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The Liberal Foreign Policy Tradition: Pluses, Problems, and Prospects

Date & Time

Jan. 10, 2008
8:00am – 8:00pm ET


John Tirman, Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies; Nick Bromell, founder and Executive Director of the History and Democracy Project, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Ted Widmer, Director, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University; Elizabeth Borgwardt, Associate Professor of History, Washington University-St. Louis; Robert Westbrook, Professor of History, University of Rochester; Charles Maier, Professor of History, Harvard University; Amy Sayward Staples, Chair, History Department, Middle Tennessee State University; Rachel Glennerster, Executive Director, Abdul Latif Jameel, Poverty Action Lab at MIT and former senior economist at the International Monetary Fund; Erez Manela, Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History, Harvard University; Tony Smith, Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science, Tufts University, and former Wilson Center Scholar. Co-sponsored by Wilson Center's Division of U.S. Studies; the Center for International Studies, MIT; and the History and Democracy Project, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

A full day conference on the tradition of liberal internationalism in American foreign policy-making and its relevance today focused on the history and meaning of the tradition, particularly as it affects the concepts of multilateralism and global economic equity.

The first panel examined "Historical Assessments of Wilson and Roosevelt." Ted Widmer, speaking about "Woodrow Wilson: Realist," rejected the distinction between realism and idealism in foreign policy that many scholars see as stemming from Wilson's and Theodore Roosevelt's differing views of foreign policy. In fact, Widmer argued, the views of the two presidents should be placed on a continuum. "The way Woodrow Wilson talked continues to shape us," he asserted, in Wilson's articulation of "an ethical foreign-policy" that is still influential around the world, his popularization of the idea that there should be a concert of nations to keep the peace, his insistence that European well-being was connected to that of the United States, and his assertion that all the peoples of the world have the right to shape their foreign policy as well as to elect their leaders. World War I, Widmer continued, not only galvanized American industries and created a superior military position for the United States, but it also "renewed the movement for international peace."

Elizabeth Borgwardt addressed "Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms and Midcentury Transformations in America's Discourse of Rights." Borgwardt traced the development of FDR's "Four Freedoms" (freedom of speech and religion; freedom from fear and want) as a goal on the international as well as the domestic level, along with its assumption that there is a connection between what are today described as quite separate "economic" and "political" rights. The artificial separation of economic and political rights, she said, grew out of the United States' post-World War II desire to differentiate the American system from that of the USSR, and she asserted that one of the problems with Roosevelt's formulation was its assumption that capitalism was a good thing at a time when for much of the world it was a form of exploitation. Nonetheless, Roosevelt reframed the concept of American national interest as including congruence between domestic and foreign policy, the importance of justice as well as stability in maintaining American security, and transnationalism.

Robert Westbrook, interlocutor for the panel, suggested that the essence of Wilsonian foreign policy was "missionary diplomacy" and raised the question of whether intervention for humanitarian reasons is always desirable and the corollary question of what the criteria for such intervention should be. Is it legitimate, he asked, to remake another country's domestic life because of our human rights concerns?

The question led logically to Panel II, on "Freedom from Want" – Roosevelt's Global Institutions." How much multilateralism do we want? Charles Maier asked. The concept of multilateralism and a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind" may frame a discussion of humanitarian intervention but do not tell us what a decision in a specific situation should be. Speaking about "More than Multilateralism: Economic Dimensions of Liberal Foreign Policy," he argued that "security is as much a matter of values as it is of frontiers." Maier viewed the institution-building of the post-World War II era as a story of "successfully constructing new organizations that served a broad concept of American interests." "Collective adherence reinforced democratic values and legitimated the exercise of leadership. The result was not altruism, but an expansive sense of public interest." Maier found two tenets to be central to Wilson's and FDR's political agendas. The first was "the belief that a peaceful stance in world politics depended on the [democratic] nature of regimes;" the second, that "a structure of collective security," which "would mobilize peace-preferring nations to meet aggressive intentions with sanctions or force," was a better guarantor of peace than a balance of power. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations added a third tenet, which was that U.S. foreign policy had to have an economic component. The Marshall Plan was an example of "hegemonic multilateralism" in which the U.S. worked with other countries but retained a unilateral right to scrutinize the budgets and projects of Marshall Plan recipients. At the same time, "the successes of the postwar era depended on the...far-sighted willingness to spend on others."

Amy Staples, examining "The Liberal Moral Sensibility Writ Globally," saw her research as "confirm[ing] the strength and vitality" of the liberal tradition in American foreign policy. Staples traced a line from Progressivism, the Social Gospel movement, and FDR's response to the Great Depression of the 1930s to the "liberal moral sensibility" that led to the post-World War II creation of the United Nation's specialized agencies. They were designed to create a "new world" order in which "all countries felt a degree of responsibility for all other members of the community of nations." Viewing agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization as constituting "the birth of development," Staples described them as "working to better the lives of other human beings whom they had never met nor known." She saw that "liberal moral agenda" as being reflected today in institutions and phenomena such as the Grameen Bank's microlending approach, the Gates Foundation's efforts in the field of malaria, and the work of many other non-governmental organizations.

Her presentation was followed by a discussion among Interlocutor Rachel Glennerster, the panelists and audience members about whether the international organizations created in the post-World War II era, which were designed to minimize wars between countries, are relevant today, when most wars are within countries. Participants noted that while institutions such as the FAO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were created to help poor nations, they did not and perhaps do not take helping poor people as their mandate.

The final panel was devoted to "Wilsonian Idealism from the 20th to the 21st Century." Tony Smith, speaking about "Wilsonianism After Iraq: The End of Liberal Internationalism?," defined "liberal internationalism," which he saw as the essence of Wilsonianism, as being based on democratic peace theory. That theory holds that U.S. security interests and world peace are best served by the encouragement of democracy in every nation, because democratic nations will not fight each other. Multilateralism was one of Wilsonianism's tenets, Smith said, but neither the chief nor defining one: "Democratic political organization and market capitalism would seemingly be prior, and far more critical, features of a Wilsonian world order than simply sponsoring a system of international organizations blind as to the political character of their members." Viewed through that lens, the Bush doctrine, described by Smith as having the dual pillars of power and purpose, is a logical neoliberal continuation of Wilsonianism. He agreed with earlier speakers that Wilsonian multilateralism implied U.S. leadership, which is also consistent with the Bush doctrine.

Erez Manela, speaking about "A Man Ahead of His Time? Wilsonian Globalism and the Doctrine of Preemption," picked up on the question of exactly what multilateralism meant to Wilson. While many would say that the essence of Wilsonian liberalism, as embodied in Wilson's plans for the League of Nations, was multilateralism, Manela argued that the first draft of Wilson's Fourteen Points contained an attack on state sovereignty. According to the draft, if three-quarters of the League's members believed that a nation's internal conditions warranted international intervention and a redrawing of national boundaries, such action was legitimate. President George W. Bush is not the heir to Wilsonianism, however, Manela argued, because by the time World War I ended, Wilson had come to believe that even a world power had to work towards multilateralism in international affairs. Wilson's final doctrine can best be described not as internationalism but as "liberal globalism": the construction of "a world body" that would transcend as well as facilitate relations between sovereign states and "give effective institutional form to the common values" that Wilson believed "were bound to be shared by all peoples."

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129


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