In a recent interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, former Vice President Joe Biden made his position on America’s role in the world abundantly clear. “I come out of a generation where we were trying to be the policemen of the world,” the Democratic presidential candidate said nostalgically, before condemning President Donald Trump for “dissing” our allies in NATO and embracing “thugs” like North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. “He’s embracing Putin, who is a flat dictator,” continued Biden, who then predicted that if Trump wins reelection in 2020, “there will be no NATO in four years or five years.”
In just a few sentences, Biden summarized an attitude towards foreign policy that has been traditionally known as “liberal internationalism,” one of the two dominant worldviews in American politics since the end of the Cold War. Liberal internationalism shares many of the same attitudes and commitments as the other leading post-Cold War ideology, neoconservatism. They are both committed to American hegemony and a unipolar world order, although the latter favors military intervention while the former typically prefers non-interventionist strategies like diplomacy and economic liberalization (i.e. free trade). Likewise, they both regard “American values” as universal, and therefore believe that the U.S. is not only entitled but obligated to promote these values around the world, sometimes by force. The former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, summed up the common attitude of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives when she famously referred to the United States as an “indispensable nation” in the late nineties.
Both worldviews assume that America is exceptional, and that the country has a unique destiny to lead (and police) the world. This mindset goes way back, and can be traced to the 18th-century Enlightenment tradition that influenced the country’s founders (which itself grew out of the messianic spirit of Christianity), but after the collapse of the Soviet Union the missionary zeal that shaped American foreign policy during the 20th century became all the more aggressive and arrogant on the global stage, with liberal internationalists like Joe Biden leading the charge.
In his 2017 book, Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucus, political geographer Gerard Toal distinguishes between “normative” and “pragmatic” practices in American foreign policy, and both liberal internationalism and neoconservatism clearly fall into the former category. Normative geopolitics, he writes, “concerns aspirational and ideal visions of world order — how things ‘ought to be’ in the abstract without reference to constraints and necessary compromises.” To believers in the normative vision of “liberal utopianism,” as he calls it, the United States is not seen as “an ordinary territorial state but as the expression of universal ideals and values, the homeland of freedom, the land of liberty.”
Toal makes a further distinction between “thin geopolitics,” which aligns with normative visions (and is exemplified by the infamous Cold War “domino theory”), and “thick geopolitics,” which rests on “recognition of the importance of spatial relationships and in-depth knowledge of places and peoples.” Thick geopolitics is grounded in the “messy heterogeneity of the world,” and “recognizes that local conditions matter, that agency is rarely singular, that power is exercised geographically, and that location, distance, and place influence its operation.”
The many failures of American foreign policy over the past 30 years can be largely attributed to the predominance of normative visions and thin geopolitics among American leadership, both Republican and Democrat. After the fall of communism, a triumphalism quickly spread through Washington, forming a bipartisan consensus around the “end of history” thesis. The victory of capitalism over communism had apparently proven that liberal democracy was the highest form of government and that “American values” were universal. With history on our side, it became simply a matter of exporting our values and systems.
Though neoconservatism was widely discredited after the Iraq War — which, like the Vietnam War, exposed America’s imperial arrogance and the geopolitical ignorance of our best and brightest — the liberal internationalist worldview remained largely intact. In 2016, Donald Trump represented a backlash against neoconservatism in the Republican Party, and his victory essentially put a nail in the movement’s coffin. He questioned the relevance of NATO, said the Iraq War was possibly the worst decision “ever made in the history of this country,” and rejected America’s role as the global policeman. In the general election, Hillary Clinton represented liberal internationalism against Trump’s isolationism, which led many neoconservative Republicans to support the Democratic candidate over their own party’s nominee.
The failures of liberal internationalism aren’t as obvious (or consequential) as the failures of neoconservatism, but much of the global instability that we are experiencing today is a direct result of policies pursued by liberals like Joe Biden over the past few decades. A perfect example of this is the expansion of NATO, which began under Bill Clinton and continued under George W. Bush. This bipartisan action was arguably one of the most reckless and ill-conceived policies of the post-Cold War era. The eastward expansion of NATO has always been perceived by Russia as Western aggression (or at least provocation), but in the 1990s the country was too weak to do anything about it. However, as the author Tony Wood writes, “enforced passivity should not have been mistaken for willing acceptance.”
In 1990, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, had a now-infamous conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, where he promised the Soviet leader that if he pulled Soviet troops out of East Germany and allowed a peaceful reunion of the country, NATO would not move “one inch east.” As Richard Lourie points out in his book Putin: His Downfall And Russia’s Coming Crash, NATO moved “not inches but hundreds of miles east,” granting membership to former Soviet republics and seven former Eastern Bloc countries between 1999 and 2004. The U.S. ambassador to the USSR during the height of the Cold War, George Kennan, said at the time that expanding NATO was a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions,” and accurately predicted that it would lead to a revival of “nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.”
The two 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in Congress at the time, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, had very different positions on NATO expansion. While the Vermont senator has long opposed the eastward expansion of NATO, Biden has been one of the most zealous advocates of the policy for the past 25 years. “Since the Cold War is over,” asked Sanders in 1997, “why are we militarily provoking Russia?” More than 20 years later, it’s clear that the concern expressed by Sanders and other critics like Kennan was justified, yet you wouldn’t know it by listening to Biden today. Delivering what was billed as a major foreign policy address this past week, he bragged that NATO defense spending had increased under the Obama administration and touted the organization as an “alliance of values.”
If the rise of Trump signaled a death knell for neoconservatism, four years later, a similar process may be starting to play out in the Democratic Party. While last month’s debates proved how much progressive ideas are now shaping the party’s domestic agenda, a progressive approach to foreign policy also seems to be gaining steam.
In April, a longtime adviser to presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, Ganesh Sitaraman, wrote a short essay trying to map out what a progressive alternative to liberal internationalism would look like in practice. A progressive foreign policy, in Sitaraman’s view, would be “highly skeptical of military interventions, and opposed to democracy promotion by force.” It would also hold that “one of the important threats to American democracy at home is nationalist oligarchy (or, alternatively, authoritarian capitalism) abroad.” This kind of vision rejects the nationalist isolationism of Trumpism, but also the unipolar internationalism promoted by liberals like Biden and Clinton. When it comes to “promoting values” overseas, progressives would first acknowledge our own failure to live up to those values. As Bernie Sanders put it in a 2017 speech on foreign policy, “if we are going to expound the virtues of democracy and justice abroad, and be taken seriously, we need to practice those values here at home.”
In the same speech, Sanders unequivocally rejected the liberal internationalist (and neoconservative) vision of “benevolent global hegemony,” or the idea that the U.S., “by virtue of its extraordinary military power, should stand astride the world and reshape it to its liking.” The progressive vision embraces internationalism, then, but repudiates the unipolar approach that has prevailed in Washington since the end of the Cold War.
A successful progressive foreign policy would balance “normative” and “pragmatic” considerations (to borrow Toal’s terminology), while also adopting a “thick geopolitics,” which means recognizing the enormous complexity of the world and respecting (and understanding) the different perspectives and attitudes that exist outside of Washington (and, more broadly, the West).
The age of American unipolarity is coming to an end, and while the 21st century won’t necessarily be the “Asian century,” it certainly won’t be the “American century” (if anything, it will be the “Eurasian century”). Progressives shouldn’t mourn the end of American hegemony, which has done more harm than good. At the same time, they should reject the temptation to simply turn our backs on the world and abandon internationalism all together. Our goal, Sanders has said, “is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe … In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”
This is a worthy struggle, but progressives must not forget that true democracy can only arise organically from the bottom up, whether it’s in the United States or anywhere else.