The Specter of Liberal InternationalismRoundup
tags: internationalism, Brookings
In February 2017, the Brookings Institution published a report entitled “Building ‘Situations of Strength,’” which outlined the think tank’s vision of the United States’ role in the world. The document, which mostly consisted of boilerplate about the importance of U.S. global leadership, was officially co-authored by a number of America’s most prominent foreign policy thinkers: Michèle Flournoy, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration; Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor under George W. Bush; and Robert Kagan, the historian andneoconservative hawk, among others. Despite the presence of these notable individuals, however, the strategy was primarily drafted by someone whom most people have never heard of: Thomas J. Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow at the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings.
Wright’s report appeared at a transitional moment in Brookings’s history. Founded in 1916 as the Institute for Government Research, Brookings was created to bring America’s top thinkers together to solve the nation’s most vexing policy problems. For much of the last century it has been one of the United States’ most influential think tanks.
Today, though, things are changing. In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory and a 2016 New York Times report that accused Brookings of selling its advice to the highest bidder, the think tank stands at a crossroads. Trump has made clear time and again that he respects few groups less than centrist Beltway elites. Furthermore, both Trump’s election and Bernie Sanders’s insurgency revealed that a growing number of Americans are no longer willing to heed the counsel of their meritocratic betters. Brookings—like other mainstream think tanks—has clearly lost significant public legitimacy. If the think tank hopes to retain its influence, it must reexamine the principles that have guided its policy advice for decades.
Brookings experts, however, do not appear interested in the task. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Wright’s new book, All Measures Short of War. Wright is young by the standards of Washington’s policymaking elite. Educated at Georgetown and other elite universities, he is not only a Brookings wonk, but also a principal member of the next generation of defense intellectuals who have taken it upon themselves to envision the future of the United States (and who likely expect to serve in government after what they hope to be a short Trump interregnum). What All Measures Short of War reveals, though, is that for all its education and claims to authority, the vanguard to which Wright belongs has become startlingly backward-looking and incapable of charting a new path for the United States in the twenty-first century.
All Measures Short of War champions what has become the standard Brookings line: the idea that the United States’ primary global mission must be to defend the “liberal international order” that has supposedly defined geopolitics since 1945. “For seventy years,” Wright argues, “the United States built and led a liberal international order characterized by alliances, an open economy, multilateral cooperation, democracy, and human rights.” It’s a curious argument: just ask the people of Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and several other countries about the United States’ commitment to democracy and human rights and see what they have to say about the matter.
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