Further, new constraints have arisen abroad that did not exist in liberal interventionism’s 1990s heyday. Russia is no longer a basket case. China’s economy has grown dramatically. The new global balance of power is still unclear, but there is no longer a widespread feeling—as there was just after the Cold War—that America’s example will determine new international norms. The unipolar moment that kept the costs of humanitarian interventions low and thus reduced the urgency of connecting them directly to national interests has ended, and does not appear likely to return in our lifetimes.
The liberal interventionists are thus in a tough spot. The domestic and international conditions that allowed their rise have changed. And their increasing reluctance to publicly state the tenets of their faith suggests that they know this. All they can do is reminisce about the glory days when they fixed the Balkans and bide their time, spouting conventional wisdom to stay relevant. The strange thing is that neoconservatives—also chastened by policy failures and lessened appetite for preemptive war—haven’t had to do the same.
John Allen Gay is an assistant editor at The National Interest. His book (co-authored with Geoffrey Kemp) War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in early 2013.