Duck! Journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President Bush who was standing next to Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, as a “farewell kiss from the Iraqi people”

The myth of liberal interventionism: why it always fails

We need to get real about Russia and China—or risk being led into another disastrous war
December 7, 2018

Realism, as a theory of foreign policy, has been linked in the popular mind of the west both to cynical Realpolitik—in the mould of Henry Kissinger—and to a propensity to wage war. The first charge has a superficial validity. The second is seriously wide of the mark as far as the United States is concerned. Over the past generation, it has been above all proponents of purportedly idealistic intervention who have advocated war, while Realists have urged prudence and restraint. Partly as a result, the US has been at war for two out of every three years since the Cold War ended—mostly to no good effect.

American democratic idealism has never triumphed completely in the making of US foreign policy; it has always been more-or-less qualified by Realist considerations of power and interests. Nonetheless, idealism combined with nationalism has had a number of effects: it has encouraged a type of self-satisfaction and hubris of which the great American Realist thinkers Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau warned during the Cold War. It has also encouraged the pursuit of megalomaniac goals. It has discouraged our understanding of states with undemocratic systems, instinctively seen in the US as unworthy of respect. It has contributed to a number of unnecessary adventures. And the way in which it has been mixed up with national interests has created a perception of the US as not only aggressive but hypocritical.

Perhaps most importantly, by suggesting to other great powers that the US wants to destroy them, it has introduced an element of existential conflict to what might otherwise be manageable rivalries. While in other areas Donald Trump has made the most overt break with US idealism of any president since the 1920s, when his administration moved to ramp up pressure on China, it accompanied attacks on Chinese trade and foreign policies with rhetoric about spreading democracy and freedom.

Thus in a speech to the Hudson Institute in October, Vice President Mike Pence set out the Trump administration’s overall policy towards China. This combined a Trumpian (and by no means wholly unjustified) attack on Chinese unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft with two elements inherited from Barack Obama: a commitment to resist Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and an intensified call for democracy in China, with Taiwan explicitly set out as the model. This approach has been backed by neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is now advocating US support for “regime change” in China. This has fed paranoia in Beijing.

One of the greatest Realist thinkers, John Mearsheimer, argues in his new book The Great Delusion that by indulging in unnecessary conflicts and alarming other powers, the US has been undermining its own interests; and, while imagining that it is acting as a force for liberal order, the US has instead been spreading disorder. I would add that the resulting tensions have distracted us from progressive goals including action against climate change and social inequality.

Mearsheimer’s profound and forcefully-argued work is especially necessary at this moment, when both liberals and conservatives in Washington are gearing up for a new Cold War against both China and Russia, and there is much talk of an “alliance of authoritarians” that must be combated by a “league of democracies”—an idea developed both by Republicans led by the late Senator John McCain, and by Democrat thinkers like John Ikenberry and Ivo Daalder.

Gunboat democracy

It is perhaps unnecessary to point out just how far short idealist interventionism has fallen compared to its apparent promise during the triumphalist post-Cold War period. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya should have shattered the belief that foreign powers overthrowing dictators can create successful democracies. While weakened, they have not been abolished, as the drumbeat of calls for intervention in Syria demonstrated. On the other hand, outside military intervention against Islamic State has worked because it was backed by powerful local forces and (thanks to Russia and Iran) did not destroy the Syrian state.

When the Russian and Chinese governments argue that intervention is much more likely to result in the collapse of states and the spread of anarchy and extremism, they have a point. The invasion of Iraq, justified in part on supposedly liberal grounds by both George W Bush and Hillary Clinton, led to a vast accrual of strength both to Sunni extremism and to Iran, leading in turn to the Syrian catastrophe. The intervention in Libya destroyed not just the Gaddafi regime but the Libyan state itself. Together, these disasters generated a vast flood of refugees to Europe, causing a nationalist backlash which threatens to destroy liberal democracy from within.

Moreover, as Mearsheimer indicates, the US and western security establishments have always been happy to support certain stable dictatorships. Again and again, US administrations have backed authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By way of justification, US officials—like Russian officials— would simply warn that what followed might be both much worse and much more anti-American. The Trump administration does without most of the cant, but deploys exactly the same rationale.

"The intervention in Libya destroyed not just the Gaddafi regime but the state, leading to a vast flood of refugees"

The only part of the world where the results of a combined spread of democracy, free markets and US power seemed, for a while, to be an unqualified success was Central Europe, after the fall of Communism. Proselytising western governments and NGOs held up this region as an example for the rest of the world. But they ignored some unique factors: the role of the European Union, which could reward reform with the immense prize of EU membership; and the fact that in 1990s Central Europe, any nationalist and populist opposition to liberal democracy was neutralised by the passionate desire of nationalists to join the west in order to guard against any return to Russian domination.

Today, Central Europe is becoming a threat to the liberal project, due precisely to the return of those nationalist traditions that only appeared to vanish as part of the EU and Nato accession processes—and which are found echoed across the world, in Trump himself, in Marine Le Pen in France, in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, in Narendra Modi’s India and some Brexit voters. In the west, interventionists avoid thinking seriously about these tendencies by linking them into one enemy movement and then blaming Moscow for summoning up this multi-headed monster.

As soon as one steps outside the west, however, the absurdity of such notions becomes apparent. Where, really, is the role of Moscow in helping Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil? Or the rule of the authoritarian populist but also bitterly anti-Russian government in Poland?

“There was an extraordinarily naïve belief that a democratic China would inevitably be a subservient ally of the US”

As for Asia, the whole idea of a democratic alliance there is predicated on a partnership between the US and India—which, under Modi, has taken a radical turn towards chauvinist illiberal democracy. Under Trump, of course, even the US is falling short on its own values, although determined idealists imagine this, too, is all down to the scheming of Putin rather than the travails of the white middle classes and the failings of the US Constitution. If there is a common thread in these diverse nationalist movements, it is not manipulation by Moscow, but the troubles of liberal capitalist democracy, especially since the crash of 2008.

All over the world, states today depend on nationalism for their legitimacy. Far from erasing or diminishing nationalism, globalisation is instead furthering it. As in the later 19th century, the disruptions wrought by going trans-national are producing populist reactions. And as Mearsheimer notes, even nationalists who may favour an alliance with the US in order to further their country’s own interests are by their nature profoundly averse to the US intervening in their internal affairs and dictating their political system. Indeed, if anything, anti-US nationalism seems to have succeeded in strengthening the Russian, Iranian and Chinese regimes.

Oddly enough, the belief that economic growth would inevitably mean the spread of democracy has made successive US administrations far too complacent in the face of China’s economic rise. Thus both the Clinton and Bush administrations were favourable to China’s accession to the WTO (achieved in 2001) despite Beijing’s numerous infractions of WTO rules and obvious threat to US manufacturing industries. Just as with Russia in the 1990s, there was also an extraordinarily naïve belief that a democratic China (or Russia) would inevitably be a subservient ally of the US.

In view of the weight of evidence against liberal interventionism, it may well be asked why it retains such immense power over western thought, rhetoric and (in public at least) policy. As I have said, Trump’s administration disavows the promotion of democracy in most of the world, but has still sought to use it as a weapon against China.

The answer comes at various levels. At the deepest, the desire to spread liberal democracy is integral to the liberalism favoured by the centre-left and centre-right in the west. Part of the liberal belief system since Immanuel Kant’s “Project for Perpetual Peace” has been what is now called “Democratic Peace Theory”—the belief that liberal democracies are less bellicose than authoritarian systems, at least when it comes to fighting other liberal democracies. In recent decades, this liberal belief has expanded to displace the even-more discredited Marxist belief that proletarian revolutions would lead to world peace.

The next levels relate more specifically to the US. As I pointed out in my 2012 book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, a belief in America’s mission to lead the world towards democracy is integral to American civic nationalism and the self-image of Washington’s foreign policy and security elites. For much of American history, this mission took an “exemplary” form—that is to say that, as Lincoln most movingly expressed it, America was to lead by the force of her example.

In the course of the 20th century, and especially the Cold War, this US mission became instrumentalised in the ideological struggle against Soviet communism. That struggle ended in complete US victory: the collapse of communism and of the USSR itself. This was because of the evident failure of communism as a model for prosperity and progress when compared to capitalism; that contrast really did provide powerful support for the “exemplary” version of America’s mission.

“As Lincoln expressed it, America was to lead by the force of her example”

But since then it has somehow become an article of faith in Washington that American success in the Cold War had instead been achieved by an activist US approach, a combination of military pressure and the aggressive preaching of democracy and markets by the US government and semi-official institutions like Radio Liberty, Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy and so on. The initial success of EU and Nato enlargement in consolidating liberal capitalist democracy in Central Europe only reaffirmed this interpretation.

As Mearsheimer writes, the establishment belief in spreading democracy through pressure and intervention is not shared by most Americans. In their different ways, Bill Clinton (“it’s the economy, stupid”), George W Bush (who had in 2000 promised to stop “nation building”) and Barack Obama (who rose after opposing Bush’s “dumb war” in Iraq) all argued against liberal interventionism in their election campaigns. In office, however, all found themselves absorbed by what Obama’s adviser Ben Rhodes has called “the Blob,” the bipartisan foreign and security establishment in Washington—if only in their belief in the implicit principle that democracy promotion is a good weapon to use against their rivals.

What we have learned—or should have learned—from the experiences of Iraq and Libya is that while in the west we can distinguish between states and governments and take the survival of states for granted, in much of the rest of the world this is not so. There the fall of a regime often leads to the collapse of the state. This is not something that Russians and Chinese need to be reminded of given their experience of the last century; and a citizen of these countries does not have to be a supporter of Putin or Xi Jinping to believe that the US would welcome the disintegration of their countries, and that beyond a few crocodile tears, it would be indifferent to the monstrous human suffering that would result. There is of course no reason for the Chinese or anyone else to believe that Trump or most of his followers give a damn whether China is democratic or not; but they can certainly believe in Trump’s desire to weaken and if possible destroy the Chinese state.

How to hide an empire

Another thing that the US establishment’s belief in America’s democratic mission does is blind them to America’s possession of an empire, and how that empire is regarded by non-Americans. It is a unique kind, no doubt, but then again, empires have come in many different shapes and sizes. Certainly my students from the Middle East and Africa have no doubt that the US is an empire, even if they can’t define what sort. Far from creating respect for the US, therefore, in much of the world US professions of spreading democracy simply increase perceptions of its duplicity and hypocrisy.

As Daniel Immerwahr points out in his often revelatory new history of the “greater United States,” what is truly unique about the US empire is precisely this belief that it does not exist. As Immerwahr’s title has it, this is an amazing example of “How to Hide an Empire,” not from the world but the imperialists themselves. Sections of the US foreign and security establishment of course know better, but they are generally careful to conceal this from the public gaze. Only very rarely, as with some of the neo-conservatives in the wake of 9/11, does American imperialism declare itself openly.

Once upon a time it was not so. On the staircase of the House of Representatives in Washington there is a giant mural of 1860, entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way; but the territories bought from the French and conquered from the Mexicans and Native Americans soon came to be seen as an integral and ancestral part of the US (Alaska and Hawaii took longer).

Only later, with the defeat of Spain in 1898 and the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines did the US acquire an overseas empire comparable to those of the West European powers. But this was towards the end of the colonial period, and within two generations first Cuba and then the Philippines had been granted independence, albeit under US hegemony. There was no time for a British-style myth and rationalisation of direct empire to take hold.

Today, things look rather different. The European overseas empires have vanished (with the exception of minor anomalies like Gibraltar, the Falklands, and various French islands), but the US retains a string of overseas territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific—including Puerto Rico, Guam and Saipan. Forming part of the US economy, and with their financial, foreign and defence policy conducted by the US, but without the right to vote in US elections, these may very well be called imperial possessions.

Some of them, like Guam, are an essential part of the network of more than 800 US military bases that circles the globe. In general, however, the US is an indirect empire, like the Portuguese or Dutch in the Indian Ocean from the 16th to 18th centuries, rather than the direct colonial empires of the British and French that came after. The US has repeatedly invaded countries, but not sought to annex them or to administer them directly for long periods. As emphasised by Mearsheimer, in its own back yard of Central America, the US regards itself as an overlord—as demonstrated by a recent speech by John Bolton threatening the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela—but since the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Castro, its emphasis has largely shifted from direct military action to subversion and economic pressure.

A war with China?

Realists recognise America for the empire it truly is. That’s why they recognise better than idealistic interventionist liberals how America’s actions might be perceived by those on the receiving end of them. Realists are also good at identifying the difference between the vital and secondary interests not only of their own countries but of rival countries too—in other words, those interests on which a state can seek compromise, and those for which it will in the end fight. This is related to what Morgenthau laid down as a fundamental ethical duty of statesmen: through study to develop a capacity to empathise with the leaders of other countries—in order to understand when it is possible to reach agreement with them, and when it is not.

Liberal interventionists, with their innate belief in their own moral superiority, usually do not even attempt this. As the great American historian C Vann Woodward wrote sardonically during the Vietnam War: “The true American mission, according to those who support this view, is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end. For what end could be nobler, they ask, than the liberation of man… [this] actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order on which peace has to be built.”

One of the gravest dangers of this way of thinking is self-delusion. While sermonising—in the abstract, or perhaps in response to some atrocity—the liberal interventionist leader may well imagine that both they, and the armies who answer to them, will always operate to universal ethical laws and pure humanitarian motives. But in practice the moment that any nation—or any army—comes into contact with the chaos of conflict these will be tested, and usually to destruction. No president can fail to give very special weight to the lives of American troops the moment they come into harm’s way. And no president will do so, even if that means inflicting great suffering on other—non-American—people.

And because liberal interventionists believe that peace depends on the spread of democracy, when countries like China fail to behave in accordance with western liberal dreams of democratisation, they are apt instinctively to swing to an exaggerated perception of Chinese bellicosity. This tendency is summed up in the American subtitle of The Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner Or Confront It as an Enemy. The idea that we might simply be able to coexist with a China following its own political path is not seriously addressed.

As Americans themselves are demonstrating by their hysterical response to Russian interference in the US electoral process, meddling that affects a country’s existing state system will inevitably provoke a strong reaction. Apart from its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Chinese global strategy so far has been cautious—partly because the Chinese have looked carefully at how the USSR bankrupted itself through cripplingly expensive competition with the US through far-flung wars and revolutions. China’s involvement in the Indian Ocean and Africa remains economic, not military; nor, rather remarkably, has China sought to exploit growing American difficulties in the Middle East.

But if the Chinese leadership believes that the US is really out to destroy the Chinese state, then this restraint may fly out of the window. If China starts hitting at what the US regards as its truly vital interests (in Central America, for example), then the two countries risk entering a spiral of escalation, with world peace and order as the collateral damage. This is why Hugh White, an Australian official-turned-scholar, emphasised so strongly in his book The China Choice that mutual recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s political system is essential if the risk of conflict between the US and China is to be reduced. And if American pressure for the democratisation of China were to lead to war, then one thing is certain: in the global chaos that will result, liberal democracy will most assuredly not be the winner.