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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchCalling ‘liberal internationalism’ what it is: American primacy

Calling ‘liberal internationalism’ what it is: American primacy

Author: Sarang Shidore

Affiliation: The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (Austin)

Organization/Publisher:  The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Date/Place: August 4, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Debate 

Word Count: 1832


Keywords:  Liberal Primacy, Liberal Internationalism, Quincy Coalition, Restraint Approach, and US Foreign Policy 


Last July, Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry published an article titled, “Misplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism.” They presented a scathing critique of the restraint advocates (Realists and non-realists) in US foreign policy, or what they called “the Quincy Coalition” relative to John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States who is considered the main inspirer of contemporary restrainers such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Wertheim, and Sarang Shidore. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft was established a few years ago to attract such scholars who advocate the need for Washington to show more restraint in its foreign policy, avoid falling into the temptation trap of power, promote the demilitarization of foreign policy, and ending endless wars, etc. Thus, Deudney and Ikenberry’s article renewed the debate between liberalists and realists about how the US should manage its foreign policy, how it sees itself, and its status in the world. According to Shidore, the main argument of Deudney-Ikenberry’s article is that the camp of restraint “remains hostage to its critique of the American blunder in Iraq”, as it is an incoherent camp due to the presence of dissimilar factions within it such as the libertarians, balance-of-power realists, progressives, and others. Thus, this camp presents only a negative agenda for shaping the future of the global order, nor does it offer any solutions to problems resulting from industrialization and high-level interdependence such as inequality and climate change. In addition, its advocates resist defending and promoting democracy in a world threatened by a rising and authoritarian China. The authors concluded that “liberal internationalism is the only model capable of solving the world’s problems.” Shidore describes the article as being full of tangential, inaccurate, and simplistic assertions, preferring to call liberal internationalism: “liberal primacy” or “armed global hegemony”. He assigns it a share of the responsibility for the current global order crises, especially as it has had the greatest influence on Washington policy for decades. He argues that liberal primacy advocates are not only heightening the risks of the great-power conflict, but that their claimed achievements are rhetorical and lack credibility rather than practical truth. On the other hand, restrainers offer a more honest and pragmatic approach, which appears by comparing the two sides’ perceptions of many topics. First, the assertion of the liberal primacy over democracy does not coincide with its behavior, as its advocates are concerned with the fate of democracy in the Atlantic region (the Core) while turning a blind eye to what is happening in the Global South, especially when it comes to the behavior of Washington’s allies there (Israel’s behavior, for example). In return, restrainers genuinely support democracy by urging the United States to perfect its own model at home. They also always question the real motives of Washington’s actions when it calls for democracy promotion abroad or coercive social engineering in other countries. Second, the liberal primacy attempts to reduce the US’ responsibility in creating the world’s problems despite its explicit claim of the need to lead the world and maintain unipolarity. It has a big responsibility due to the unequal power and wealth that Washington enjoys compared to others. Third, the liberal primacy marginalizes the alternative and different versions of liberalism and liberal internationalism. Before World War II, American Internationalism was different from its post-war counterpart. The former supported a move away from foreign wars and advocated diplomacy as a means of resolving conflicts. In addition, the liberal primacy is less international than its alternatives, because its tendencies are mainly centered on Europe and the Global North, while the alternative internationalism includes those nations located in the Global South, where most people live. It presents important proposals for the American interest in an increasingly multipolar world. Moreover, the liberal primacy’s focus on the issues of spreading democracy, managing interdependence, and containing the rise of China makes it ignore the issues that trouble the countries of the Global South such as their attempts to achieve internal stability, economically catching-up with the rich world, avoiding American military interventions and other military competition between the great powers, etc. The alternative internationalism is opposed or ignored by the liberal primacy, which reveals the latter’s double standards. Fourth, liberal primacy views China as the greatest threat to the international order attributing that to its authoritarian regime and its recent actions in the neighborhood. The author rejects the inevitable link between the nature of the internal regime and the country’s foreign policy, as authoritarian nations may not necessarily seek conquest or global domination (China in the 15th century), just as major democratic nations may disavow global hegemony (the US in the late 19th century to World War II). The liberal primacy has a deterministic and inflated view of Chinese power and threat. It is exaggerated when it depicts the bias of East Asian countries and the world on the side of Washington against Beijing. Here, the author provides examples of the involvement of America’s allies themselves with China’s projects and their apprehension about the strategy of liberal primacy towards Beijing. Moreover, he opposes the “one China” policy adopted by the liberal primacy, as it increases the risks of great power conflict and the resulting hostility and militarization of policies. In short, China does not constitute an existential threat to the United States, as the authors claim. Fifthly, the author is surprised by the liberal primacy’s attempt to associate itself with President Roosevelt and its calling for the establishment of a “Rooseveltian School.” Roosevelt himself achieved tremendous success by forming “a diverse coalition” at home to confront the central challenges of his time. Coalition building is evidence of maturity rather than inconsistency. Finally, the author clarifies some advantages of restraint, arguing that it can reduce the risk of great-power war. It is the approach needed by American grand strategy in order to pave the way for a safer and more prosperous world order. In contrast, he asserts that liberal primacy is nothing but a status quo ideology that is likely to only exacerbate global challenges, as well as its explicit intention to perpetuate unipolarity for its own self-interest. “It is an outmoded approach to our time of uncertainty, increasing multipolarity, and a planetary crisis.”

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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