Column: The Public Eye: Toward a New Liberal Foreign Policy

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday August 22, 2006

Conservative foreign policy has failed and taken with it their dream of a new American empire. Unfortunately, in the course of its jingoistic pursuit of global supremacy, conservatism undermined the international institutions that both Democratic and Republican presidents struggled to strengthen, before the disastrous reign of George W. Bush. 

As a result, conservatism has accomplished an ignominious “twofer.” It’s made the United States less safe and mocked the cooperation and collaboration required to deal with the world’s problems. It’s time to ask: What does liberalism suggest? 

Unlike conservatives, liberals willingly acknowledge that there are issues facing the world that must be solved by cooperation between nations and creation of international laws and institutions. Liberals don’t believe the United States can achieve world peace solely through military might. They take diplomacy seriously. 

The new liberal ideology sees the United States and other nations cooperating to solve the common problems facing humankind: global climate change, poverty, terrorism, and WMDs, among others. Liberals understand that this means empowering the United Nations and other international organizations. It also suggests that the United States has to acquire some humility; acknowledge that it cannot go it alone. Americans have to quit acting like the do-good bullies of the world. 

International organizations deal with three classes of problems: military, economic, and social. While the United States is the world’s dominant military power, there are international military dilemmas that cannot be solved by American unilateralism. Iraq is a prime example of this reality; among other reasons that the occupation of Iraq failed was the unwillingness of the United States to form a substantial international partnership. 

Liberalism supports multilateral efforts to deal with issues such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the arms trade, in general. Liberals argue that the United States cannot simultaneously push for a reduction of global arms trafficking and continue to be the world’s largest weapons trader. The United States must reduce its weapons production as part of a worldwide disarmament initiative. 

The new liberal ideology acknowledges the obvious: The interests of Israel are not synonymous with the interests of the United States. The United States will remain an ally of Israel, and defend it’s right to exist, but this is not equivalent to giving the government of Israel carte blanche. On July 14, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, said that Israel’s right to self-defense “does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards the protection of civilian populations.” 

Liberalism will return the United States its historic diplomatic position of evenhandedness and regard for international law. America will work with the U.N. to defuse the deteriorating situation between Israel and its neighbors, because only multilateralism can solve the problems in the Middle East. Only multilateralism will provide real security for America and the world. 

Americans believe that democracy is the best form of government, one that should be encouraged throughout the world. Unlike conservatives, liberals believe that democracy involves more than the mechanics of fair elections. Liberals believe in “civil society,” a concept that is notably absent in conservative literature and foreign policy. 

Liberalism knows that a strong civil society is a prerequisite for democracy, that there are a variety of public and non-governmental institutions that must function before there can be an effective voting process: schools, courts and other institutions that protect human rights. Civil society is the glue that holds democratic societies together. Liberals do not share the confidence of conservatives that “the market” enables civil society; they believe that government must be held responsible for ensuring human rights. 

The new liberal ideology understands that democracy and capitalism are not synonymous. Many liberals believe that “level playing field” capitalism is the best economic system, but they understand that other economic forms-such as social democracy-may be acceptable as an emerging nation begins to build democratic institutions. The consequence of this pragmatism is that liberalism knows that critical social and economic problems cannot be left to the whims of the global marketplace. The market doesn’t care about many of these, such as poverty. 

Furthermore, an unfettered market is destructive. Many environmental problems, such as global climate change, result from businesses using the environment as a free resource, ignoring the long-term consequences of actions such as clear-cutting forests or belching noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. The international community must regulate multinational capitalism. 

A new liberal foreign policy has far reaching implications: It declares that the United States will abandon its self-centered conduct in the world community and embrace cooperation. It argues there must be major changes in the way internal U.S. politics are conducted: the military will no longer be treated as sacrosanct; efforts will be redoubled to diminish America’s role as a weapons manufacturer; the political power of corporations will be reduced; and environmental and worker-protection laws will be strengthened. 

The failure of conservatism has brought the United States and the world to the edge of World War III and planetary catastrophe. The good news is that this dire situation has opened the eyes of Americans to alternative views of the world, made them amenable to a radically different foreign policy-the new liberalism. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at