In Defense of Liberal Internationalism

In the last two days, I have been highly critical of certain foreign policy positions articulated by the neo-isolationists of both left and right, as well as that of the neo-conservative hawks. What, then, should be America’s role in the world? In a word, actually two words, America’s foreign policy should be pursuit of liberal internationalism, an engagement with the world with a view towards promoting liberal values such as personal freedom and human rights, as well as the promotion of democratic governments and open societies. Our policy today should be based on the same values that inspired the greatest foreign policy minds in American history, those brilliant men who gathered around Harry S. Truman in the wake of World War II and devised the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the policy of containment of expansionist Communism.

The threats to our values today wear a different face from those that faced Dean Acheson and George Marshall and the rest in the late 1940s. If Soviet Communism was then seen, correctly, as the overwhelming threat to America, today, the threats to America and to our way of life are more diffuse and, just so, more difficult to confront. Even when facing a singular threat, we often went astray. It took too long in Vietnam to recognize that there was no way to prevent the communist takeover of that country short of genocide and that this latter course was a greater threat, because a self-inflicted one, to our values then was a communist victory in Saigon. We shall go astray again. But, that does not relieve us of the duty to do our best.

The threat posed by Islamic extremists is a real one. We are nearing the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. But, the threat has also been overstated. Al-Qaeda can certainly cause enormous harm, it can mount carefully worked out attacks that disrupt our economy and cause us to introduce measures for security that infringe upon our personal freedom, but they cannot overrun the heart of Europe nor mount a sustained war against any of our vital interests. Al-Qaeda will be a force so long as it can exploit the simmering resentments within the Muslim world, and those resentments are long-standing and will not soon disappear. That was the neo-con fantasy, the idea that you could send in Jeffersonian democracy as easily as you can send in the 101st Airborne. In a country like Afghanistan, which is medieval in so many ways, the birth of liberal democracy will likely be as drawn out and as bloody as it was in Europe in the 17th and 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.

Recently, Archbishop Silvio Tomassi, the Vatican’s nuncio to the U.N. agencies in Geneva, warned that endemic corruption was a vital threat to the peace of the world. Here we are faced with a multi-headed threat. Corruption can alienate a government from its people, inviting civil war. Corruption can drain away resources needed to feed and clothe the poor of a nation. Corruption can strangle the birth-pangs of a free society and, with its usual companion, a virile, politicized police force, close down opposition political parties, shutter independent newspapers, and create a culture of dependency among the people that subverts their own interests. The internet and other new forms of technology, however, provide new, non-lethal weapons to those in a society who clamor for openness and freedom and who wish to overthrown corrupt regimes. Mubarak probably never grasped that cell phones would be his undoing, but they were. Even the repressive regime in Iran has been unable to completely use its control over communications to stamp out organized dissent and opposition. There is hope in the fight against corruption.

It is one of the hallmarks of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure to re-focus America foreign engagement beyond mere government-to-government relations, and to foster exchanges between different strata of civil society. When unions, and women’s groups, and churches, and newspaper editors, can all reach beyond their own borders, the power of tyrants within those borders is diminished. Surely, this is one of the lessons of the fall of Communism in Europe. Poland was strengthened in that struggle for freedom in large part because the Christian Church in that country was bound to Rome, while the Orthodox churches, being national in character, had more easily fallen under the grip of their own governments. When Pope John Paul II went to Poland in 1979, and the government stood aloof, this left an opening for the people. They learned how to organize a large event, how to mobilize volunteers, how to rope off a field and manage a crowd of hundreds of thousands while avoiding chaos, how to deputize marshals to police the event, how to advertise the agenda, etc. Here were the stirrings of civil society functioning beyond the scope of government oversight. Here was the first crack in the wall.

Of course, there will be times when force is needed. When liberals say they are in favor of human rights but opposed to any use of force to secure those rights, they mock themselves. It is akin to being in favor of French Toast, but four-square against bread or eggs at breakfast. At least libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul exhibit greater candor when they show that the only freedom they really care about is their own. That, of course, is no compliment. The fact that we are seeking to end one tyranny in Libya while not taking any consequential steps to end another tyranny in Syria is not evidence of inconsistency. It is evidence of limited means. One of the requirements of a Just War is that the war be winnable, and it is foolhardy to think that reckless engagement everywhere would help the cause of freedom anywhere. We cannot be the world’s policemen, nor should we aspire to be so, but when our involvement can tip the scales against tyranny and other miseries, and that involvement stands a fair chance at success, shame on us if we stand aside.

The key shift that President Obama seems to be pursuing, and one that we Catholics can applaud, is away from the neo-con instinct that animated the Bush administration to shoot first and ask questions later. The President will address the nation tonight about the war in Afghanistan, where there are no good solutions. I hope that he will commit to a plan for ending the U.S. military’s presence in that country, but that will not end the war. The corruption of the regime in Kabul and the theocratic ambitions of the Taliban seem destined to conspire against the poor people of Afghanistan for many more generations. We should do what we can to strike down terrorists. We should try and carve out come region of that country where women will not be consigned to an ignoble slavery. But, we must recognize that our continued military presence is unlikely to change Afghanistan anytime soon and bring the troops home. Of course, those Afghans who helped America’s military, and will be endangered when we leave, should be offered generous opportunities to emigrate to our shores.

There are no easy answers in the realm of foreign policy. To any given conundrum, there are several possible responses, many of which can be plausible. There will be times when our material interests and our moral values conflict. There will be times when our means do not match our morals. There will be times when the confusion of war clouds our judgment. We have great need for the equivalent of a confessional for U.S. foreign policy, and always will have that need because policies are human creations and subject to all the frailties of our human condition. But, for all our frailty, there are noble instincts that also beat in the human breast. No one wishes to be enslaved, or impoverished, or denied an education, or made to feel less because of race or gender. America cannot stand aside from the moral struggles of our fellows, but it is a good thing if we can try remedies that are not militaristic first, and see the use of force as a last resort. That seems to be the direction in which President Obama and Secretary Clinton are moving the nation’s foreign policy. It is the right direction and the unavoidable failures that this, and any, policy will entail should not cause us to turn away from its claim upon our moral imagination. We must be engaged with the world and we must seek to promote a humane civilization throughout it. Those obligations are not less because our success will be uneven.

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