A Liberal’s Defense of Power in International Politics by Joseph Bingham Opp
It is a great and common courtesy to despise politicians. The more powerful the elected representative of the people, the more intense the people’s socially obligatory disdain for their every word and deed ought to become. This is because, as any good liberal knows, there is no poorer company than a habitual defender of the powerful. In the interest, then, of maintaining positive social regard and an expanding rather than contracting circle of charming dinner party interlocutors, I will not defend the powerful but instead, power and the principles which have the potential, but often fail to, lay behind it.
A certain lack of respect for and instinctual distrust of the powerful is a healthy and even necessary part of a functional liberal democracy, especially as it concerns matters of foreign policy. The Democratic Peace Theory stipulates that democracies do not tend to go to war against other democracies, and indeed take up arms with less frequency than their authoritarian counterparts. This is because, putting it bluntly, war is a tough sell. Therefore, it makes sense to be wary of those we trust with the power to plunge us into conflict, and our distrust can sometimes mean the difference between war and peace. A redolent example is the Bush Administration’s use of public fervour and emotion in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to justify an entirely irrelevant war in Iraq; some very difficult and vocal distrust would have done us well in those tense moments.
This does not translate, however, into a necessary distrust (and much less hatred) of Power in international affairs. The powerful have been entrusted with so great a responsibility that it requires an instinctual wariness on the part of their constituents precisely because power has the extraordinary capacity to be both constructive and destructive, sword and shield, and to be used with startling efficiency in the service of evil as in the service of good.
Modern liberal thinking in the West has, as a result of fatigue with the pessimism of Cold War tactics, leaned into the idea that the world can and should be guided by a universal appeal to a general set of “common” principles (human rights, respect for national sovereignty, the value of democracy and equality, opposition to totalitarianism and its methods), and that these principles are legitimised by the might of international institutions like the United Nations. This paradigm of international politics is supported by the assumption that geopolitics is already cooperative, that all people respect these principles, and that institutions, as they stand today, are in a position to enforce global cooperation along these lines. On these points, it appears liberal democracies have spoken too soon.
The rise of China and the reemergence of Russia, two nations devoted solely to the acquisition and maintenance of the power and wealth of their own state apparatus, has proven that the principles which the West presumes universal are under serious threat by nations unafraid and unembarrassed of the more brutal face of power. A society that is both afraid and embarrassed by the exercise of destructive power in the service of liberal values cannot compete against illiberal states without similar scruples. Leading by example only works when there is no competition for who is to be leader.
If the West is to confront Russia, China, and their allies on the world’s stage, we must lose our fear of power, and learn to exercise the might of the state in defence of the values we presumptuously believed to be so self-evident they were beyond the need for defending.
The use of economic sanctions, strong condemnatory language, and the threat of retribution via the United Nations or by some other useless means has the double effect of demonising the West in the eyes of the citizens of illiberal governments hurt by our sanctions and adding to the propaganda arsenal of illiberal governments, rather than doing them any harm. Such is the case in Russia, where Western rhetoric and sanctions are Vladimir Putin’s first and foremost tool in ensuring the continued loyalty of the Russian people.
These half-measures stem from a fear of power on behalf of liberal governments. If liberal governments take actions that break the spirit of cooperation, which demonstrate the might of their intelligence agencies or economies over others, this is considered a Cold War anachronism, dangerous to the preservation of the international “rules-based” order. The problem with this strategic calculus is that we have yet to agree on the rules. The “rules-based order” only pertains to those liberal governments who have rightly and justly embraced liberal values, those which have pitched a battle against them take advantage of the liberal propensity towards extending the benefit of the doubt, of our tepid use of intelligence and clandestine action, and our inability to use international alliances to box in authoritarian governments. Authoritarians love our “rules-based order” because they reap the benefits without having to opt-in.
This is what I propose: the West ought to be unafraid of recognising the new battle for liberal democracy we now face, and it must take stock of the arms it has at its disposal. This does not mean war; war between great powers is good for no one, but it does mean taking an aggressive rather than defensive stance against illiberal governments in Moscow and Beijing. Russian cyber warfare ought to be met with visible, tangible retribution. Chinese expansion into the Pacific and their persistent threats towards the sovereignty of allies in the region ought to be met with an unabashed and real threat of consequence by alliances of realistically-minded liberal governments. Beijing ought to be brought to task for their use of totalitarian methods to control their own people; liberal governments ought to marshal their economic might against Beijing’s unfair trade tactics and ensure they are in a position to refuse demands which encroach on liberal values. The U.S., U.K. and NATO ought to ensure Russia feels rightly threatened by a collection of governments sincere in their commitment to collective defence, national sovereignty, and democracy. Putin’s troops massing on the Ukrainian border must understand that their advancement will spell disaster for Moscow’s cyberinfrastructure, that the Russian oligarchs in the Kremlin will suddenly find themselves unable to access their accounts in overseas banks.
Power is worth using. Indeed it fails to be power when it is not used in the face of existential threat. It is high time liberal democrats understand that our values must and rightly should be defended. Liberalism must use its power and end its benefit-of-the-doubt stance towards governments acting in bad faith. It’s time to reaffirm the values at the crux of liberal
governance by insisting on their legitimacy not just with words and false consensus but by coming to terms with our power.