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America's return to realism

Sep 06,2021 - Last updated at Sep 06,2021

CHICAGO — US President Joe Biden’s speech defending the withdrawal from Afghanistan announced a decisive break with a tradition of foreign-policy idealism that began with Woodrow Wilson and reached its apex in the 1990s. While that tradition has often been called “liberal internationalism”, it also was the dominant view on the right by the end of the Cold War. The United States, according to liberal internationalists, should use military force as well as its economic power to compel other countries to embrace liberal democracy and uphold human rights.

Both in conception and in practice, American idealism rejected the Westphalian international system, in which states are forbidden to intervene in others’ internal affairs, and peace results from maintaining a balance of power. Wilson sought to replace this system with universal principles of justice, administered by international institutions. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt revived these ideals in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which declared self-determination, democracy, and human rights to be war goals.

But during the Cold War, the US pursued a resolutely “realist” foreign policy that focused on national interest and propped up or tolerated dictatorships as long as they opposed the Soviet Union. The two rivals had little use for international institutions or universal ideals except for propaganda purposes, instead using regional arrangements to knit together their allies. It was Europe that, in the 1970s, tried to advance human rights and assume a position of moral leadership to distinguish itself from the goliaths to its east and west.

America’s commitment to human rights began at a moment of weakness. In the wake of the military and moral disaster of Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter and the US Congress sought to infuse American foreign policy with a moral centre and reached for the language of human rights. President Ronald Reagan saw human rights as a convenient rhetorical cudgel for clobbering the Soviet Union. But both presidents continued to support dictatorships that served US security interests, and neither used military force to advance humanitarian ideals. The era of US-led humanitarian intervention would have to await the end of the Cold War.

The rhetoric outstripped the reality, but reality did change. As the sole global hegemon, the US embarked on a large number of wars, big and small, involving a confusing mélange of hard-nosed security interests and idealistic rhetoric. In Panama, Somalia, Yugoslavia (twice), Iraq (twice), Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the US launched military interventions on both national-security and humanitarian grounds.

The nonintervention in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 may have been the most consequential (non)event of this period, because it was reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight as a missed opportunity to use military force to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The debacle was used to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to urge US military intervention in Sudan in the early 2000s, which President George W. Bush’s administration wisely resisted, despite mass killings that amounted to another genocide.

All of this led to an extraordinary burst of interest in international law and legal institutions. Multiple international tribunals were created, leading to the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court. Human rights treaties and institutions were revived and strengthened. Principles of humanitarian intervention were advanced, including the now-forgotten “responsibility to protect”. Every Western university nowadays has a human rights centre of some sort that is a testament to the idealism of that era.

It was already clear that President Donald Trump repudiated this tradition of humanitarian or quasi-humanitarian military intervention, but Biden’s forceful renunciation of it is somewhat surprising. In his speech, he repeatedly emphasised the importance of identifying and defending America’s “vital national interest”. The word “national” is key, and Biden was not subtle:

“If we had been attacked on September 11, 2001, from Yemen instead of Afghanistan, would we have ever gone to war in Afghanistan? Even though the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the year 2001? I believe the honest answer is no. That is because we had no vital interest in Afghanistan other than to prevent an attack on America’s homeland and our friends. And that’s true today.”

America had no vital interest in introducing democracy to Afghanistan, in helping women escape a medieval theological regime, in educating children, or in helping to prevent another civil war. His decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was “about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan, getting the terrorists to stop the attacks, morph into a counterinsurgency, nation-building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and united Afghanistan. Something that has never been done over many centuries of Afghan’s [sic] history. Moving on from that mindset and those kind of large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home”.

Biden also did say that human rights will remain “the centre of our foreign policy”, and that economic tools and moral suasion can be used to advance them. This claim is in tension with his declaration that “vital national interests” should determine military intervention. Why wouldn’t vital national interests determine nonmilitary forms of intervention as well? Clearly, the role of human rights and other moral ideals in US foreign policy has been downgraded. The only question is whether the rhetoric will be toned town to match the new reality.

Of course, it was never very clear that US governments were actually motivated by humanitarian considerations. Critics often found more nefarious motives. Future historians may well argue that US foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s was simply advancing a very ambitious vision of the national interest: America required all countries to adopt American ideals and institutions so that none would want to act against America. Or they might say that, like any empire, the US lacked the patience and wisdom to maintain a consistent stance in its treatment of its peripheries.

In any case, idealism is not actually so idealistic when a country has enough power, and the only thing that is clear now is that America doesn’t. Resistance to its post-Cold War nation-building goals took the form of international terrorism. China and Russia did not obediently embrace democracy. And much of the rest of the world has reverted to various forms of nationalism and authoritarianism.

With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the limits of American power have finally become obvious. Many people, and not just the leaders of hostile powers, will celebrate America’s comeuppance. But it is doubtful that the moral superstructure of human rights will survive without any country willing to use military force to support it.


Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is the author of the forthcoming How Antitrust Failed Workers. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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