Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Cluster Bombs and the Contradictions of Liberalism

| July 19, 2023

Do liberals really believe what they say about their foreign-policy ideals?

The Biden administration's controversial decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions is a telling illustration of liberalism's limitations as a guide to foreign policy. The administration's rhetoric extols the superiority of democracies over autocracies, highlights its commitment to a "rules-based order," and steadfastly maintains that it takes human rights seriously. If this were true, however, it would not be sending weapons that pose serious risks to civilians and whose use in Ukraine it has criticized harshly in the past. But as it has on other prominent issues (e.g., relations with Saudi Arabia, the expanding Israeli oppression of its Palestinian subjects, or the commitment to an open world economy), those liberal convictions get jettisoned as soon as they become inconvenient. This behavior shouldn't surprise us: When states are in trouble and worried that they might suffer a setback, they toss their principles aside and do what they think it takes to win.

Liberalism begins with the claim that all human beings possess certain natural rights, which should not be infringed upon under any circumstances. To preserve these rights while protecting us from each other, liberals believe governments should be accountable to their citizens (typically through free, fair, and regular elections); constrained by the rule of law; and that citizens should be free to speak, worship, and think as they wish, provided that exercising these rights does not harm others. For the record: I like these principles as much as anyone, and I'm glad I live in a country where they are (mostly) intact.

For liberals, the only legitimate governments are those that subscribe to these principles, even though no government does so perfectly. When they turn to foreign policy, therefore, liberals tend to divide the world into good states (those with legitimate orders based on liberal principles) and bad states (just about everything else) and blame most if not all the world's problems on the latter. They believe that if every country were a well-established liberal democracy, conflicts of interest would fade into insignificance and the scourge of war would disappear. Liberals also place considerable weight on the importance of norms and institutions—which underpin the vaunted rules-based order—and frequently accuse non-liberal states of violating them with callous disregard.

This view of international affairs is undeniably appealing. Instead of seeing relations between states as a relentless struggle for power and position, liberalism offers a seductive vision of forward progress, moral clarity, and a positive program for action. It allows Americans (and their closest allies) to tell themselves that what's good for them will be good for everyone else as well. Just keep enlarging the liberal order and eventually perpetual peace will emerge in an increasingly prosperous and just world. Moreover, what's the alternative? Does anyone really want to defend the arbitrary exercise of power, the suppression of freedom, or the claim that powerful actors can do whatever they want?

Unfortunately, the liberal perspective suffers from at least two serious flaws....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Cluster Bombs and the Contradictions of Liberalism.” Foreign Policy, July 19, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt