An Autopsy for Liberal Imperialism?

Photo: Courtesy of Julien Harneis, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There is a story told of the great Cuban patriot Jose Marti, who fought for Cuba’s independence while living much of his adult life in the United States. He was at times quite critical of U.S. foreign policy and was mocked for this hypocrisy. He is supposed to have retorted “I know the monster, for I have lived in his entrails.”

I had that distinct feeling in reading Dr. Philip Cunliffe’s Cosmopolitan Dystopia, just published last year. Cunliffe, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent, describes a fateful transformation in the liberal international order, driven by the West after the fall of the Soviet Union—during the thirty years between 1990 and 2020—that corresponds almost exactly my career as an American diplomat (1983-2015). It would perhaps be comforting if I could refute, from my own experience, what an academic describes from the outside, but my conviction is that Cunliffe is largely accurate in his description of what became “permanent war inspired by global ideals in a borderless world.” Indeed, he provides a powerful intellectual framework for the disquiet and dread some of us “inside the entrails of the monster” felt at the time at what seemed to be a type of political-military perpetual motion machine run amok while it racked up a massive toll in blood and treasure.

I served early on in Afghanistan and worked on Iraq from the State Department in Washington, D.C. I was in Sudan as controversy raged over the urgent need for a kinetic Responsibility to Protect in Darfur. When the effort to overthrow the Qaddafi regime in Libya was underway in 2011, I transmitted a warning from the then President of the African Union that chaos in Libya would be the result of our efforts, human trafficking, the spread of Jihadism in the Sahel and so it came to pass. The longer I worked in foreign policy the less realistic and more mendacious it seemed, the more distant from the core interests of ordinary Americans.

The author makes a convincing case that human rights, both as jargon and as a type of imperial ideology, have been used as political justification for constant militarized efforts to supersede the barriers of national sovereignty. The human rights movement, which had for so long been wary of state power, became the very core of an aggressive post-Cold War cosmopolitanism, the spearhead of an “imperious universalism that bleaches out cultural particularism.” The adoption of this worldview has made Western nations, particularly the United States, into the preeminent disruptive political powers on the planet. They have taken up the role of humanitarian revolutionaries while our adversaries in brutal authoritarian states like Russia and China filled the role of supporters of the status quo, of powers that want to work with, trade, and support all sorts of regimes on the basis of shared interests.

Certainly, when looking at shattered states that have been objects of Western-led humanitarian intervention, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, one can honestly say that whatever good intentions may have buttressed these interventions—and there were good intentions—the results have been decidedly mixed to say the least. What has      certainly not happened is the successful imposition of the West’s idealized vision of good governance and open society on these countries. This is a story more of imperial disaster than imperial power.

Cunliffe archly compares our Western liberal cosmopolitan dystopia with the cosmopolitan dystopia of the Islamic state, a regime which weaponized apocalyptic Salafi Islam and which, like the West and its weaponized human rights, saw itself as beyond borders and existing states, transnational, more a state of mind than a mere country. In this sense, Davos Man and Daesh Man were not so much opponents as rivals—squabbling cousins both claiming universal jurisdiction based on competing visions of the world. The world of ISIS was just a dark twisted Salafist version of its Western analogue: the humanitarian empire forced on the Global South at the barrel of a gun.

One of the challenges of this book is that while many people may agree with all (or most) of Cunliffe’s description of the last thirty years, we still struggle to understand why it happened. After victory in the Cold War the West could have acted as the great conservative protector of the status quo, of sovereign states, “they should have preferred stability.” What occurred was a type of “inverted revisionism” where seemingly status quo powers in the West turned Jacobins and subverted their own international order that had proved so successful in the post-World War Two era. Instead, they were “pathologically gnawing away at the very order they created” and empowering their adversaries. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq allowed a bitter American adversary, Khamenei’s Iran, to rise in his place. The overthrow of an aging, defanged Qaddafi, who had willingly given up his nuclear ambitions, served as a warning to North Korea not to surrender theirs.

When searching for the why of cosmopolitan dystopia, I think Cunliffe is too dismissive of psychological factors such as narcissism and pseudo-religious faith. Human rights ideology has in many ways replaced religion in providing satisfying substitutes for both altruism and crusading zeal. It has become both a way of doing good and of getting ahead, a vocation and a career. The “dense new infrastructure” of international institutions, the vast network of NGOs, and the progressive foreign policy elite do indeed need “a meddlesome globalism which provides employment” for this elite. But it doesn’t just provide employment, it provides meaning. And that “ideology of the Beltway” is not confined to Washington D.C. or even America, it is now largely the defining ideology of the Western ruling elite and most of its institutions—globalist, arrogant, intrusive, paternalistic, therapeutic, seeking to overcome all barriers and colonize all supposedly benighted corners of the planet, at home or abroad.

But it is even more than ideology. Rather, the transformation of what was supposed to be exceptional into something which is routinely, repeatedly indulged in fills a greater moralistic need, “a mode of politics focused on establishing deeper, more authentic and meaningful political identities rooted in opposition to extreme suffering and violence.” There is both narrow self-interest and overweening narcissism at play here.

Cunliffe, a self-described “paleo-leftist,” is to be commended in taking on the attempt by scholars and activists to differentiate between ‘good’ interventionism and ‘bad’ interventionism, where these proponents of intervention seek to isolate the disaster of Iraq (and now Afghanistan no doubt) from places like Kosovo and Libya. And his analysis of the ‘new’ interventionism’s critics is spot on, where we have seen the bizarre inversion of hard-nosed foreign policy realists talking peace and calling for limits, warning about over-reach and hubris, while humanitarian liberals call for an aggressive and adventurist foreign policy where any problem in the world becomes an urgent question of Western power.

This is perhaps not such a surprise given that we seem to live in a globalized Western-shaped world that abhors limits and where any barriers to self-actualization and experimentation by elites is decried as some sort of human rights emergency, whether it is refusing to bake a cake in Colorado or prohibiting children’s access to pornography in Hungary. A permanent campaign for the sake of broadly defined human rights overseas doesn’t seem so strange when we also have a permanent campaign for the sake of broadly defined human rights domestically. The only difference is that we’re not using drone strikes at home—at least not yet. But the surveillance state, the permanent bureaucracy and the creation and funding of dense new infrastructures combining the powers of Big Tech and centralizing government seem to be entrenched and mostly immune to popular sovereignty.

Despite being subjected to intense vilification for years, the opponents of the permanent humanitarian wars seem, today at least, vindicated, particularly after the collapse of the twenty-year Western intervention in Afghanistan in August 2021. But despite the ruinous cost of that and other interventions, are we truly chastened? Cunliffe points out that the intervention in Libya took place just as the U.S. and its allies were withdrawing ground troops from Iraq. (They would return three years later in 2014 to counter the rise of ISIS.) Even as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021 many voices were raised, both on the Left and the Right, calling for a permanent presence, if not for good governance in Kabul, at least for the sake of the rights of Afghan women. If such calls appeared during the high tide of a chaotic withdrawal, how long will it be until political amnesiacs find a new cause and a new battlefield which they regard as truly exceptional, truly a humanitarian emergency this time? Perhaps instead of counterterrorism and human rights, the next emergency will be clothed in the chameleon language of the latest threat, a new pandemic, or an emergency response to climate change. It was not so long ago that influential Western voices even hinted at the need for forceful outside intervention in Brazil because of the forest fires in the Amazon.

Despite the sorry record of military interventions, costly nation building and international tutelage of failed states over the past years, the odds are good that some sort of permanent campaign couched in the language of a greater humanitarian good—coercive or pseudo-military to a certain extent—will return. All the mechanisms and structures built up for what are in effect “neo-trusteeships” will have to be deployed somewhere. With “gushing altruism as a peculiar kind of identity politics” for so many in the West, the temptation may continue to be irresistible. That this is still remotely possible is an indictment of the liberal world order, an order which Cunliffe correctly sees as decaying from within. Here is an object lesson for conservatives, for sovereigntists, for those who believe in limits: focus on home and hearth, on the things that matter close at hand rather than pursuing another secular crusade seeking to refashion the world after demolishing it.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.


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