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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchVindicating Realist Internationalism: A Response to Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

Vindicating Realist Internationalism: A Response to Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

Author: Anatol Lieven

Affiliation: the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 

Organization/Publisher: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 

Date/Place: September 16, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 27 



Keywords: The Quincy Coalition, Realist Internationalism, Liberal Internationalism, Restraint Approach, Hegemony, US Foreign Policy



In July 2021, Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry, leading figures of liberal internationalism, published an article titled “Misplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism,” (See my brief in the GPC Issue 90), in which they criticized the restraint advocates in US foreign policy, or what they referred to as “the Quincy Coalition.” This coalition, named after John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and a key influence on contemporary restraint advocates such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Wertheim, Emma Ashford, and Anatol Lieven, was established in 2019 as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft to promote the idea that Washington should show more restraint in its foreign policy, avoid the temptation of power, demilitarize foreign policy, and end endless wars. According to Deudney and Ikenberry, the institute comprises 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 US foreign policy, the authors argue that it is full of contradictions and shortcomings and is unlikely to succeed in addressing global transformations. In contrast, they assert that liberal internationalism is still able to provide the most appropriate solutions to US foreign policy problems and the global order.


Anatole Lieven, a realist affiliated with the Quincy Institute, published this article in response to Deudney and Ikenberry’s critique of the Quincy Coalition and defense of liberal internationalism. In his article, Lieven offers a critique of liberal internationalism and a defense of what he calls “realist internationalism.” This article has reignited the debate between liberals and realists about how the US should manage its foreign policy, its self-perception, and its status in the world.


Lieven’s essay is divided into five parts. The first part addresses Deudney and Ikenberry’s claim that the Quincy Coalition lacks ideological unity and is full of contradictions. Lieven argues that the Quincy Coalition is not based on ideological unity, but rather its members agree on certain issues, particularly their opposition to American hegemony and Western military interventions, while differing on other foreign and domestic issues. For example, Quincy realists and leftists may disagree with libertarians from the Cato Institute on certain domestic issues. Lieven also points out that the idea of building a coalition is not new and that in the past, a coalition opposing the Vietnam War was formed, comprising realists like Reinhold Niebuhr and Senator J. William Fulbright, as well as the radical left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Despite their differences on other issues, they all agreed that the US military intervention in Vietnam was a disastrous mistake with criminal consequences, and they were proven right. Similarly, members of the Quincy Institute and their allies agreed to oppose US military intervention and “nation-building” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and they were also proven right. Lieven also asserts that Deudney and Ikenberry are part of a de facto coalition themselves, as their support for US global hegemony and interventionism aligns them with neoconservatives, religious fundamentalists, and American imperialists.


Deudney and Ikenberry have claimed that there is an affinity between the Quincy Institute and former US President Donald Trump, which Lieven describes as grotesque. Lieven provides examples of the stark contrast between Trump’s actions and the positions advocated by members of the Quincy Institute. For example, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, while the Quincy Institute has argued in favor of a deal and a rational settlement with Iran. Trump has given unconditional support to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, while the Quincy Institute has harshly criticized the terms of these partnerships and the behavior of regional partners such as Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Trump has adopted a hostile approach towards China, while the Quincy Institute has called for caution and pragmatism in US relations with China and for continued cooperation wherever possible. Lieven notes that Trump’s policies were fully in line with the liberal internationalism advocated by Ikenberry and his allies. In contrast, the Quincy Institute sees the Biden administration’s “new cold war” against China, which Deudney and Ikenberry support, as futile and a continuation of the military-industrial complex that squanders trillions of dollars on unnecessary military programs that benefit American companies rather than defending the security of American citizens.


Lieven denies Deudney and Ikenberry’s claim that the Quincy Institute attacks the United Nations and its role in promoting international cooperation, as well as the institute’s alleged hostility towards the European Union. In fact, Lieven and his colleagues do not believe that the United Nations will eventually become a “world government.” They also argue that the attempt to transform the European Union into a super-state was a mistake that has led to dangerous and unfortunate backlash in many of the union’s core countries. Lieven accuses Deudney and Ikenberry of deliberately confusing realist internationalists with local libertarians and explicitly accusing realists of opposing measures of international cooperation. Lieven asserts that neither ancient nor contemporary realists opposed the work of international organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNESCO, denied climate change, or opposed vaccination measures against Covid-19. He also argues that the difference between the internationalism of liberals and realists lies in their different understandings of what kind of “internationalism” best promotes international peace, development, and cooperation in pursuit of fundamental humanitarian goals, as well as their different attitudes towards the course of US foreign and security policy. Realism has always emphasized wisdom, deliberation, restraint, and avoidance of arrogance in foreign and security policy, which are not synonymous with national chauvinism, crude isolationism, or opposition to international cooperation as Deudney and Ikenberry have tried to portray. Lieven notes that the Quincy Institute is inspired by realists who were internationalists, including Niebuhr, Morgenthau, Kennan, and Fulbright, but their internationalism is different from Ikenberry’s internationalism. The old realist internationalists opposed communism but also US military interventionism and hegemony in the name of anti-communism. Kennan, in particular, opposed the transformation of the strategy of containment, which he designed, into militarism, paranoia, ideological fanaticism, and imperial ambition. After the end of the Cold War, Kennan opposed the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet bloc, arguing that it was unnecessary for Western security and would inevitably lead to a serious breakdown in relations with Russia, contrary to the views of liberal internationalists.


In the second part of his essay, Lieven criticizes liberal internationalism for the destructive aspects of US foreign policy over the past generation and its inability to understand other countries, whether they compete with the US or are subject to its policies and interference. He also disputes Deudney and Ikenberry’s claim that realism is connected to the neo-conservatives and the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and instead argues that liberal internationalism is connected to the policies and disasters of the neo-conservatives. Lieven asserts that American military hegemony and liberal internationalism are interconnected, one cannot be adopted without the other, and that American ideological nationalism unites them. In his view, liberal internationalism disguises American imperialism and provides it with the ideological justification for aggressive American wars against other peoples, diverting attention and resources from pressing domestic needs, increasing international aggression, hindering international cooperation, and undermining respect for international law.


Lieven also disputes the link established by Deudney and Ikenberry between the “hegemonic realists” and the “neo-conservative” wars. He asserts that the “hegemonic realists” have consistently opposed American hegemony around the world, including in the Middle East. Instead, he argues that it was the liberal internationalists who colluded with the neo-conservatives and supported their goal of “building a democratic state” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The language of liberal internationalism infused the general arguments of the Bush Jr. administration for its invasions of Iraq, such as promoting democracy and regime change. In short, the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” for the Middle East was a quintessential liberal internationalist agenda.


Lieven also describes Deudney and Ikenberry’s article as echoing Tony Blair’s speech before the US Congress in 2003 titled “The Doctrine of the International Community.” In this speech, Blair divided the world into democracies defending freedom and dictatorships supporting tyranny. Lieven asserts that the ideas of liberal internationalists were also behind the disaster in Libya and its consequences in the region and Europe. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime was justified by the “responsibility to protect” principle, which is supported by liberal internationalists. Therefore, Lieven concludes that the disastrous American behavior based on the ideals of “purity and benevolence” and the motives of liberal internationalism cannot evade responsibility for the tragedies that have befallen these countries and peoples.


In the third part of his essay, Lieven discusses what he calls “the intellectual deficiency of liberal internationalism.” He believes that liberal internationalists are not interested in studying the cultures and traditions of other countries and have a strong unconscious emotional motive not to do so. He argues that liberal internationalists believe that Western-style liberal democracy is the only valuable and legitimate form of government for any society, that every society is capable of adopting liberal democracy, and that human progress depends entirely on it. As a result, Lieven asserts that the teleology of liberal internationalists has led to the blind rejection of the study of Afghanistan’s history and culture for 20 years, avoiding learning from previous failed attempts to create a modern Afghan state or from the success of the Taliban. Instead, he claims that they colluded with the US administration to create a pseudo-democracy and pseudo-civil society in Afghanistan that quickly vanished, and even created pseudo-liberal opportunistic political leaders and intellectuals who contributed to the destruction of the country and its people. Despite all the disasters that have occurred, Lieven notes that some liberal internationalists still support the Western campaign in Afghanistan, such as writer Anne Applebaum, who wrote an article in August 2021 titled “Liberal Democracy Is Worth a Fight.” Lieven also argues that their ideology plays a decisive role in erasing the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan from the American public consciousness, just as their predecessors did with the lessons of Vietnam. He believes that this demonstrates the corruption of liberal internationalists and the falseness of their “democracy.”


In the fourth part of his essay, Lieven provides examples of what he sees as “the blinkered arrogance of liberal internationalism” as reflected in Deudney and Ikenberry’s article. He argues that ignoring the legitimacy of other political regimes is the most destructive and dangerous aspect of their ideology. He asserts that liberal internationalists are motivated to destroy “non-democratic” regimes and present them as the enemy in order to justify aggression against them. That is why Deudney and Ikenberry describe China as a “global threat” to the West. Lieven sees things differently, however. He argues that China is not trying to spread revolution or sabotage other political regimes, as the Soviet Union did, and that China’s external presence is primarily economic. He also notes that China has only one small naval station in Djibouti outside the South China Sea, in contrast to the United States, which has many large military bases overseas. Additionally, Lieven asserts that China does not force other countries to adopt its model of governance; they have the choice to do so, even though China has created a highly successful model of capitalist development under authoritarian leadership. Therefore, Lieven believes that the challenge facing the West is to make its own model more attractive by pursuing successful internal reform, rather than launching democratic crusades – as Ikenberry and his allies advocate – that always need the presence of a “threatening enemy” to justify wars.


In addition, Lieven argues that liberal internationalists have failed to understand how US military interventions, regime change efforts, and destruction of countries have reinforced negative views of American intentions among people in countries like China, Russia, and Iran. He asserts that Washington’s rhetoric about spreading democracy and confronting authoritarian regimes is seen in these countries as a deliberate attempt to destroy them, regardless of the cost to their people. It is therefore not surprising, according to Lieven, that these countries have come to support each other against US interests and global “democratization” efforts.


According to Lieven, Ikenberry and other liberal internationalists are living in a “dream world” by calling on the US to cooperate with China on issues such as climate change while also confronting it on other issues. He believes that the US is no longer able to impose its will on the world as it once did, due to changes in the global economy and China’s increased strength. Lieven argues that if there is no structural cooperation between the US and China on major issues, there will be no global cooperation at all. He also suggests that Deudney and Ikenberry’s view of China is not much different from that of neo-conservatives like Robert Kagan, who advocate for containing and confronting China.

In the fifth part of his essay, the author criticizes what liberal internationalists refer to as a “rules-based global order” as being based on “shaky foundations”. He suggests that they use this term instead of “international law-based order” because the United States has avoided or refused to sign many international agreements. As a result, they prefer a more flexible and fluid formula that allows the US to choose which rules it wants to follow and which ones it wants to ignore or break.


Liberal internationalists often argue that the United States has a strong record of spreading and defending democracy around the world over the past 80 years, and that liberal democracy is at the core of the “rules-based global order.” However, the author refutes this argument. While the United States did not need to create democracy in Western and Central Europe in the 1940s because it already existed, the situation was different in other parts of the world. The United States has a history of military interventions in Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Iran, which has led many people in these regions to view the United States as a greater threat to democracy than Russia or China. In addition, democratic movements supported by the United States in countries with interests that differ from Washington’s are often viewed as traitorous agents by the regimes and people of these countries. The author also points out a clear inconsistency and contradiction in the rhetoric and behavior of liberal internationalists and the US administration when it comes to their call for a global alliance of democracies. For example, when President Biden invited Indian President Narendra Modi, known for his Hindu chauvinism and authoritarianism, to a “Summit of Democracies” in December 2021, it was primarily for the purpose of making the summit “global” and affirming the US-India partnership against China. In the author’s view, the “Alliance of Democracies” was simply an attempt to build a geopolitical front against China.


In summary, Lieven recognizes the “internationalism” of the Quincy Institute, particularly among the realists, but notes that their version of internationalism differs from that of Ikenberry-Deudney. The Quincy group advocates for international law and cooperation among diverse political regimes to promote peace and achieve shared human objectives, while liberal internationalists promote American hegemony by invoking liberal democracy, and believe in cooperation with countries that align with American goals and the subjugation or overthrow of those that resist American domination. This perspective is more akin to “liberal imperialism” as practiced by Victorian Britain, and the label of “internationalists” does not accurately describe them.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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