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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.

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Democratic rights have been difficult to implant because shifts in the form of political power, typically necessary to enact human rights broadly, involve losses by the currently powerful in any given state. The human rights agenda -- political freedoms, in the American idiom, but for many throughout the world, economic rights as well -- has also met with resistance on cultural grounds. But the multilateral institutions designed by FDR were not given the powers to interfere in the domestic affairs of individual states, much less in their belief systems. Consequently, liberal human rights advocates have richly articulated their values, but they have lacked the muscle to back them up. Liberal human rights policies have been normatively robust but institutionally weak.

Liberals should take note that the outcome of FDR's multilateralism also has been mixed. It has worked reasonably well in the less visible agencies responsible for health, standard setting, and other areas, but the powerful multilateral agencies spawned by the Bretton Woods agreements have significantly failed to live up to their implied liberal principles. As development agencies, and following their immediate postwar successes, the World Bank and IMF did well when they allowed Third World countries to innovate with a mix of markets and government intervention in national economies, often with loans or other kinds of assistance. But this success ran afoul of ideology: liberalism's fragile balance of positive and negative liberties was all-too-easily overcome by Margaret Thatcher's and Ronald Reagan's narrow commitment to negative liberty only. The New Dealers' goal of state-led economic development, for example, has been abandoned in favor of Friedmanite policies to abolish government subsidies and constraints on free economic activity, whether through taxation, trade tariffs or quotas, state-run industries, or full employment policies. These free-market schemes not only failed to produce the results the earlier, mixed model achieved, but have stirred emigration, more corruption, widespread impoverishment, and social and ethnic conflict. The "New Deal for the World" became simply a good deal for transnational corporations.

This sharp departure from the New Dealers' intentions, we believe, stems from the irony that the institutions they created were normatively much too weak to manage their own strength. FDR's planners succeeded in vesting them with enormous powers -- money to lend or grant, markets to open, technical expertise, and other financial inducements -- but they did not endow them with an articulated, principled vision to guide them once their post-war reconstruction mission was largely achieved.

Their failure to provide such a vision may be traced to two sources: First, in the moment these institutions were created, the case for multilateralism was almost too easy to make. New Dealers had only to point the failures of Versailles that had led to the global Depression and to the rise of fascism. But there was a second reason as well, and one with particular significance for liberal Democrats today. New Dealers tended to justify these new institutions almost exclusively in terms of their new understanding of self-interest: what was good for the world was good for America. At no time did FDR or any of his top advisers step forward with the kind of powerful, values-laden explanation for these institutions that FDR had provided earlier (in his second inaugural address, for example) to explain the domestic New Deal agenda. Ever since, with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, liberal Democrats have been far more willing to articulate the values of their domestic programs than of their foreign policies. This is why their liberal internationalism so easily slid into conservative internationalism.

Reasserting Liberal Internationalism in 2009

It should now be clear that the Bush agenda has been Wilsonian only in a superficial and highly misleading sense: it has adopted policy objectives shared by liberal internationalism -- "democratization" in particular -- but it has done so without adopting the liberal principles and values that would justify those objectives. The Bush unilateral agenda is driven by fear, not a sense of trust in others; by a conviction that the American way is the only way, not a broad-minded respect for varying values; by a narrow faith that individual freedom can be promoted only when individuals pursue their self-interest in a free market, not when they collectively deliberate on the public good.

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