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The crisis of liberal internationalism

Foreign Policy; Washington Iss. 98,  (Spring 1995): 159.

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Communism is dead, but is the other great postwar ideology, liberal internationalism, also dying? A recent book by political scientist Tony Smith as well as several speeches by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake have reminded Americans that "liberal democratic internationalism, or Wilsonianism, has been the most important and distinctive contribution of the United States to the international history of the twentieth century," as Smith states it Lake, presenting the Clinton administration's foreign policy as a pragmatic Wilsonianism, has explained that it aims at expanding democracy and free trade, at defending democracy from its foes, at quarantining repressive and pariah states, and at protecting and promoting human rights.

After two years, however, pragmatism is more visible than Wilsonianism. In a speech at Harvard, Lake stated that the promotion of democracy and the defense of human rights would entail the use of force only if, among other qualifications, there were clearly defined American interests. He also suggested that the spread of liberalism was not ipso facto an American interest: an inadvertent but remarkable concession to traditional realism. As in the Carter years, the different elements of the liberal agenda are again in competition with one another--human rights versus the expansion of free trade, as one example. Whether the liberal agenda should be carried out by multilateral means or, in case of need, by the United States alone, has again become a source of confusion and grief, as in Bosnia. Meanwhile, the nation's enthusiasm for bearing the human and financial costs of carrying out a policy of liberal internationalism has waned. Whereas containment had provided a reasonably clear rationale for policy and a lever for mobilizing public support, neo-Wilsonianism seems a guideline made of rubber and has left the American public deeply ambivalent This is not new. As Tony Smith establishes in America's...