Sunday, November 11, 2007

Power or Partnership? The Collapse of Liberal Internationalism

Over at the new International Security, Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz have a really interesting article on the decline of liberal internationalism in American politics (pdf).

The liberal international paradigm characterized much of American postwar foreign policy. Successive U.S. administrations sought to marry American economic and military preponderance to policies of international cooperation and institutionalization. According to Kupchan and Trubowitz, the collapse of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy in the American political system has decimated the liberal international project. These trends have received a push with the power-oriented foreign policies of the George W. Bush administration. Here's a key segment:

The conditions that sustained liberal internationalism have of late been rapidly disappearing, dramatically weakening its grip on the nation’s politics. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, U.S. primacy has reduced the incentives for Republicans and Democrats alike to adhere to the liberal internationalist compact. Unipolarity has heightened the geopolitical appeal of unilateralism, a trend that even the threat of transnational terrorism has not reversed. Unipolarity has also loosened the political discipline engendered by the Cold War threat, leaving U.S. foreign policy more vulnerable to growing partisanship at home. “Red” and “Blue” America disagree about the nature of U.S. engagement in the world; growing disparities in wealth have reawakened class tensions; and political pragmatism has been losing ground to ideological extremism.

The polarization of the United States has dealt a severe blow to the bipartisan compact between power and cooperation. Instead of adhering to the vital center, the country’s elected officials, along with the public, are backing away from the liberal internationalist compact, supporting either U.S. power or international cooperation, but rarely both. President Bush and many Republicans have abandoned one side of the liberal internationalist compact: multilateralism has received little but contempt on their watch. Meanwhile, the Democrats have neglected the other side: many party stalwarts are uneasy with the assertive use of U.S. power. As the partisan gyre in Washington widens, the political center is dying out, and support for liberal internationalism is dying with it. According to Jim Leach, one of the Republican moderates to lose his House seat in the 2006 midterm elections, “[The United States’] middle has virtually collapsed. And how to reconstruct a principled center, a center of gravity in American politics, may be the hardest single thing at this particular time.”

Prominent voices from across the political spectrum have called for the restoration of a robust bipartisan center that can put U.S. grand strategy back on track. According to Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, “For more than a half a century, we know that we prospered because of a bipartisan consensus on defense and foreign policy. We must do more than return to that sensible, cooperative approach.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney echoes this sentiment: “It seems that concern aboutWashington’s divisiveness and capability to meet today’s challenges is the one thing that unites us all. We need new thinking on foreign policy and an overarching strategy that can unite the United States and its allies.”

These exhortations are in vain. The halcyon era of liberal internationalism is over; the bipartisan compact between power and partnership has been effectively dismantled. If left unattended, the political foundations of U.S. statecraft will continue to disintegrate, exposing the country to the dangers of an erratic and incoherent foreign policy. To avoid this fate, U.S. leaders will have to fashion a new brand of internationalism—one that will necessarily entail less power and less partnership if it is to have a chance of securing broad domestic support. To find a new equilibrium between the nation’s commitments abroad and its polarized politics at home, the United States will need a grand strategy that is as selective and judicious as it is purposeful.

I enjoyed reading this piece. Especially valuable is Kupchan and Trubowitz's discussion of the collapse of American bipartisanship in domestic politics.

The problem with the discussion, it seems to me, is how the authors find so much fault with the tightening of left-right political positions between the parties and their constituencies. The assumption is that bipartisanship is always good for the direction of foreign policy, that politics must stop at the water's edge for good foreign relations. That's a value judgement, I would argue, that's not empirically validated by the analysis. Politics - domestic and foreign - requires the mobilization of political bias, a clarity in elucidating the stakes of political alternatives. Laments over the collapse of bipartisan cooperation often reflect a naivity on the realities of political hard ball.

What is more, I would suggest that the foundations of the postwar bipartisan consensus - which are found in the shared memories and sacrifices of the World War II experience - are not something that can be easily replicated. The Soviet threat of the early Cold War generated political clarity among political actors, and the bipartisan consensus held before the United States sustained a burst of democratization with the rights revolution of the 1960s. While the authors broach these issues, the article reflects some utopianism on the prospects of the political system returning to the status quo ante pre-1960s.

What's noteworthy as well is how Kupchan and Trubowitz - as academic as they are - essentially indict the Bush administration for providing the final nail in liberal internationalism's coffin. This is a partisan analysis parading as scholarly objectivity.

Intriguing too is the authors' urgency: We are at the precipice in our international relations, it is announced, necessitating a return to a political centrism supportive of international institutionalism. Note, though, that while Kupchan and Trubowitz call for a "new equilibrium" abroad which will require "a grand strategy that is as selective and judicious as it is purposeful," their policy proposals amount to little more than stale Democratic talking points on the need to renew global alliances, cooperation, and strategic restraint. Such a movement in U.S. foreign policy would do little to restore the domestic bipartisan consensus on America's international role. Indeed, such a shift would likely restore America to a foreign policy of impotence, insecurity, and incivility, a foreign policy reminiscent of the international relations of the Carter and Clinton years.