Is Liberal Interventionism Dead?

Left-leaning adventurists are now much quieter than their neocon counterparts.

As the civil war in Syria drags on and extremists kill and pillage in northern Mali, one would expect regular and loud cries for the United States to do something to protect innocents. We are now in the fifth year of a Democratic administration, which in theory should be more receptive to this line of thinking. Yet there is little such talk. Where have all the liberal interventionists gone? Have they reformed? Are they in intellectual exile?

A recent lecture by David L. Phillips, a former Clinton administration official, is instructive. A member in good standing of the liberal-interventionist camp, Phillips had been closely involved in shaping U.S. policy toward the Balkans during that period, and delved into lessons he had learned from America’s handling of the Kosovo affair with the aim of applying them to present crises.

The lessons were rather radical. Among them was that when democratic aspirations are being suppressed and human rights are being violated, political violence can be legitimate. Phillips flirted with applying this label to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which the United States had nearly branded a terrorist group, and which was implicated in a range of abuses. Yet while the KLA could engage in terrorism and still be legitimate, in his view atrocities by the Serbian government deprived it of its legitimacy, making way for the involvement of international actors.

Another lesson was on the role of international law in governing intervention. Phillips interpreted the UN Charter as an intervention-friendly document, suggesting that it allows for the UN Security Council to become involved in the domestic affairs of states, even though this is explicitly prohibited in Chapter I.

However, the Security Council’s approval, he suggested, is not vital when launching interventions. Other multilateral institutions like NATO can come into play when the UNSC fails to fulfill its obligations—for example, when states like Russia and China begin to play a blocking role. He glossed over the potential risks of acting over the objections of a great power with interests in the area—there was, for instance, a famous confrontation between British and Russian troops at the airport in Pristina that could have turned into a major international incident had cooler heads not prevailed.

Taken together, the lessons added up to a deeply revisionist foreign policy, one where the United States readily becomes entangled the domestic affairs of other states, one that would be a threat to many autocracies with which Washington does not presently have bad relations, and one which could lead U.S. rivals—Russia and China—to increase resistance in order to protect their own interests. It is difficult to argue that the gains of such a policy are worth these risks—in the case of Kosovo, American security does not hinge on precisely where the borders are drawn in the Balkans, or on the domestic behavior of loathsome but globally insignificant figures like Milosevic. Yet this is the argument the liberal interventionists imply by their policy recommendations.

It was thus quite surprising, after such radical lessons learned, to hear how Phillips proposed we apply these lessons to the case of Syria. He suggested that the U.S. must only respond when it has interests at stake, and defined these interests as the prevention of the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction by the al-Assad government. Nothing of the sort had come up in relation to the Serbs and Kosovo, yet the intervention there was sustained and international; the urgency of bypassing an again-deadlocked UNSC and using other institutions was not addressed. In fact, he would state the case against intervention in Syria rather well.

This all left the impression that the liberal interventionists have dramatically scaled back their goals, even though the presence of their loyalists in high places—the National Security Council, the mission to the UN, the right hand of George Clooney, and so forth—suggests they should have more power than ever. So why do the loyalists feel they must tell reporters that they are not “bomb throwers”?

The answer may be simple: Iraq. The war left Americans with little appetite for new adventures and little surplus national strength to launch them. It also spread skepticism of the notion that the United States can play a transformative role in ancient conflicts. President Obama, both a longstanding opponent of the Iraq war and a man with an agenda that is more domestic than foreign, seems to appreciate this, and has not given subordinates with liberal-interventionist leanings much running room. In a nation weakened both militarily and fiscally, new initiatives must be either funded by debt or by cuts elsewhere; there is no Clinton-era budget surplus. The argument for involvement in conflicts of little direct import to U.S. interests is that much harder.

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.