereignty went out the window in the last sixteen years: this internationalism compels interventionism, and respect for the sovereignty of other states cannot be maintained alongside a desire to police the world, even when that policing is carried out by multiple great powers rather than just one. This is actually pretty basic. Great powers, even those that prefer to encourage stability and the international status quo at the state level, have an interest in undermining the sovereignty of weaker states. This is how they wield control and exert influence and so remain great powers. The disorder or violence within some states will provide the great powers with the pretexts for intervention that match the great powers' interests in acquiring greater control. Once the governments of the great powers are committed to sustaining a "peaceful" world order, respect for state sovereignty is bound to wane.

Lind calls the "democratic hegemonists" and "liberal imperialists" heretics, but they are simply the logical evolutions of a misguided internationalist vision. I appreciate what Lind is trying to do: he would like to keep the world safe from liberal interventionists and neoconservatives (who wouldn't?), and he believes that it is necessary to reclaim the mantle of internationalism from interventionists, but the two cannot be separated. What must be rejected at the root is the impulse to try to govern the world. Unless this is done, the "democratic hegemonist" and "liberal imperialist" offshoots of internationalism will continue to come back again and again with every foreign crisis and every foreign conflict that can be deemed, however arbitrarily or incorrectly, a "genocide." The war against Yugoslavia should remind us how easily this "legitimate" loophole to sovereignty was used and abused to pursue purely hegemonist goals.

The contradictions of the liberal internationalist position become more apparent as the article proceeds. For instance, Lind writes:

The United States should support legitimate self-determination movements, with the caveat that in some circumstances autonomy within a federation may be more practical than independence. Many of these today involve Muslim nationalities ruled against their will by foreigners, such as Palestinians, Chechens, Uighurs and Moros. As in the Balkans, US support for such nationalist grievances would weaken the jihadist movement by depriving it of issues capable of mobilizing Muslim anger.

This is a remarkable view. First of all, it is remarkable that Mr. Lind would suggest that support for these separatist causes would weaken jihadism, since jihadis have become the major force in most, if not all, the separatist/independence movements mentioned here. This was also true in the Balkans, which did not stop Washington from supporting the Muslim sides in the Balkan Wars. It is also remarkable because it is almost completely identical with the view of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. Granted, the latter have a special place in their hearts for Balkan Muslims and Chechens, since they seem to be particularly interested in helping Muslims when they are fighting Slavs, but the logic and strategic justifications are the same: weaken the appeal of jihadism by aligning ourselves with the cause of oppressed Muslims around the world. As many a disappointed, jilted neocon has noted over the last few years, jihadis have been entirely indifferent to American support for the cause of oppressed Muslim populations. In reality, it is implausible that support for, say, Uighur rights has any effect on the strength of jihadism around the world. For one thing, jihadism gains its strength at least partly from being a radical alternative to existing authoritarian regimes and as a vehicle for armed resistance to U.S. policies in the Islamic world. Supporting the cause of Chechen independence addresses neither of these, while it definitely contributes to a worsening of the U.S.-Russian relationship to the general detriment of international stability.

Muslim populations around the world tend not to notice Mr. Bush's support for an independent Kosovo, for example, while they are more focused on the policies that seem to be or indeed are hostile to Muslim populations. It is, of course, the latter that are the more potent fuel for jihadism. If you want to weaken jihadi recruiting, a lot more would be accomplished by getting out of Iraq than lending support to the Chechens. (Plus, it avoids the difficulty of finding excuses for Chechen terrorism.)

The exceptions and qualifications keep piling up, until Mr. Lind's liberal internationalism is not easy to distinguish from its more interventionist cousins:

Another exception to sovereignty would be the post-1945 ban on genocide along with a ban on ethnic cleansing.

Well, that much was predictable. Never mind that it was precisely this sort of exception-making that encouraged intervention in the Balkans and helped justify the invasion of Iraq. Today, the cause celebre is Sudan, and tomorrow there will be another part of the world where we must "do something." If sovereignty is to be ignored each time such a conflict occurs, it will not be long before sovereignty becomes completely irrelevant. The point is that almost every internal conflict can be described in terms of genocide or ethnic cleansing (the genocide convention's definition of genocide is extremely broad), and when it cannot legitimately be called that it will nonetheless be so described by the propagandists. Once you have made an exception to state sovereignty--the supposed pillar of this liberal international order--for this, you have essentially accepted that state sovereignty exists only so long as the great powers wish it to exist. Their clients will retain sovereignty and the targeted small states that they want to dominate will lose it. Mr. Lind's complaints against the "democratic hegemonists" circle back and strike his internationalism with a fatal blow.

Cross-posted at Cliopatria and Eunomia

Comments (3)

From what I can see I agree that Lind looks completely wrong-headed on this. I'm particularly dis-impressed by his claim that taking the part of Muslim separatists will help reduce terrorism by denying them a cause. That's one of the silliest things I've heard recently in foreign policy. Is he crazy? Okay, one of the sillier. One hears so many silly things in foreign policy that it's hard to rank them.

While I'm sure that any formal definition used or made by a committee of "genocide" is vague, I'm not at all sure, though, that I agree with what appears to be your implication that any such designation of any given situation is going to be arbitrary or subjective. Hitler was obviously attempting genocide, and doing a pretty good job at it, too. It doesn't, however, follow that we--the U.S., the strong powers of the world--are automatically obligated to stop genocide anywhere in the world, though it is understandably frustrating to sit back and watch it happen and sometimes, as in the case of WWII, we are justified for reasons of our own interest as well in fighting those committing it.

I think, though, that it's important that those who take a generally anti-interventionist line not fall into the trap of downplaying the evils of other countries or even the dangers other countries pose to us because they are afraid that any loud talk about such evils and dangers must of necessity imply that we are obligated to invade. Clear-sightedness should always be our goal. Speaking for myself, I see nothing wrong with calling the situation in Sudan "genocide." The term seems apt, from what little I know. I am not therefore advocating the U.S. invasion of Sudan. But we have to call 'em like we see 'em.

Thanks for your response. I agree that there should not be any minimising of the real evils that are committed by other governments. Just because the Sudanese government is not, in my view, committing what I think can really be called genocide against people in Darfur doesn't mean that it isn't doing awful, appalling, evil things. I don't think anyone denies that Khartoum is responsible for war crimes committed under its authority. What I object to is the mistaken or excessive use of the term genocide to describe conflicts that seem to be qualitatively different. One of the reasons why politicians do this is that they realise the the word genocide has talismanic powers in a debate and they want to use those powers to advance their argument. It sounds much better and more defensible to say that outside forces should stop a genocide. If someone said that we had an obligation to stop every military in the world from committing war crimes, the response would be rather different.

My point in making the remarks about the genocide convention was that the convention, as adopted, is so broad in labeling things as genocide that you can barely find a conflict that does not qualify. The convention says:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

I agree that the conflict in Darfur meets some of these conditions, but then so does virtually every war being fought today and virtually every war that has been fought in the past. Wars are attempts to kill members of another different ethnic, national or religious group with the intent to destroy at least part of that group. This is done to achieve certain objectives, yes, but this is how war achieves them. According to the convention, it does not matter why you want to destroy part of that group (it is not required that you are possessed of religious or racial hatred or that you espouse an eliminationist ideology)--if you have this intent to destroy even a part of a group by using the listed means, you are intent on committing genocide. This standard is unreasonably high. Consequently, I think that many conflicts, including Darfur, keep getting lumped in as genocides when they are qualitatively different from genuine genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, etc.

I am more skeptical that the fighting in Darfur constitutes genocide, since it seems to be instead a rebellion against the central government that the different rebel groups have been losing at great cost to their civilian populations. If that is genocide, then there have been a great many more genocides in the past seventy years than most people would readily recognise and most belligerents of the last seventy years would be guilty of genocidal acts.

My other point, where I referred to the arbitrary use of the term genocide, was intended to bring to mind interventions, such as Kosovo, where the government cried genocide on the basis of sketchy, non-existent or forged evidence and started a war over an internal conflict in another country. That war itself killed more people in two months than the fighting in Kosovo had managed to kill in a year. This is the sort of fairly cynical manipulation of an obligation to stop genocide that I am opposing. This is the perfect example where the genocide loophole in an otherwise solid defense of state sovereignty was exploited to the detriment of all of the people living in the targeted country. As long as Lind keeps that loophole open, and even extends it to the much more vague "ethnic cleansing," he has rendered the commitment to respecting state sovereignty effectively void, which is a strange thing for someone to do when he is trying to build a system around state sovereignty.

I agree with you about the over-broad definition of the convention. I'd run across that elsewhere and thought at the time that it is apparently almost intended to be manipulated politically.

"[I]t seems to be instead a rebellion against the central government that the different rebel groups have been losing at great cost to their civilian populations."

I'm not knowledgeable enough about the situation in Darfur to argue the point, but from many things I have read my impression certainly has been that the government is behaving more systematically than this characterization would suggest in terms of enslavement, killing, famine creation, and so forth against its civilian population.

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