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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchMisplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism

Misplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism

Authors: Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins University, Department of Political SciencePrinceton University, Professor of Politics and International Affairs

Organization/Publisher: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy/ IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies)

Date/Place: July 27, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 27


Keywords: The Quincy Coalition, Liberal Internationalism, Restraint Approach, Biden Administration, and US Foreign Policy



The authors present their “critical reading” of other schools of thought that have come to present themselves as a more appropriate alternative to the liberal internationalism that has been shaping and guiding American foreign policy. The growing influence of these schools is taking on an institutional character in the form of well-funded think tanks and policy-research centers. The authors’ attack focuses on “the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft”, established in 2019 in Washington DC and currently chaired by Andrew Bacevich. Quoting the words of former US President John Quincy Adams (after whom the institute was named) and inspired by his foreign policy calling for restraint at the time, the institute believes that America should stop “going abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”. The Quincy Institute adopts an agenda that calls for Washington to show more restraint in its foreign policy, avoid falling into the trap of the temptation of force, demilitarizing foreign policy, and ending its endless unnecessary wars. The institute comprises what the authors Deudney and Ikenberry see as a “strange coalition” of “libertarians, realists and left-progressive anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism.” Despite the challenge this “coalition” poses to the status of liberal internationalism and its impact on the country’s foreign policy, the authors claim it is a coalition full of contradictions and shortcomings, that it is bound to fail, and that it presents an incapable agenda of accommodating the new global transformations. The authors believe that liberal internationalism is still able to provide the most appropriate solutions to US foreign policy problems and the global order. The article is divided into nine parts. The first part identifies “the Quincy Coalition”. The authors describe it as a “strange coalition” between schools with different sources and divergent views on several issues, but which all share a criticism of US foreign policy and demand for more restraint (in order to avoid another Iraq war) and to thus reduce US military interventionism. The coalition is united in opposition to the project of liberal internationalism that the US has adopted and led over the past 70 years and embodied in the liberal international order. Therefore, the coalition represents such a “radical” challenge to this path that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan (and Trump’s previous plan to do so) seemed to respond to the coalition’s playbook. The article also sees an intellectual consistency between the restrainers and Trump’s policies, such as condemning the Iraq war and US intervention in far-reaching places, questioning the importance of NATO and security agreements with Japan and South Korea, rejecting international institutions, withdrawing from many arms control agreements, etc. Trump’s “America First” policy was a bold – if crude – implementation of the Quincy coalition’s core vision, even if it did not commend Trump’s behavior. The authors also argue that the coalition’s visions are flawed and fatal. It suffers from a lack of understanding of the sources of American success in the twentieth century, so its foreign policy agenda is largely retrogressive and outdated, the pursuit of which will harm fundamental American interests, harm international institutions, undermine liberal democracy, and human rights globally. In the second part, the authors explain the nature of liberal internationalism, arguing that it is capable of solving current crises, as liberalism did previously through its long historical path because liberalism is characterized by an attempt to link its commitments, values, and core goals to the new global developments that emerged from the industrial revolution and other revolutions. These revolutions have produced an unprecedented growth of interdependence on larger scales and geographies than before, which in the eyes of liberal internationalism requires new and unusual measures to secure and achieve these basic liberal values and goals. Modern liberals and liberal internationalists advocate a mixed economy that combines capitalism with comprehensive government regulation carefully designed as essential to the flourishing of capitalism and the preservation of the central values of liberal democracy. The government’s participation in regulating the economy and public life comes as part of an attempt to reduce the negative effects of the industrial revolutions and their outcomes. These revolutions have also changed the world of international politics in revolutionary ways. It has led, for example, to increased levels of violence, growing interdependence, and the rapid spread of threats/risks such as cross-border terrorism, the proliferation of conventional and non-conventional weapons, pandemics, climate change, and others. Therefore, international law alone is no longer sufficient to mitigate international conflict, curb violence and wars, and prevent major civilizational disasters. This is what made the liberal internationalists focus their project on international institutions as a means of restraint, so they established the League of Nations and then the UN and other institutions. All of these were attempts by the liberals to adapt to the new realities, which resulted in a liberal international order that preserved international peace, prevented major wars between great powers, and achieved growth and prosperity that affected most nations over the past seventy years. With the new global problems, the article argues for the ability of the liberal internationalist agenda to provide sustainable solutions, unlike the Quincy coalition. The third part identifies what the authors call a “strange partnership” between the Quincy coalition schools. Because the three schools have different views on several issues, the authors view the coalition as motivated by the presence of common enemies rather than a common vision, which makes it full of shortcomings, contrary to liberal internationalism which the authors claim has a coherent shape and a program most appropriate to the contemporary global reality. The following four parts introduce the three schools of the coalition, criticize them and clarify their weaknesses, respectively. The first school is libertarianism, which was established as an intellectual project in the 19th and 20th centuries. The authors consider it an extreme form of liberalism, the ideology of private property, free market, and capital. Libertarians view the liberal democratic welfare state as a slippery slope toward totalitarianism, so it opposes any form of government interference in the economy or public affairs, even for the sake of achieving economic stability and growth. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman are considered major pioneers of this school in economics, while in international relations, the article refers mainly to “Cato Institute researchers” as its most prominent advocates, such as Christopher Preble and Ted Carpenter. According to the authors, the American libertarians of international relations hold a negative agenda towards the international order. Their ideological bases made them refuse the establishment of the League of Nations and the UN, resist the international effort to develop the post-colonial third world, and so on. During and after the Cold War, American libertarians vehemently opposed binding international arms control agreements as unnecessary and dangerous and saw the expiration of NATO after the communist threat had passed. The European Union then became a target for them, as they comprehensively have opposed international law and the establishment of organizations of almost all kinds. Deudney and Ikenberry argue that libertarians have an incomplete understanding of reality because they ignore the high levels of domestic and international interdependence which have significant negative implications for the US and the world at large. To remedy these effects, cooperation and institutions are needed, as liberal internationalists argue. The ideas of the libertarians lead to a severe disparity in wealth, which in turn limits the freedom that they are mainly keen on, as the wealthy elite will acquire excessive political and economic power at the expense of everyone. This is why liberal internationalists defend the need for governments to play an organizing role in capitalist societies in order to prevent their division into classes. On the international level, the inequality between countries (rich and poor) results in an international hierarchy in which the rich dominate and the poor are subjugated, rather than the emergence of a system of freedom. As for the realist school, the authors describe it as an old tradition, which resembles a wide tent that contains many differences on the main subject, some of which are completely antagonistic to each other. The difference between the realists of “the hegemonic-order school” (Thucydides, E.H. Carr, and Gilpin and Wohlforth) and the realists of “the balance-of-power school” (Machiavelli, Rousseau, Waltz, Posen and Walt) is a good example. The first group sees that order “arises only from concentrations of power. The second argues essentially the opposite: “that order stems from opposition to concentration and from distributed and balanced configurations of power in equilibrium.” Restraint is an essential matter for each of them in their view of the system, but they interpret its occurrence in opposite ways. There is also a great difference between them regarding international institutions. Hegemony theorists see them as expressions of hegemony, while equilibrium theorists view them with suspicion as constraints on the state’s freedom of action. The authors deny the claims of American realists that they have been marginalized in American foreign policy. On the contrary, they had a great influence on it and in the US grand strategy. During the Cold War, realists such as Kennan, Morgenthau, Tucker, and Kissinger had an extraordinary influence in guiding the US strategy. After the Cold War, the realists turned to opponents and critics, as they opposed, for example, the expansion of NATO, Washington’s use of force when its basic interests were not at stake, and after the 9/11 attacks they also warned against the excessive use of force in the context of fighting terrorism. With the invasion of Iraq, the restraint-realists regained their momentum, as the Iraq war was a typical case of a catastrophe resulting from unrestrained power and an expansive liberal agenda. Nevertheless, the article considers the hegemonic realists (not the liberal internationalists) as the main drivers of that war. The engineers of the war (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz) were not liberal internationalists but rather influenced by the hegemonic realists. The democratization of Iraq was not their main goal and motivation for the war, but rather a slogan for domestic consumption. They sought to maintain and expand American supremacy in the Middle East to confront the major revisionist powers. “The Iraq War was a realist war far more than a liberal one, which many Americans, as well as European liberal internationalists, vigorously opposed.” The authors also criticize the ‘offshore balancing’ approach and its call for Washington to dismantle many of its global alliances and bases, leaving Europeans and Asian allies to bear the cost of defending themselves for being wealthy enough and avoiding conflicts unrelated to core US interests and US national security. The authors argue that realists have a dangerously incomplete understanding of the major forces at play in world politics. Their greatest shortcoming is that they do not understand that we live in a world different from the ancient world, marked by intense interconnection and interdependence, and that the concept of “Anarchy” is simply incapable of providing adequate and appropriate restraints. As for the anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist left-wing democratic progressives, they belong to a long tradition that traces its roots back to the American Revolution and has an influence on both Republican and Democratic thought. The American Revolution was deeply anti-imperialist and against the domination of one people over another. It found its epistemological foundations in Montesquieu’s anti-imperialist ideas. This view has had an influence on US foreign policy and has been described as “isolationist” due to its opposition to engaging in wars outside borders. However, this tradition was pushed to the sidelines after the United States became the “arsenal of democracy” in the world and engaged in wars against fascism first then communism during the Cold War. By the 1960s, with the Vietnam War and other US military interventions against communism, this tradition revived, with some seeing “Pax Americana” as a new type of empire. With the growing global dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the expansion of US military alliances in the region, updated versions of this tradition were formed with opposition to US global commitments. The article cites some of the leading modern names of this tradition such as Noam Chomsky, Samuel Moyn, Jeanne Morefield, Stephen Wertheim, and others. Historians who belong to this tradition present an entirely different narrative of American history than the liberal one, portraying America as an ‘empire all the way down’ built through the domination of indigenous peoples, African slaves, and workers. After the Cold War, those leftists questioned American peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, and democracy promotion as neo-colonialism. The article argues that critiques by this tradition of US foreign policy have a clear liberal democratic character, in which these leftists use strong liberal democratic values to judge the failures and shortcomings of actual American institutions and behavior, even if they hide a staunch hostility to capitalism and the market economy. The leftists have failed to realize that the popular democracy they favor and revolutionary movements are often an enemy of limited governmental constitutionalism and the protection of minority rights they defend. They also fail “to recognize that the hard-fought struggle against the greater evils of fascism and communism required the toleration of lesser evils, such as situational support for anti-communist dictatorships.” After discussing and criticizing the three schools, the eighth part discusses the modern liberal sources of American success, arguing that modern liberals provide a more accurate and constructive historical narrative of the American project and its success. It was the liberal, progressive foundations that ultimately made America great. It was behind the expansion of American freedom, its victory in World War II and the Cold War, and the unprecedented peace and prosperity of the international order. This would not have happened if the libertarian opposition, for example, had caused the failure of the establishment of the League of Nations and its aftermath. American global success has depended on a mixture of raw power, liberal ideas, projects of liberal internationalism, and attractive liberal American ideals. In the last part, the authors argue with those who claim that Biden has a tendency to adopt the propositions of liberal internationalism and urge that he actually should, because it would support his agenda that he talked about, as it is able to put the US back to the center of global liberal leadership and address the problems of the twenty-first century, in contrast to the negative agenda of restraint prescribed by the Quincy coalition. They consider the Quincy coalition as unfavorable and misplaced at the moment especially with the accelerating rise of China and the current global problems. The authors expect liberal internationalism to revive relatively quickly in the coming era.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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