Liberals, Neocons, and the Grid of American Foreign Policy

by Chris Borgen

In his opening post and in the opening chapter of his book, Tom Farer gives us a tour of the horizon of how international law and self-interest interact in American foreign policy thinking. He paints a picture which focuses on a struggle between two different views of America’s role in the world, the Liberal view and the Neocon view.

In this opening post, I want to press Tom on his use of this dichotomy and ask if the story here is really one of Liberals versus Neocons or rather a more complex picture where there is a cross-hatching of aims, means, and political preferences. Rather than two different world views along a spectrum (Liberal and Neocon), perhaps what we have is more like a grid with varying degrees of multilateralism and unilateralism as well as degrees of interventionism and noninterventionism. I think it is otherwise quite difficult to describe the various voices in American foreign policy debates.

For example, Tom writes in his post: “A defining feature of the Right-Wing in every country is belief in the virtue of seeking gains for one’s own national community whatever the cost to others.”

But is this really a “Right-Wing” view or is it a Realist view, more generally? This description if not far off from ideas of Dean Acheson, Zbigniew Brzezinski and other Democratic Party policy experts throughout the 20th Century. The issue is not so much whether we place our national interest above those of other states (which I think anyone does, across the political spectrum) but rather how we calculate what our national interest really is. For some, maintaining a multilateralist foreign policy is crucial to our national interest, for others it is anathema, and for many people it falls somewhere in between. Thus, I think what we really discern in the U.S. (and in other countries)  is a gradation  of people who are more or less unilateralist or multilateralist.

Besides the unilateralist/multilateralist spectrum, another specific policy concern that does not plot easily on a Liberal/Neocon graph is whether someone is more or less likely to favor intervention in the domestic affairs of another country.  Tom notes that Liberals and Neocons may both be interventionist, but for different reasons:

Neo-Cons purport to constitute the more authentic form of Liberalism at least in foreign affairs, more authentic in the sense of less willing to compromise with authoritarian regimes and movements and more willing to use all of the instruments of statecraft to protect and promote human rights, democracy in particular.

As I see it, they have appropriated the rhetoric and symbols of human rights on behalf of policies that have, on balance, savaged human rights, not merely since 9/11 but much earlier, beginning with the Central American Wars of the 1980s.

However, beyond this there is also the issue of people from the Left or the Right who, for different reasons, are against U.S. intervention (military, economic, and/or political) in the affairs of other countries. Here, too, I think there is a continuum charting those who favor highly interventionist foreign policies to those who are against almost any U.S. foreign intervention. 

Consequently, I don’t think we have one main spectrum–between Liberals and Neocons–but rather a grid. I borrow this idea from Thomas Friedman, who had used a different grid to describe American politics concerning globalization during the debates over NAFTA. One axis maps the continuum between multilateralist and unilateralist.  The other maps the continuum between interventionist and non-interventionist.

As a result we can find some politicians who are mulilateralist/ interventionists. These would be Liberals in the Woodrow Wilson vein.

There are also unilateralist/interventionists. These may be Neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, essentially the current administration’s views.

However, we can also find multilateralist/noninterventionists. I think we tend to find such people in the left wing. They are skeptical of the use of American power and of the use of international organizations to intervene in the workings of foreign countries (or our own). However, in the rare cases where there is to be some sort of intervention, it should be multilateral, such as under UN auspices.

Finally, there are unilateralist/noninterventionists. As a general rule, the U.S. should not intervene in foreign problems. However, in the rare case it should choose to do so, America should not shackle itself to multilateral institutions or rules. Think Pat Buchanan and the America Firsters.

I think there are a series of arguments currently occuring in the U.S.  I think one is that the unilateralist/interventionists are being criticized by all sides.  However, I am not sure if the view we are moving to is one of mulitlateral/interventionism (which I think most closerly comports to Tom’s use of “Liberal”) or some mode of noninterventionism.

I leave this open as a question for comment by Tom or any readers.

5 Responses

  1. Well Chris, I think this is all well and good in the abstract, but all rather beside the point in the immediate context.

    What is or isn’t effective policy, strategy, or tactics in a given situation is entirely a question of what you are trying to do and what resources are available to do it. Bank robbers and police officers are both interventionists.

    One can smear all the lipstick in the world on this pig, but the real situation is completely uncomplicated. The Bush administration is a gang of murderous criminals, and the their policies have been a disastrous failure from start to festering quagmire. The neo-cons are a worse threat to the United States than Al Qaeda is. It’s not even close.

  2. Charley:

    I think you miss my point.  What I was writing about is not whether what the Bush Administration had done is right or wrong but rather that, in rejecting the current policy, there is not only one alternative but at least three.

    In rejecting the current Administration’s policies you might not get “Liberals” as the replacement. You may get something quite different. (I’m speaking here not just in the context of the current Presidential election but concerning the longer term dynamic about how we as Americans think about our foreign policy.)

    That is not besides the point. I think it is central to our  consideration (especially in an election year) about what types of policies we want to promote, as opposed to just which policies we want to reject. 

  3. Chris,

    I do get that — but I started out in life as a Chess-player and Bridge-player, then went to work for 30 years as a computer programmer / systems analyst. For any given problem in any particular system  there is always a range of possible solutions, and it’s often the case that there are several alternate approaches that are equally effective — there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    But there is also a basic principle that applies to every problem and every solution — you cannot solve a problem that you do not understand, and something you have to understand first and foremost are the constraints that apply to the problem, including both the available resources and intended goals. This is something I learned from studying military history and Chess a long time ago, and the way Emanuel Lasker expressed it (in regard to Chess) was this:

    “No plan without an evaluation; no evaluation without a plan”.

    The analysis of a Chess position is a completely objective exercise which is limited only by the capacity of the human mind to accurately process variations in real time. It involves looking at various elements such as material, time, development (i.e. deployment), and pawn structure (i.e. terrain) and the trade-offs between those elements. The maxim stated above simply says that you have to understand the position as accurately as possible, and that for any given understanding there is always an objective plan to address the situation.

    Now the ultimate strategic concerns in a Chess game are absolutely uncomplicated. There are only three possible results of a game: you can win, lose, or draw. The basic theoretical assumption is that with best play on both sides the game is a draw, i.e. in order to win, your opponent has to make a mistake. The basic task of evaluating a position is to determine who has the advantage, and there are only three possible states: you have an advantage, the position is equal, or you are at a disadvantage. If you stand equal, your strategic aim is to gain an advantage; if you stand worse, you aim to equalize, and if you stand better, you aim to exploit your advantage and win.

    And in any case, there are two things that have to be kept in mind:
    1) Your opponent is always working to undermine you, and if you fail to exploit an advantage it tends to evaporate.

    2) You can only be said have a real strategy to whatever extent you actually have an objective understanding of the position  — wishful thinking will not win a Chess game. It’s axiomatic that the quickest way to loose is to play for a win when you don’t have a real advantage.

    Now the stuff we’re talking about here is a LOT more complicated than a Chess game, but those principles still apply. An effective strategy must be based on an objective understanding of rational goals. We’ve been in Iraq for five years, but the Bush administration has never once stated ANY coherent goal — all they’ve ever given us is an endless series of fraudulent excuses, and the results speak for themselves: it’s just an ugly pointless waste of time, money, and lives that’s done nothing but multiply our problems and squander vast resources.

    And in the process, the administration has committed a great many crimes that we once executed Nazis for committing. Indeed, crimes which our ancestors once executed the king of England for committing. If this is a democracy, then the claim is that the will of the people is what determines our goals and the constratints that apply to any effort we make to realize those goals, and it is the LAW which is the principle means of expressing that will — hence, the notion that we are a nation of laws, not men. An administration which ignores the law entirely is accordingly operating in a realm where no rational understanding of goals and constraints even exits, and accordingly, no objective strategy is even possible.

    So here we are, a failed state with a government of criminals supported by a party of demented fanatics who think that war is just just a good idea because it make a lot of money for Lockheed and Halliburton, et al, and it’s such a useful “tool” for decieving the public into supporting policies which are contrary to any rational understanding of what is actually in the national interest.

    And THAT is the only real problem here: as a nation, we are incapable of understanding what the goals are, let alone developing anything that could be accurately described as a strategy. The only operational concerns are the whims of the Fuhrer and his advisors.

    It remains only to add that this is supposed to be a disscussion  of law, not the military fantasies of criminals like George Bush and Dick Cheney.  These people are murderers, torturers, and military incompetents — and that is all that they are.

    So it seems to me at any rate.

  4. I like the grid idea – it really shows that ideological or ”ideological” differences mean nothing when confronted with important questions of international law and/or real life.
    The only thing that I would like you to elaborate a bit is who exactly are multilateralist/noninterventionists, because you didn’t name any?

  5. Dragutin:

    I was thinking generally of the voices I had heard– usually from relatively liberal Congressional Democrats– who tended to be critical of the use of American power abroad but may have been slightly less critical if it was under the UN banner.  To be honest, no specific name comes to mind; perhaps Ron Dellums (former representative from California) would be an example of a version of this, with the caveat that he is in favor of the U.S. being involved in world affairs but is (relatively speaking) noninterventionist in terms of the U.S. using its military power. If force is to be used he seems to be committed to mulitlateralism.

    As this is a grid, it is important to reiterate that there are degrees of noniterventionist views. At the extreme, you can have isolationists. Dellums is anything but that. However, I think it is fair to say that he is skeptical of U.S. military intervention as a tool for stabilization.

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