Obviously, no president’s foreign policy fits neatly into an ideological category. Woodrow Wilson, the great forefather of foreign policy liberalism, launched imperial wars in Latin America, brutally repressed anti-war dissent at home, and rejected a racial equality clause at the Paris Peace Conference. Dwight Eisenhower, a supposed conservative, proved more reluctant to send US forces to Vietnam than John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan proposed a UN standing army while Bill Clinton became the first US president to block a Secretary-General from enjoying a second term.
Doubtless, Barack Obama’s foreign policy will also prove too pragmatic, complex or contradictory (choose your adjective) to conform to any simple ideological label. And yet there is no such thing as pure pragmatism either. All presidents, to some degree or another, are informed by ideological traditions: inherited ideas about how the world works and how America can best shape it. This is particularly true today, in an era when foreign policy debate is more ideologically polarized than it was in the early decades of the cold war. Today, according to polls, self-described liberals and conservatives differ as strongly on foreign policy as they do on economics and culture. And among elites, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment of the mid-twentieth century has long since collapsed, leaving in its wake two distinct groups of foreign policy practitioners, one Democratic and one Republican, one more liberal and the other more conservative.
Thus, it is not that surprising that from his hostility to international law to his lack of faith in both nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence to his openness to preventive war, George W. Bush exhibited deeply rooted conservative ideological tendencies, which cannot be explained simply as a response to the particular circumstances he faced. And similarly, it is reasonable to expect that—to some degree at least–the liberal foreign policy tradition will inform the policies of Barack Obama, a man who has embraced liberal politics more openly than any Democratic President elected since Vietnam.
The topic for this discussion, then, is what a liberal foreign policy would look like in today’s world. Let me open with a few questions. First, must such a foreign policy put international law and international institutions at its core? From Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman, there is no question that the liberal tradition has been more sympathetic to the idea of a world of law—and not merely power—than has the conservative one. And yet, in recent decades, even many liberals have questioned the utility of existing international institutions, as well as the opportunities for building effective new ones. Should Obama make the strengthening of international law and institutions a central focus of his foreign policy, and can it truly be called liberal if he does not?
Second, how central is the promotion of liberal democracy to a liberal foreign policy? Many liberals have criticized the way the Bush administration has tried to promote freedom overseas (with some doubting that it has really tried at all). But even if one grants that democracy promotion mostly requires non-military means, that it should be done multilaterally, that it should address questions of economic justice as well as political freedom, and that it should focus on the rule of law rather than merely elections, the broader question remains: Is democracy promotion really that valuable anyway? Does a liberal foreign policy have to make democracy and human rights central to America’s relationship with, say, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, China or North Korea? Or can liberals comfortably say that questions of domestic, regional and international security take precedence given America’s lack of influence, and perhaps lack of wisdom, when it comes to the internal affairs of other states?
Thirdly, should liberals be unalterably opposed to preventive war as a means of nuclear non-proliferation? If so, does that require liberals to ultimately place their faith in nuclear deterrence, given the difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation purely through diplomacy and economic pressure? If liberals reject both preventive war and missile defense as unworkable, does that require the left to reconsider its historic distrust of the logic of mutually assured destruction?
Finally, to what extent must a liberal foreign policy be an anti-imperial one? Beyond Iraq and even Afghanistan, the United States maintains a massive military presence across the globe, one that has grown substantially since even the end of the cold war. Are liberalism and military globalism compatible, or should liberals–following George McGovern—call not merely for the US to withdraw from a costly and unpopular war, but to withdraw from its role as policeman of large swaths of the world? This would presumably have the added benefit of reducing the defense budget, something that was central to liberal foreign policy in the post-Vietnam years, but has largely fallen off the liberal agenda in Washington in recent years.
These questions are meant merely to launch the discussion. Feel free to answer some, but not all, to rephrase them as you’d like, or to take aim at the assumptions underlying them. Entries don’t need to be comprehensive. Just bite off whatever piece of this extremely broad topic most interests you, and we’ll take it from there.
Thanks for participating,