Column: The Public Eye: Ten Maxims for a Liberal Foreign Policy

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday March 06, 2007

The catastrophic occupation of Iraq is evidence of far more than the incompetence of the Bush administration; it is proof that the conservative worldview is fatally flawed. As the forty-third presidency staggers to an ignominious finale, liberals must prepare not only to govern America, but also to proclaim a new vision. Liberal foreign policy should be based upon 10 elemental concepts: 

1. America needs to lead by example, rather than by force. While it seems obvious to most Americans that the United States should practice what it preaches, this essential moral maxim was abandoned by a Bush administration whose operating philosophy is: “Do what I say, not what I do.” Bush conservatism brought a host of problems to US democratic process: stolen elections, denial of civil rights, and unlawful expansion of presidential authority, to mention only a few. Liberal leaders must practice democracy and set foreign policy from that moral ground. 

2. Propagating democracy requires a multinational effort, rather than unilateral action. Americans believe that democracy should be spread throughout the world; the question is by what means. Conservatives maintain the US has unique moral status in the world and, therefore, the privilege to govern the world community: “We’re the biggest and, therefore, the best.” This conceit, the belief in American exceptionalism, serves as an excuse for U.S. imperialism. Liberals believe that a multipolar effort is required to spread democracy. 

3. Democracy cannot be imposed; it has to be nurtured. Bush conservatism argues that American military power can catalyze western-style democracy in non-democratic states: “Might makes right.” Liberals believe that while multinational police forces can protect human rights they can’t guarantee democracy. 

4. There’s more to foreign policy than shaking a big stick. Conservative foreign policy presumes that a strong military is America’s best ambassador: “Adopt democracy or we’ll shoot you.” This big-stick approach hasn’t worked in Afghanistan or Iraq and shows no sign of working in the rest of the world. Liberal foreign policy recognizes that diplomacy is an essential tool both in promoting democracy and building coalitions in the national interest. 

5. Democracy is not synonymous with capitalism. The Bush administration advocates a cardboard version of democracy that emphasizes property rights and open markets, and glosses over the necessity for human rights and civil society. Its approach stems from an elemental conservative maxim: “In a democracy, free markets inevitably solve national problems.” Predictably the application of this doctrine in non-western societies produced authoritarian, plutocratic states featuring rampant inequality and environmental degradation. 

6. Some emerging democracies cannot support western-style capitalism. Because of their confidence in the power of the open market, Bush conservatives invariably get the cart before the horse: “Ensure capitalism and democracy will surely follow.” In many non-western states, democracy must be nurtured—by engendering civil society—before it is strong enough to support free-market capitalism. In the meantime, capitalism must be limited or national resources will be squandered and plutocrats will prevail. 

7. The global marketplace is not a substitute for global civil society. Coincident with their belief in spreading democracy through militarism, Bush conservatives have deregulated the international economy. They’ve promoted globalization in the naïve belief that this would inevitably remedy international economic, environmental, political, and social problems: “The market will provide.” The results have been devastating: economic inequality and environmental destruction—to name only two problems—have spiralled out of control. Liberals believe in the importance of international governance. 

8. The United Nations and other international organizations need to be revamped rather than abandoned. Conservatives argue that the U.N. doesn’t work and, therefore, should be replaced by a coalition of democracies headed by the United States. They believe that because America is the pre-eminent world power, it should determine international policy on all important matters: “We’re number one; therefore, we call the shots.” Liberals argue that America should redefine its role to that of building coalitions, exercising its power judiciously in a multipolar world. 

9. America needs to close its overseas military bases and bring American troops home. The United States maintains more than 700 overseas military facilities and has an active military presence in more than forty countries. Bush conservatives argue that this guarantees national security: “We’re safer because of our military hegemony.” Liberals believe that conservatives continue to fight the cold war; that the socio-political realities of the 21st century, and the campaign against terrorism, dictate that the US should bring its troops home, beef up homeland security, and strengthen international alliances. 

10. America needs to replace military spending with foreign aid. Conservatives ignore the economic and social roots of terrorism, the reality that rampant globalization fostered the conditions that produced Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. In place of a systemic analysis, Bush conservatives proffer platitudes: “They hate us because of our freedoms.” Liberals recognize that eliminating the conditions that foster terrorism requires the rich nations of the world to help the poor, to guarantee the elemental human rights that underpin democracy. 

The key to transforming U.S. foreign policy is for American liberals to practice democracy at home. 


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