Imperialism in an Age of Terror
John J. Mearsheimer, realist international relations scholar of Israel Lobby infamy, describes the liberal counterpart of neoconservatives as “liberal imperialists.” If neoconservatives are “liberals mugged by reality”, then the liberal imperialists often sound like Rudyard Kipling after a cultural sensitivity course. They espouse notes reminiscent of cultural superiority tropes of the 19th century remixed to strike a chord with the modern progressive thinker.
The ranks of liberal imperialists have thinned in recent years. After a stint as an unapologetic neoconservative Christopher Hitchens has passed on. Peter Beinart, Ken Pollack and Leslie Geib chastened by the Iraq fiasco have stepped back from their muscular insistence on hard power.
This isn’t to say that liberal imperialism is dead. The movement has suffered losses but there remain prominent voices in the wind. The most persistent and infuriating examples are Paul Berman and Walter Russell Mead.
Ordinarily I try to avoid their writing, but Elias had goaded me into reading some of Mead’s recent blog posts. Like a moth to the flame, I’m attracted to critiquing professors with terrible arguments. And thus dear reader you’re stuck with another take-down of a faculty person.
The end of the Cold War should have been the end of history. Western liberalism had prevailed over Soviet Communism. Many in liberal circles had hoped there would be a new liberal world order, stronger than the Post-WWII consensus. Representative democracy and welfare capitalism would spread to the rest of the world and create a grand new era of peace and prosperity.
Reality soon intervened.
The responsibility to protect and international human rights seemed a sad joke in the face of the reality of Somalia, the Congo and Rwanda. After a promising start the liberalization of the former Soviet Union became a quagmire of crony-capitalism and political corruption. Disappointed by this reality some liberals became neoconservatives, persuaded that the world needed muscular American nationalism and myth-making to sustain classical liberalism in an indifferent world.
Others chose the embrace of Wilsonian institutionalism. Led by a diverse voice ranging from Boutros-Ghali to Madeleine Albright they sought to create an international system where the norms of democratic self-determination would be imposed through the strength of institutions backed by hard power. Some like Boutros-Ghali wanted it to be the UN, while those like Albright sought to turn the US into the indispensable guarantor of international hard power.
9/11 was a perfect tonic for both of these factions. In radical Islam they saw a new existential threat; for neoconservatives it was a threat to the nation, for liberal imperialists it was a threat to “modernity”. These two sides found common cause, arguing for a strong American response to the threat of terrorism. Muscular intervention was the tonic to the new anarchic world of non-state actors. Anything else was a surrender to the forces of fundamentalism.
While modern liberalism may have difficulty arguing in moral terms, liberal imperialists are all about the grand sweeping narrative. Mead and Berman have made a cottage industry of this sort of moralistic modernity screed. Just a glance at their book titles gives us a sense of their weening self-importance: Special Providence, God and Gold, Terror and Liberalism, The Power of Idealists.
Mead in particular has a gift for overwrought rhetorical flourishes and purple prose worthy of Kipling himself.
Take for example this passage from his piece “Dispatches from the War Nobody Wants”:
We are fighting a battle first to contain and then to defeat a vicious ideology of murder and hate that masks itself as religious zeal. We are fighting this war both at home and abroad, and there is not an inhabited continent anywhere on Planet Earth where this threat is not a serious concern.
How stirring, how beautiful and how utterly ridiculous.
The whole piece is essentially a lament about how the “war on terror” is no longer described as such.
How, rather than leading a civilizational war against the vicious forces of backward religious zealots, the Obama Administration is content to “deny” the reality of a conflict which Mead characterizes as a monumental Manichean struggle between good and evil.
Mead does acknowledge that the Obama Administration is in fact pursuing an aggressive counter-terrorism policy where it finds the threats. He describes such a policy as “not wholly misguided”. The big problem for Mead is that this isn’t classed as the great epochal struggle of our time.
Of course this despite the fact that the Obama Administration is overstating the amount of danger that exists in the world today. As Zenko and Cohen note:
…in 2008 the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 foreign policy experts and found that 70 percent of them believed the world was becoming more dangerous. Perhaps more than any other idea, this belief shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs. There is just one problem. It is simply wrong….
…The specter of dangers sustain and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with national security infrastructure that exists outside government – defense contractors, lobbying groups, thank tanks, and academic departments.
There is also a pernicious feedback loop at work. Because of the chronic exaggeration of the threats facing the United States, Washington overemphasizes military approaches to problems (including many that could best be solved by nonmilitary means).
Mead is firmly in the camp of threat exaggeration, continually beating the drum that the Obama Administration isn’t doing enough to explain the threat posed by the ideological struggle. The problem of course is that by seeing everything as some sort of grand war of ideologies, Mead is losing sight that:
1. Not everything can be solved by military force.
2. The US has limited resources (and even more limited resources as time proceeds)
3. There are more cost-effective methods of improving global security than drones, bombs or invasions.
As pointed out by Zenko and Cohen:
Since the end of the Cold War, most improvements in U.S. security h ave not depended primarily on the country’s massive military, nor have they resulted from the constantly expanding definition of U.S. national security interests. The United STates deserves praise for promoting greater international economic interdependence and open markets and, along with a host of international and regional organizations and private actors, more limited credit for improving global public health and assisting in the development of democratic governance. But although the U.S. military strength has occasionally contributed to creating a conducive environment for positive change, those improvements were achieved mostly through the work of civilian agencies and nongovernmental actors…
Further the problem with viewing everything in hard power interventionist terms can be seen in the anecdotes of Former Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain. According to Chamberlain in the days after 9/11 Pervez Musharraf asked the US for substantial more development aid rather than the military aid the Bush Administration was offering. Musharraf explained that building more schools and providing basic services was a more effective weapon against the militants than any bomb or special forces raid.
The fixation on conflict and hard power is not limited to liberal imperialists, but it’s telling that their emphasis often lingers so much on hard power. So much is about signalling and showing their toughness to the world writ large. Mead and his allies have made a career out of exaggerating threats, playing up the importance of American power and emphasizing the ideological nature of their supposed foe.
We are now finding ourselves at the end point of that militarization. Six years of neglect was too much to recover from in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government, having spent more money on missiles, bombs and AKs now faces an increasingly powerful militant movement in its northwestern frontier. The current Administration’s policies are as much hemmed in by the results of decisions made eight years ago as much as by their own choices. If foreign aid continues to be targeted for reductions, Libya may very well end up that way in six years time.
The reduction in emphasis on fighting a global “war” on terrorism is a good thing. One could also hope that we’d reduce the emphasis (and voices) of people who have been and continue to be, so disastrously wrong in foreign affairs. The liberal imperialist should like their Kipyardian predecessors be consigned to the dustbin of history.