Jun 23, 2023

Rethinking Liberal Internationalism

The West has maintained many of its old illusions, but it no longer serves as a shining example. To create new alliances, it needs more openness and humility, less half-heartedness, and a revised understanding of the center and periphery.

member of the guard of honour carries a poster the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, during his burial ceremony after his remains were returned to his family by the Belgian government in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo June 30, 2022.
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Some sentences make false claims but still manage to touch a nerve. “We have woken up in a different world today” is one such sentence. It was said by Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, the day after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, summing up her reaction to Moscow’s latest violation of international law.

Baerbock was spontaneously expressing a feeling that a fundamentally new situation had emerged, in which once unshakeable political certainties seemed to evaporate overnight. As if we suddenly stood exposed to the cold storm winds of history. This feeling was real, and it remains so. But that does not mean it should be viewed as a wise basis for political strategy: to do so would deepen, not lessen, the confusions of our time.

The belief that the world changed utterly on February 24, 2022 comes from a very European and transatlantic perspective, one which regards adherence to treaties as the historic norm. In this view, the death of Hitler in 1945 marked the end of states that unscrupulously tore up all legal and humanitarian conventions, declaring violence to be a legitimate political instrument. From this point on, borders within Europe were considered inviolable, almost sacred. The vast majority of Europeans who were born after World War II never experienced anything but peace and non-violence. We considered this state of affairs to be normal, even natural.

But we can now see that this was an illusion, more cherished in Europe—above all in Germany—than in the United States, which always kept a keen eye on Mars as well as Venus. European unification may have had great success in peacefully integrating the states of the European Union, but it also inculcated a strange forgetfulness about history. While striving for ever-closer interdependence, European integration nurtured a belief that history’s final phase was close at hand. From now on, according to this belief, politics would consist only of routine tweaking, in the name of an ever-more-perfect, ever-smoother equilibrium. European unification sought to bring an end to the continent’s long history of violence, but for this very reason, it also weakened Europeans’ historical awareness. More specifically, it obstructed an insight which had been obvious after the barbarities of the 20th century: the existence of evil in the world, an evil which can never be vanquished once and for all. Crimes, once committed, can happen again. Civilizational ruptures have occurred throughout the history of humankind, not just in the past 100 years.

War and Violence as the Norm

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine provoked such horror because it was the first time that one of the victor states of the Second World War had unilaterally declared the post-war international settlement, co-created by them, to be obsolete. However, if we look beyond the group of World War II victor states, it is clear that the primacy of treaties has been the exception rather than the rule. In general, war and violence have remained the norm. Since the turn of the millennium, more than 30 wars have been fought around the world. In the post-1945 era, the gods of war and violence were always ubiquitous: China, Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Congo, Algeria, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan. It was wrong to believe that a combination of democracy, free trade, and market economies would be so attractive to spread all over the world. This clearly did not happen. We continue to live in a familiar, violent world, not a new and unknown one.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a surprising impact. The war did not achieve what Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped it would. It did not strike terror into Germany, Europe, or the West as a whole. President Putin has had no success in sowing divisions and splits between the EU member states, once notorious for their squabbling. In fact, Putin’s actions brought EU member states closer together than they had ever been. Moreover, the Russian president also created an unexpected renaissance in the transatlantic alliance, which had previously seemed on the verge of dilution or even collapse. Putin had sought to encourage centrifugal forces within the Western alliance; instead, he strengthened the forces that kept it together, in a surprisingly powerful way. Even the German Greens have now become ardent transatlanticists, passionate supporters of NATO and the need for genuinely combat-capable German armed forces.

From Periphery to Center

That’s good in and of itself, but it does not represent a real political leap. All the Greens have done is internalize the domestic, security, and foreign policy norms of the old Federal Republic of Germany. In other words, they have caught up with the past. It all has something fundamentally backward-looking about it, restoring a status quo ante. And there’s no reason to pat ourselves on the back just because we’ve grasped the need for the famous Zeitenwende, Germany’s much-heralded foreign policy watershed moment. Baerbock’s insistence that “we” would stand steadfast by “our values” sounded like a ritual invocation. Moreover, it ascribed a level of global political strength to the European-transatlantic community of nations that in fact does not exist. However much “we” may puff our cheeks, “we” remain in the minority. A German foreign policy that purports to make a real difference must above all recognize this fact. There has been a renaissance of transatlantic relations, but on its own it is simply not enough.

Russia’s war of aggression turned Ukraine into the focal point of European interests. Shaken to our core by Moscow’s actions, “we” now feel ourselves transported from the periphery to the center. The war in Ukraine has had a paradoxical effect. Because “we” have been more or less directly impacted, the war has revived a Eurocentrism that only recently had seemed to have run its course, mired in a political swamp. The war in Ukraine has not broadened our perspective, it has narrowed it. The era when Europe could define the world ended, at the latest, in the years following World War II. Today, the transatlantic alliance has also lost this formative capacity. The West is probably the best that modernity has produced, in political, social, economic, and societal terms. But it can no longer simply exist as the center, to which other countries line up to seek admittance. The West has lost its allure. Moreover, it has to admit that some of its reputational damage is self-inflicted.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Chancellor Olaf Scholz impressively demonstrated the limitations of German politics. (Even his article’s hybrid German-English headline—“The Global Zeitenwende”—came across as slightly ridiculous.) It takes a certain arrogance for a German chancellor to announce the dawn of a new era in the main US foreign policy publication. It was also presumptuous to insist that Germany—newly awakened from its security-policy slumbers—would be a major player in this new epoch. Scholz certainly rejected any new form of “bloc mentality.” He emphatically lent his support to an open multilateralism, thus setting himself against anti-Kantian thinking in foreign policy. Moreover, the chancellor has made serious efforts to seek new political allies, going beyond the well-worn paths of recent decades. In doing so, he has gone far beyond Germany's previous foreign policy.

But Scholz has stopped halfway. His strategic thinking has failed to go beyond the old transatlantic ­constellation in any systematic way. He speaks of emerging states “in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America,” which deserve to be granted “greater participation in the international order.” But mere participation would imply that “we” remain the cooks, while emerging regions are allowed to be mere waiters, for the time being at least. The center would remain in the “West,” where it has always been. This is not enough for the epoch we now face. With this kind of attitude, the West will find it difficult to forge new alliances with the large number of states who see Russia’s war against Ukraine as an internal European affair, of no concern to them.

Western Tunnel Vision

Declarations of basic human rights are curious things: they are proclaimed as universally valid, but then implemented in very limited ways for a long time. The 1776 American Declaration of Independence begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Words written almost a quarter of a millennium ago. Did they mean all human beings? On paper, yes. In reality, no. The authors included neither women nor Black people in their universal vision. This was not out of hatred, but because of their assumption—one would almost like to call it a “naïve” assumption—that “human being” meant “white man.” They simply did not perceive the “Others.”

Although this tunnel vision gradually broadened as the years went on, it remains the original sin of Western conceptions of human rights. Today it is more or less unquestioned that all human beings should enjoy human rights. This is undoubtedly also a result of the logic inherent to Christian understandings of the individual and the mentality of the Enlightenment. Seen in this light, the universal application of human rights has come to seem inevitable. However, it would be an over-simplification to think of the Western world as a machine which, despite all setbacks and hesitancies, must necessarily lead to the final establishment of a liberal culture based on separation of powers and inalienable individual human rights. (This argument has been made for many years by the German historian Heinrich August Winkler.) The scandal is how long it took to accept that everyone has equal rights. This belated recognition of universal human rights can correctly be seen as the West’s fault, although this is not so with all of the problems of the non-European world, which are partly self-inflicted. From this responsibility comes a duty to insist on the connectivity of the free world. We must refuse to see the free world as an island located in the West. Moreover, we must pursue these connections with every political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural means at our disposal.

Some of the world’s peoples refused to wait around for human rights to prevail. Some years after the United States won its independence, Haiti under Toussaint Louverture fought for the abolition of slavery. In 1804, it became the first country in Latin America to achieve independence. The desire for freedom and self-determination quickly spread worldwide. By the early 20th century, the anti-colonial movement in India had coalesced. Several Pan-African congresses were held to discuss the possibility of a unified anti-colonial struggle in Africa. The countries of the West often sought to prevent and hamper this movement; at best they passively looked on. The formalized order of international rules and norms which emerged after World War I was agreed upon between the victorious powers. Colonial liberation was not on the agenda.

Just two decades later, war broke out again. The Second World War put the creation of a stable world order back on the agenda, ultimately leading to the foundation of the United Nations in 1945. That organization’s initial phase featured proclamations of high-minded aims, but even these went hand-in-hand with the old West’s unabashed attempts to assert hegemony. Initial plans for the United Nations, discussed by British prime minister Winston Churchill and American president Franklin Roosevelt just before US entry into the war, had envisioned a “New Deal for the World.” But the intention was not to create a global community where all member states would enjoy equal rights. In 1941, during the preparation of the Atlantic Charter, the UN’s earliest founding document, Churchill insisted that it would not apply to British colonies. Privately, Roosevelt remarked that the new world organization must become a “police” organization of the great powers.

The preamble to the United Nations Charter affirmed its “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” These lines were written by Jan Smuts, a confidante of Churchill and a racist politician. At the time he was prime minister of the Union of South Africa, and as such responsible for racial segregation and the expulsion of black South Africans from their urban communities.

The Era of Decolonialization

Later, the United Nations was hijacked by a majority of states that had fought for their independence in the post-war decades. Many of these states had become autocracies, and they largely disregarded human rights in their own countries, while waging a constant struggle against the countries of the free world in the name of human rights and the right to self-determination. In retrospect, this might seem to support the arguments of those who tried to prevent the admission of “Third World” countries, on the grounds that they lacked the maturity to belong to a world organization. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the old free world failed to actively promote these countries’ liberation process and did not recognize them as equals. In this way, the West did not manage to win these countries’ trust, which boosted international anti-Western sentiment.

Kwame Nkrumah had led the British crown colony of Gold Coast to independence in 1957, when the country was renamed Ghana. In September 1960, Nkrumah addressed the United Nations General Assembly as the president of Ghana. He used the global platform now available to his country to declare that the United Nations must become an international forum for decolonization, demanding that it lead the fight against imperialism.

Just two months before Nkrumah’s speech, the Belgian colony of Congo had gained independence, celebrated in a ceremony attended by the king of Belgium in the city of Kinshasa, at that point still named ­Léopoldville after a previous Belgian king. At the ceremony, Patrice Lumumba, the 35-year-old self-educated hero of the independence movement, gave a spontaneous speech that inspired the local crowd but offended the king. Lumumba recalled that Belgium had not given up the colony voluntarily: the Congolese had had to win their independence for themselves. Moreover, he reminded his audience of the exploitation and oppression practiced by the Belgian colonists. His speech remains a shining example of optimistic oratory: “Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.” But it all came to nothing.

Lumumba’s actions enraged Belgium and the United States, since he planned to use the country’s rich natural resources to promote the development of the new Congolese republic. Western states placed every conceivable obstacle in its path, and the new Congolese leader, in desperation, turned to the Soviet Union. Lumumba’s turn to Moscow is just one example of many that suggest that the leftism pursued by some post-colonial states was not a freely chosen path, but a reaction to Western unwillingness to grant them anything more than purely formal independence. With his belief that the Congolese people should rule over Congo and its natural resources, Lumumba had in effect signed his own death warrant. The US ambassador to Belgium wrote: “A principal objective of our political and diplomatic action must be to destroy the Lumumba government.” US President Dwight Eisenhower was even blunter, expressing in a recorded conversation his wish that “Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles.” A while later, Lumumba was deposed by rebels backed by Belgium and the United States. The head of the new Congolese state was kidnapped and tortured; in January 1961, he was shot dead by soldiers from the breakaway province of Katanga, under Belgian command. Lumumba’s killers dismembered his body, dissolving it in sulfuric acid provided by a Belgian mining company. No one involved in the murder was ever prosecuted; on the contrary, one of the conspirators, Étienne Davignon, went on to enjoy a stellar career in European business and politics. From 1977 on, he was a member of the European Commission, and served as its vice-president for four years. Until 2020, he remained co-chair of Brussels Airlines. In other words, a colonialist murderer rose to become a prominent representative of the European Union, an organization then and now hailed as a great project for peace.

Forging New Alliances

This was just a single episode, but a significant one. It is one example of many that highlight the economic interests and geopolitical ambitions underlying the interventions of Western states in the “Third World,” at least as a secondary factor. Throughout the years, this has caused a great deal of harm, for example in Africa and Latin America. For this reason, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be used simply to praise “our values” and propagate them as a kind of universal panacea. Given the terrible challenge now posed by Russia, it is more important to seek out new alliances. We must pay much more political and diplomatic attention to certain states than we have done in the past: these include Canada, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Namibia, Ghana, and Chile, to name a few. This does not mean, of course, expecting them simply to “dock” with the core states of the West. A new free world must find its place on the international agenda, but it cannot simply be an expansion of the old free world. It should become something new.

Twice previously, in the years 1918 and 1945, the conclusion of a world war forced states to set about creating a new world order. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which has horrified and alarmed war-weary states, could be an occasion to again think big in political, diplomatic, and economic terms. It could also offer a new lease of life to the idea of multilateralism, which has been damaged and discredited by Russia’s brusque refusal of it.

None of this will happen by itself, simply as a matter of course. A recent book by Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of the Italian geopolitical journal Limes for three decades, bears the curt title La pace è finita (“Peace is over”). The book begins with a reference to Francis Fukuyama, and with a harsh truth: “On February 24, 2022, the end of history finally came to an end.” In a somewhat triumphant tone, Caracciolo outlines his argument that all grandiose ambitions based on international law, in which all states would enjoy equal rights, have now come to an end. Caracciolo predicts the return of an unabashed old-school geopolitics, in which what ultimately counts most is any state’s arsenal of weaponry. This danger does indeed loom large, and that is why it is worth trying to prevent it, to stop the world returning to conditions seen in the early decades of the 20th century.

 Stable democracies have one weakness: they are only familiar with peace, and they only think in terms of contracts. The British geographer Halford Mackinder, the inventor of geopolitics, was sympathetic to this idealism, which he saw as inherent to democracy. But he also saw it as a weakness. In 1919, as the victorious powers were busy designing the new world order, Mackinder wrote a book warning about the ideal and the reality of democracy. It contains the famous sentence: “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.” Democrats rarely think in terms of emergencies.

Now we have been forced to think and act strategically by Russia’s actions; this fact seems at last to be dawning on the political leaders of the anti-Russian alliance. Of course, this goes far beyond the question of increased arms deliveries to Ukraine, and beyond general questions of defense policy. Strategic thinking must include an effort, determined but cautious, to win over as many states as possible to an alliance that is not limited to general humanitarian declarations, which can easily go too far. In 1975, the US diplomat and politician Daniel P. Moynihan advocated a policy of “liberal internationalism” as an alternative to doing nothing while the United Nations was exploited by anti-Western states. Today, the idea could once again become relevant. Moreover, it could be an attractive policy, if it succeeds in combining a smart human rights policy with a consistent pursuit of free trade.

Thomas Schmid is a journalist and author. From 2008 to 2014 he was editor-in-chief, from 2010 also publisher, of the WELT newspaper group. His German journalism can be found here.

The IPQ Summer 2023 issue, out on June 29, 2023, will focus on “Europe and the Global South.”