Cycles and Epicycles

Colin Dueck is ready to proclaim the end of the “Wilsonian century” at The National Interest:

Liberal internationalists insist that American engagement abroad be on liberal or Wilsonian terms. But the Wilsonian internationalist vision, especially in its post–Cold War iteration, contains some very serious flaws that helped lead to Donald Trump’s election in the first place.

Unless and until today’s Wilsonians grapple with these realities convincingly, there is no sign that Trump’s appeal for a great many U.S. citizens will dissipate.

Unfortunately for his argument, there is no sign that killing people in order to save them has lost its charm for liberal interventionists, either.

I do agree with this characterization, however:

Fundamentally, a close attention to U.S. freedom of action and material American interests is no scandal. The true starting point of U.S. foreign policy is not to promote rules-based liberal world order through multilateral institutions, as such. Rather, the true starting point for US foreign policy is to promote the interests, security, prosperity, principles, and self-government of U.S. citizens. Other worthwhile American commitments—including those in favor of pluralistic regional systems abroad, along with specific U.S. alliances—follow from that starting point.

If only it were thus! A “rules-based liberal order through multilateral institutions” has persistent charm for those who don’t care to put up the jack to enforce such an order, however, e.g. the Germans.

To my eye the entire line of thinking suffers from a fatal flaw. U. S. foreign policy is not a coherent whole flowing towards some grand conclusion. It is a messy, chaotic emergent phenomenon formed from the interactions of several persistent and contrasting strands of political and foreign policy thought: idealisticic optimists (liberal interventionists), realistic optimists (mercantile interests), realist pessimists (Jacksonians), and idealistic pessimists like me. None of the strands ever vanishes completely; none is ever completely in the ascendancy. It’s more a change in emphasis than the sea change Mr. Dueck seems to envision.

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