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In defence of liberal internationalism

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8 April 2010 09:56

Walter Russell Mead says liberal internationalism is dying, and that the US is making a strategic mistake in pursuing it. Apologies in advance for the long post, but let me try to explain why I think he's wrong about this. First, here's Mead's definition of liberal internationalism: 

Liberal internationalists...believe simultaneously in the spread of democracy and the establishment of a world order that looks a lot like world government. (Sometimes they go all the way and think that the establishment of a single world government is the key to humanity’s future.)  They believe, passionately, that only international law can save us from chaos, violence and, hopefully, war. A strong body of international law, enforced by international courts and obeyed by national governments is the way to make war less likely and less dreadful when it occurs; it can also deter torture, human rights violations and a whole host of other bad things.

Liberal internationalists want the world to become a more orderly and law abiding place. Ideally many would like the United Nations or some other international organization to evolve into something a little bit like a world government: the European Union on a global scale. But failing that, liberal internationalists would like to see better enforcement mechanisms for documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They would like the ‘laws of war’ to become ever more clearly codified and ever more effectively enforced. They look to the day when power shifts from national governments to international bureaucracies and institutions.

I think Mead conflates two intellectual traditions here which are better thought about separately.

The world government types Mead refers to are those whom Martin Wight labeled the Kantians. But there is another school of international relations theory which, while emphasising the virtues of international law and order, does not go as far as the Kantian school in wanting a world government or even a global confederation of governments — these are the theorists Wight called the Grotians (after Hugo Grotius).

In conflating these two traditions, Mead implies that all those who desire a more orderly and rule-bound international scene ultimately want to move to a form of world government. But the Grotian tradition stands explicitly against that view; it argues that, while international law is not a fiction and that there are certain beliefs, traditions and institutions which bind the world together into what it calls an 'international society', a world government is not just impractical but could only be achieved by overturning the very traditions and institutions of international society that Grotianism values.

This distinction between Kantians and Grotians has important implications for where Mead takes his argument next. He think liberal internationalism is influential in the Obama Administration, and its advocates want to use it to 'smooth America's decline':

Some liberal internationalists have come to see a more institutionalized and organized global polity as a strategy for dealing with what they see as America’s relative decline in the twenty first century. While the United States is still strong, they argue, we should use our power and influence to promote global institutions and governance with agreed rules and procedures. That way the transition from an American world order to the coming post-American system can be made smoother, less dangerous and, from an American point of view, much more pleasant.

Mead thinks this is precisely the wrong agenda to pursue, since (a) emerging powers don't feel the same historical attachment to the global institutions built by the established powers, (b) the increasing complexity of international life makes global institutions too unwieldy and will see them give way to regional institutions, and (c) the world economy is evolving in ways that global economic institutions cannot manage.

It seems to me too early to declare that emerging powers, more confident of their own values, will try to overturn the 'Euro-American norms' Mead refers to. Indeed, modern history has moved in the opposite direction. International society may have its roots in European statecraft, but it began to expand globally late in the nineteenth century, a process extended again with the founding of the League of Nations (1919) and then the UN in 1945. It is now what Robert Jackson calls a 'global covenant'.

The web of institutions and diplomatic practices which make up this global covenant is only becoming denser and more intricate as the global economy develops. True, in many cases countries will pursue regional solutions rather than global ones, but although this might frustrate Kantian internationalists who think such developments merely delay the onset of world government, Grotians would regard it more benignly. (Not that we should discount totally the continuing relevance of global institutions — the IMF has had a good global financial crisis.)

In fact, I would class the calls by Australian commentators Hugh White and Coral Bell for an Asian concert of powers as a Grotian response to the relative decline of American power. And my guess is that Obama himself is not a Kantian but a Grotian liberal internationalist, who sees established institutions such as the UN and new ones like the G20 as useful elements of an international society of states .

Some elements of that society will be global, and others regional; prudence will decide. But for the Grotian, there is no point of principle at stake. The international society that Grotians value takes many of the rough edges off the anarchical international scene, and Grotians see value in reinforcing it. But they don't see it as a step toward world government. 

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