comments_image Comments

The New Globalism: A Vision for America's Role in the World

Obama will have to recover and renew the distinctly liberal principles and values embedded in the liberal internationalist tradition.

Over the course of the seemingly endless 2008 electoral campaign, Barack Obama chose not to formulate a coherent and distinctive foreign policy. Aside from calling for a redeployment of military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan and expressing a greater willingness to open talks with countries like Iran, he never explained to voters exactly how he would manage foreign affairs differently from John McCain or, for that matter, from George W. Bush. Indeed, for all of Obama's talk about "change," he has never articulated a broad conceptual shift in foreign policy.

One reason for Obama's reticence was certainly tactical: he preferred to fight McCain on the grounds of domestic economic policy rather than play to McCain's purported strength in foreign policy and national security. But a second reason, surely, is that the liberal internationalist foreign policy tradition the Democratic Party once owned has been appropriated and distorted by Republican presidents from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush -- so much so that its once strikingly liberal values are now invisible. Operation Iraqi Freedom, most prominently, has been described often and plausibly as an expression of Wilsonian principles. Bush himself has encouraged this view. But if Bush is Wilsonian and wears the mantel of liberal internationalism, where does that leave the Democrats as they look to articulate a new vision for America's role in the world? How can they distance themselves from the manifold shortcomings of the Bush administration without abandoning the priorities that have constituted their own tradition -- recognizing and promoting human rights around the world, encouraging the spread of democracy, and using powerful multilateral institutions to generate public goods on a global scale?

To deal with these questions, Obama will have to do more than set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He will have to craft a vision of U.S. foreign policy that is significantly different from that of his conservative predecessors -- a task that will require two things of him. First, he will have to recover and renew the distinctively liberal principles and values embedded in the liberal internationalist tradition, instead of assuming that these are self-evident and speak for themselves. He must then try to figure out what (if anything) has "gone wrong" with liberal internationalist policies in the past, so he can design new policies effectively -- strengthening their resistance to absorption and distortion by conservatives, and bolstering their effectiveness in a changed and changing world.

What's "Liberal" about Liberal Internationalism?

Barack Obama already seems to be cognizant of the earliest meaning of the word "liberal" -- which was "generous." In the 2004 Democratic Conventions speech that made him famous, he referred more than once to the America he knew as a "generous America." In the 18th and early-19th centuries, a liberal person was one who gave unstintingly, and his opposite was a person who was "mean" -- grasping and slow to give. This distinction shaded into another: "liberal" implied an open stance toward life and a broad-minded, flexible attitude toward other people's ideas and values, a willingness to see from other points of view, and a disposition to empathize with others. Meanness, by contrast, suggested a strict, narrow, close-minded stance that could become mean-spirited -- prejudiced, unkind, and even cruel. In everyday speech, then, "liberal" signified a broad disposition, or temperament, characterized by a matrix of values: generosity, tolerance, freedom, and flexibility of thought.

In the United States, the word "liberal" did not begin to have political significance until the latter half of the 19th century, when it was associated mainly with laissez-faire economic policies. These promoted individual freedom from the power of the state, and they were regarded as "liberal" because the free-market itself seemed to embody and require liberal values: hostility to restriction and regulation, easygoing flexibility toward others, and a general faith that personal and cultural differences can be overcome in the mutual pursuit of self-interest.

See more stories tagged with: