Imperial Liberalism

Imperial Liberalism

Mini Teaser: Covenants without the sword are but words. You can do anything with bayonets but sit upon them. And both truths must be heeded.

by Author(s): Robert Cooper

Nor is democracy the natural condition of mankind. It is simply that experience has taught us that nothing else makes the rule of law sustainable. The compromises necessary to make constitutions work are the price we pay to channel ambition into constructive political activity. Institutions exist to create trust, that indispensable element in human society. The rule of law creates the trust that enables markets to function. Democracy is a way of compensating for the fact that no one is to be trusted with too much power for too long.

International institutions are needed for the same reasons: to provide continuity and predictability--the next best thing to trust--in an uncertain world. They are needed precisely because states, like men, are not to be trusted. It would be logical for those who press the case for domestic institutions--democracy and the market economy--to want institutions at the international level too.

We are now in a democratic era. This may be seen not just in the growing number of democracies--many of them rather shaky--but also in the homage paid to the idea of democracy by those like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe who fix elections to give themselves a pretense of democratic legitimacy, or by authoritarian countries like the DPRK who nonetheless find it essential to include the "D for Democratic" in their names. The idea is acknowledged even when the reality is denied.

This has consequences for the international system. The realist world of rational policymaking, equilibrium, alliances of convenience and the balance of power worked best when we were governed by rational oligarchs--Richelieu, Pitt, Palmerston or Bismarck. Democratic ideas mean that policy requires a moral basis. The idea of the dignity of man will not go away, and policies have to be based on ideals and human sympathy as well as on interest. In a democratic world, the use of force becomes more difficult to handle. Wars need greater moral legitimacy than in an autocratic age. To sell them, a Roosevelt or a Reagan is needed. And once started they are more difficult to end. Every war risks becoming a crusade. This was not a problem in the cases of World War II and the Cold War--in both, unconditional surrender was the only acceptable outcome--but it does not suit the conduct of lesser campaigns. Democracy made it difficult for America either to prosecute the Vietnam War with as much ruthlessness as North Vietnam did or to cut its losses and get out.

The balance of power, which calls for the application of power with calculation and restraint, is no longer sustainable in a democratic age. Nor is the exercise of hegemony by force--which has been the other source of stability in the international system. For a democracy, domination by the ruthless use of force ceases to be an option in the international field just as it has in the domestic--as Gandhi well understood when he began the process of dismantling the British Empire.

Neither equilibrium nor domination works well in a democratic age. And if democracies are inherently less bellicose, then basing the international order on a system logically dependent on wars and force is intellectually incoherent and practically mistaken. Nothing is left but to manage international relations through institutions, as Woodrow Wilson foresaw. Those we have at the moment function poorly, which is hardly a surprise, given how short their history is. Even the most competent, such as NATO and the EU, come nowhere near matching the national governments that make them up in either efficiency or legitimacy (the two frequently go together). We have learned something from past failures, but there is much further to go.

Force remains indispensable in international affairs, both because we have not yet achieved the democratic dream and because even if we do, it will still be needed as the ultimate enforcer of law. In the meanwhile we need force to protect ourselves and help create a favorable environment for democracy. But as the world becomes more democratic, and so more civilized, force will be less visible and less prominent in international relations.

We have chosen to be good rather than to be powerful. Torture is unacceptable, not just because it is ineffective, but because our system is based on respect for individual people. Europeans talk of human rights and the rule of law while Americans talk of freedom and democracy, but they mean the same thing. For America, the way to be good in a world of power used to be to isolate itself. That is no longer possible. Instead it seeks to remake the world in its own image. This is the European project also, though on a more modest, regional basis. We are all Wilsonians now. And we should understand that the true Wilsonian institutions are not bodies like the UN, but rather NATO and the EU, embodying the values of democracy and law.

Charles Krauthammer is right to want to accelerate the spread of democracy, and he is probably right to be selective too--though in practice what happens most often is that countries select themselves. It would indeed be nice to remake the world. But some things are beyond the control even of America. Democracy is one of them. Democracy means rule by the people, and no one else can make their choices for them. The spread of the idea and the spread of the practice are nevertheless impressive. There are many ways we can assist short of employing force--using military power to provide security is one of them--but in the end it is the force of the idea and the power of its practice that conquers. Liberal imperialism may be an oxymoron, but imperial liberalism may be the reality of today.

Essay Types: Essay