There’s No Such Thing as Good Liberal Hegemony

It’s not just that the United States has made mistakes—the very idea of U.S. global leadership is broken from the ground up.

Former President Bill Clinton, former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former President Barack Obama arrive at the funeral service for Rep. Elijah Cummings in Baltimore on Oct. 25, 2019.
Former President Bill Clinton, former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former President Barack Obama arrive at the funeral service for Rep. Elijah Cummings in Baltimore on Oct. 25, 2019. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Can we talk about something else for a moment?

Although it is nearly impossible to wrest one’s mind away from COVID-19 and its implications, I’m going to give it a shot this week. I want to explore a topic that my students and I were discussing a few days ago, in a class on realist and liberal conceptions of world order. The question was whether the U.S. attempt to create a liberal world order during the brief “unipolar moment” was doomed from the start.

To be more specific: are the criticisms that I (and others) have leveled at the U.S. strategy of “liberal hegemony” really fair? Is it possible that creating a global order based on liberal values (i.e., democracy, free markets, the rule of law, individual rights, etc.) was more feasible than it now appears? Might this strategy have succeeded if U.S. leaders had been a little smarter, less arrogant, a lot more patient, and a bit luckier? Was liberal hegemony really “bound to fail,” as John Mearsheimer suggested last spring, or were there plausible courses of action that would have led to the steady expansion and deep embedding of liberal values and institutions around the world? In the unlikely event that the United States found itself in a similar position of primacy again, could it learn from its past mistakes and do better the second time around?

That the first attempt was a costly failure should be beyond dispute. Instead of advancing, democracy has been in retreat around the world for more than a decade—including in the United States itself—and U.S.-led efforts at regime change have led not to thriving democracies but to failed states and costly occupations. Hyperglobalization under U.S. auspices produced a grave financial crisis in 2008, politically painful job displacement in a number of sectors, and helped trigger a wide-ranging populist backlash. NATO enlargement helped poison relations with Russia, and policies such as dual containment in the Persian Gulf inspired anti-U.S. terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks and all the negative consequences that flowed from that event. The end result of these developments has been a partial retreat from globalization, the emergence of would-be autocrats in Hungary, Poland, and even in the United States, and revitalized authoritarianism in many other places.

Given where we are today, does it matter whether a more sophisticated version of liberal hegemony might have succeeded? In fact, this issue is of paramount importance, because plenty of people are still convinced that trying to create a U.S.-led, liberal world order was the right goal and that the United States just needs to learn from past mistakes and do it better and smarter in the future. Defenders include unrepentant hawks such as Eric Edelman and Ray Takeyh, who think what the Middle East needs is even more U.S.-led regime change, but also liberal academics such as G. John Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney, who believe the liberal order remains surprisingly resilient. Other proponents of this view are dedicated policy wonks such as Jake Sullivan, who thinks the problem is not the United States’ basic strategy but rather the fact that Americans are increasingly skeptical of it, and one sees similar impulses in the writings of Hal Brands, Peter Feaver, and other defenders of an expansive U.S. role. If former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November—and, to be clear, I hope he does—the apostles of U.S. primacy and its “indispensable” global role will be back in the saddle, and we are likely to see at least a partial attempt to turn the clock back to the halcyon days when the United States was actively trying to create a global liberal order.

Let’s give this view the benefit of every doubt. Imagine that you could travel back in time to 1992, with full knowledge of all the mistakes that have been made since then. Then imagine that you still wanted to create a liberal world order, while avoiding all the missteps that were made over the past quarter-century. What would you do differently, and would this new approach work?

To start with the most obvious point: a smarter approach to liberal hegemony would have to be a lot more patient. In the 1990s, Americans felt they had found the magic formula for success in a globalized world—what Thomas Friedman called “DOScapital 6.0”—and that other countries couldn’t wait to become more like the United States. The wind was at the United States’ back, history was moving its way, and giving the world a healthy shove in the right direction would just accelerate the process.

This view was both self-congratulatory and naively optimistic, but one could still believe that “the arc of history bends toward justice” while acknowledging that bending the arc will take longer than one had previously thought. The United States should adopt a slow, steady, and decidedly nonmilitary approach to spreading liberal values, therefore, and recognize that it will take several decades (or more) to bear fruit. One might call this approach “liberal hegemony lite.”

In practice, liberal hegemony lite would have eschewed NATO enlargement and gone with the so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP) instead. PfP would have fostered security cooperation with the newly independent states of Eastern Europe—thereby helping strengthen their nascent democratic orders—but it would have have included Russia and fulfilled the promises U.S. officials made before the Soviet Union broke up. Relations with Moscow might still have worsened as it regained some of its former strength, but not as fast and probably not as far. Absent NATO enlargement (and the misguided U.S. attempt to nominate Ukraine for a membership action plan in 2008), it is hard to imagine matters in Ukraine would be as troubled as they are today.

With the benefit of hindsight, a wiser United States would have pursued a more measured approach to economic globalization. Reducing barriers to trade and investment improves overall economic efficiency and is generally desirable, but taking it more slowly would have given the sectors that were harmed by greater foreign competition more time to adjust. It was also a mistake to bring China into the World Trade Organization prematurely, based on the hope that it would hasten China’s transition to democracy and turn China into a “responsible stakeholder.” Instead, it just accelerated China’s emergence as a peer competitor. Our time-traveling advisor would also caution against excessive deregulation of financial markets and warn against the dangers of loose money and asset bubbles, advice that would have made the financial crisis of 2008 less likely.

Hindsight would also warn against the policy of dual containment in the Persian Gulf, the attempt to create a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan after 9/11, and the foolish decision to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. A wiser United States would have taken a more measured approach to the Arab Spring, supporting Tunisia’s transition to democracy but not the forcible ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Instead of declaring “Assad must go” at the start of the Syrian civil war, the United States would have worked with all the interested parties (including Iran) to bring that conflict to an end quickly and with far less loss of life, even if the end result left President Bashar al-Assad in power.

In short, the United States could still have pushed for a more open, free, and essentially
liberal world order, but in a more gradual and sophisticated way. It would have given economic, diplomatic, and rhetorical support to countries that were genuinely trying to move in more liberal directions, and it could have worked harder to preserve the United States as a model that others would want to emulate. But it would have refrained from attempting vast projects of social engineering in countries where the prerequisites for stable democracy were lacking, and it would have recognized that pushing the pace was going to trigger resistance from authoritarian leaders who had no intention of giving up power voluntarily.

Had the United States pursued liberal hegemony in this manner, many of the negative repercussions that actually occurred might have been avoided. Progress toward a more liberal world order would have been slower, of course, but the forward momentum of the early 1990s might have been sustained.

Does this argument mean that liberal hegemony was the right course after all, and that a more sophisticated version should be adopted should the United States ever find itself in a position of primacy again? I don’t think so.

The flaw in the counterfactual described above should be obvious. It assumes that if policymakers in previous years had perfect knowledge of the results of their actions, then they could infallibly pick the right course of action at each critical point. Armed with perfect foresight, for example, former U.S. President George W. Bush would not have chosen to invade Iraq in 2003, or perhaps he would have devoted a lot more time and effort into preparing for the post-Saddam occupation. Yet even perfect knowledge about what went wrong would not guarantee success the second time around.

First, even when we know what mistakes to avoid, there may not be any course of action that would yield a successful outcome. The United States is very powerful, wealthy, and secure, but some tasks may simply be beyond its means and outside the limits of its understanding. Trying to use military force to transform deeply divided societies into liberal democracies seems to be one of them. Second, if the United States had taken a significantly different course of action at various critical points in the recent past, then history would have headed in a different direction and U.S. leaders would have faced a wholly different set of choices whose results could not be known in advance. In other words, the lessons drawn from events as they actually occurred may not help the United States decide what to do once history is following a different path.

Most importantly, even liberal hegemony lite entails a lot of complicated social engineering. By definition, a liberal world order is one where certain key political principles—democracy; sovereignty; low barriers to trade, investment, and travel; rule of law within multilateral institutions; and individual rights) are nearly universal. But we live in a world where these values are not universally embraced. Democracies have never been a majority, and millions of people think security, sovereignty, cultural values, national autonomy, and other political goals are more important—which means that trying to get others to embrace democracy requires considerable pressure and increases the risk of political instability. Such efforts inevitably trigger local resentments of various kinds, especially in a world where nationalism and other forms of local identity make people resentful and suspicious of even well-intentioned foreign interference.

Furthermore, the more far-reaching the changes occurring among any group of people, the more unpredictable the results will be and the more unintended consequences are bound to arise. Even progressive political change creates winners and losers, and the latter won’t necessarily accept their fates with forbearance. Instead, they may take up arms to try to regain their former positions, thereby creating the sort of resistance that helped defeat U.S. efforts to promote a liberal order in the past. Even if future policymakers avoided all of the errors made between 1992 and 2016 (to say nothing of the blunders U.S. President Donald Trump has made since then), we may be confident they will mishandle some of the unforeseen developments that are bound to arise on their watch.

The bottom line: Liberal hegemony lite might have worked slightly better than what the United States actually did, but it wouldn’t have achieved the ultimate goal of a single rules-based global liberal order. This realization is not an argument for U.S. disengagement or diplomatic passivity; the situation we are all dealing with on a daily basis today is a telling reminder that self-interest sometimes requires that the United States cooperate with other nations to solve global problems. Rather, it is an argument against chasing idealistic chimeras, based on the mistaken belief that most of humankind shares U.S. values and that creating a liberal world order will therefore be easy to do. The diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand may have been a great cynic, but he was right about at least one thing: “Surtout, pas trop de zèle.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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