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Donald Trump’s false proclamation of the end of liberal internationalism

23 Aug

Donald Trump’ s August 2017 speech on Afghan and South Asian policy was quite remarkable in its bellicose tone. In recent history at least, many foreign policy speeches are heavily coded with diplomatic phraseology in which threats and leverage are muted. As we have come to expect with Trump, the language was that of a barroom brawl. Whether ‘we know who we are and what we are fighting for’, or references to American ‘warriors’ and American ‘warfighters’, this was a speech that made explicit that the US would deploy military power to achieve its aims. It defined US foreign policy as ‘principled realism’, with the principle being (as far as I can work out) that the US is top-dog and fights to win.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages of the speech was its step back from liberal internationalism, or the notion that by spreading liberalism (democracy, trade, rule of law, rights) within and between states will decrease conflict. This notion of the liberal peace (sometimes called the democratic peace) has been a mainstay of peacebuilding and peace support interventions and policies for the last thirty years (although it has a much longer historical pedigree). The finest exposition of liberal internationalism was probably Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech in which he extolled the virtues of righteous intervention against despots, of the liberating potential of trade, and of the need for a community of nations to intervene for the greater good. The ‘liberal peace’ has been manifest in dozens of countries (former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Bougainville etc.) as international actors have introduced and supported good governance, democratisation and a host of reforms.

Crucially, the US – along with the UK, EU and major international institutions like the World Bank – have been mainstays of this liberal peace. Whether through military force, military advisers, and billions of dollars in assistance and loans, the US has played a key role in spreading the liberal peace and proselytising the virtues of democracy, accountability and liberalism. Obviously there have been bumps along the road, but there has been a good deal of consistency of messaging (if not practice). And then Trump comes along and signals a retreat from liberal internationalism:

“But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”

According to these quotations, the US is no longer interested in democratisation and nation-building (more correctly statebuilding) – both key pillars of the liberal peace. The notion and practice of the liberal peace depends on viable and accountable institutions. Without them the liberal peace does not make sense.

Clearly Trump was speaking – in part – to a domestic audience, many of whom will lap up lines about tough love overseas and in order to protect the folks at home. But the idea that you can walk away from the liberal peace is crazy for a state like the US. Notions and practices of liberal internationalism are hard-wired into development and peacebuilding support. If the Trump White House wants any sensible engagement with the rest of the world it is going to have to follow a liberal internationalist path in some respects – otherwise international engagement grinds to a halt.

Trump’s speech demands or hints at the following expectations from overseas clients:

Accountable institutions (“not a blank check”)
Belief in individual rights (“it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership”)
Reform of institutions (“I am a problem-solver”, “we will learn from history”)
Free trade (lots of references to economic development and trade)
Liberal optimism (“allow our children to live better and safer lives”)

All of these are in the liberal internationalist playbook. They all can find intellectual routes in liberalism.

And the odd thing is, even Trump’s speech – for all of its talk about warfighting and realism – also mentions partnership and common interests. He knows – or more likely the more intelligent of his advisors know – that tough talk and military might can only go so far.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric disavows many of the key points of liberal internationalism, he will find that he cannot escape it.

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