We need to talk about liberalism and foreign policy

Over at Wisdom of Crowds, the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid puts his finger on the tension between promoting democracy and promoting liberalism in US foreign policy. Building up on his earlier case for ‘democratic minimalism,’ he argues that in order to address realist criticisms of American internationalism, the two causes should be disentangled:

But what if we wished these other countries to be mere democracies, emphasizing democracy as a system and means of governing and rotating power with no prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes. This would do two things: it would allow us to respect other countries’ right to self-determination and self-government; It would limit our need to engage in social engineering in other countries that we don’t quite understand, one of Mearsheimer’s main criticisms of the liberal impulse. This would also help resolve our “democratic dilemma”—that we want democracy in theory but not necessarily its outcomes in practice, particularly when, as is often the case, electorates decide that they would rather not be liberal.

The Mearsheimer critique—and realist critiques more generally—seem to wince at the notion that other countries can (or should) become like us. But to promote democracy abroad—as opposed to promoting liberal democracy—does not require other countries to be like us, only to be like themselves.

Incidentally, I made a similar point in The Bulwark, in which I warn about the ongoing conflation, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, between the West and progressive cultural and social causes. This has been weaponized by aspiring authoritarians such as Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński. Instead of having to defend their domestic political practices, they talk about the dangers of mass immigration and multiculturalism, or the supposed threat posed to their societies by Western ‘LGBT ideology’.

While the perils of liberal overreach are clear, Shadi’s emphasis
on democracy as a mere method of selecting and rotating leaders is not entirely
satisfying, either. The merits of a genuinely minimalistic democracy lacking robust
auxiliary institutions — rule of law, checks on political power, or civic
likemindedness — are limited.

Via Twenty20

For instance, Paul Collier’s work shows that at low levels of economic development, without checks and balances and in the presence of resource rents, democracy can exacerbate conflicts within societies rather than attenuate them by lowering the costs of rebellion. ‘Democratic minimalism’ seems also geared to accommodate various forms of ‘competitive authoritarianism,’ where free elections are held but incumbents tilt the political playing field to their advantage.

But if ‘democratic minimalism’ is truly as minimalistic as
to encompass all regimes that hold free elections, regardless of the nature of
political competition, it is not clear that it leaves us with much that is
worth defending and promoting. The alternative, of course, is that the
minimalism is somewhat less minimalistic and comes with at least some liberal baggage
— say, a level playing field, impartial courts, or free media.

But that would mean that those keen to promote and defend democracy still need some version of liberalism, albeit not of the modern, ‘high’ variety. Arguably, the liberalism that makes democratic elections work is a more modest, classical one — a “society [that] governs itself for itself,” as de Tocqueville referred to America. A liberalism defined by its commitment to self-governance, or ‘inclusive institutions’ to use a contemporary turn of phrase, can be reconciled with many different social and economic models. From an earlier version of Hong Kong, through the United States, to Nordic countries, such liberalism can go hand in hand with large paternalistic governments and lean laissez faire governments, with multicultural, socially progressive societies and with tightly knit conservative communities.

Unlike the overreach of high liberals and progressives (see the Sargentini report for an example), a more modest version of liberalism is able to hold Orbán and Kaczyński accountable for eroding the rule of law, independent courts, and freedom of the press without allowing them to shift the conversation to culture wars over immigration and gay marriage — something a true ‘democratic minimalism’ can’t do since both Poland and Hungary do indeed hold free (though not always fair) elections.

In a recent piece, Atlas Network’s Tom Palmer and Matt Warner write:

“Liberals must stop thinking of liberalism as theirs alone to give. Instead, they should recognize it as a universal ideal that has roots in many different traditions and cultures. It is on such foundations that enduring liberal institutions can be built in diverse places.”

While their unabashedly free-market version of liberalism might not overlap perfectly with the one I have in mind for the purposes of this discussion, the basic point stands. Understood in classical terms, liberalism (like democracy) does not map into a unique set of policies, solutions to social dilemmas, or cultural attitudes — unlike the eschatological, moralizing version of Western high liberalism. Instead, liberal self-governance is a necessary condition allowing societies to “be like themselves,” as Shadi puts it.

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