The Case for the Liberal Leviathan
The question of American foreign policy and America’s place in the world has always been a subsidiary of the question, “What is America?” The Founding Fathers of the republic themselves never really agreed on the larger question of America. Four score and seven years after the Founding, President Abraham Lincoln chimed in, during an era remembered as the second founding of the republic. Of America, Lincoln said, it is a nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address is the better son of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was not merely an independence document, nor was it just a declaration of the rights of the inhabitants of the colonies as Englishmen. Thomas Jefferson’s founding document was a declaration of human rights. It is said that Jefferson’s declaration that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is the most famous sentence in the English language. It is famous because it is, in its declaration and appeal, universal.
The Founding of America as an ideological and revolutionary state made it inevitable that America was destined to become, in the phrasing of John Ikenberry, a liberal leviathan which would look for monsters to destroy.
Revolutions are often ideological, and the states that follow them rely on the revolution’s values to maintain legitimacy. But also, to maintain legitimacy, they perpetuate those values. Ideologies could be universal or exclusive. Communism and religion are universal because they accept converts, unlike race- and ethnic-based ideologies. In this sense, liberalism is like communism in its universal application. In making America, the Founders created a universalist state, but also a liberal nation.
States need to appease their bases of support, e.g., the oligarchs, the ideologues, the clergy, etc. A democracy’s base of support is the people. To remain legitimate, those states reflect the ideology of the people in their conduct, domestic and foreign. In foreign policy, American political leaders have always relied on buzzwords that legitimize their conducts. Liberty, democracy, freedom, dignity—these are words that Americans can associate with the American foreign policy dating back to the 1800s. But these words have reflected, to one degree or another, America’s foreign conduct.
No US administration is more associated with a rejection of values in favor of realpolitik than the administration of Richard Nixon, whose foreign policy is synonymous with Henry Kissinger. Dr. Kissinger articulated his rejection of an immediate investment in a values-oriented foreign policy in a speech in Minnesota, where he remarked, “The issue is whether we have the courage to face complexity and the inner conviction to deal with ambiguity; whether we will look behind easy slogans and recognize that our great goals can only be reached by patience, and in imperfect stages.” But as he notes, the problem was that the American people rejected an amoral foreign policy to the extent that the administration spent too much time persuading Americans of the benefits of realpolitik, leaving little time to govern. Suffice to say, the foreign policy of the Nixon administration was mostly a failure. For any administration’s foreign policy to succeed, the president needs the support of the American people, who are reluctant to lend support to policies they reject on moral grounds.
In recent years, the Bush administration’s reliance on human rights and democracy promotion rhetoric in justification of the Iraq War, combined with the war’s unpopularity, made values unfashionable in talking about foreign policy. For a moment, it seemed that it was finally the realpolitik moment. Americans elected Barack Obama, an ideological descendent of Kissinger, and Donald Trump, both of whom rejected human rights as an element of foreign policy. But even those men, once in office, occasionally relied on human rights to justify their foreign policies. Barack Obama threw his support behind the protesters during the Arab Spring, including against Hosni Mubarak, a US partner. Donald Trump talked of the oppressions of Iran’s regime to justify his pressure campaign against Iran, and he cited—and was reportedly moved by—the pictures of gassed Syrian children to rally support for his strikes against the Assad regime. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicized his meeting with Uighur leaders to highlight China’s oppression of its Muslim minority as a part of a campaign to bring Americans to speed against the People’s Republic. But all of these paled in comparison to what Joe Biden had to say throughout the Democratic primaries and the general elections campaign. Human rights came back with a vengeance. Every candidate, except for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, gave at least lip service to it. The eventual nominee, Joe Biden, would ride to the White House with little to say of foreign policy besides his ardent support for human rights and his idea of a summit of democracy. Today, over 80 percent of Americans support advocating for American values. After all, you can momentarily take values out of foreign policy, but you cannot take it out of the hearts of the American people, and, in a democracy, the people get the last word.
But values are only one side of foreign policy. There are always material considerations. Many critics have charged that the United States can be liberal in its conduct without being “militarist.” But can we take the leviathan out of the liberal?
Thucydides observed that states go to war out of legitimate fear, honor, and profit. One can easily say the same thing about foreign policy. Millennia later, states still design their foreign policies to reflect those three concerns. Values closely overlap with honor, but what about fear and profit? The truth is that American foreign policy has always been also a result of profit and fear, and it will always be because of the human condition. Much has been made of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s declaration that America “shall not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but states frequently seek to destroy monsters out of fear that those monsters, left to their own devices, would become strong enough to destroy them. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine, authored by Adams, Americans expanded their sphere of influence out of fear of European monsters in the Americas.
As Kori Schake has chronicled in her book, Safe Passage, the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 was the beginning of a century-long project for the United States to take ownership of the fate of the world, culminating with World War II. When President James Monroe addressed Congress in 1823, the monsters were European colonial powers. Invoking the doctrine, Americans came close to going to war with the Europeans twice over Venezuela’s defaulting on its debts. A third time, they did go to war against the Spanish in Cuba. As America’s sphere of influence grew beyond the Americas, and as time passed, the monsters America feared also changed. German Nazis, Italian fascists, Japanese imperialists, Soviet communists, and Middle Eastern Islamists—Americans were defending their interests out of fear. The lesson of World War II was that oceans didn’t protect Americans from the ambitions of others. In addition, war-torn, yet rich, continents of Europe and Asia also threatened America’s commerce and access to markets and resources.
The hegemonic theory of world order suggests that peace is best sustained when there is a superpower that sets the international norms and enforces them the best it can. Taking marching orders from Thucydides, advocates cite that Sparta and Athens went to war because Sparta was too passive in curbing the power of Athens, a challenging and rising power. History is full of such examples, where great powers entered war against each other because the hegemon was too reluctant to put a stop to a challenger’s rise until the challenger reached near parity of power. The United Kingdom’s policy of balance of power prior to both World Wars is the best example of how the reluctance of a superpower to engage in small and early military conflict made total war inevitable.
Critics of the theory have either charged that the hegemon doesn’t have to be America, or that a balance of power in fact is an easier path to peace. Let’s take on the latter claim first. In his Sinews of Peace speech, which is remembered as the Iron Curtain speech today, Winston Churchill told his American audience that Britain’s balance of power theory had failed. Later, in Diplomacy, Kissinger, the greatest living admirer of Bismarckian balance of power, defended the balance of power theory against criticism on the ground that Britain had failed to enforce that policy. But isn’t enforcing an international policy exactly a hegemonic function? Maybe esoterically, or maybe accidentally, Kissinger was conceding the superiority of hegemonic stability. According to Kissinger’s diagnosis, a balance of power policy is not a natural state of an international order but one that the order’s caretaking superpower enforces. And an order enforced by a superpower, the one Kissinger suggests, is a hegemonic order by definition. In the absence of a state to enforce a balance of power policy carefully, the order always fails, as it did twice in the first half of the previous century, because there is always going to be a state that desires more power, and that state’s ambitions can only be curtailed through a collective action by everybody else. History, however, is full of examples of how that collective action is not inevitable, and balance of power succeeds only until it fails. The most infamous episode of such failure is the Munich Conference, whose infamy is only exceeded by the horrors that followed. As soon as Britain abdicated its hegemonic responsibility in favor of collective action, war became inevitable.
Which brings us back to the first charge. It is no coincidence that America’s ascendance to global hegemony overlaps with the end of the era of great wars. As America militarized, and Europe subsequently demilitarized, continental wars in Europe ended. Here, correlation means causation. Scholars have gone to great lengths to find reasons for the end of the era of great wars. Most famously, Steven Pinker has written that the decline of violence in the world is a result of the emergence of liberal culture in the world. Pinker is not wrong in identifying the emergence of a more liberal culture, but he is wrong in taking it for granted. In 1945, the number of democracies in the world hardly passed a dozen. America, however, cultivated and promoted democracy, especially under the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. The fall of the Soviet Union was uniquely an opportune moment to add to that. Allies and adversaries alike, America was telling autocrats that enough is enough. The Bretton Woods system, the might of America’s military and economy, and the desirability and success of the American system were making the world more liberal. As America expanded, autocracy and violence contracted. The backlash to the Iraq War and the subsequent inward-looking Obama and Trump administrations, however, have allowed for illiberalism to re-emerge as a force to reckon with, and violence is on the rise. It turns out that America had a lot to do with cultivating that liberal culture around the world, and that liberalism needs protection and is not self-perpetuating.
Although it is correct to say that the liberal world order is not self-perpetuating, it is more accurate to say that the perpetuation of liberalism is messy, resourceful, and sometimes violent. The framers of the order in the Harry Truman administration understood the role of trade and commerce in the international system—it helped that some of them were bankers—but they also understood the role of the US military as the most effective tool for enforcing that order. America’s over-reliance on sanctions in recent decades has failed to be effective on its own. Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba have been defying America despite sanctions because autocrats are more interested in power and survival than delivering economic growth for their peoples. After all, there are no free and fair elections in those countries to oust the government due to poor economic records, and there is no evidence to believe that economic pressure alone is an existential threat to their rules. The only immediate existential threat to these countries remains the American military, and what has prevented Vladimir Putin from invading the Baltic region and Kim Jong-Un from a violent reunification with South Korea has been US military deterrence. But America also benefits from its military when it imposes sanctions. The love between America and its allies in Europe and Asia might be unconditional, but those allies’ reliance on the US military to deter invasion adds passion to this love. For instance, allies’ compliance with US sanctions on Iranian oil, as fuel shortage has caused spike in prices in Europe, is due to many reasons, and the US European Command’s forces on the continent to deter Russian aggression is one of them, if not the most important one.
America’s unique Founding, its conception in liberty, makes it indispensably positioned to protect international liberalism and cultivate it further. America also has the benefit of a clean slate, being the only liberal country that hasn’t been a colonial power or imperial power (by the common definition). While the underdeveloped countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are still wary of European colonialism and imperialism, even liberal democracies in East Asia have a hard time getting along with each other over their imperial pasts.
Above all, America is the oldest liberal regime in the world. The legend of the American system has become so deeply rooted around the globe that, even though there are many liberal democracies in existence today, people associate the idea of liberal democracy with the United States. In essence, whatever other liberal democracies exist, they all stem from America’s example. The shining city on a hill has more resonance for oppressed peoples abroad than Americans sometimes care to acknowledge, and it explains why protesters under the yoke of autocrats always carry signs in English. It isn’t because their leader is fluent in English; it is because our leaders are.
But there is a more material reason for this. America is the most populous liberal democracy. It is also the one with the largest economy. America’s capacity to maintain a military that would preserve and enforce the liberal world order is far beyond any other democracy’s potential. Its status as the most desirable destination for immigrants perpetuates our innovation and growth, but it also allows for a cultural and people-to-people linkage with other nations that is uniquely American. This materializes itself in many ways. The Congressional Black Caucus has always been disproportionately interested in African affairs. American Hispanic politicians have always maintained an interest in Latin American affairs, just like Asian politicians have always maintained an interest in Asia, while Middle Eastern and Jewish politicians care about Middle East policy more. In short, America’s immigrant heritage makes for quite an extroverted foreign policy, but it also makes foreigners in remote lands, who take pride in their fellow ethnics’ successes in the world’s most important country, receptive to this extroversion.
America’s extroversion, however, is deemed a threat to autocrats. After all, it isn’t only Americans who make foreign policy out of legitimate fear. These regimes are right that our success is their failure. For the Chinese, the Russians, and the Iranians, their overlords can justify their rule at the cost of democracy only if they can show that democracy is too flawed a system. America’s attractive regime of government must be demonized so theirs can be legitimated.
Just like us, they too externalize their values for domestic reasons. The leadership of any government is responsive to some constituency. In a democracy, sovereignty rests with the people, which is why American policymakers are responsive to their constituents’ ideological preferences. In totalitarian states, the ruling elites are ideologues who hold the regime to some philosophical standard. Today, Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the nationalists in the security forces who want revenge against the United States for ending Russia’s lease as a great power in the 1990s. In China, the Communist Party is not simply a corrupt organization of oligarchs but a Marxist corps whose members believe what they preach. In Iran, the ruling elite believe in Shi’ite Islamism. And a significant portion of their populations, albeit a minority, believes in these principles, too. The policymakers in these regimes need to legitimize their actions by adhering to the ideas of those who have brought them to power and keep them in power in both domestic and foreign policy.
There is a practical element, as these ideologies wins over foreign allies. Iran’s overt hatred of Israel and Jews has won it popularity in a region where such hatred is in no short supply. China is the last remaining hope of Marxist revolutionaries and intellectuals around the world who would like to see American capitalism collapse. Russia has been very successful in establishing ties with far-right and Christian nationalist groups in Europe and North America. But these leaders are also products of the regimes they serve and often sincerely believe in those ideologies. Asked what he found out about the Soviets after three decades of carefully studying their archives, the eminent historian Stephen Kotkin responded, “they were communists.” When Nikita Khrushchev told Kennedy, “We will bury you,” he did not mean through Soviet nuclear weapons but through the might of the Soviet economy thanks to the genius of central planning. He believed it, and he meant it.
There are many examples of this. China has not sponsored North Korea’s fragile state purely out of material reasons, but also because both are Marxist revolutionaries. During the Cold War, the Soviets supported Marxist revolutionaries around the world. Iran’s proxy allies in the Greater Middle East are virtually all Shi’ite militias, and it is funding Shi’ite mosques around the world, including Latin America.
This is also true of liberals. The three Baltic countries and Taiwan are all small countries that have grown to be more zealously liberal as they face existential threats. But instead of acting purely on realpolitik calculations, the Baltic states are defying China by strengthening their ties with Taiwan, instead of appealing to China to save them from Putin’s wrath.
But one need not look abroad to find such examples. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump, who heavily relied on the Christian nationalist faction of the electorate for political survival, had only favorable comments to make about Vladimir Putin and Russia. It is no less of a coincidence that his chief political theorist as a candidate, Steve Bannon, has been traveling across the world to forge a union of Christian nationalist parties, or that the National Conservatism Conference and CPAC, since its deterioration, gives platforms to far-right nationalists from Europe like Viktor Orbán and Marion LePen, both tied with Putinist oligarchs and raging against the liberal consensus.
The fate of freedom is not success. It is unwritten. That liberalism is the better idea is not enough for its success because the world is not a debating society. Liberalism’s superiority as an idea is an asset in its triumph, but its victory also needs bullets and bombs, tanks, ships, and airplanes. There is every indication that China, Russia, and Iran desire and intend to bury the liberal order, and the United States with it.
America might be a liberal leviathan, but they are leviathans, too, and quite illiberal ones—and the sea is big enough for only one to rule it.
Shay Khatiri is a writer for The Bulwark and the author of The Russia-Iran File Substack newsletter. He studied strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He is a member of the Alexander Hamilton Society.