The Future of US Foreign Policy: An End to Liberal Internationalism?

By Ju, Changwook | Chicago Policy Review (Online), October 17, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Future of US Foreign Policy: An End to Liberal Internationalism?


Ju, Changwook, Chicago Policy Review (Online)


Liberal internationalism, despite what the phrase may imply, does not favor the views of Democrats over Republicans. Instead, liberal internationalism features bipartisan values-including freedom, democracy, an open global economy, and respect for human rights. Defined by international engagement, it promotes liberal states’ engagement with other states’ affairs and wider global issues. Since World War II, the liberal internationalist stance of American foreign policy, often referred to as ‘Wilsonianism,’ has been upheld to cope with both direct and indirect challenges related to U.S. national security.

The election of President Donald Trump has added fuel to the perennial discussion about the direction of American foreign policy. Current scholarly and practical discourse has circulated around his ‘martyred’ transactional approach to foreign policy, which is based on populist nationalism and mercantilism, and which jeopardizes the core beliefs of the liberal order. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, decision to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, disdain for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), opposition to free trade, and even his amicability toward authoritarian leaders all represent fundamental challenges to established Western liberal ideas that have never previously been questioned-at least not to this degree.

In early 2017, the International Security Studies Forum (ISSF) assembled a group of dedicated political scientists to provide insights into whether the internationalist component of U.S. foreign policy will prevail or erode as a result of President Trump’s influence. In the 2017 ISSF policy roundtable paper, Robert Jervis introduces the topic by providing a global context for the debate: Trump’s term has coincided with watershed events such as Brexit and populist movements throughout Europe. In light of these circumstances, each author or team of co-authors presents their interpretation of the future of liberal internationalism in the United States.

Joshua Busby and Jonathan Monten begin by presenting an eclectic view. Citing the 2016 Chicago Council on Global Affiars survey, they demonstrate that the majority of American people firmly support liberal internationalist values, such as mutually reinforcing alliances, globalization, and free trade. The authors note that, despite the overarching public support for it, the core fundaments of liberal internationalism in U.S. foreign policy have been primarily sustained by a small number of political elites who hold the power to construct foreign policies. The authors suggest that as foreign policy concerns carry low salience for many American voters, liberal internationalist views fall short of material reflection in the political process-a point highlighted in Trump’s election. As a result, Trump as well as his nationalist and protectionist base, could erode the bipartisan scaffolding of the liberal internationalist consensus of U.S. foreign policy, notwithstanding the evidence that most Americans subscribe to liberal internationalist views.

On the other hand, Robert Shapiro analyzes growing partisan difference regarding American foreign policy and anticipates that liberal internationalism will be sustained, albeit in a deeply partisan context. Particularly, Shapiro notes that over the past several years, Democrats and Republicans have viewed the same foreign policy issues, including immigration, refugee policies, terrorism, foreign aid, military spending, and international trade, with increasingly diverse perspectives. This divergent trend has become more pronounced by Trump and his supporters, increasing the level of political row. Shapiro concludes that this may undermine the consistency of bipartisan consensus in American liberal internationalist foreign policy. …

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