Democratic Hegemonists


Ali Eteraz throws down the gauntlet between “Truman Democrats” and the “Isolationist Left,” offering up most of the classic tropes of the genre. In particular, there’s the always odd “woe-is-me” tone in which the soi disant Trumanites are cast in the role of oppressed minority though they continue to control such institutions as the House and Senate foreign affairs committees and had much more influence several years ago before their worldview became unpopular because they advocated a ruinous war in Iraq. Let’s focus, though, on the characterization of the disagreement here and the nature of the alleged isolationist menace:

Here are the six foreign policy “principles” that define a Truman Democrat: American exceptionalism, the use of force, American hegemony, the world community, liberal-mindedness, and helping the least well off. Today’s Isolationist Left rejects the first three of those without a thought (because they are presumed to be solely belonging to the Neo-Cons) The other three are accepted as long as they do not require having to affirm any of the first three principles.

The implication that non-Trumanites are all blanket pacifists (name one: Al Gore? Carl Levin?) is unworthy of serious debate. I’m not sure what American exceptionalism is supposed to mean in this context. The contention then, amounts to the idea that US foreign policy faces a stark excluded-middle choice between the pursuit of American hegemony and a policy of isolationism. Obviously, it’s true that the pursuit of hegemony is not “solely belonging to the Neo-Cons,” as Eteraz makes clear this is the common platform of neoconservative Republicans and self-described Trumanites. But is it true that the only alternative policy is isolationism?

I would say “no.” The alternative to hegemonism and isolationism is, well, liberalism a policy of global engagement based on the attempt to create and sustain a liberal world order. To take a specific example, for the United States to join the International Criminal Court would be neither an isolationist policy nor a hegemonic one, but rather a liberal policy in which we submit to an egalitarian framework of rules and cooperate with others in the effort the enforce those rules. Generally speaking, the concept of cooperation is what’s missing from the “Trumanite” world-view. It requires a strange paucity of imagination to fail to see alternatives to either coercively dominating foreigners or ignoring their existence. The alternative, broadly construed, is to recognize that politics between nations is not a zero-sum enterprise and that we should generally attempt to locate potential positive-sum interactions and realize them in a cooperative manner.

I note that “Trumanite” hegemonism has relatively little relationship with the policies of Harry Truman. Faced with a Soviet Union aiming at world domination, Truman naturally chose to resist those efforts. Within the broad swathe of the world not already subjected to Soviet domination, however, Truman did not seek to simply implement American domination. Rather, he constructed an alternative vision of a liberal community of nations featuring complex forms of cooperation between states within the framework of liberal institutions like NATO and the EU. The collapse of the Soviet Union creates, in essence, a fork in the road. The United States can either seek to fill the void with unipolar hegemony, or else it can seek to expand the scope of the miniature liberal order created during the Cold War. The latter path would, I think, be more in the spirit of Truman’s policies and more suitable to the objective situation. Even if you disagree with that, however, the liberal alternative certainly isn’t isolationism, it’s liberalism and it would be nice if our co-partisans on the other side of the debate could at least do liberals the favor of not deliberately mischaracterizing our policies.