The Legitimacy Difference

Posted on


Unfortunately, I’m now having trouble tracking down the specific comment, but someone asked the other day with regard to Heads in the Sand what’s the difference between liberal international and just “imperial adventures I approve of.” That’s an important question, because I do think some liberals basically see it that way.

But the difference that I see (and this is in no way an original-to-me idea) has to do with legitimacy and institutions. One alternative to an imperial conception of America’s role in the world would be to adopt a “mind our own business” posture. The liberal alternative rejects this, but also rejects the idea that the purpose of our engagement with the world should be to try to come out as top dog in an endless struggle. Instead, it seems international conflict as negative sum and international cooperation as positive sum. With that understanding, liberals seek to build and strengthen institutions that facilitate cooperation and offer less-destructive means of resolving conflicts.

Liberal internationalist willingness to use force abroad should, following the above, be constrained by ideas about legitimacy. The currently prevailing ideology in the United States holds that, in essence, we have a right to use force unilaterally against countries whose WMD or human rights policies we don’t like, but no other country has this right and we have no need to apply the same standard to different countries. The liberal sees that this is incoherent and unworkable, and though agreeing that the United States rightly concerns itself with WMD and human rights issues in foreign countries, thinks these need to be dealt with through some kind of reasonable legal, procedural, and institutional frameworks — the U.N. Security Council, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA, etc., etc., — and that flaws in these frameworks should be dealt with through good-faith efforts to improve the frameworks rather than to cast them aside. The general idea is that American power should be used in way that’s sustainable rather than threatening to the rest of the world, because it gives adequate deference to the fact that other countries have their own interests and perspectives.

Of course these ideas don’t fully specify a foreign policy — the Security Council could authorize something foolish or impractical and existing rules and institutions are often in need of change of one kind or another. But it does generate a framework within which to think about this. We want and need to be involved in the problems of the world, but wish to do so in a constructive, legitimate manner that involves working with other countries according to the established rules of the game as laid out in treaties, etc. rather than fooling ourselves into thinking that if we cast off all restraint we’ll be able to remake the world with ease.

Photo by Flickr user etobicokesouth used under a Creative Commons license