A better internationalism.

Author:Unger, David C.


GENOA--Internationalism has many different meanings, but constructive global citizenship should always be at its core. An internationalist foreign policy for the developed countries would use their wealth, economic might, and military power to promote a better, more peaceful, more prosperous world for everyone.

Unfortunately, the kind of policies American commentators typically label internationalist today do not fit that definition. They feature micro-meddling in the internal politics of sovereign nations large and small to support "pro-American" politicians. They include the practice of waging militarily unwinnable and internationally unpopular counterin-surgency wars in unreceptive countries. And they require the stationing of U.S. troops in self-contained foreign bases that bind Washington to the whims of local despots. Subordinated at best, are a host of truly internationalist goals like supporting locally rooted democracy, sustainable development, human rights, environmental protection, and arms control. These worthy aims frequently become lost in a welter of complex local chess games played out against the designated enemy du jour--international Communism, rogue states, global terrorism, a rising China.

For Americans, internationalism has become little more than a label for the narrow pursuit of national interests as defined by a tight-knit political and foreign policy elite. Accustomed to viewing the world through the concerns of trade and investment interests, too many self-proclaimed internationalists dismiss other concerns as dangerously unenlightened and self-centered.

Washington's so-called internationalists are especially ready to stigmatize domestic critics of their ill-chosen wars as isolationists and foreigners as narrow-minded nationalists with suspect motives. They subject to moral condescension and intellectual scorn anyone who questions whether American military intervention is the most beneficial and long-lasting solution to the problems of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, or Kosovo. They disparage and try to thwart any United Nations initiative not promoted by the United States. They question the internationalist credentials of other developed countries not prepared to march lockstep behind Washington's chosen military interventions or sanctions campaigns.


Internationally unpopular policies of unilateral American self-assertion are being marketed by the United States as liberal internationalism, while those who question these policies and suggest non-military alternatives risk being denounced as neo-isolationist, naive, parochial, or simply selfish.

Liberal internationalism has become code language in the United States for pressuring other governments, large and small, friendly and hostile, to do as Washington sees fit. It has become synonymous with maintaining overwhelming American military predominance on every ocean and every continent; for weaving a web of preferential trade agreements that carefully protect the privileges of American corporations abroad while exposing American workers at home to the leveling downdrafts of free market competition. Increasingly, the size and reach of America's military, rather than the strength and competitiveness of its economy and society, has become the measure of its international leadership and prestige.

This semantic sleight of hand has pushed more constructive and progressive forms of international engagement to the political and financial margins of American life.

Branding assertive American nationalism as internationalism is dishonest. It diverts attention from such truly international causes as reducing global arms spending and the risks of nuclear and conventional war, slowing destructive climate change, controlling and preventing infectious diseases, and improving the lives of the billions of people around the world still excluded from such basic benefits of modern life as clean water, adequate nutrition, and universal education. And it all too often leaves the world's wealthiest and most militarily powerful nation, the United States, playing a much smaller role in meeting the internationalist challenges of our times.

Three billion of the world's seven billion people now live on less than $2.50 a day. Some 10 million people die every year from preventable diseases that spring from poverty. That is 2,000 times the peak annual death toll from international terrorism. And millions of those lives lost to international neglect can be saved at a far lower economic cost, doing far less collateral damage to innocent civilians and far less reputational damage to the international standing of the United States than the unsuccessful wars waged over the past decade in the name of denying specific territorial havens to geographically mobile and ideologically shape-shifting international terrorists. Terrorism is an international security threat that must be fought. But not as it has been, through prolonged and costly counter-insurgency style wars in Muslim lands that evoke bitter memories of Western colonialism and play into the hands of propagandists for violent resistance.

Washington-style internationalism has been reduced to an internationalism of crisis management, which is scarcely internationalism at all. It is a great way to cut off important debates about United States foreign policy and make a show of good intentions toward complicated and intractable problems. But it is unsustainable, and its inevitable frustrations and disappointments risk pushing the broader American public into real isolationism at some cost to America's competitiveness and security. Yet that's where the United States seems headed no matter who wins the presidential election this November.


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