America's Failure to Defend Liberalism Abroad

The US has failed to deliver on its promise of a rules based international order.

America's Failure to Defend Liberalism Abroad

The US has failed to take advantage of opportunities for defending liberal values on the world stage.

In the fall of 2022, as Ukraine’s military made several important advances and liberated most of Kharkiv Oblast and the city of Kherson, the shift in the military situation opened up important possibilities for global liberalism, if only the US had pursued them. The most bellicose of the anti-liberal states, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, had suffered a severe setback, and it looked like liberal institutions like the EU were growing in influence and capacity. Unfortunately, in several important ways the US has failed to take advantage of these opportunities. By failing to provide adequate support for Ukraine as well as hold its own allies—chief among them Azerbaijan and Israel—accountable to following a rules based order. As increased cooperation between anti-liberal states such as North Korea and Iran becomes harder to counter as a result, the world looking back at the United States and its liberal allies is much less friendly than it was last year. 

The goal of liberal foreign policy is, or should be, to move geopolitics beyond a simple competition of lethal power in an anarchic system. Liberals seek positive sum solutions to international politics, and seek to do so by implementing norms, such as those opposed to aggressive warfare or ethnic cleansing, and creating institutions that allow every actor adhering to those norms to benefit from the economic, cultural, and political dividends of the resulting stability. The US has failed to advance a coherent strategy to move the world toward this kind of international politics in the last two decades. Years of lawless interventionism—most dramatically with the invasion of Iraq in 2003—undercut any effort to pursue these goals during the Global War on Terror. Biden started off making a couple of major breaks with that era. The withdrawal from Afghanistan and dramatic curtailing of US drone warfare were seen as “closing the book” on an effort at foreign intervention and nation building that seemed to have fundamentally failed to create a self-sustaining democracy. However, while Biden broke with the most jingoistic adventurism of the Global War on Terror, he has not boldly forged a new doctrine to bring coherence to US policy, from Ukraine to Israel to Taiwan, while Republicans in Congress have actively sabotaged what piecemeal efforts the administration has made. In the face of increasing cooperation among authoritarian revisionist powers, this is a grave failing.

The outlines of the kind of policy we need are simple and already enjoy broad support worldwide: the US needs to stand by democratic states under attack—even if doing so incurs some costs—while being willing to levy real consequences on allies who are flouting the norms of international peace and lawful state behavior. In the immediate future, it is just as important not to telegraph particular messages that would sabotage support for democratic states under threat. The first is that American support to allies comes with an expiration date, that a determined aggressor can simply achieve their goals through patiently tolerating attrition, even if they are unable to inflict serious damage on the US economy or fiscal position. The second message to avoid is that American dedication to liberalism and lawful international relations is merely opportunistic. 

The first is unfortunately precisely the message that wrangling over aid to Ukraine sends. Republicans in Congress managed to force aid to Ukraine out of the October 2023 continuing resolution, and are now attempting to attach to it entirely unrelated demands about border security. Democrats and especially the President face a difficult set of negotiations with no easy answers. However, it is crucial that they take every possible measure to continue delivering aid to Ukraine, through presidential drawdown authority—with or without approved funding for replenishment—and transferring expired surplus, as Congress debates how to move forward. Showing determination in the face of authoritarian aggression is the best way to build up a long term world order where small American allies, from Estonia to Kosovo to Taiwan, are seen by their more powerful neighbors as too risky to attack. By contrast, if US political dysfunction sinks aid to Ukraine, other aggressors have every reason to believe they can play off that same dysfunction to their own benefit.  

Perhaps more damaging in the long run, however, is the failure to ensure US allies follow international norms. Taking real steps towards a more peaceful and rules-based world, where the US and its allies accept and abide by constraints on their own behavior, is the only way to build up a global support network for this kind of vision—and thus to rally more countries to support it when recalcitrant states violate norms. Here, too, Biden’s tenure started out in a promising direction, limiting US assistance to its ally Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in the Yemeni civil war, and seeing through the adoption of a ceasefire in that conflict. 

However, in the last year, events involving American allies have seriously cast doubt on this commitment. The destruction currently unfolding in Gaza is the most glaring failure by the US to actually strive for liberal outcomes, regardless of the states involved. This conflict was presaged by another military land grab and population displacement, committed by Azerabaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The disappointing US responses to these aggressions has fallen far short of the actions needed to construct a positive sum world order. 

In September, the Azerbaijani military managed to complete, in one day, an offensive into the effectively independent, ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region that forced the de facto government to capitulate. The result was a mass exodus of the region’s population into Armenia. While the population movement was fortunately mostly free from intentional mass casualties, the result was still a displacement of tens of thousands of people and a severing of their connection to an ancestral homeland.

The speed of the Azerbaijani offensive may have made a more forceful response impossible, and the sparing of civilian lives the best outcome in the moment, but the muted diplomatic response that followed failed to establish any kind of deterrent to states that might attempt a similar aggression. While the Nagorno-Karabakh region was de jure a part of Azerbaijan from the beginning, decades of precedent and fragile peace treaties had attempted to stabilize a self-governing status quo—and were rapidly washed away, to the detriment of residents. There is also a danger that Azerbaijan will seek further territorial aggrandizement in the future if it faces few consequences from this seizure. A stronger American response would have made a defense of Taiwan or Kosovo, other situations where the US interest lies in a stable—if politically delicate—arrangement.

This has taken on much greater stakes with the war in Gaza. Following the Hamas raid into Israel that left over a thousand Israelis—most of them civilians—dead, Israel has responded with an enormous campaign against the densely populated Gazan territory. The following months of warfare have killed over twenty thousand Palestinians, a majority women and children. In the process, there have been numerous examples of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) engaging in airstrikes that have struck residential, religious, and medical buildings. Moreover, the accidental killing of escaped Israeli hostages by IDF forces in Gaza suggests rules of engagement that essentially guarantee the killing of Palestinian civilians. Perhaps most ominously, Israeli politicians like national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have suggested that the end goal of Israel is the displacement of Gazans from their homes and the forcible settlement by Israelis. The international community, led by South Africa, has pushed for these actions to be investigated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a potential genocide.  

Just as with Russia, Israel being allowed to expand territory and seize Gaza with impunity would be a disaster for the idea of a liberal order, and their capacity to do so because of their enormous military capabilities would likely accelerate a potentially nuclear arms race in the region. As Israel is ostensibly an ally and not a rival, the means of persuading or cajoling the Israeli government to abandon any plans of ethnically cleansing Gaza will differ from those employed to counter Russia—but the urgency, both humanitarian and geopolitical, is the same. Moreover, the ICJ is precisely the kind of institution designed to support a liberal world order based on universal rules binding even powerful states. Such courts do not have a fantastic track record—many countries either refuse to accept their jurisdiction at all or fail to carry out their orders—but the US should not simply ignore the rulings of the ICJ, even if it disagrees with the findings of fact in this case. 

This kind of consistent liberal policy is necessary for coalition building and continuing to enjoy the fruits of a more stable and free international order. The recent conflict regarding shipping in the Red Sea is a classic example of a truly international problem which most countries in the world have expressed concern about, through their delegates to the UN. Increasing the price and decreasing the reliability of global transport impacts not only the consumer goods of wealthy countries but, more acutely, the food and other essential supplies needed to support lower income populations. This conflict also reflects the growing muscle of anti-liberal forces, as the Iranian-backed Houthis manage to disrupt not just the relatively minor Israeli port of Eilat but global shipping as a whole. However, building a coalition willing to take action is complicated by the US failing to hold its allies accountable to similar rules and institutions. 

Securing a global environment safe for liberalism—both in the sense of secure liberal states and an international geopolitical system typified by peaceful negotiation and institutions—requires a combination of boldness and nuance. The US must be bold in aiding its friends and allies, from Ukraine to Guyana or whatever the next hot spot may be, to defend themselves or deter attacks. However, it must also be willing to apply pressure in preventing more powerful allies from flouting precisely this same kind of order. To strengthen an international order defined by more than raw self-interest, the US must exhibit a level of international ethical decision making more nuanced than unconditionally supporting friends and perpetually seeking to harm perceived enemies. The US must be an honest broker. This is a more challenging task than that set out by realists, but one well worth pursuing. Over 2023, the United States fell dangerously short of these standards, and let important opportunities pass it by. In 2024, the stakes are, as a result, even higher, and a better string of decisions will need to be made to navigate them.

Featured image is Damage in the Gaza Strip during October 2023