The American Strategy Program gathered four celebrated political scientists—Prof. Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University, Prof. Peter Trubowitz of the University of Texas at Austin, Prof. Daniel Deudney of Johns Hopkins University, and Prof. John Ikenberry of Princeton University—for a discussion of the future of Liberal Internationalism in American foreign policy.
Profs. Kupchan and Trubowitz spoke first, outlining the argument from their recent paper asserting the demise of Liberal Internationalism in the post- Cold War era. They defined Liberal Internationalism as the combination of a commitment to multilateral institutions backed up by a willingness to use the military in a variety of international situations.
Prof. Kupchan stated that all of the present speakers (and moderator and American Strategy Director Steve Clemons) would consider themselves Liberal Internationalists, but that their disagreement rests on the view of the current state of Liberal Internationalism, and the current American political environment.
Prof. Trubowitz then spoke, providing more details about his and Prof. Kupchan’s argument. He argued that the rise of Liberal Internationalism was contingent on a rare combination of circumstances: on the one hand, the presence of an international rival (the Soviet Union) that gave an incentive for politicians to favor centrism. On the other, a domestic scene that was becoming less regionally divided and less politically polarized. As these circumstances have changed, Liberal Internationalism has faded as a politically viable idea.
Prof. Kupchan then returned to give policy suggestions for the future that would be acceptable in this new political environment: these included engagement with adversaries, looking for others (such as the EU) to share international burdens, and to engage in flexible partnerships, rather than formal alliances, both with other countries and with members of other political parties.
Prof. Deudney then took the podium, arguing instead that Liberal Internationalism is as relevant as ever. He said that ideas similar to Liberal Internationalism have been in use since America’s founding, and have been designed both domestically and internationally to ensure security and political liberty. He then described vividly the threats facing America, stating that a large-scale attack from nuclear weapons is inevitable. In a post-September 11 world, he said, Liberal Internationalism is more important than ever to preserve our liberties at home and work with allies to contain threats to America from abroad.
Prof. Ikenberry concluded with a more hopeful message on the future of Liberal Internationalism. He contended that looking at the global system over the last few centuries, the key event is the continued rise of liberal states and open economies. This “liberal ascendancy” and its impact on the international system will remain, even if American power or influence wanes. Ikenberry described a future of more Liberal Internationalism, not less, where the only impossibility is a return to the isolationism that marked America before World War II.
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