The Case Against Liberal Imperialism
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a wave of what I call “liberal imperialism” in the West, which I think is a very unfortunate development, so I want to explain in this essay what I mean by that and why I think it’s such a bad thing. In some ways, this phenomenon is reminiscent of what happened at the end of the Cold War, but it’s also very different. As in 1989, Western elites see the events that are unfolding as validating their worldview and proving that history is on their side. However, today’s liberal triumphalism is very different from the post-1989 enthusiasm, when people assumed that, now that the main alternative to this model had ended in failure, the rest of the world would convert to liberal democracy on its own. Since that didn’t happen, they no longer want to engage with non-liberal regimes and instead advocate aggressive containment, consequences be damned. In the US, Biden claims that a “battle in the world between autocracy and democracy” is currently ongoing and, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’d called the defense of democracy the “defining challenge of our time”. In what follows, I will argue that dividing the world into democracies and autocracies and seeing the main goal of foreign policy as the defense of the former against the latter is a mistake, which will make the world less safe and less prosperous.
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Realism and idealism in foreign policy
In international relations theory, scholars generally distinguish between two main traditions in foreign policy, realism and idealism. People have characterized the distinction between realism and idealism in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, we can define the terms in the following way. Realists don’t care about the nature of the regimes of other countries and, as long as they think that it’s in the interest of their country, they are willing to cooperate even with states whose ideology and values are diametrically opposed to theirs. Moreover, they think that in dealing with other states, one should take into account their concerns even if one personally regards them as illegitimate or irrational. They’re also very skeptical of policies that aim to transform the regimes of other countries to align them ideologically with their own. Idealist by contrasts want to reduce cooperation with regimes whose ideology they don’t share to a minimum. They refuse to allow the concerns of such regimes affect their foreign policy and they support efforts to more or less directly transform them along the lines of their own.
In short, whereas realists don’t think that a country’s foreign policy should necessarily reflect its values, idealists reject this separation and think that a country’s values should to a significant extent dictate its foreign policy. Another way to put the distinction is that while realists and idealists agree that foreign policy should pursue the national interest, idealists have a broader conception of the national interest than realists. They think that having a foreign policy that reflects their country’s values and promote them abroad is part of the national interest, whereas realists have a view of the national interest that is more narrowly focused on material concerns, such as security and economic well-being. Realists think that states should only pursue the national interest in that narrow sense because, due to the anarchic structure of the international system (i. e. the absence of a central authority that could serve as the ultimate arbitrator between them), having a foreign policy that reflect their values is a luxury they cannot afford. However, this characterization can be misleading, because as we shall see idealists often defend their position by arguing that a foreign policy that promotes their country’s values abroad ultimately serves the national interest in this more narrow sense.
While they are connected in complicated and not always very clear ways, realism about foreign policy should not be confused about realism in international relations theory. Realists in international relations theory come in many different stripes, but the most influential type of realism in recent years, Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism, doesn’t really purport to explain the foreign policy of any particular state at any particular time. Rather, the main contention of neorealism is that the anarchic structure of the international system produces constraints on the behavior of states, which disposes them toward behaving in a certain way regardless of their ideology but doesn’t guarantee they will act in that way. States that don’t will tend to be punished, which is the mechanism through which the structure of the international system constrains their behavior, but since at the individual level many other factors contribute to foreign policy this may not explain much about the behavior of a particular state at a particular time.
The concrete form idealism takes depends on what the values of the state are, but since in the West liberalism broadly construed is now unchallenged, Western idealists want foreign policy to reflect and promote liberal values such as democracy, individual rights, free markets, etc. and think engagement with regimes that don’t embrace those values should be avoided as much as possible. Realists on the other hand, while they believe in the same values, don’t think that it has any obvious implication for foreign policy and in particular they don’t think it should prevent liberal democracies from cooperating with non-liberal regimes if that improves their country’s security and economic well-being. Of course, as I have characterized them, realism and idealism are ideal types. In practice, any Western leader in the recent past has combined elements of both traditions, but different leaders occupy different positions on the spectrum. What I call liberal imperialists are people who are very close to the ideal type of the idealist about foreign policy in liberal democracies. They assume that non-liberal regimes have hostile intentions toward democratic states, believe that we should aggressively contain them and if possible seek to transform them, because as long as they are non-liberal they will remain a threat and any weakness in dealing with them will encourage aggression on their part.
Democratic peace theory
In defense of their view that liberal democracies should reduce cooperation with non-liberal states to a minimum and try to enlarge the community of democratic states with policies that reward countries that move in that direction and punish states that violate democratic norms, idealists about foreign policy appeal to democratic peace theory, which contends that democracies don’t go to war against other democracies. Thus, according to idealists, the best way for liberal democracies to ensure their security is to promote democracy abroad, because once every country is a liberal democracy they won’t have anything to fear anymore. In the meantime, when this proves impossible, they should seek to weaken non-liberal states as much as possible. Proponents of democratic peace theory claim that it’s a well-established statistical regularity and have proposed various mechanisms to explain it. For instance, they claim that political leaders in democracies are less likely to go to war because democracy fosters a culture of compromise, but also because declaring war is more likely to be costly politically since the people who are going to pay the price can more easily remove them. They also claim that, since decision-making is more opaque in non-democratic countries, there is more uncertainty about their intentions, which makes war against them more rational.
However, there are many problems with democratic peace theory, as well as with the practical implications that liberal imperialists draw from it. First, whether the statistical regularity obtains depends to some extent on how you define democracy (which is a vague concept), so it’s not clear that proponents of democratic peace theory don’t commit the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Since there is no obvious way to operationalize the concept of democracy, it’s easy to classify regimes not based on criteria that are dictated by our pre-theoretical understanding of democracy, but in a way that will ensure the statistical regularity holds. That being said, although it will not be equally strong depending on the criteria that are used to operationalize the concept of democracy, the statistical regularity arguably obtains on any reasonable operationalization of that concept. In other words, no matter how exactly you define democracy, it will be the case that democracies don’t or rarely go to war against each other. The fact that such a regularity obtains, however, doesn’t prove that democratic peace theory is true and it’s actually very weak evidence for it.
Indeed, war is a rare event, so in order to be able to detect a relationship between democracy and the probability of war you need to have a sample with many democratic states for a long period of time. Moreover, the probability that a state is going to go to war against another is likely influenced by many other factors besides regime type, so even if you observe a statistically significant association between the regime type of countries and the probability they go to war against each other you cannot infer that it’s causal unless you have good reasons to believe that it’s not confounded by other factors. The problem is that we don’t have a sample with many democracies for a long period of time and we have excellent reasons to believe that the association between regime type and the probability of war is confounded by other factors. Before 1945 there were only a handful of democracies, so even if you find that no democracy went to war against another during that period, the association won’t be statistically significant. The number of democracies increased after that, but the relationship between regime type and war could be confounded by so many things that it’s impossible to infer anything from the fact that no democracy went to war against another during that period. For instance, almost every democracy after World War II was in a relation of subordination toward the US, which put in place a network of alliances to contain the spread of communism that, while egalitarian in principle, in practice reflected the hegemonic position of the US and meant that tensions between democracies were unlikely to result in war because the US would prevent it. Moreover, European democracies made up a large share of democracies during that period and they have become increasingly integrated politically and economically, which arguably made armed conflict between them less likely.
Thus, the statistical evidence for democratic peace theory is extremely weak and, to the extent that we have any reason to believe it, it’s not because of the statistical regularity that proponents of that theory like to emphasize but because we have good reasons to believe that the mechanisms they allege to explain it are real and aren’t counteracted by mechanisms that make democracies more likely to go to war other things being equal. Unfortunately, we don’t have very good reasons to believe that and, to the extent that we do, it’s partly because democratic peace theory works as a self-fulfilling prophecy. While some of the mechanisms alleged by proponents of democratic peace theory are plausible, many are not and one can just as easily argue that democracies have characteristics that make them more likely to go to war.
For instance, given how easily people have been whipped or whipped themselves into a nationalistic frenzy historically, the assumption that democracies are less likely to go to war because their population will anticipate the costs of war and react negatively to the prospect of war seems very dubious and the opposite might even be true. Indeed, while it’s easy to find examples where a reluctant population was dragged into war by their government (such as the British participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq), it’s also not hard to find examples where a government was dragged into war by the pressure of public opinion (such as Napoleon III’s decision to declare war to Prussia in 1870). Moreover, with the professionalization of the military, it’s much less true than in the past that voters bear the costs of war. Finally, even if we accept that democratic leaders are more likely to lose power if they go to war, they are less likely to lose their life or their freedom in the process compared to leaders of non-democratic states. One could also argue that democracies have characteristics that, other things being equal, make them more likely to start wars. For instance, thanks to the legitimacy that competitive elections bestow upon them, democratic leaders can continue to rule even when they’re very unpopular, a situation that often results in violent removals for autocrats. This democratic legitimacy also makes it easier for democratic leaders to extract resources, which makes waging a war easier and therefore declaring war more tempting. On the other hand, this also means that declaring war on a democracy is riskier, which could make democracies less likely to declare war on each other.
The truth is that most of the mechanisms that have been proposed to explain this statistical regularity are merely just-so stories. Some of them, such as the idea that because deliberation in democracies is less opaque it reduces the uncertainty about their intentions and therefore makes pre-emptive war against them less rational, are not implausible, but most of them are. In fact, as we have seen, it’s often not hard to come up with just-so stories that support the opposite conclusion and there are several factors that could plausibly confound the association between regime type and war. In the rare cases where people try to empirically test the mechanisms alleged by proponents of democratic peace theory, the evidence they adduce tends to be low-quality and often doesn’t support democratic peace theory anyway. The danger of putting so much trust into this kind of just-so stories is illustrated by the fact that, during the Cold War, some people confidently argued that, because the US was a democracy, Americans would never condone a pre-emptive war unless it were the only way to avert certain aggression, which in retrospect is rather amusing. Ironically, the most plausible mechanism that could explain the statistical regularity may be the fact that, in part because they believe in democratic peace theory, people in liberal democracies are hostile to non-liberal regimes, which makes them more likely to declare war on them. Thus, to the extent that there is some truth to democratic peace theory, it’s in part because it works as a self-fulfilling prophecy by making liberal democracies more likely to go to war against non-democratic states, but that doesn’t mean there is much truth to it. At best, it may be true that other things being equal democracies are less likely to go to war against each other than they are to go to war against non-democratic states or that non-democratic states are to go to war against other states, but this is much weaker than the claim that democracies never go to war against each other. Moreover, even that weaker claim has not been established and, as I will now argue, it wouldn’t follow that liberal imperialism is making the world safer even if that were true.
The security dilemma
First, even if we accept that other things being equal democracies are less likely to go to war against one another, it doesn’t follow as liberal imperialists assume that autocracies are the main threat to stability in the world, for the simple reason that other things are not equal. In particular, liberal democracies are far more powerful, both in terms of GDP and military capabilities, than non-liberal regimes. In current dollars, the US and its allies have a GDP that vastly exceeds that of China, Russia and their other geopolitical adversaries. The US alone spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined and, of those nine, five are democratic allies of the US. It stands to reason that, other things being equal, such a power advantage would make liberal democracies more likely to use force in order to resolve conflicts. In fact, whether or not that’s the reason, the US has been involved in far more direct foreign military interventions in violation of international law since the end of the Cold War than China, Iran or even Russia. When confronted with this fact, liberal imperialists usually claim that it’s more a question of capabilities than intentions, but this is hardly obvious so they don’t actually know that and, even if they were right, the distribution of capabilities is what it is and is not going to fundamentally change anytime soon, so their focus on authoritarian countries as the main threat to global stability seems unwarranted.
Liberal imperialists reply that Western military interventions target non-democratic regimes and that democratic states would not embark on foreign wars if there were less of them, but as we have seen this claim is extremely dubious and, even if it were true, it wouldn’t follow that a policy of aggressive containment and regime transformation toward non-democratic states is conducive to more stability and prosperity. Indeed, even if democratic peace theory were true, pursuing this kind of policy may well cause a war before we reach the state of perpetual peace that we are promised in the democratic utopia. In order to understand why, it’s important to understand the concept of security dilemma, which is a kind of collective action problem that states commonly face. A security dilemma is a situation in which steps taken by one state to increase its security ultimately decrease it, because they make another state feel less secure and lead it to take steps to increase its own security that decrease that of the other. This can lead to a spiral that ultimately gets out of control as one of the states engaged in the security dilemma reaches a point where it determines that it should initiate hostilities, because if it doesn’t and the other does it will find itself in a worse situation and it now deems it likely that the other will start a war unless it does first.
World War I is arguably a good example of a security dilemma that resulted in war, while the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War is arguably a good example of a security dilemma that was resolved before it led to war. As those examples illustrate, security dilemmas don’t always result in war, but that’s a significant risk. The anarchic structure of the international system and the uncertainty about other people’s intentions are key ingredients of the security dilemma. Indeed, because there is always some uncertainty about other people’s intentions, statesmen can never be sure that steps presented as defensive by other states are not really offensive. And because the international system is anarchic, not responding to such steps by taking steps of your own to ensure your security is risky, because if you misjudged the other state’s intentions as defensive when they were really offensive then you won’t have any central authority to turn to when you realize your mistake. Thus, even in the absence of hostile intentions on anyone’s part, uncertainty and anarchy can still result in war because of misperceptions.
Of course, not every conflict is the result of a security dilemma, because a security dilemma requires that everybody would prefer to avoid a war and that’s not always true. Thus, just because there is a conflict, it doesn’t mean that cooperation is the best policy. In fact, even when everybody’s intentions are actually defensive and there really is a security dilemma, it doesn’t necessarily follow that cooperation is the right policy because it may not be enough to convince the other party that your intentions are purely defensive and could put you in a difficult position if as a result they start a war. However, security dilemmas are still very common and most of the times cooperation actually is the best policy when you’re in that situation, but unfortunately liberal imperialists won’t even acknowledge the possibility that we might be in one and call any suggestion that we should adopt a policy of cooperation to diffuse it “appeasement”. While the people who use this expression seem to think it’s purely descriptive, it’s clearly a morally loaded expression that functions as a term of abuse. They assume that, given the chance, every authoritarian regime would embark on a Nazi-like expansionist project, so they always reject cooperation because they think it will just encourage aggression. If their historical horizon extended beyond World War II and stopped reducing foreign policy toward non-democratic states to a choice between “appeasement” and “standing up to tyrants”, they would realize that historically what they call “appeasement” has often prevented war and the opposite of what they call “appeasement” has often resulted in war.
Even if a security dilemma doesn’t result in war, it can still lead to very undesirable outcomes. For instance, while the Cold War never turned hot, it was still extremely costly. Even putting aside the cost of foreign military interventions by the US and the Soviet Union, such as the Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War, in terms of lives and money, both countries and many of their allies had to maintain enormous military expenditures because of it, wasting resources that would have been far more productive if they had been allocated to something else. Today, liberal imperialism isarguably fueling a security dilemma between China and the US that, even if we’re lucky and it doesn’t lead to a direct military conflict, has already resulted in a trade war that has very bad economic consequences for everyone. Moreover, people in the West are increasingly calling for decoupling from China, which by further hindering mutually beneficial economic relations would have even worse consequences for everyone. In other words, by fueling security dilemmas because of their blind faith in democratic peace theory, liberal imperialists don’t just make the world less safe, they also make it less prosperous.
The logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness
While liberal imperialists often deploy a consequentialist argument based on democratic peace theory, which as we have seen is flawed because that theory is not well-supported and even if it were the conclusions they draw from it wouldn’t follow, this is mostly a post facto justification for their general approach to foreign policy and doesn’t reflect how they think about concrete foreign policy issues. In practice, to make foreign policy decisions, they typically eschew consequentialist reasoning in favor of a value-oriented mode of thinking. The organization theorists James March and Johan Olsen have introduced a distinction between the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness that is useful to contrast different ways in which people make decisions about foreign policy. People who rely on the logic of consequences consider the likelihood of the different possible outcomes depending on which policy they choose, how they value those outcomes and choose the policy that maximizes their expected value. People who rely on the logic of appropriateness, on the other hand, don’t think about policy in purely instrumental terms but are interested in what is the right thing to do in the circumstances for someone like them. Thus, for people who make decisions in that way, there are certain policies that can’t be countenanced even if they believe they would likely produce superior outcomes, because under the logic of appropriateness policies also have non-instrumental value and must be consistent with values that in principle don’t depend on their likely consequences but are absolute. Of course, both models apply to everyone to some extent, but some people lean closer to one than the other and liberal imperialists mostly operate under the logic of appropriateness.
For instance, this is why they reject cooperation with non-democratic states, because even though such a policy might defuse a security dilemma it’s simply not the right thing to do for a liberal democracy. As we have seen, it can be rational to take into account the concerns of a non-democratic state even if you don’t think they are justified, because ignoring them may fuel a security dilemma by convincing the leaders of that state that you have aggressive intentions toward them. In turn, this might push them to respond by taking steps that will reduce your own security or that of the people you intended to defend against that state, which is precisely the opposite of what you were trying to achieve in the first place. In this type of scenario, the fact that the concerns of the non-democratic state are based on a misperception of your intentions or aren’t morally legitimate is irrelevant for someone who relies on the logic of consequences, because the only relevant fact is that if you ignore their concerns your security will decrease rather than increase. This doesn’t mean that people who are in favor of engagement with autocratic states necessarily think their concerns are well-founded or legitimate, so if your response to this kind of argument is to argue they are not, you are simply missing the point. Unfortunately, this is what liberal imperialists do all the time, because as long as they think the concerns of a non-democratic state are unjustified (which is virtually always the case because their default assumption is that autocratic states are lying), they don’t think anything else matters. Typically, they won’t even consider the possibility that we might be in a security dilemma and that cooperation might be preferable, at best dismissing this hypothesis as ludicrous if someone as much as suggests it and at worst denouncing such a suggestion as immoral and possibly a sign of collusion. Occasionally, the most sophisticated and self-aware of them will acknowledge that it might be true, yet still insist that we must reject cooperation because it’s inconsistent with moral commitments that we have as liberal democracies.
The fact that liberal imperialists tend to operate under the logic of appropriateness also explains why they find it difficult not to support humanitarian interventions against non-liberal regimes. Realists tend to point out that, however well-intentioned such interventions may be, they could actually make things worse because of their unintended consequences. In some cases, Western countries might intervene in support of groups that are no more liberal than the regime who currently oppresses them or have insufficient support in the population, in which case a military intervention might just replace one tyranny with another or, perhaps even worse, with anarchy and chaos. Indeed, even in cases where sustained involvement in the country after the abuses of human rights that motivated the intervention in the first place have been stopped could prevent that kind of outcome (which is arguably rare), sustained post-intervention involvement at the necessary scale is unlikely to materialize because putting together a coalition to support that is much harder than convincing people that we should intervene to stop an ongoing humanitarian disaster. Another unintended consequence of humanitarian interventions is the moral hazard they create. Indeed, if people in non-democratic states think that Western countries will intervene militarily if the regime in their country violate their human rights, they have a strong incentive to use violence rather than seek a compromise to resolve political disputes, in the hope that it will induce a disproportionate response by the regime which can then be exploited to mount a campaign in favor of a Western military intervention. Once a civil war has started, humanitarian military interventions, whether they take place openly as in Libya or more covertly as in Syria, often seem to make things worse by prolonging the hostilities and increasing their intensity. However, liberal imperialists are impervious to this kind of arguments, because in the face of ongoing atrocities they just feel very strongly that democracies “have to do something”, no matter the consequences.
Of course, liberal imperialists will say that I’m unfair to them, protest that they understand the concept of security dilemma and know that well-intentioned policies sometimes have unintended consequences, but just disagree with me about the intentions of non-liberal states and the likely consequences of different policies to deal with them. There is even some truth to this, because in practice almost nobody completely eschews consequentialist reasoning. This is particularly true of political leaders, who rarely ignore the likely consequences of their choices completely, because unlike commentators they are more directly confronted with the consequences of their decisions. Even people who aren’t the ultimate decision-makers and sometimes don’t have any decision-making power often try to make the case for their views in consequentialist terms, because consequentialist reasoning is still identified with rationality in a normative sense in Western policy circles (especially within the bureaucracy), so it’s rhetorically effective to do so even if that’s just a post facto justification for a decision that was really made for non-consequentialist reasons. However,since liberal imperialists virtually never support cooperation with non-liberal states that are not geopolitically aligned with the West, almost never discuss the possibility that we might be in a security dilemma — even if only to ultimately reject it — when they argue against engagement and constantly frame the debate in simplistic moral terms while using morally loaded expressions such as “appeasers” to disqualify their opponents, I think my claim that liberal imperialists disproportionately rely on the logic of appropriateness is mostly correct.
In fact, as I noted above, the most sophisticated and self-aware among them sometimes even openly admit that they disregard the consequences of their policy and think it’s important that liberal democracies take a stand on behalf of their principles. For instance, in the conclusion of their book about the US foreign policy toward Russia after the end of the Cold War, James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul acknowledge that even if the US had been been more forceful in opposing Yeltsin’s and Putin’s policy in Chechnya it probably wouldn’t have changed Russia’s behavior, but they nevertheless insist that “American impotence is no excuse for the abandonment of U.S. ideals”. In his book on how the decision to invade Iraq was made, which is a must-read on the topic and more generally on how foreign policy decisions are made, Michael Mazarr argues that, on major foreign policy issues, political leaders and senior officials are often guided by the logic of appropriateness rather than by the logic of consequences. He argues that even when this happens, “we feel as if we are considering objectives, as if we are goal-directed, as if we weigh various options based on how well they contribute to clearly identified interests we are trying to maximize”, but that in fact we are really guided by moralistic imperatives. Liberal imperialism is dangerous precisely because it encourages people to rely on the logic of appropriateness to make foreign policy decisions and let themselves be guided by such moralistic imperatives, which as Mazarr points out “have been an essential ingredient in a number of prominent disasters” in US history.
In defense of whataboutism
Liberal imperialists often complain that critics of their views engage in “whataboutism”, which they evidently think is sufficient to disqualify them. However, while it’s true that whataboutism can be bad, it can also be perfectly justified, so merely pointing out that someone is engaging in whataboutism doesn’t show that he is wrong. For instance, if someone does something bad and everyone criticizes him for it, but other people do the same thing all the time yet are never criticized or even praised for it, then it’s a good thing to point that out as long as you don’t claim that it makes a bad thing good. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the case that what the other person did is just as bad or that he wasn’t criticized for it, it’s enough for whataboutism to be justified that the amount of criticism different people receive for their behavior is not proportional to how bad what they did is. My contention is that, when critics of liberal imperialism engage in whataboutism, they are accurately pointing out the existence of a double standard in how the behavior of liberal democracies is judged relative to that of non-democratic states that are not geopolitically aligned with the West. That is not to deny that, as far as hegemons go, we could do a lot worse than the US, but that’s simply not relevant because no other nation can realistically achieve the same kind of hegemony as the US in the foreseeable future. In particular, even after it has overtaken the US in terms of GDP, China will never enjoy the relative power advantage that the US did after World War II. It’s true that often critics of Western foreign policy are equating actions that are not equally bad, so I’m not defending every aspect of their whataboutism, but that double standard is still a reality and liberal imperialists are completely oblivious to it.
For instance, to justify the US economic war on China, people often claim that China violates international norms by threatening Taiwan, a country whose independence the US doesn’t even officially recognize. Meanwhile, in the post-Cold War era alone, the US has conducted illegal military interventions in more than half a dozen countries. Unlike China with Taiwan, those were internationally recognized sovereign nations and the US didn’t merely threaten them, but actually bombed and in some cases even occupied them. China has arguably violated international law during that period, but it hasn’t done anything that rises to the level of US violations, yet that is not something you would ever guess from the mainstream discourse in the West. When you point that out, people reply that it’s not because China is intrinsically more peaceful, but simply because it doesn’t have the same capabilities as the US. However, even putting aside the fact that we don’t actually know that, countries have the capabilities they do and it’s crazy to say that we should punish some countries based on how they would behave if they had different capabilities while not punishing others for how they actually behave. If China took it upon itself to sanction the US in response to violations of international law it has recently committed, the same people who justify the US economic war against China would scream bloody murder. Clearly, this isn’t because China is a worse violator of international law than the US, it’s because they think the Americans are the good guys while the Chinese are the bad guys.
Now, if your view is that international law can be ignored when you deem it morally justified, I disagree but I suppose it’s a view that can be defended. However, if that is your view, then you shouldn’t invoke international law or blabber about the “rules-based international order” to criticize geopolitical adversaries of the US, but that is exactly what liberal imperialists do because their ideology rests on the myth that the US is a hegemon that supports a non-hegemonic international order in which might doesn’t make right and everyone is subjected to the same rules. In reality, the US and its allies violate or condone the violation of virtually every single international norm they invoke to criticize their geopolitical adversaries, which they can do because almost nobody ever points that out. For instance, in the speech he recently gave at the UN, Biden repeatedly criticized Russia for violating “the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor by force”. Yet in 2019 the US recognized the annexation of the Golan by Israel, which is a clear violation of that norm, since Israel seized that region by force during the Six-Day War. Even if the widespread view that Israel only attacked Egypt in 1967 because it was about to be attacked were true, which it’s not, the annexation of the Golan would still violate that norm because international law prohibits countries from seizing territory by force regardless of whether they gained control of it during a defensive or offensive war. Biden can invoke that norm to criticize Russia without fear that anyone will point out the hypocrisy of this statement, not because commentators will notice it and make the conscious decision not to point it out, but because it doesn’t even occur to them. In fact, it probably didn’t even occur to Biden, because political leaders are no more immune to the kind of double standard I’m describing than commentators.
The only people who point out that double standard tend to be weird, stupid or downright evil and often show a disturbing willingness to downplay or even deny the crimes of autocratic regimes, so not only do they have little impact because few people are exposed to their views, but they arguably make it harder for a legitimate criticism of the West’s double standard to be heard because any such criticism is tarred by association with them, which makes people less likely to criticize it because they don’t want to be maligned and makes that criticism less effective when they do anyway. In general, as liberal imperialists relish in pointing out, critics of the West’s double standard tend to equate practices that are not equally bad. The problem is that even if what the West does isn’t as bad as what non-liberal states do, which it often isn’t when you pay attention to the details, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t warrant more criticism than it receives, which it often does. If you are compared to someone who murdered his wife, pointing out that you merely beat yours up doesn’t exactly get you off the hook even if that’s true, but that’s essentially what liberal imperialists do in response to whataboutism by critics of Western foreign policy. In other words, it’s not enough to point out that what the US and its allies do is not as bad as what their geopolitical adversaries do, you also have to show that the criticism each side receives is proportional to how bad their behavior objectively is and that’s obviously not the case.
For instance, despite what critics of liberal imperialism often claim, it’s not true that Western countries don’t try harder than Russia to minimize civilian deaths and hardships. Although the final decision remains the commander’s alone, US military regulations provide that lawyers be consulted before a target is hit, whereas I seriously doubt that, in the Russian armed forces, lawyers are involved to the same extent in the choice of targets. It’s also the case that, because there is more transparency and accountability in liberal democracies than in autocracies, the military tends to be more restrained in the former than in the latter. Western countries also have more sophisticated weapons, such as precision-guided munitions, that make it easier to minimize collateral damage to civilians. But it’s easy to exaggerate how much difference all this makes and often whatever difference exists in how much civilians are harmed by Western military operations relative to military interventions by non-liberal states can’t plausibly explain the difference in how Western commentators treat them. For example, Russia is systematically accused of war crimes by Western officials and commentators for targetting civilian infrastructures in Ukraine, yet NATO did the same thing to general indifference when it bombed Serbia in 1999. It’s not that nobody in the West criticized this tactic, some people did, but there was nothing like the general outrage more recently caused by Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and in particular the accusation of war crime was nowhere as pervasive. However, while the process through which NATO selected targets in Serbia was more rigorous and NATO arguably did more to limit the long-term damage, the amount of destruction was similar and in both cases the goal wasn’t merely to degrade the enemy’s military capabilities but also to make the civilian population experience discomfort to hasten the end of the war by pressuring the political leadership. The fact that NATO’s decision to bomb Serbia was not as bad as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which I don’t deny (although I still think it was bad), is also irrelevant because the legality of actions undertaken in the course of a war doesn’t hinge on the legality, let alone the morality, of the war.
The reason why I insist that whataboutism in foreign policy is often justified is not just that I care about moral consistency, but also and mostly because I think that as long as liberal imperialists don’t have a more accurate view of the relative badness of autocratic states and liberal democracies, they will find it difficult to avoid the mistakes I have identified above. For instance, I have argued that by refusing to take into account the concerns of non-liberal states, liberal imperialists could decrease security and prosperity for everyone by fueling a security dilemma. Since recognizing that we might be in a security dilemma requires empathy, because you have to be able to take seriously the possibility that people on the other side don’t have hostile intentions toward you but just misperceive your intentions toward them and react accordingly, it’s much easier if you don’t regard them as monsters who have nothing in common with you. Ironically, if liberal imperialists sometimes tried to put themselves in the shoes of autocratic leaders, they would often be surprised by how much they have in common. For instance, liberal imperialists frequently deride the notion that Russian elites could genuinely have felt threatened by NATO expansion on the ground that Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and that it’s crazy to think that NATO might seriously consider attacking it, yet 20 years ago many of them were genuinely convinced that Iraq posed such a threat to the US that it had to be invaded right away. The notion that leaders of autocratic regimes, which as liberal imperialists themselves like to point out are inclined toward paranoia and operate within profoundly dysfunctional institutions, might be subject to the same kind of misperceptions simply doesn’t occur to them. If they had a more accurate view of the badness of autocratic regimes compared to liberal democracies, it would be easier for them to take seriously the possibility that autocratic regimes behave in the way they do not just because their ruling elite is evil, but also because it’s subject to the same kind of bias that elites in democratic countries often exhibit.
Another reason why I think that whataboutism can play a positive role is that, if liberal imperialists were more aware of the double standard they constantly use in evaluating autocratic regimes, they wouldn’t uncritically accept every accusation leveled against them no matter how absurd or poorly supported by the evidence. In turn, this would reduce the sense of moral urgency they feel to “do something” against the transgressions, both real and imaginary, of non-liberal regimes, which has so often led them to support disastrous policies. For instance, in March 2011, a NATO-led coalition launched a military intervention against the forces of Gaddafi in Libya. While it had been authorized by resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council to protect civilians, it violated that resolution by going way beyond this mandate and assisting in the overthrow of Gaddafi, arguably prolonging the civil war significantly, plunging the country into a state of chaos from which it still hasn’t recovered today and destabilizing the entire region for several years. The intervention was launched because people thought that, unless something was done to prevent it, Gaddafi would order the indiscriminate massacre of civilians in Benghazi, the city where rebels against his regime were based. However, as even a cross-party investigation by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons concluded in 2016, this claim was not supported by the evidence and was never very plausible in the first place. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter because, as the Foreign Affairs Committee also noted, the Western media coverage was extremely one-sided and uncritically reported as fact every claim made by the rebels, no matter how preposterous. The sense of moral urgency this created made people incapable not only of assessing the credibility of those claims, but also of seriously considering the long-term consequences of what they clamored for, which as we have seen is typical of people who rely on the logic of appropriateness for decision-making.
This pattern keeps repeating itself because, when it comes to autocratic regimes, people in general and liberal imperialists in particular lower their evidentiary standards to the point where they are practically non-existent. For instance, after the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on the world in 2020, all sorts of accusations were made against China for how it handled the initial outbreak and have since become received wisdom. However, as I showed in a series of late 2020 essays, most of those accusations are completely baseless and often rest on arguments that are preposterous on their face. Nevertheless, many of those claims were aired by prestigious Western media organizations and were never retracted, even though in many cases even a cursory examination of the evidence would have been sufficient to show them to be false. As I pointed out at the time, people have strong incentives to cast geopolitical adversaries of the West in the darkest light possible and they know that even if they lie in the process they are still more likely to be rewarded than punished, whereas anyone who points out that accusations against such a regime are not supported by the evidence is likely to be accused of complicity with it. What is true about China and Libya is also true about Russia and geopolitical adversaries of the West in general. Liberal imperialists are right that critics of Western foreign policy will often twist themselves in knots rather than admit wrongdoing by autocratic regimes, but they arguably have the opposite flaw. They are ridiculously gullible when it comes to accusations leveled at non-liberal regimes and often incapable of nuance in assessing their behavior. To the extent that, by reducing the moral distance that people perceive between autocratic regimes and liberal democracies in a way that lines up better with reality, whataboutism helps people resist the urge to support disastrous policies out of a misguided sense of moral urgency, it’s not only justified but necessary.
Liberal imperialists should have more faith in liberalism
Ironically, even though their ideology is premised on the superiority of liberalism and democracy over competing ideologies and political systems, liberal imperialists greatly underestimate the attractive power of liberalism in the broad sense of the term. Indeed, although we should avoid falling into a caricature of whig history, there are very good reasons to think that economic development has a strong liberalizing effect on people. Again and again we have seen that, as people get richer and more educated, they tend to embrace liberal values and become more individualistic, more secular, more tolerant, etc. In turn, because ultimately institutions depend on the values of the population and institutions that are completely at odd with those values cannot persist forever, this is eventually reflected at the institutional level. This kind of optimistic view was very popular, including and perhaps especially among liberal imperialists, in the decade after the end of the Cold War, but it has fallen out of favor in recent years for what I think are bad reasons and I suspect this disappointment has a lot to do with the recent increase in popularity of a more assertive foreign policy. In particular, 20 years ago a lot of people thought that if we welcomed China into Western multilateral institutions such as the WTO its political system would move in the direction of that of liberal democracies as it grew richer, but while it did get richer it didn’t become more democratic and arguably the opposite has even happened during the past decade. However, this doesn’t disprove the claim that economic development has a liberalizing effect on people that eventually transforms institutions, which in my view remains as well-supported by the evidence as ever. It’s just that people had totally unrealistic expectations about China that were not actually entailed by that claim.
First, while China’s economy has been growing very quickly since 2000, it’s still quite poor by Western standards. During that period, China’s GDP per capita went from less than $1,000 to $12,500, which is a more than ten-fold increase but is still less than ¼ of Germany’s GDP per capita. Moreover, China is also very unequal, so there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese who are extremely poor by the standards of developed countries. Even in China, where economic growth has been particularly impressive, economic development takes time because compared to the West it was starting from very far. Of course, it’s true that China is much richer today than 20 years ago and yet political institutions haven’t liberalized, but there is no reason to expect the liberalizing effect of economic development to be linear and every reason to expect it’s not. First, shifts in values in society take place mostly through generational replacement, not because individuals change their minds. Thus, even if China has reached a level of economic development sufficient for people who are socialized in this environment to espouse liberal values (which is hardly obvious because while this shift in values is observed everywhere in response to economic development it doesn’t occur at the same pace everywhere since other factors also matter), those values would still remain a minority in the population as a whole for a while. Even when enough generational replacement has taken place for liberal values to dominate in the population as a whole, they will still remain in the minority among old people, from which political leaders at the highest level are drawn. Thus, while there are good reasons to expect that economic development will have a liberalizing effect in China, there is no reason to expect that institutions will dramatically change overnight because in general they have a lot of inertia. But as China gets richer, they will change eventually and move in a more liberal direction, although this is not to say that China will turn into France.
Thus, if people really want China to become a more liberal country, they should support engagement and the continuation of economic relations with it rather than economic war. Not only are those relations mutually beneficial, whereas economic war harms both sides, but they will accelerate the process of liberalization by making China’s economy grow faster. This point doesn’t only apply to China but more generally to autocratic countries that are not geopolitically aligned with the West. Thus, not only do sanctions have a very bad track-record at changing the behavior of the governments they target, especially with large countries such as China and Russia, but they and more generally any policies that hinder economic relations with autocratic countries are usually counterproductive in the long-run because they limit the spread of liberal values by slowing down economic growth. Moreover, by harming the population of the countries they target, they create resentment against the West not just in that country but also in the rest of the world, where people know the same thing could happen to them. Indeed, while as I noted above people in the West are largely oblivious to the double standard they constantly apply in international politics, people in the rest of the world, where the media have different biases, are very much aware of it and they don’t take kindly to moral lecturing by the West. It’s striking that, even as people in the rest of the world admire and envy the West’s prosperity and freedom, they have a very negative view of Western foreign policy. For instance, in a poll conducted in 2013 in 65 countries, the US was by far the country that was seen as the greatest threat to world peace even though it was also seen as the most desirable place to live. Liberal imperialists would do well to ponder what share of responsibility they have in this state of affairs, instead of doubling down on moral lecturing when, for instance, most of the world refuses to join the West in sanctioning Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
As should be clear by now, I don’t think the nature of a country’s political institutions should matter much in how we deal with it and I also don’t think it’s any of our business, but if people really care about regime transformation they should support engagement and let economic development work its magic. What they should especially eschew are policies that directly aim to transform the regime of a foreign country unless the government of that country is asking for help to achieve that transformation and, even in that case, it’s not always a good idea because it can still backfire. Ironically, both proponents and opponents of liberal imperialism tend to vastly overestimate the impact of policies that aim to directly transform the regime of a foreign country, such as funding pro-democracy non-governmental organizations, supporting political opponents, etc. Those policies typically have very little impact on the country’s political institutions, because even a country as power as the US can’t easily transform the regime of a distant foreign country. Even when the government of that country is actually asking for help, as Russia’s government did under Yeltsin, such policies accomplish very little because ultimately anything a foreign government does will be completely dominated by endogenous developments and you can’t turn a large country such as Russia into a liberal democracy by funneling a few billion dollars to pro-democracy groups. But while such policies do little to advance their intended goals, they often have a significant and negative effect on the relationship with the country they target. Indeed, autocratic leaders also overestimate how much difference it makes and they tend to be paranoid, so regime transformation policies have an outsized effect on their perception of the intentions of the governments who pursue them.
For instance, people don’t really believe Putin when he claims that he thinks the Orange Revolution was fomented by the West to wrestle Ukraine away from Russia and that it intends to orchestrate a similar color revolution in Russia itself, but he clearly does and this episode played a significant role in the degradation of relations between Russia and the US at the time. Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC correspondent in Moscow and author of a biography of Putin, worked as a consultant for the Kremlin between 2006 and 2009, which gave him unprecedented access to many Russian officials. It’s clear from his book, which is based on interviews with both Western and Russian officials, that people in the Kremlin actually believe that narrative. Since the US and other Western countries funded and trained some of the groups that were involved in the protests and clearly supported the movement once it started, the Russians genuinely convinced themselves that the West had orchestrated the whole thing, even though it took Western officials by surprise just as much as people in the Kremlin. In the event, despite the movement’s initial success in obtaining a revote, it quickly faltered after 2005 because of internal divisions, but it still caused a major panic among the Russian elite. Since Western countries also funded pro-democracy groups, Russian officials started to worry that Russia was next and their belief in the possibility of cooperation with the West, which had already been undermined by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and many other things before that, was seriously harmed as a result. If the West stopped meddling into the affairs of other countries by supporting pro-democracy groups and insisting on democratic reforms to cooperate with them, which again doesn’t do much to actually bolster democracy in those countries anyway, they would avoid feeding the suspicions of the ruling elite in autocratic countries and thereby fueling security dilemmas by creating misperceptions about their intentions toward those countries.
Liberal imperialists find the suggestion that we should refrain from supporting democracy in autocratic countries offensive, because they think that democracy is a human right and that Western countries have a moral obligation to support it abroad regardless of the consequences, but also because they don’t buy that autocratic leaders see regime transformation policies that aim to spread democracy in their country as evidence that Western governments have hostile intentions toward it. It’s so obvious to them that regime transformation policies are only directed at the regime and not at the country itself that it doesn’t occur to them that, for people in that country and especially for those in the ruling elite, this may not be obvious and that as a result they may interpret those policies very differently. For liberal imperialists, autocratic leaders are purely cynical people who know their people are striving for Western-style democracy and conspire to deprive them of what they want, but usually elites in autocratic countries sincerely identify the interests of their regime with that of their country to a large extent, which is why they tend to perceive regime transformation policies as evidence of Western hostility not just toward the regime but also toward the country itself. Even people outside the ruling elite will often rally around the regime when it’s attacked from the outside, especially when they end up being collateral damage, which is often the case.
Once again the problem is that, in addition to operating under the logic of appropriateness and therefore seeing the support for democracy as a moral imperative for Western countries, liberal imperialists are incapable of empathy with the ruling elite of autocratic countries. Crucially, saying that being able to empathize with autocratic leaders is important doesn’t mean that we have to endorse their worldview, only that we have to understand it to predict how they would perceive the different policies we are contemplating and react to them. If liberal imperialists tried to put themselves in the shoes of autocratic leaders from time to time, they would understand that what seems obvious to them isn’t necessarily obvious to people in the rest of the world, which in turn might convince them that regime transformation policies could really fuel a security dilemma by negatively affecting the perception that autocratic leaders have of Western intentions toward their country. Liberal imperialists are by ideology and temperament ill-suited to this exercise, which is probably made even harder by the fact that, to the extent they have any contact with people from autocratic countries, they tend to be opponents of the regime, who for obvious reasons have no problem dissociating it from the country. Yet in that respect autocratic leaders are not so different from democratic leaders, who also have a tendency to conflate their interests with those of their country, which is just a very human tendency.
In any case, if as I have argued regime transformation policies are largely ineffective at achieving their intended goals but often negatively impact the perception of Western intentions by leaders of autocratic countries, then we should abandon them because they won’t do much to bring about democracy in those countries but will make the emergence of security dilemmas more likely. Liberal imperialists find the notion that we should tone down our support for democracy abroad because it rubs autocratic leaders the wrong way abhorrent, but it’s complete madness to pursue ineffective policies that have potentially disastrous consequences just to make a point. It would probably help if they didn’t have such a romantic view of democracy and saw it less as a way for the will of the people to prevail on policy and more as a mechanism that allows political elites to compete for power in a peaceful manner. You would think that it would be easy for them to embrace this kind of Schumpeterian conception of democracy, because in the West they tend to be pretty enthusiastic about institutional mechanisms that limit the influence of ordinary people on policy for the sake of effectiveness, but they take a very different approach when it comes to foreign policy and dealing with autocracies. As I argued above, if people care so much about spreading democracy and liberal values, they should be patient, support diplomatic engagement and mutually beneficial economic relations with autocratic countries and trust in the liberalizing effect of economic development. The rest will just take care of itself eventually as people in those countries get rich and older generations die.
Appreciating the extent and limits of Western power
Liberal imperialists somehow manage to both vastly underestimate and greatly overestimate the West’s power at the same time. On the first point, they constantly talk as if autocracies posed a major threat to the West, but that is just delusional. As I noted above, Western countries have a combined GDP that vastly exceeds that of any of their geopolitical adversaries, whether taken in isolation or combined. Even if you look specifically at industrial production, which is more relevant to military potential, the West leaves the rest of the world far behind. And while the West’s relative position has slowly been deteriorating over time, as you would expect as the rest of the world catches up with it, this is not going to fundamentally change anytime soon. Russia’s economy is very small by Western standards and, with the invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions taken by the West in response to it, it will likely grow significantly below potential for years if not decades to come. China will almost certainly overtake the US in terms of GDP eventually, but even in the best case scenario where it manages to avoid demographic collapse (which is what it’s facing at the moment), it probably won’t do so by much and collectively Western countries will remain significantly more powerful. Moreover, while GDP is the best proxy for overall power in the long-run, the US also has advantages that are not perfectly captured by GDP and have a lot of inertia, such as the dollar’s special status, its privileged relationship with the international organizations that regulate the world economy, etc. As long as China doesn’t open up, it’s also unlikely that its soft power will be able to rival that of the US. People in the West and in most of the world aren’t going to be attracted by China’s autocratic model, whereas urban classes in China and other autocratic countries are already largely Westernized, because as I noted above economic development has a strong liberalization effect.
In short, it’s very hard to see how China or any other autocratic state could pose a serious threat to the West, yet people keep talking as if they do. For years, the media, politicians and even many experts have been hysterical about the threat that Russia allegedly posed to democracy in the West, but it’s hard to see how Russia could have a meaningful effect on Western politics. Despite the geographic proximity, economic and cultural ties with Russia, corruption, etc., Putin's attempts to interfere in Ukrainian elections have been largely unsuccessful, even in 2004 when he got personally and publicly involved. As I noted above, even the US doesn’t have much to show after spending billions of dollars over the years on democracy promotion in the post-Soviet space, but people think that Russia can “destabilize the West” by paying trolls on Twitter and funneling a few hundred millions dollars to far-right politicians in various European countries. The notion that Russia might invade the eastern flank of NATO, which you also used to hear occasionally, is even more preposterous given the vast disparity of power between NATO and Russia. Now we’re increasingly seeing people make similar claims about the “threat” posed to the West by China. For instance, commentators were recently hyperventilating because Scholz refused to oppose a Chinese state-owned enterprise to buy a minority stake in the port of Hamburg, which apparently would be very bad. People never make clear why exactly it would be bad though and it’s hard to think of a reason when you look at the details of the deal even if you try your best to be paranoid. In particular, a port can't be relocated and, in case of conflict with China, the German government could easily take control of it, as it did with Gazprom's storage in Germany after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. People constantly talk about the “threat” posed by this or that regime, but they almost never explain what this threat consists of exactly and usually I don’t think they have a very clear idea themselves. This is probably because, if those inchoate beliefs were made precise, their absurdity would immediately become obvious and people wouldn’t have them in the first place.
The truth is that, both right now and in the foreseeable future, the West is simply too powerful to be seriously threatened by anyone unless we go looking for trouble. This qualification is important because, as powerful as the US and its allies are, they are not omnipotent and, by failing to correctly appreciate the limits of their power, they risk adopting policies that would endanger their safety or prosperity. Paradoxically, while in some respects liberal imperialists underestimate the West’s power, they also overestimate it precisely in that way. For instance, while Russia is far too weak to pose a serious threat to NATO (something that is now uncontroversial but wasn’t always so), it still has considerable spoiling power and humiliating it could have serious repercussions. Unfortunately, liberal imperialists clearly don’t realize that, so they think that we don’t risk anything by pushing the Russians against the wall. The problem is that people have such a cartoonish view of Russia that they think it’s already as bad as it can be, but unfortunately I fear they might soon realize how wrong they are. Indeed, there are a lot of things Russia is currently doing that we like, but that it won't be doing anymore if we turn it into a pariah state. Conversely, there are a lot of things it's not currently doing that it might start doing, which we won’t like at all. For instance, Russia has refrained from selling certain advanced weapon systems to geopolitical adversaries of the West in the past, not just because it deemed that it would threaten its own security but also because it wanted to preserve good relations with the West. If we turn it into a pariah state, it will have less reasons to do so and might change this policy in some cases. Similarly, Russia has cooperated a lot with the West on the non-proliferation agenda in the past, but it might no longer do so. Are we sure that we are ready for that? Maybe it’s worth the risk and we don’t need to change anything in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but liberal imperialists are in no position to be confident of that, because they think about the question in simplistic moral terms and that kind of possibility clearly isn’t part of their calculation.
I presented the fact that liberal imperialists both underestimate and overestimate the West’s power at the same time as a paradox, but this paradox is only apparent, for it’s partly because they see Western democracies as under siege by autocracies that liberal imperialists advocate policies to contain them that could have disastrous consequences since they fail to properly take into account the limits of Western power. The fact that the US and its allies are so powerful is both a blessing and a curse, because on the one hand it means that bad foreign policy decisions are less likely to result in disaster for them, but on the other hand it makes Western foreign policy elites more susceptible to hubris and less likely to learn from their mistakes, precisely because they rarely have to pay a high price for them. Western foreign policy elites need to recognize that we can’t solve every injustice in the world and that sometimes it’s preferable to have goals that fall short of what they regard as a just outcome because, as powerful as the West may be, there are things we can’t hope to accomplish without taking risks for ourselves or others that are unacceptably high. For instance, even if Taiwan is entitled to its independence, risking a war between the US and China, which in addition to potentially killing millions of people would almost certainly destroy the world economy, for a country that technically neither the US nor any of its allies even recognize doesn’t make a lot of sense and, although that’s a story for another time, the argument that it’s necessary to protect the supply of semiconductors strikes me as totally unconvincing. If you disagree and think that the US should commit to defend Taiwan against China, then it should not continue to support Ukraine against Russia to the same extent, because even the US has finite resources and it probably can’t do both.
Liberal imperialists would probably find it easier to appreciate the limits of Western power if they considered more often that we already ignore many injustices in the world. For instance, the Tigray War in Ethiopia has probably cost hundreds of thousands of lives since it started in 2020, but nobody is arguing that we should intervene militarily to stop it even though it would arguably be far less risky than committing to the defense of Taiwan. Of course, the point is not that since the West doesn’t try to solve every injustice it should not try to solve any, which is obviously fallacious. Rather, the point is that if liberal imperialists considered the fact that even they constantly let injustices happen without advocating that Western countries use their power to prevent or redress them, it would reduce the sense of moral urgency they feel to “do something” in other cases and make it easier for them to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of different options, thereby increasing the probability that if they decide to act it’s because the latter outweigh the former and not for some illegitimate reasons such as nationalist rivalry. This is similar to the argument I made above that whataboutism is often justified because, as long as it’s not used to make a fallacious inference, it can act as a corrective to a widespread and detrimental psychological tendency among Western foreign policy elites.
When critics of Western foreign policy make the kind of arguments I have made in this essay, liberal imperialists ask why they only call for democracies to show restraint and make conciliatory gestures, but don’t give the same advice to autocracies. What critics of liberal imperialism typically reply is that we don’t control what Russia or China does, whereas we control what we do, but this response is not fully satisfactory. Indeed, while it’s true that collectively we control what we do, it doesn’t mean that Western political leaders are entirely free to pursue a realist foreign policy. In fact, they are not, because even if personally they are realists about foreign policy, they live in a society where liberal imperialism is completely hegemonic and this puts heavy constraints on what they can do. This is particularly true in the US, where as Kissinger aptly noted, the tradition of Wilsonian idealism holds a powerful sway on foreign policy. In other words, realists argue that we should accept the preferences of autocratic elites as given and take them into account even if we deem them irrational or illegitimate, but arguably Western elites are just as set in their ways and Western political leaders can’t ignore them.
The best argument for liberal imperialism is probably that, given the hegemony it enjoys in the West, the best a realist can realistically hope for in the West is a kind of middle-ground between realism and liberal imperialism that is actually worse than unadulterated liberal imperialism would be. For instance, Obama had clear realist leanings and tried to be conciliatory toward Russia in order not to fuel the security dilemma, but in this political environment he could only achieve a policy that was ambiguous and, to quote the French historian Jacques Bainville, “too harsh in its mild features and too mild in its harsh aspects”. Given that a realist policy wasn’t really politically feasible, it might have been preferable to be more aggressive against Russia, because it might have deterred it from invading Ukraine. The same can arguably be said about Germany’s stance toward Russia. Since the invasion, it has become largely uncontroversial that it was completely wrong, but as I plan to argue in details soon, I actually think the war could have been avoided if the West had been united behind that policy. The problem is that Germany was never able to convince its partners to come onboard and, as a result, the kind of conciliatory policy it pursued toward Russia was arguably worse than if it had joined the bandwagon and been more aggressive. But there is something disturbing with this argument, because the fact that ultimately we collectively decide what to do but not what autocratic states do is still relevant and if nobody speaks out against liberal imperialism, we’ll just remain stuck in the situation I just described, where the best feasible option is only a second-best and a pretty terrible one at that.
Liberal imperialism wasn’t always so dominant in the West and I don’t think we should give up the hope that it can be rolled back in the long-run, though it will probably take a disaster or generational replacement for that to happen. If we are lucky and liberal imperialism doesn’t cause any disaster, a return to a more restrained form of foreign policy will have to result from the rejection of liberal imperialism by a new generation of political and intellectual elites, but this is not going to happen unless some people make the case against it. This is what I have tried to do in this essay and I have done so not by advocating a particular course of action on any particular issue, but rather by criticizing the principles that underlie the liberal imperialist approach to foreign policy and trying to explain where critics of that approach are coming from. Indeed, there is always room for rational disagreement on any particular issue of foreign policy even among people who reject liberal imperialism, but in my experience the problem with criticisms of realist arguments is not so much that people disagree with them as much as they don’t understand them, because they take the basic premises of liberal imperialism for granted and don’t realize that realists explicitly reject them.
My goal in this essay has been to bring those basic premises, which usually remain implicit in discussions of concrete foreign policy issues, to the fore and subject them to a critical examination. Even if you don’t change your mind on any particular foreign policy debate after reading this essay, as long as it has made you realize that some of the principles you relied more or less implicitly on to reach foreign policy positions are not obvious, I will consider myself successful in that endeavor. It’s harder for realists to prevail in the public debate, because they have to consider the details of each particular issue and present a cost/benefit analysis that necessarily rests on several uncertain hypotheses, whereas liberal imperialists rely on the logic of appropriateness and therefore reason in terms of imperative moral obligations that not only appeal naturally to people in liberal democracies but depend to a much lesser extent on the specifics of each case. But realists have no chance of success unless people start questioning the principles that underlie liberal imperialism and understand where they’re coming from. In particular, it’s crucial to convey that if realists criticize liberal imperialism, it’s not because they reject democracy and liberal values, which they generally embrace just as sincerely as liberal imperialists.
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