The Matthew Yglesias Interview


The Atlantic blogger and author of the Heads in the Sand: How The Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up The Democrats talks to UN Dispatch about his new book, explains why Americans need to get in touch with our liberal internationalist roots, and warns against displacing multi-lateral institutions with so-called “concerts of democracies.” UND: Your book offers a political history of the main foreign policy debates that have dominated Washington for the past decade or so. You survey the current sorry state of American foreign policy and pull no punches in laying blame at the feet of Democratic and Republican party leaders alike. In what ways are the two parties responsible for the mess we are in?

MY: Well, I think the Republican responsibility is pretty clear — they’ve been running the show. Democrats, however, were deeply complicit in the biggest mistake of the era — the invasion of Iraq — with the bulk of the party leadership endorsing the invasion and even most party leaders who didn’t sign on for Bush’s folly being unwilling to renounce the big strategic concepts like preventive war and a hazily defined “war on terror” that undergirded Iraq.

UND: Following on that, you argue that one grand strategic vision that we would be wise to reconnect to is idea of liberal internationalism. For the uninitiated, can you spell out what sorts of policies underpin liberal internationalism?

MY: In the most general sense, liberal internationalism holds out an ideal of a world in which international relations is conducted through rules and institutions rather than force and coercion. Ever since the failures of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, smart liberals have recognized that the internationalist ideal is hard to achieve, but in its wiser moments postwar American policy has always sought to bring us closer to that ideal. In that light, the European Union is very much an instantiation of liberal internationalism, as are other less-developed regional institutions.

But most of all, liberal internationalist policies seek to work through, strengthen, and uphold institutions of global or near-global reach — things like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. In this sense, liberal internationalism is a worldview rather than a specific set of policies. But if you look at a specific area of policy like, say, non-proliferation issues, the internationalist worldview leads to the conclusion that the United States must seek to advance its non-proliferation goals through revitalizing the Non-Proliferation Treaty — including a stepped-up commitment to meeting our own NPT obligations — rather than through preventive war.

UND: Is this what you mean by “In With the Old?” [a chapter title in the book]. Similarly, by naming one of your chapters “After Victory” are you secretly trying to channel G. John Ickenberry?

MY: I don’t think the Ikenberry-channeling is all that secret, I cite him at a couple of points in the text and, yes, the chapter title was a reference to his book — a reference I think my publishing company didn’t get or they probably would have hated it for being too obscure. I titled my last chapter “in with the old” to suggest that contrary to current fashion we don’t really need dramatic “new ideas” to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In part, that’s simple humility on my part. The book, structurally, required a chapter of constructive solutions rather than criticism. But it would be silly for a 26 year-old blogger/journalist to claim to have made grand new strides in the theory of international politics. But really I think the main elements of liberal internationalist theory have been in place for a while now. There’s been a group of people in this country who, from “rollback” debate in the 1950s on to the “Team B” exercise in the 1980s to today have consistently derided the internationalist approach, but they keep being proven wrong. After 9/11, they were given the opportunity to really seize the political agenda in an unprecedented way and the results have been disastrous. My argument is that we should go back to what was working before.

To cycle this back around to Ikenberry, he has an idea called “strategic restraint” that’s very much in opposition to the neoconservative idea that, as Charles Krauthammer puts it, we have it within our power to reshape the world if only we engage in “unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.” In fact, as we’ve seen in Iraq we have no such ability. What’s more, these kind of demonstrations of will actually tend to push potential allies away from us by making the United States look frightening. To successfully influence events far beyond our borders in a sustainable way, we need to act through means that other regard as legitimate.

UND: One new idea on the table that you criticize in the book is creating a “concert of democracies” to supplant traditional multilateral institutions like the United Nations. Supporters of this idea would contend that creating such a forum would help the United States avoid crippling debates among adversaries like Russia or China. What’s so wrong with that?

MY: Well, it’s all a bit confusing because oftentimes proponents of the idea deny that they want to supplant the United Nations. But basically, it’s true that the U.N. Security Council voting process is cumbersome and, at times, annoying. But it’s the very cumbersome nature of the process that lends it it’s unique legitimacy. An endeavor that can secure the kind of broad-based support necessary to win the blessing of the [Security Council] can’t be dismissed by its targets as reflecting the narrow interests of any one power or any particular ideological quirk.

A league of democracies could be a useful supplement to the international arena if its activities were kept on an appropriately modest level. But some have suggested that one function of the league might be to authorize military activities outside the Article 7 process. I’m doubtful that any of the world’s major non-U.S. democracies would actually go along with this idea but if they did it would set us on a path for a new cold war style conflict with China and Russia with dire consequences for the world. John McCain appears to think this is a good idea, but the concert of democracies concept has some proponents who don’t want to see a new cold war and don’t want to reorganize the world around Sino-American conflict but I have a hard time understanding what it is those people think they’re doing.