What Makes Liberal Patriotism’s Foreign Policy Ideas Distinctive
Five ways liberal patriotism differs from traditional internationalism
The foreign policy camp that many of The Liberal Patriot’s foreign policy ideas are most closely linked to is liberal internationalism, but it’s important to make clear that our foreign policy ideas aren’t simply an attempt to return to a past that will never be recaptured in the global system.
In theory and often in practice, the liberal internationalism of the Cold War and post-Cold War period was a school of thought that argued cooperation between different nation-states is possible to produce an ordered and peaceful international system. Liberal internationalists are inclined to champion global, international, and regional structures such as the United Nations and European Union as well as security alliances like NATO.
One main idea of liberal internationalists is “regime theory,” the notion that international institutions like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization (WTO) can meaningfully affect the calculus and actions of individual nation-states and produce incentives for greater international cooperation. One example: the argument made in the late 1990s and early 2000s that China’s entry into the WTO would help pave the country’s road to liberal democracy and transform it into a market economy. That clearly didn’t work out as hoped by some at the time.
Recent attempts to redefine old-style liberal internationalism in today’s world have missed the mark, however, in large part because they fail to offer a practical program that policymakers can implement in a way that builds domestic support. Just as the domestic “Third Way” politics of the 1990s collapsed due to a decline in support that center-left parties received from the working class over the same time frame, the foreign policy approaches of the center-left from that same period failed because of open-ended military commitments that produced mixed results and the effect that unfair trade on a skewed playing field had in hollowing out America’s middle class.
A Liberal Patriot foreign policy instead seeks to fill that gap while also putting forth ideas based on lessons learned from the mistakes America made in its foreign policy during the past two decades.
Here are five ways to distinguish the foreign policy of liberal patriotism of today from the traditional internationalism of the 1990s and early 2000s:
1. The center of gravity for liberal patriot foreign policy is closer to home than liberal internationalism, but it’s not a gated community mindset.
Many internationalists tend to propose certain foreign policy approaches often irrespective of domestic political support. Free trade, for instance, was seen as an unalloyed good in the 1990s and 2000s regardless of the domestic economic and social consequences. That approach makes a certain amount of sense; many people are rationally ignorant of a number of foreign policy issues and tend to defer to national political leaders on important questions.
But one key lesson from the past two decades is that building and maintaining public support for U.S. engagement in the world remains essential. As the years wore on, internationalists too often neglected to make the case to the general public for their preferred foreign policies—in other words, they refused to lead the public in any real way.
A liberal patriot foreign policy seeks to build coalitions at home from the center-left to the center-right for a more balanced U.S. engagement in the world that secures our interests and defends our values without overpromising. We don’t stick our heads in the sand, wishing away the world’s problems and imagining that challenges—particularly those that don’t respect borders or even geography—will somehow magically stay away if only America “restrains” itself. Above all, though, we’ll make the argument as to why America needs to stay engaged in the world to stay strong at home.
2. Liberal patriots are more cognizant of the very real limits of international cooperation in today’s world than many internationalists.
Liberal internationalists tend to place tremendous faith in international institutions like the UN or WTO and regional organizations like the European Union to set the conditions for stability and prosperity around the world.
By contrast, liberal patriots have learned from the limits of international cooperation and the shortcomings of international institutions. Just one look at dynamics like Russia taking over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council this past week and it’s easy to see how certain international institutions can produce more roadblocks than pathways to peace and stability in the world. The seeming impotence of the WTO in the face of China’s flouting of its obligations and responsibilities shows another way that international institutions can see their authority and credibility erode over time.
At the same time, liberal patriots won’t propose dismantling or withdrawing from international or regional institutions just because they’re highly imperfect—instead they will stay engaged in diplomatic fights aimed at shaping the global rules of the road and look for ways to build new coalitions with other like-minded countries operating in these same institutions. Certain international organizations like the World Food Program, for instance, serve as powerful force multipliers, ones that help America work in cooperation with other countries to respond to the needs of millions of hungry people around the globe and do it in a way that maximizes the world’s collective resources.
By the same token, though, liberal patriots don’t expect these institutions and organizations to deliver more than can realistically be expected of them, and they recognize the dangers involved in believing they can accomplish more than what they’re built to do. Unlike a number of internationalists, liberal patriots don’t see these institutions as ends in themselves or the foundation of an eventual global government. Instead, they see them as either functional—delivering food and medicine to places in need—or an arena for global politics.
3. Liberal patriots argue that America should play an active leadership in security and military affairs, especially in efforts to help other people defend themselves from dictators, terrorists, and geopolitical bullies.
Liberal internationalists have generally regarded violence and war as a policy of last resort and call for diplomacy and multilateralism first and foremost to shape the international system. In part due the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many contemporary liberal internationalists tend to divorce force and diplomacy in ways that their predecessors in the 1990s never did. This aversion to force leads them to proclaim that there are “no military solutions” to conflicts around the world like Syria and Yemen, ignoring the reality that diplomacy backed by force is more often than not necessary for achieving peace—to say nothing of the reality that dictators and militants do, in fact, believe they can successfully pursue “military solutions.”
Liberal patriots, by contrast, recognize that to create more favorable conditions for peace and stability in the international system, America needs to continue to play a role working with other countries that hold similar values and strategic mindsets to help defend themselves. The essential ingredient here is partnerships—working with others who are willing to invest the resources and fight for their own national interests. That may not always be easy or even ever definitively resolved—the United States and its NATO allies have been debating how best to share the trans-Atlantic security burden since the founding of the alliance in 1949—but these are the difficulties that good to have.
The clear lessons learned from the last twenty years in the Middle East and the last year-plus in Ukraine is that the United States can play a decisive role in helping allies and willing partners defend themselves against naked aggression—but also that America shouldn’t send half a million troops in open-ended military commitments to help other, more diffident governments pull their own weight in defense of their own people.
4. Liberal patriots look for creating new pathways to re-wire America’s economic ties with the rest of the world that benefits America’s workers and companies.
Internationalism of the 1990s and 2000s was closely aligned with an era of globalization and “free trade” that failed to build strong support among working class voters in America and other key democracies like the United Kingdom. While many pro-globalization policymakers gave lip service to the notion that those hurt by trade policies deserved help, that help either never materialized or proved inadequate to the task at hand.
Liberal patriots strongly support the national industrial policies advanced over the past two years aimed at helping America’s workers and companies compete more effectively in the world—and making sure countries like communist China that don’t play by the rules can’t take advantage of those like the United States and its allies that mostly do.
This pro-America foreign policy approach fills an important gap left behind by those on the left and right who call for America pulling back from the world. But liberal patriots also know that America can’t go it alone—the United States needs to connect its own efforts to rebuild its economic foundations at home with the notion of “friend shoring” and synchronizing economic policies with like-minded countries around the world in order to compete with countries like China. A global abundance and prosperity agenda represents the next step forward in a new global economic approach, one America and its allies have no time to waste in taking.
5. Liberal patriots understand that the struggle for freedom and values takes place in many realms, including our own society.
Many liberal internationalists got caught up in the notions of democratic peace theory and the flawed idea that the spread of freedom in the world was inevitable. They badly misinterpreted Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument and concluded that little needed to be done to protect democracy at home or abroad. The past two decades have disabused most internationalists of these notions that we can just rest on our laurels and assume that liberal values will win in the long run. The competition for freedom in the world needs to be won.
Liberal patriots recognize that the only true endless war is the struggle to defend open and inclusive political systems, including in America itself. Simply shrugging our shoulders at difficult challenges to freedom in far flung places like Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, and Iran while hiding behind slogans like “forever wars” amount to little more than giving up on the idea of freedom in the world.
Taken together, these principles show that a liberal patriot foreign policy offers a new way of looking at America’s role in the world—one that’s different from its predecessors and not just based on a reactive criticism of the present or the past. They’re a solid foundation on which to build a new foreign policy for the future.