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A Few Victories for Liberalism (in International Relations)

On the surface, the last few years have been terrible for the so-called “head in the sand types” like me who don’t understand that…

1. There are truly evil people in the world.

2. Wars are a fact of life.

Since 2010, in part because of the Arab Spring and its multiple revolutions, insurgencies and general instability, the world has never seemed so violent. More importantly, the U.S. can’t stop intervening in warzones. In addition to trying to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media/politicians have seriously discussed starting wars (“intervening militarily” in newspeak) in Libya, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Syria and the Ukraine. According to some Republican politicians, only Obama’s weakness has prevented the U.S. from fighting in these places, er, making the world safer.

This seems really bad for liberalism in international relations. Apparently, war isn’t becoming less likely, as Stephen Pinker, John Horgan and others have argued. We almost started six wars in just the last three years!   

Except for that pesky word “almost”. The U.S. avoided wars in North Korea, Syria and Iran, and looks set to both stop Russia from invading the rest of Ukraine while avoiding a nuclear war with Russia. We are close to signing an historic deal with Iran.

I give almost all the credit to liberalism in international relations. Liberal foreign policy--promoting free trade, democracy and international institutions--has accomplished its goals: to further economic growth, create peace and expand liberty across the globe. Along the way, it also prevents unnecessary wars. Here’s how:

1. Democratic politics constrain the executive.

In the case of Syria, the battle between the executive and the legislature stopped a full-blown war.

In the original writings of Enlightenment thinkers, the whole concept of a President was supposed to mimic a monarch. In other words, a dictator. Since the presidency of George Washington, America has always restrained the power of the executive with the checks and balances. Since the Civil War, the power of the presidency compared to the legislature has grown, even under President Obama, who promised to limit executive power. When this happens, disastrous wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been too easy for the executive branch to pursue.

Syria seems to have reversed that trend. The American people refused to let one man--President Obama--decide to start another war. So did the British government. (Again, anyone who defines cruise missile strikes as “not war” needs to look in the mirror and ask, “What is war?”) Most of the arguments for a war with Syria--based on credibility, based on deterring Iran, based on avoiding making President Obama look “weak”--are the arguments for maintaining an executive branch that can declare war unilaterally, like a dictatorship.

Instead, we saw the legislative branch restrain the executive. (And the same thing happened in England.)

I’d add Iraq to this discussion too. Though, arguably, Iraq is in worse shape than any point during our occupation, Obama really, really, really doesn’t want to add ground troops to the conflict. In this case, though some conservatives/liberals and media types are pushing for war in Iraq through hyperbolic ISIS coverage, Obama won’t put boots on the ground without Congressional approval.

2. Economic disincentives discouraged Russia and Iran.

After their invasion of Crimea, the Russian economy went in a tailspin. Their main stock market plummeted. The ruble fell precipitously, forcing the Russian Central Bank to raise interest rates. Foreign investment plummeted next. The markets only calmed down after Vladimir Putin promised no further military action.

Iran experienced similar damage when the P5+1 imposed sanctions, which helped bring them to the negotiating table. Iran remained at the table, and agreed to the terms of a deal as well, because those years of crippling sanctions stalled reasonable economic growth.

The problem that neo-conservatives and unrealistic realists can’t understand is that war isn’t profitable anymore. If Putin continues to push on Ukraine, the result won’t be a war (which could escalate quickly into a nuclear conflict), but greater economic isolation. Removing a huge economy like Russia from the global economy wouldn’t just hurt Russia; it would hurt the entire globe. In short, everyone would lose much more than Russia would stand to gain from “expanding its sphere of influence”.

Of course, Putin could choose to do so anyways and watch as his economy spirals further. It’s not like a Russian ruler has ever been deposed for completely mismanaging a war.

3. International institutions are now the norm.

They help restrain powers. The U.S. and Israel both rely on the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission to investigate Iranian nuclear power. Suspending Russia from the G8 hurt Russian power. A host of international institutions help restrain war with North Korea by coordinating responses to North Korean aggression.

And they helped stop a war in Syria. Sure, the U.N. couldn’t stop a war with Iraq, but it sure stopped one in Syria. Having witnessed the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the inherent difficulty in controlling Libya, most of the world simply refused to fight another war in the Middle East. Thus, President Obama faced the prospect of going to war without the support of the U.N., NATO or the Arab League, or even staunch allies like the United Kingdom. Sure, you could condemn Obama’s coalition building skills, but the more important point is how much weight nations around the world--and even Americans--now put on international institutions. This won’t prevent all inter-state wars forever, but it will help to make them less likely.

(As with all my articles on foreign policy, I have to again clarify that I am referring to liberalism in international relations—which means advocating the principles of international institutions, democracy, and free trade, among other ideals—as opposed to political liberalism—which is an entirely different thing altogether. International relations liberalism holds that as democracy spreads, international institutions strengthen and free trade increases, the number of wars occurring around the world will decline.)

three comments

With ISIS taking control of Ramadi, this may seem like a weird post. That said, if more people were more skeptical about invading Iraq in the first place, I don’t think we’d be in this situation.

Or as someone told Jeb Bush, “Your brother created ISIS!”


I have a few disagreements

  • I don’t think G8 conferences are really useful, or important to “power”
  • Israel’s occupations are a permanent thorn in the concept of international institutions for peace, and the U.S: keeps shielding them in the UNSC
  • NATO demonstrated in 1999 that it’s ready to wage a war without USNC approval, so the Iraq mess wasn’t the only severe blow to the concept of international rule of law. Unlike with the Iraq Invasion, insight that the Kosovo Air War was an aggression based on lies is not widespread yet. This means this precedent is not discredited yet – which in turn questions the weight or international institutions for peace.


@ SO – But I think those last two points sort of make the case. America flouts international norms. The norms aren’t the issue but the countries trying to flout them.

We’ll be writing about this soon, a debate over whether America makes the world safer or not. That’s going to be one of my core arguments. If America were a better citizen of the global community, the world would be safer and international norms would be even better enforced.