In Defense of Liberal Internationalism

Over the past decade, international headlines have been bombarded with stories about the unraveling of the post-Cold War world order, the creation of revolutionary smart devices and military technologies, the rise of militant jihadist organizations, and nuclear proliferation. Indeed, times are paradoxically promising and alarming. In relation to treating the world’s ills, fortunately, there is a capable hegemon– one that has the ability to revive the world order and traditionally hallmarked human rights, peace, and democracy. The United States, with all of its shortcomings, had crafted an international agenda that significantly impacted the post-WWII landscape. Countries invested their ambitions into security communities, international institutions, and international law in an effort to mitigate the chances of a nuclear catastrophe or another World War. The horrors and atrocities of the two Great Wars had traumatized the global community, which spurred calls for peace and the creation of a universalist agenda. Today, the world’s fickle and declining hegemon still has the ability, but not the will, to uphold the world order that it had so carefully and eagerly helped construct. Now, the stakes are too high, and there must be a mighty and willing global leader to lead the effort of diffusing democratic ideals and reinforcing stability through both military and diplomatic means. To do this, the United States must abandon its insurgent wave of isolationism and protectionism, and come to grips with the newly transnational nature of problems ranging from climate change to international terrorism.

First, the increase in intra-state conflict should warrant concern as many countries, namely in Africa and the Middle East, are seeing the total collapse of civil society and government. These power vacuums are being filled with increasingly ideological and dangerous tribal and non-state actors, such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al-Shabaab. Other bloody civil wars in Rwanda, Sudan, and the Congo have contributed to the deaths of millions in the past two decades. As the West has seen, however, military intervention has not been all that successful in building and empowering democratic institutions in the Far East. A civil crusade, along with the strengthening of international institutions, may in fact be the answer to undoing tribal, religious, and sectarian divisions, thereby mitigating the prospects of civil conflict. During the Wilsonian era, missionaries did their part to internationalize the concept of higher education, which has contributed to the growth of universities in formerly underdeveloped countries such as China and South Korea.[1] In addition, the teachings of missionaries emphasized the universality of humanity and the oneness of man, which was antithetical to the justifications for imperialism and the rampant sectarianism that plagued much of the Middle East and Africa.[2] Seeing that an increase in the magnitude of human casualty is becoming more of a reality due to advancements in military technology and the increasing outbreaks of civil war, international cooperation and the diffusion of norms that highlight the importance of stable governance, democracy, and human rights is the only recourse to address the rise in sectarian divides and civil conflicts. So long as the trend of the West’s desire to look inward continues, it is likely that nation states mired in conflict will devolve into ethnic or tribal enclaves bent on relying on war to maintain their legitimacy and power. Aside from growing sectarianism and the increasing prevalence of failed states, an even more daunting threat come from weapons that transcend the costs of conventional warfare.

The problem of nuclear proliferation has been around for decades, and on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration, it appeared that Obama’s lofty goal of advocating for nonproliferation would no longer be a priority of American foreign policy.[3] In addition, now that the American president is threatening to undo much of the United States’ extensive network of alliances, formerly non-nuclear states may be forced to rearm themselves. Disarmament is central to liberal internationalism, as was apparent by the Washington Naval Treaty advocated by Wilson, and by the modern CTBT treaty. The reverse is, however, being seen in the modern era, with cries coming from Japan and South Korea to remobilize and begin their own nuclear weapon programs.[4] A world with more nuclear actors is a formula for chaos, especially if nuclear weapons become mass-produced. Non-state actors will increasingly eye these nuclear sites as was the case near a Belgian nuclear power plant just over a year ago.[5] If any government commits a serious misstep, access to nuclear weapons on the behalf of terrorist and insurgent groups will become a reality, especially if a civil war occurs. States with nuclear weapons require domestic stability and strong security, which is why states such as Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan could be in serious trouble in the event of a domestic uprising or military coup. The disarmament of all states is essential for human survival, and if it is not achieved, then a world full of nuclear weapons and an international system guided by realpolitik could give rise to nuclear warfare. In today’s world, nuclear weapons leave all states virtually defenseless. But, for nuclear deproliferation to become a cornerstone of the global agenda, a pacifying and democratic power must rise to the limelight to advocate the virtues of peace, stability, and human rights.

Those who equivocate democratic interventionism as an idealistic crusade cannot be further from the truth. Some, however, see it as an effective foreign policy that has a grand scheme for peace in mind.[6] The latter contention, despite being widely disputed, holds the premise for the democratic peace theory. Throughout the history of all democracies, not one modern-day democracy has fought against another democracy.[7] Whether that’s because of ideational symmetry, similar objectives and morals, or generally pacific foreign policies, such a phenomenon must be given attention by policymakers. According to liberal internationalists, democracies make better partners, tend to move towards increased political and moral agreement, oppose illiberal regimes, and support disarmament policies. This supposition is heavily supported by the smooth post-WWII transitions that the German, Japanese, and Italian governments underwent. All of the governments were formerly fascistic and authoritarian, but with intensive military and economic support from the West, they became some of the most shining exemplars of democratic societies. Even today, Germany is the backbone of the European Union and repeatedly champions democratic norms, such as human rights, economic freedom, and individual liberty.[8] Equipping other countries with the necessary foundations for democracy is no easy feat, but the fight for peace far outweighs the costs of inhabiting a world rife with nuclear-armed authoritarian and belligerent states.

In conclusion, liberal internationalism can have a lasting legacy on the prospects for peace if it is executed properly. Putting democracy, humanism, and liberty on a pedestal is what states ought to do if they seek to save humanity from itself. Although the rise of transnational issues pertaining to climate change, nuclear weapons, and civil wars should make international cooperation an increasingly desired aim, states seem to be thinking just the opposite. Only time will tell whether this is a short-lived trend, or a more ominous warning for the world at large.

Works Cited

[1] “Central Themes For A Unit On Southeast Asia | Central Themes And Key Points | Asia For Educators | Columbia University”. 2019. Afe.Easia.Columbia.Edu.

[2] Douglas, Bronwen, and Chris Ballard, eds. Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940. ANU Press, 2008.

[3] “Obama’S Broken Pledge On Nuclear Weapons”. 2016. Foreign Policy.

[4] Sokolski, Henry. 2016. “Japan And South Korea May Soon Go Nuclear”. WSJ.

[5] “Belgian Nuclear Research Centre Security Guard Murdered”. 2016. Mail Online.

[6] Democratic Jihad. 2007. Ebook. 1st ed. Nils Petter Gleditsch, Lene Siljeholm Christiansen & Håvard Hegre.

[7] WEART, SPENCER. 1998. “Never At War”. Nytimes.Com.

[8] Janning, Josef and Almut Möller. 2016. “Leading From The Centre: Germany’S Role In Europe”. ECFR.EU.