Matt Yglesias’ Heads In The Sand is a quick and
rewarding read. It makes a strong case for a renewed focus on a tradition of
liberal internationalism that Yglesias points out served the nation very well
for most of the last century, a period in which the US came to its current
superpower status, earned its reputation as a world leader interested in more
than its own hegemony, and made great strides toward building a world that was
safer for all its inhabitants, including ourselves.
Yglesias traces the development of this internationalism, starting with the League of Nations, and continuing through the UN, NATO, and other lesser organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. Perhaps most importantly, he points out that the strategy is founded in a confidence in western first principles, a confidence that our ideas will win the day without resorting to forcing them down people’s throats. As an example, Yglesias points out the case that George Kennan made for containing communism, the essence of which was that if given enough time and prevented from sustaining itself by feeding on conquered countries, communism would eventually collapse without needing to be overthrown by force of arms.
Yglesias notes that the animating vision of the American foreign policy of the last few years has been a radical departure from that internationalist view. Its impatience with the frustrations of international negotiations has often caused it to be mistaken for isolationism, but it’s anything but. Instead, it’s an imperial vision, an effort to unshackle the US government from its internationalist constraints and allow it to use its superpower status to remake the world as it sees fit.
It’s hardly a surprise after watching Iraq turn into the disaster it has been that we can find a good deal of reason to mistrust this vision, but one of the most confounding aspects of this shift in policy is that some elements of it have been supported and encouraged by liberals, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and elsewhere. So too with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq – several liberal hawks supported invading, on the grounds that Saddam was a bad guy who was a nightmare for his people and a threat to his neighbors, and replacing him would both be recognized as a good deed, and provide a democratic example state in the region that others would want to emulate.
Yglesias notes that this confusion among liberals inclined to internationalism led several leading Democrats to give the interventionist impulses of the Bush administration’s strategy far more cover than was warranted, a support that later effectively handcuffed them as critics when it became obvious that the war was a disaster. That support was also used by the Bush administration as a cudgel to completely marginalize any opposition to the war as anti-American, rather than as a legitimate disagreement about the underpinnings of the policy.
The crippling disadvantage of not being able to clearly oppose the war sank the Kerry campaign in 2004, and it continues to hobble many Democrats today. It’s also the primary driver behind the Democratic criticism that the problem with modern conservative foreign policy is one of incompetence in execution (we had too few troops, no plan for the aftermath of war, inadequate equipment, etc., etc.).
Those things are true, but their truth is secondary to the central problem. The problem with modern “conservative” (imperialist) thinking is not that it has been incompetently carried out (though it certainly has), but that it was a strategic dead hand to start with. It relies on an America able and willing to force the rest of the world to behave as we wish, both in perpetuity and all by itself. It requires one to believe in the fantasy of a world full of states that will actually be grateful for such interference in their internal affairs, or at least, too afraid of American power to object. It is, in short, a manifestation of magical thinking of truly heroic proportions.
It’s also anything but “conservative”, as Yglesias points out. It’s a radical departure from the decades of internationalist cooperation that have served us so well, and it’s fundamentally at odds with the ideals expressed in our founding documents, ideals that have for much of our history made the US a beacon of hope for people struggling against tyrants across the world. It ignores the strategic advantage of being held in such regard, throwing it away in the interest of being able to act without restraint as a global hegemon.
In a world with such rapid exchanges of both people and information, isolationism is both unproductive and ultimately unsafe. Terrorism, humanitarian crises, environmental concerns, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other concerns demand that we not simply retreat behind the walls of a fortress America, like some vast gated community inside which we can insulate ourselves from the rest of the world’s sufferings. Tom Friedman is right when he says, “The World is Flat”.
Friedman goes seriously wrong, though, when he prescribes that we compensate for this flatness by tailoring the world to our liking by intervening unilaterally in the affairs of other nations. No other nation should be expected to put up with that – we certainly wouldn’t. Any attempt to do that can only result in the increased opposition of not only our enemies, but those neutral parties who are still deciding if they want to cooperate with us, and eventually even our allies, as they see a growing militarism and decreasing inclination to cooperation as a threat in and of itself.
The only solution to this dilemma is to return to the sometimes frustrating, slow diplomacy that advanced our cause so far over the last century. If we must intervene in other countries’ affairs, we have to make sure that we do so in cooperation with the widest possible group of allies, in accordance with principles that are widely, if not universally subscribed to. As Yglesias points out, that’s not very “sexy”, it’s not “new”, and it’s going to be subject to continuing attacks from those who get frustrated with its shortcomings. It stands in direct opposition to the commonplace that “everything changed on 9/11”, and it means that using that cry as a motivation is not available.
It is, however, incredibly productive, it’s consistent with what we believe as a nation, and it doesn’t require us to remake our democratic republic into a militaristic oligarchy and bankrupt ourselves sustaining an empire that makes us less safe, not more. That’s a pretty impressive set of accomplishments, even if it doesn’t have the same “sizzle” as America the superhero.