What divides neocons and liberal interventionists

What divides neocons and liberal interventionists

In today’s Washington Post, Fred Hiatt accuses the president of being soft on freedom. As he tells the story, the Arab Spring has been a historic opportunity that the White House has mostly fumbled; successes–Libya notably–have mostly been at the insistence of others. This argument is a familiar one and has been well debated. What interests me most is Hiatt’s explanation for the absence of presidential passion. It’s not because the president is a realist, says Hiatt, it’s because he’s a multilateralist:

[Obama’s] stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the U.N. Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

His instincts might have been predicted from the 2007 article, which was contemptuous of the “conventional thinking” of the Bush administration that viewed problems as “state-based.” Obama promised to “rebuild the alliances, partnerships and institutions necessary to confront common threats.”

Hiatt doesn’t make the case all that persuasively.  But his analysis is a good reminder of a fundamental difference between the neoconservative worldview and the liberal interventionist one: the role of international institutions and law. Those of a neoconservative persuasion aren’t much interested in global architecture; they’re intent on achieving liberal, democratic governance at the national level whenever and wherever possible. Indeed, they believe that consensus-based international organizations and procedures tend to obstruct that enterprise as often as facilitate it.  Liberal interventionists share the desire to spread freedom and the conviction that outsiders can help do so, but they also care deeply about building international architecture (almost always) and respecting international rules (usually).

There appear to be two principal differences at work. First, the two camps likely disagree over the extent to which international organizations and rules are an obstacle to maximizing freedom. Neoconservatives seem to have burned in their collective image of the United Nations the spectacle of dictators, despots, and fellow travelers employing their voting weight to protect their own and attack actual democracies. Liberals, as is their wont, acknowledge the problems but see progress and growth. A key recent example would the work of the UN Human Rights Council. Neoconservatives remain highly dismissive of the body while mainstream liberal interventionists have hailed its moves on Syria, Libya, and a host of other issues.  

Second, and this is even more speculative, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists may part ways on the importance of global architecture once freedom has been maximized and despotic regimes ousted. In the neoconservative worldview, it often seems that collective action problems other than getting rid of despotism either do not exist or are so insignificant that they do not merit the kind of international architecture that liberals cherish (or perhaps they believe that we should contemplate new forms of global governance only once the overwhelming majority of states are liberal democracies). To liberals, by contrast, it is self evident that more advanced global governance is necessary not just to promote democracy but to deal with a host of other shared governance issues. This assumption is so hard wired in liberal thinking that the development of international organization often appears to be an end in itself.

More: Over at Andrew Sullivan’s place, Zach Beauchamp argues that an even more salient difference between the camps is confidence in the efficacy of military force:

While both liberals and neoconservatives are often supportive of military interventions, the former group doesn’t require a belief in the general efficacy of military force as a condition of entry.

Liberals often differ sharply about, for example, humanitarian intervention: it’s entirely coherent to self-describe as both a foreign policy liberal and believe that humanitarian intervention usually does more harm than good. Neoconservatism, by contrast, makes a belief in the morality and efficacy of preventative wars against rogue states (Iraq, Iran), nation-building endeavors (Afghanistan post-2009), and overwhelming US military dominance more broadly into bedrock principles. While liberals might endorse any or all of those three, it’s not at all required by liberal commitments that they do so.

Even more: A reader offers this smart take:

Liberal Interventionists care about international legitimacy, but they also care about going to war for humanitarian reasons.  When the two come into conflict, the liberal interventionist comes up with some fig-leaf of legitimacy–a UN Resolution twisted behind recognition, a NATO sanction, an Arab League invitation–that serves as a green light to go to war. 

The neoconservative sees the US as moral authority enough, pausing for international sanction only as a coalition-building tool, either domestically (securing votes in Congress) or to get allies on board. 

Liberal internationalists may, in the end, be as willing as neoconservatives to ride roughshod over international law.  But they feel sort of bad about it and wish they didn’t have to do it.