Self-described "centrist" David Adesnik has a brilliant response
(link Bloggered) to Michael Totten's OpinionJournal editorial
on the deficiencies in modern liberal foreign policy. Totten argues that liberals today have little knowledge of what really goes on in the world due to their desire, as buliders, to solve problems at home first:
The right side of the blogosphere laughed uproariously when antiwar protesters carried placards that said "Peace in Our Time" The left just didn't get the reference. It's not that the left is stupid. Rather, because liberals are builders not defenders, liberal intellectuals focus on internal problems rather than threats from outside.
Adesnik, very correctly, links this to the Democratic party's lack of vision in foreign affairs. But, he notes, liberalism is not inherently - unlike what Totten seems to assert - incompatible with a dynamic and intellectually powerful foreign policy. Indeed it is conservatism that has suffered throughout most of the 20th century with muddled and inconsistent arguments. Looking back at the dawn of modern American power and the foundation of liberal foreign policy, he writes:
Yet Wilson also recognized that most governments at the time were not democratic and would not become so. Thus, he sought to project democracy onto the international stage by creating the League of Nations. Its purpose was to create a forum for "world opinion", which Wilson believed would be an unfailing opponent of war. While this approach has considerable merit, critics point out that the people of the German Reich overwhelmingly supported war when it was declared in 1914, as did the citizens of most other nations.
So what changed? Why is "Wilsonian" today most likely to be a term used in derision describing either weak-kneed multilateralists or overly-optimistic democratic (small-"d") interventionists?
Answer: Vietnam. I am extremely surprised that not a single response to Totten's post recognized Vietnam as the event that has done more than any other to shape modern liberal foreign policy (or lack thereof). In addition, almost no one mentioned the liberal approach developed by Jimmy Carter, who explicitly described his anti-interventionist multilateralism as a response to the lessons of Vietnam.
Adesnik says that to regain its international focus, modern liberalism must return to its Wilsonian roots:
Ultimately, what the Democrats need is a successful president from their own party who can demonstrate the efficacy of a Wilsonian approach to national security. In that sense, Bill Clinton did his party a tremendous service. But his achievements in Bosnia and Kosovo have now been overshadowed.
The road ahead for liberal foreign policy will be long and difficult. But there is a Wilsonian light at the end of the tunnel.
Adesnik, of course, is correct. Unfortunately, I think even he underestimates the significance of Vietnam to the modern liberal. It was not, as he suggests, merely a turning point in strategy for the Democratic party, where multilateralists assumed the helm as to prevent another Vietnam. It caused, instead, a fundamental rejection of the notion of America’s fundamental moral superiority – a rejection that America is John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill.”
This is not a small distinction I’m attempting to draw here. The isolationist-realist tension that existed for much of the century within conservatism was very real, but simply reflected two solutions to the same underlying premise – the primacy of American interests worldwide. Thus when Reagan moved to bridge the gap between the two factions, it was a relatively simple task.
Post-Vietnam liberalism, however, does not share an underlying paradigm with Wilsonian liberalism. Vietnam, to many on the left, destroyed the notion of the universality of American values. Recent battles over globalization have confirmed this outlook, as liberals fight against the “Americanization” of native cultures.
Yet it is this belief in American culture that lies at the heart of Wilsonian liberalism. The promotion democracy, property rights, and basic human liberties around the world necessitates the removal and rejection of other ways of life. This is antithetical to modern multiculturalism, a staple belief of the post-Vietnam liberal.
What does this mean for the future of liberal foreign policy? Well, there are a couple of ways of looking at it. First, if you ignore the partisan implications, Wilsonian liberals should be very happy. Bush and the neocons have largely accepted his vision and, at least for the next several years, American foreign policy will look more like Wilson’s vision than Nixon’s. Once your adversary accepts the superiority of your argument, as Bush has done with Wilsonian internationalism, haven’t you won?
But what about Democrats? Are they relegated to a forced silence on international affairs due to their lack of vision? Not necessarily, but it will require strong leadership. Adesnik sites Clinton as an example of a party leader attempting to return to this Wilsonian ideal. Perhaps this is true in his direct actions, but Clinton never attempted to fundamentally reform post-Vietnam liberalism, to explain to his constituents why the freedoms we enjoy here in America are universal. He never explained that, while no nation is perfect, the United States is far closer to that ideal than any other country. It is only once liberals address that issue that they’ll be able to return to their Wilsonian roots – or reject them for an entirely new ideology. Unfortunately, most seem content to simply ignore the question.