Liberal Nationalists and Liberal Internationalists on the Use of Force

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice

The US United Nations Ambassador, Susan Rice, has come under increasing fire from Senate Republicans over her remarks surrounding the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month. In several television appearances, Ambassador Rice (following the information she had been provided by the administration based on “preliminary intelligence”) said that the attack was the result of protests over an anti-Muslim film. More detailed analysis later proved that the attacks used the cover of the protests but were in fact premeditated attacks by Islamic militants.

Blogging at Duck of Minerva last week, Josh Busby asks “Why Does John McCain Hate Susan Rice?” In doing so, Busby notes that Susan Rice has more in common with McCain than other potential nominees. Rice has been a strong proponent of American intervention in Libya, Syria, and Darfur. And she has advocated using military force in support of American interests and to prevent atrocities abroad.

Busby argues that liberal internationalists have more in common with neoconservatives like McCain, George W. Bush, and others, than they do with other realists like John Kerry. As Busby writes,

Where realists are quite conservative about the prospects for using force in defense of the country’s values, both liberal internationalists and neocons are optimistic about the ability to remake the world in the image of the United States. That is what makes them both liberal. Indeed, neoconservative is a misnomer. They really should have been called liberal nationalists. Where they differ from liberal internationalists is on means. Liberal internationalists prefer multilateral instruments to address foreign policy problems whereas neocons prefer national ones.

That distinction is an important one, and one that students often miss. Often assuming that realists are more likely to support the use of force and liberals less likely, we sometimes conflate the tendency to use force with the motivation for it. From this perspective, realists would likely oppose the use of American military force in Afghanistan and Iraq, because no clear national interest is at stake. By contrast, such wars could be supported by liberals because, from their perspective, the use of force to establish a more democratic international order is morally justified.

Perspectives become more complicated when we move from the abstract to the real world. Does the United States have a national interest in Libya? In Syria? In Rwanda? Should the lack of a national interest preclude us from intervening to prevent crimes against humanity, such as was the case in the 1994 Rwandan genocide?

What do you think? Should the US military be used in support of humanitarian intervention or to establish democracy abroad? Or should the United States limit its involvement to areas where it has a clearly defined national interest? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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