G. John Ikenberry: The Grand Strategy of Liberalism (Spring 1999)

The "hidden grand strategy" of American foreign policy is reemerging into plain view after a long Cold War hibernation.

To hear critics tell it, the American preoccupation with promoting democracy around the world is the product of a dangerous idealistic impulse. In his recent book, Diplomacy (1995), Henry Kissinger cautions against this neo-Wilsonian impulse, under which American foreign policy is shaped more by values than by interests. He joins a long line of American writers, from Walter Lippmann to George Kennan to Charles Krauthammer, who call on the United States to check its idealism at the water's edge and accept the necessity of a more sober pursuit of American national interests abroad. At best, in their view, the American democratic impulse is a distraction, a nettlesome inconvenience that forces the nation's leaders to dress up needed measures in democratic rhetoric. At worst, it unleashes a dangerous and overweening moralistic zeal, oblivious to or ignorant of how international politics really operates. It fuels periodic American "crusades" to remake the world, which, as President Woodrow Wilson discovered after World War I, can land the country in serious trouble.

This "hardheaded" view, however, is a misreading of both past and present. The American promotion of democracy abroad, particularly as it has been pursued since the end of World War II, reflects a pragmatic, evolving, and sophisticated understanding of how to create a stable and relatively peaceful world order. It amounts to what might be called an American "liberal" grand strategy. It is a strategy based on the very realistic view that the political character of other states has an enormous impact on the ability of the United States to ensure its security and economic interests. It is also an orientation that unites factions of the Left and the Right in American politics. Conservatives point to Ronald Reagan as the great Cold War champion of the free world, democracy, and self-determination - but rarely recognize him as the great Wilsonian of our age. Liberals emphasize the role of human rights, multilateral institutions, and the progressive political effects of economic interdependence. These positions are parts of a whole. Although "realist" critics and others complain about drift and confusion in U.S. foreign policy, it actually has a great deal of coherence.

The American preoccupation with promoting democracy abroad fits into a larger liberal view about the sources of a stable, legitimate, secure, and prosperous international order. This outlook may not always be the chief guiding principle of policy, and it may sometimes lead to error. Still, it is a relatively coherent orientation rooted in the American political experience and American understandings of history, economics, and the sources of political stability. It thus stands apart from more traditional grand strategies that grow out of European experience and the so-called realist tradition in foreign policy, with its emphasis on balances of power, realpolitik, and containment.

This distinctively American liberal grand strategy is built around a set of claims and assumptions about how democratic politics, economic interdependence, international institutions, and political identity encourage a stable political order. It is not a single view articulated by a single group of thinkers. It is a composite view built on a variety of arguments by a variety of supporters. Some advocate promoting democratic institutions abroad, some lobby for free trade and economic liberalization, and others aim to erect ambitious new international and regional economic and security institutions. Each group has its own emphases and agendas, each may think of itself as entirely independent of the others (and occasionally even hostile to them), but over the years they have almost inadvertently complemented one another. Together, these efforts have come to constitute a liberal grand strategy.

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What is striking about American foreign policy is how deeply bipartisan liberal internationalism has been. Reagan and Bush pursued policies that reflected a strong commitment to the expansion of democracy, markets, and the rule of law. The Reagan administration's involvements in El Salvador, the Philippines, Chile, and elsewhere all reflected this orientation. So did its shift from the Nixon-Kissinger embrace of "permanent coexistence" with the Soviet Union toward a more active promotion of human rights and democracy. Reagan and his allies (with a few notable exceptions, such as UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick) embraced the traditional liberal internationalist creed: more democracies means fewer threats to the United States.

Today, Republican and Democratic leaders alike favor a foreign policy agenda organized around business internationalism, multilateral economic and security organizations, and democratic community building. It is a coalition not unlike the one that formed in the 1940s when the United States was contemplating the shape of the postwar world. Its members don't all have the same motives or interests. Some pursue democracy, the rule of law, and human rights as ends in themselves; others see them as a way to expand and safeguard business and markets; still others see indirect payoffs for national security. But this is nothing new. Out of the mix of motives and policies still comes a meaningful whole.

The United States may be predestined to pursue a liberal grand strategy. There is something in the character of the American system that supports a general liberal strategic orientation. Behind it stand an array of backers, from U.S. corporations that trade and invest overseas to human rights groups to partisans of democracy to believers in multilateral organizations. Democracies - particularly big and rich ones such as the United States - seem to have an inherent sociability. They are biased, by their very makeup, in favor of engagement, enlargement, interdependence, and institutionalization, and they are biased against containment, separation, balance, and exclusion.

It may be, as some critics argue, that Americans have been too optimistic about the possibilities of promoting democracy abroad. But this sober consideration does not diminish the overall coherence of liberal grand strategy. The last British governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patton, captured this truth about America's role in the promotion of democracy: "American power and leadership have been more responsible than most other factors in rescuing freedom in the second half of this century. America has been prepared to support the values that have shaped its own liberalism and prosperity with generosity, might, and determination. Sometimes this may have been done maladroitly; what is important is that it has been done." America has not just been spreading its values, it has been securing its interests. This is America's hidden grand strategy, and there is at least some evidence that it has been rather successful.

(From G. John Ikenberry, "Why Export Democracy?: The 'Hidden Grand Strategy' of American Foreign Policy,'" The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 23, no. 2 (Spring 1999). The original post is at Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy.)