Seeking domestic legitimacy through foreign affairs

Under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and now Barack Obama, America has consistently pursued abroad what it lacks at home – moral authority.

Tara McCormack

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There is a spectre haunting American foreign policy: the toxic legacy of George W Bush.

By the end of his tenure, Bush had a domestic approval rating of 22 per cent, making him one of the most unpopular presidents in history, and a widely disliked figure internationally (1). Both critics and supporters have argued that Bush’s policies mark a new phase in international relations. For critics, Bush’s foreign policy has been aggressive and unilateralist. American power has run amok under the poisonous ideology of a clique of ‘neo-liberal’ ideologues and has been suffering from imperial hubris. This, critics argue, has eroded legitimacy and consent for American hegemony (legitimate is here used in the sense of consensual and supported rather than in a moral sense).

It is claimed that the Bush presidency represents a reversal of the more multilateral and altruistic approach to international relations prevalent under Bill Clinton. Then, American power was understood to be a force for good in the world. ‘Radical’ intellectuals who had supported the use of American power in the 1990s for ‘good interventions’ such as Kosovo, turned against the Iraq intervention. For example, Jurgen Habermas, the German critical theorist who was a keen supporter of NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999, argued that he could not support the military action in Iraq due to the lack of a UN Security Council resolution (forgetting perhaps that Kosovo has also lacked this).

David Clark, adviser to former British foreign secretary Robin Cook, was at pains to point out that while Kosovo was a ‘good’ war for values, Iraq was a bad ‘geo-political war’ that eroded the moral legitimacy of the use of Western power, complaining about ‘the effect of the Iraq war in sowing doubt about the legitimacy and efficacy of Western military power’, before adding that the ‘war in Kosovo was a response to a humanitarian emergency, not a geopolitical power play’ (2).

This apparent eroding of legitimate American leadership and the discrediting of American power under Bush seemed to be most clear during the dispute between some European Union (EU) states and America about the Iraq intervention. The polemical exchange between American foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan and EU military strategist Robert Cooper, illustrated the supposed differences between European ideas of the legitimate exercise of power through multilateral interventions (‘post-modern enterprises’ in Cooper’s words, in which the EU acted on behalf of others) and what French international relations specialist Pierre Hassner termed America’s ‘Wilsonianism in boots’ (3), a reference to former president Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy principles, from self-determination and the spread of democracy, to peace-keeping interventionism.

A new book entitled The Crisis of American Foreign Policy – Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century debates both the Bush legacy and the prospects for reinvigorating American foreign policy and consequently American international leadership. Key contributions are from Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton academic and leading advocate of liberal interventionism, and prominent academic and former policy maker G John Ikenberry. Both were involved in the Princeton Project on National Security published in 2006, a report which purports to argue for a different model for US security and foreign policy than that pursued by Bush (4).

Both Ikenberry and Slaughter’s contributions aim to distance prospective American foreign policy from that of the Bush administration and attempt to re-establish a moral basis for American foreign policy. In particular, they are at pains to distance what is argued to be Clinton’s altruistic use of American power for the sake of others with Bush’s narrow self-interested use of power. This debate is framed in terms of a discussion of the extent to which the accusation of ‘Wilsonianism in boots’ is correct. Both Ikenberry and Slaughter argue that the excesses of the Bush administration are absolutely not Wilsonian in either tone or content.

For Ikenberry, the Bush administration represents the abandonment of a multilateral rule-based order, the opposite of Wilsonianism. He argues that while postwar US was certainly hegemonic, it used its hegemony to develop an open and inclusive liberal international order. This multilateral liberal order has now been broken by Bush. Slaughter, meanwhile, seeks to distinguish between current neo-conservatism and to rehabilitate a positive version of Wilsonianism for the Twenty-First Century. She argues against enforced ‘democratisation’ and the use of Manichean terms to describe international relations. For Slaughter, the ideas developed in the Canadian government-sponsored Responsibility to Protect report of 2001 represent a positive vision of the way in which Western power should be exercised (5).

This obsession with authentic Wilsonianism all adds up to a strangely ahistorical portrait of Wilson and Wilsonianism. In order for the real Wilson to step forward we need to understand Wilson’s famous ‘14 Points’ speech in its historical context, that is, a world first torn asunder by the First World War and then challenged fundamentally by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The Marxist theorists Rudolf Hilferding and Nikolai Bukharin had shown that the radically changing nature of early Twentieth Century capitalism was leading to intense rivalry and conflict between the imperialist powers. Bolshevik theorist and political leader V I Lenin developed this analysis in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism: the war was not simply the fault of the aggressiveness of Kaiser Wilhelm II or the machinations of the Austrian Emperor but a consequence of developing domestic monopoly capitalism. Lenin argued that imperialist rivalry led to absolute barbarity and the sacrifice of millions of working-class lives in defence of the profits of the bourgeoisie. The only answer was a wave of European revolutions, led by the working class, to take control of ‘their’ states.

Lenin’s decisive analysis of the nature of imperialism and its tendency towards barbarism had a powerful appeal both in Europe and in the colonies. The political challenge posed by the Bolsheviks placed Western powers on the defensive as the horrors of the war eroded the legitimacy of imperialism even in the West (6). So, when Wilson argued that the war was caused by secret covenants made by self-interested governments and that the spread of liberal democracy would lead to world peace, he sought to deny the roots of the war in monopoly capitalism.

Today things are very different. There is no coherent political alternative to liberal democracy. The attempt to reclaim Wilson, far from being an attempt to diffuse radical political alternatives, represents little more than a romantic yearning for a time when America seemingly took a moral lead in the world.

Of more contemporary relevance is the critique made by Tony Smith, the dissenting voice in the book. Smith argues in his contribution that there are far greater similarities between the supposedly evil Bush and the saintly multilateral Clinton than Ikenberry and Slaughter allow.

For Smith, the policies of both the Clinton and Bush administrations have been highly problematic. The failures of the Bush administration in Iraq simply expose the contemporary limits to American power rather than marking a departure from Clintonian foreign policy. For Smith there is no difference between left-wing neo-liberals and right-wing neo-conservatives: the Princeton Project for National Security is little different to Bush’s infamous 2002 National Security Strategy. As Smith points out, underlying even multilateralism is the exercise of American power.

Smith is correct in his critical assessment of the similarities between Clinton and Bush. However, while for Smith the end of the Cold War has allowed the US to go on a liberal, internationalist rampage, I would argue that we need to understand the trajectory of post-Cold War American policy in a different way. Rather than the US being let off the leash, as it were, by the demise of the Soviet Union, both Republican and Democratic administrations have been searching for a new moral framework for leadership in the world. Both the humanitarian project of the 1990s and the War on Terror can be understood in this context (7). Slaughter and Ikenberry are simply carrying on this search for a new moral framework for American leadership in the post-Cold War world. Hence in the Princeton Project on National Security they proposed a ‘concert of democracies’ which could be led by the US (later taken up by Robert Kagan and John McCain during the presidential campaign).

The problem is that Slaughter and Ikenberry, like Bush and Clinton, are looking in the wrong place for a framework for international leadership. What both academics and policy makers fail to understand (and have misunderstood throughout the 1990s) is that international leadership is not simply a question of international action or the behaviour of the president; rather, it is profoundly linked to domestic political processes and changes. American hegemony was accepted by Western capitalist political elites after the Second World War because of a very specific set of circumstances. In its aftermath postwar Europe was exhausted, political elites near collapse and major social unrest and disorder were a constant threat.

One does not have to be a radical Marxist to understand that it was in the interests of America to ensure that Europe did not tip over into the abyss. America, moreover, had the opportunity to remake both the international system in accordance with its own domestic economic preferences and refashion domestic European political and economic structures. However, this was not a brutal imposition of hegemony, but a collaborative project between capitalist classes in Europe and America. As Charles Maier argues, this was ‘consensual American hegemony’ (8). American leadership, and hegemony, was accepted by European elites as the way in which they, and the broader economic and political system, could survive and re-gain control.

Of course, the Cold War, presented in the Manichean terms of good and evil, democracy and slavery, provided an overarching narrative that gave meaning to the postwar order and American hegemony while also invigorating domestic politics in the ‘free world’. The point is, however, that American leadership was not based upon the external pressures of the Soviet Union, but, first and foremost, upon domestic political alignments and arrangements. The Cold War gave a framework of international conflict, but the fight was, in the first instance, at home.

However, by the 1970s American hegemony in the West was already weakening as Europe revived (comparatively speaking) and domestic and international economic crisis forced America to abandon the Bretton Woods system of international monetary management. During the late 1970s and 1980s in both America and Europe, governments presided over rising unemployment and the end of postwar consensus politics. In Britain, for example, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously smashed the unions and claimed that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to the market. Voters seemed to agree with this assessment and felt less inclined to vote, leading to falling voter turnouts and collapsing membership for all parties. In this context, the end of the Cold War removed the overarching narrative that had provided the West with a purpose, weakening Western cohesion still further.

Since then, there has been a steady shift towards more openly managerial, non-ideological governments in European states and in America. For supporters this is presented as a rational triumph, but the reality is that this simply serves to expose the problem of meaning in contemporary capitalist societies, leaving political parties of all shades floundering with no clear orientation. In lieu of domestic political programmes, both European governments such as Britain and France, and post-Cold War American administrations have sought to create legitimate authority domestically through ‘moral’ actions in the international sphere.

The problem is that legitimacy just does not work like that. Actions in the international sphere, which are not linked to domestic political contexts, are free-floating, perhaps galvanizing emotions briefly, but not leading to any coherent dynamic for politics. Therefore policies such as humanitarian intervention or the War on Terror have failed to cohere the West and to recreate the certainties of the Cold War.

America remains the pre-eminent global power economically and militarily, but its status today cannot compare with its postwar position in a world in which a shattered Europe and Japan were remade in America’s image. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of China and India have further exacerbated the decline of American power.

Which leads us back to the quest for a new moral framework for American leadership today. Certainly, both Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain were acutely aware of the loss of American leadership and both made it a point of their presidential campaigns to promise to renew American leadership. Obama’s pre-election trip to Europe and the rapturous reception he received in European capitals, particularly Berlin, was a message to a domestic audience: vote for me and you don’t have to keep wondering why everyone hates us, because they won’t.

Upon his victory President Obama promised a new dawn for American leadership (9). Obama has selected Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Clinton in turn has appointed Anne-Marie Slaughter as the State Department’s director of policy planning. Clinton has promised that America will use what she has termed ‘smart power’ in order to restore American leadership. Certainly in terms of tone, Obama has sought to distance himself from the Bush presidency and has launched his administration with a flurry of ‘new beginnings’, whether it has been Clinton theatrically presenting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov with a dummy button with ‘reset’ printed on it (clearly, Russian speakers in the State department are few and far between; the word used actually meant ‘overload’), Obama making a speech to Iran in which he offered Tehran a ‘new beginning’.

The problem for Obama is that he has also misunderstood the relationship between domestic and international politics. Gestures, no matter how grand, remain gestures. It is notable that in the context of the current unfolding economic crisis, European states have pointedly not agreed to do what Obama has asked in terms of economic stimulus and contributing more troops to Afghanistan. As the journalist Gideon Rachman ruefully observed after the G20 conference in the spring, Obama was the president that Europeans hoped and prayed for, yet, in terms of specific policy requests, they have given him the cold shoulder (10).

However, while we have the relative decline of one global hegemon, there is no real challenge for the position. Shrill warnings in the early 1990s about the ‘rise of Japan’ vanished along with Japanese economic growth during Japan’s ‘lost decade’. China remains, despite its astonishing growth, a very poor county. Moreover, both China and America are currently trapped together in a loveless marriage, as an immense amount of China’s wealth is currently funding the US debt. For all the talk about a new international currency, China will not be able to withdraw any time soon. As for Europe, the continent that foreign policy whizz Mark Leonard promised would run the Twenty-First Century, there does not seem to be much hope of that with squabbles over finances and bank regulation. If anything, the financial crisis seems to have revealed that the question of international leadership today is a problematic one on all accounts.

Tara McCormack is lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security published by Routledge this Autumn. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) She is also speaking in the debate Is there a global power shift from West to East? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 31 October 2009.

The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century, by G John Ikenberry, Thomas J Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith, is published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Bush’s Final Approval Rating: 22 Percent, CBS News, 16 January 2009

(2) Kosovo was a Just War, Not an Imperialist Dress Rehearsal, Guardian, 16 April 2009

(3) Paradise and Power, America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan, Atlantic Books, 2004; The Breaking of Nations. Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, Robert Cooper, Atlantic, 2004; The United States: the empire of force of the force of empire?, Pierre Hassner, Institute for Security Studies, 2002

(4) Princeton Project on National Security – Forging a World of Libery under Law, G John Ikneberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, September 2006

(5) See the here for the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect.

(6) Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, VI Lenin, with Introduction by Norman Lewis and James Malone, Junius Publications, 1996

(7) Media, War and Postmodernity, Philip Hammond Routledge, 2007

(8) p148 In Search of Stability, Explorations in Historical Political Economy, Charles S Maier, Cambridge, 1987

(9) Full text: Obama’s victory speech, BBC News, 5 November 2008

(10) Europe spurns the beloved Obama, Financial Times, 30 March 2009

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