December 26, 2002
Foreign policy for liberals
Run do not walk to your local newsstand or bookstore. Buy the January 2003 issue of Mother Jones and read George Packer's essay. (It's not currently available on-line.) This is the manifesto for a viable and genuinely liberal foreign policy. These are the positions that religious liberals especially Unitarian Universalists should be clamoring for.
George Packer, the author of the extraordinary memoir Blood of the Liberals, writes that America used to have a liberal foreign policy fifty years ago. "From Woodrow Wilson's vision of freedom under international law to FDR's struggle against totalitarianism, the liberal tradition in foreign affairs inspired people around the world," he writes. Why? Democracy "wasn't merely a political system, but a spirit, a worldview an affirmation of individual liberty and human solidarity."
Since the Vietnam war, when liberals developed an almost unshakeable anxiety about military power, the Democrats have offered "no alternate vision of what purpose America's enormous power in the world should serve." (The Washington Monthly also offers some background on why the Democrats can't think straight about national security.) It's time for liberals to face facts. "America will go on being the superpower, and radical Islamists will go on trying to kill Americans and reestablish the seventh-century caliphate, whether George W. Bush is president or not. Liberals need to begin asking themselves hard questions about how they would handle this threat if they were in power."
Packer's proposal emphasizes democracy and human rights, international cooperation, and economic fairness themes foreign to the Bush administration, "the wrong people doing the right things for the wrong reasons." Unless we help democracy flourish in places where it is currently weak or nonexistent, no amount of "homeland security" will make us safe. So Packer urges liberals to champion democracy at home and abroad:
A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want for themselves and their own country liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society should be America's goal for the rest of the world as well. This is hard-boiled self-interest as well as idealism: American security in the age of globalization depends more and more on expanding political freedom and a minimally dignified life elsewhere, as opposed to protecting what we have behind increasingly impenetrable borders.
A liberal foreign policy would require more commitments than Bill Clinton dared to make, and different commitments from the ones George W. Bush wants to make. It would require nation building on a far greater scale than we've seen not just peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but economic development in Uganda and support for democratic forces in Iran. . .
But liberals should be under no illusions that a fairer international economic system would solve the problem of Islamist extremism by "draining the swamp" or eliminating "root causes." Al Qaeda and similar groups are implacable enemies of democracy and the only answer to them is force. Multilateral action with other democracies should be at the core of a liberal foreign policy, for practical as well as principled reasons.
Liberalism has been weakened not by some vast right-wing conspiracy, but by a loss of confidence in liberal ideas. "Relativism, and a fear of imperialism, and perhaps too much comfort and security, have sapped all the juice out of the civic religion," Packer writes. But the key doctrine of our civic religion needs strong support now: We must find ways to make the world safe for democracy, or what are we fighting for?
Packer is also the author of a must-read series of interviews with liberal intellectuals who have serious doubts about Bush's plans for Iraq, but who also have kept their distance from the left's nascent antiwar movement. He is one of our most honest and indispensable liberal thinkers.
Philocrites | Copyright © 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu