A Better Internationalism

(PDFs of World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGESubscribe to WPJ here)

From the Spring 2012 Speaking in Tongues issue

By David C. Unger

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 counter-insurgency 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, naïve, 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.

If Americans really want to use their nation’s enormous power and prestige to bring about positive international change—my definition of constructive internationalism—they will need to make some hard choices about priorities and methods. In short, we must move quickly and adroitly to reclaim the good name of internationalism and suggest what a more constructive and progressive internationalism could look like in the world of 2012.  


Constructive internationalism sees us all living on one planet, with our primary international interest making that planet safer—from global warming, nuclear weapons, infectious diseases, and the widening inequalities that weaken democracy and help feed support for ideologies of hatred, xenophobia, and racism. It challenges the need for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, while questioning laissez-faire models of globalization that have largely helped the 1 percent and left most of the 99 percent worse off. In 2008, constructive internationalists turned hopefully to Barack Obama. This year they seem to have no champion. Crisis-management internationalism, as peddled by Democrats like Obama and Republicans like Mitt Romney, seems to have lost most of its capacity to inspire.

Constructive internationalism would place far greater emphasis on peaceful international cooperation, sustainable and equitable development and conventional as well as nuclear arms control. But it will sometimes require the use of international military force. So long as there are international aggressors and genocidal dictators, collective military action will have an important place in the internationalist tool kit.

Last year’s NATO intervention in Libya provides an imperfect template. Broader international participation, better military coordination with anti-Gaddafi Libyans and a more robust United Nations resolution all would have helped. But Libya 2011 was everything Iraq 2003 was not. The revolt against Muammar Gaddafi was initiated by Libyans themselves and was broadly based. The Gaddafi regime had, and forfeited, the chance to come to terms with the Libyan people. Outside forces only became involved after the regime violated international norms by embarking on a war of annihilation against its own people. The United Nations Security Council acted at the behest of the Arab League. And while the Security Council’s resolution authorized military action only to save civilian lives, NATO rightly stretched that mandate to provide air cover to rebel armies and civilians. A more literal reading of the resolution would have repeated the mistakes of Bosnia when UN peacekeepers took a formally neutral stance between aggressors and victims, rendering themselves helpless to stop massacres of unarmed civilians in Srebrenica and elsewhere.

The Obama administration, grasping at meaningless abstractions like “leading from behind,” played a curiously stilted role in NATO’s Libya operations. In the George W. Bush-Donald Rumsfeld era, Washington had unilaterally proclaimed an international division of military labor—the United States itself assuming the hard power tasks of destruction leaving the soft power work of stabilization, peacekeeping, and nation-building to European and other allies.

In Libya, Washington took on the front-end task of knocking out Libyan air defenses, then largely left it to the rest of NATO to keep Gaddafi loyalists from slaughtering civilians. The twofold aim was to force NATO into more equitable military burden sharing and to minimize the administration’s domestic political exposure in a war-weary United States. The result was to withdraw highly accurate low flying American tank buster planes that might have held down friendly fire casualties among Libyan rebels and possibly shortened the war.

The United States, which has over-invested in the world’s most powerful and specialized military assets, should develop more effective mechanisms for making these available for appropriately authorized international interventions. Ideally authorization should come from the United Nations Security Council. But that won’t always be possible. The Security Council could certainly be paralyzed by a veto-wielding great power patron of a rampaging dictator so as happened in the case of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, fed by the chronic fear of China and Russia that a precedent for international action could be set by action ordered against internal dissent. In such instances, authorization may come from a relevant and inclusive regional body, like the Arab League in the case of Libya or the European Union in the Balkans. NATO, because of its cold war heritage and Washington’s preponderant role, is an imperfect substitute. And American participation in internationalist military interventions must not slight the constitutional mechanisms of American democracy. Constructive internationalism is, by its nature, a form of democratic  internationalism under the rule of law.

But future military interventions like the Libyan case will and should be rare. The real test of American constructive internationalism won’t be dramatic hard power showdowns. Most of the world’s first order challenges, like the basic needs of the bottom billions, destructive climate change, nuclear proliferation, and unsustainably unbalanced globalization cannot be solved by military force. They are not amenable to crisis-management internationalism—by Washington or any other global or regional power. And they are far too dangerous to keep ignoring or under-resourcing.

Dealing with these challenges will not require budget-busting aid programs or massive global transfers of wealth. What they need is sustained steady funding and commitment, which is harder than it sounds. Trillion dollar wars are politically easier to fund than much more modest and constructive assistance programs. Consider the history of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.


These were set out in 2000 (hence the name) and have been endorsed by 193 nations. They set ambitious, but arguably achievable targets for 2015 including making primary schooling available to all and halving the proportion of the world’s population living on less than $1 a day—those not eating enough to maintain health and strength and without regular access to clean water or basic sanitation. Looking beyond survival needs, the goals also call for a global partnership for development. At the same time, a partnership with the private sector would make essential drugs and information and communications technology available and affordable to the people of developing countries. Global progress has been achieved on all fronts, but unevenly, with China and Southeast Asia already exceeding some of the 15-year targets but much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia badly lagging.

In adopting the Millennium Development Goals, donor countries implicitly committed themselves to provide enough resources to achieve them. For nearly half a century, development aid equivalent to 0.7 percent of national income has been considered an appropriate benchmark for developed country donors. A few, mostly Scandinavian, countries meet or exceed this benchmark. The current worldwide average is 0.45 percent. The United States, though the biggest aid giver in dollar terms, is one of the lowest in percentage terms, providing less than 0.2 percent. Aid isn’t the only factor in development, or even the main one, as successes in China and Southeast Asia demonstrate. But for countries trapped in deep poverty and outside the channels of globalized development—like much of sub-Saharan Africa—aid matters mightily.

Of course, not all aid is good aid. Some is stolen by kleptocrats, wasted by bureaucrats, or diverted to purchases of expensive weapons that contribute nothing to development. Aid should never be given without appropriate conditions and monitoring. That is a democratic political duty for donor nations, who are giving taxpayer dollars that might otherwise be spent at home. It is even more important for recipient nations. Many leaders insist that conditions and monitoring are an intolerable infringement of sovereignty. But if major donors agree on a standard set of conditions requiring accountability, transparency, and coherent development planning and apply them without exceptions, most recipient governments will go along, and those that don’t will have to explain why to their own people.

Unfortunately, China has made accountability harder by offering unconditional aid to pariah leaders it courts for geopolitical reasons. A big challenge for constructive internationalism will be to coordinate aid programs and conditions more effectively. That would require negotiating terms of transparency and accountability that all significant donors will agree to abide by and enforce. China cannot be ignored. It will need to be courted. Beijing sometimes invests in pariahs as a kind of insurance that its access to vital resources and raw materials won’t be cut off by Western-inspired embargoes and sanctions. A West less prone to going it alone on sanctions might find it easier to enlist Chinese cooperation on aid and development practices.


Destructive climate change has already become irreversible. But that only makes slowing the pace of global warming more urgent. Average global temperatures are now projected to rise by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. The effects of these higher temperatures and changed rainfall patterns on current agricultural regions would be incalculable. The effects of the resulting rise in sea levels on coastal cities and low-lying land areas are all too calculable.

The failed 2009 UN climate conference at Copenhagen aimed to cut that rise to less than 4 degrees Fahrenheit. That would require reducing worldwide per capita emissions of carbon dioxide by more than 70 percent over the next 40 years—from seven metric tons per person to two metric tons. The United States, which spews out close to 20 metric tons per person, the second highest per capita emissions rate of any developed country (tiny Luxemburg is first) cannot continue to exempt itself from agreed mandatory limits, nor can China, the world’s largest single source of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Its per capita rate—still below the global average rate at five to six metric tons—is one of the most rapidly rising. Nor can any other significant current or future emitter receive a free pass.

It may not be possible to move forward through conferences that require all 193 UN member states to arrive at full consensus on implementing environmental goals. A few retrograde governments, particularly if their countries are not big emitters, cannot be left to condemn the rest of the planet to ecological catastrophe. Constructive internationalism needs international legitimacy. But there is no legitimacy in structural paralysis. Countries ready to move ahead with binding emissions limits should do so, and encourage others to join them by establishing something like a free trade area of the environmentally virtuous, offering advantageous trade and investment deals to those who do. One such area could be built around some of Europe’s more environmentally conscious high-income nations, which could then use their market power to woo other neighbors and trading partners. If such an area eventually encompassed the United States as well, no trading nation, China, included, could afford to ignore its emissions standards. 

Few countries would reap as many advantages as the United States from reducing greenhouse gases by reducing fossil fuel consumption. It is a developed country with a largely post-industrial economy. It has some of the world’s most expensive low-lying real estate. Its foreign policy and military budgets have long been distorted by the need to assure Persian Gulf oil supplies. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it currently consumes a grossly disproportionate 25 percent of the world’s oil (and a similar disproportion of all fossil fuels). Yet through a quarter century of international debate about global warming and how to slow it, Washington has been a consistent outlier. No one country, or continent, for that matter, can slow global climate change on its own. But the United States has been doing far less than its good internationalist share.

Eventually, the visible signs of climate change will create political pressure on countries around the world to adopt much stricter emissions limits. It’s essential that constructively internationalist political leaders heed the scientific consensus on what the planet can stand and then work to sell strict emissions limits to voters around the world.


Restraining nuclear weapons proliferation and reducing existing stockpiles of nuclear warheads should also be a priority area for constructive internationalism. Current American counter-proliferation policies are more geopolitical than universal. They aim at keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran’s Islamic Republic and North Korea’s Kim dynasty while ignoring, or even abetting, the rogue nuclear weapons programs of strategic allies like Israel and India, neither of which has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Constructive internationalism is not just concerned with denying counter-deterrence capabilities to potential military adversaries. It must be equally concerned with making it less likely that nuclear weapons will be used in warfare, anywhere, with the appalling, ecological, public health and long term economic consequences that would bring. It also needs to be universal. Absurdly large American and Russian nuclear arsenals and stockpiles, though much reduced since 1991, are still mired in the Cold War calculus of strategic parity and deliberate overkill. This makes it harder to convince would-be nuclear powers like Iran—or even Saudi Arabia if its Shiite neighbor explodes such a device—that having nukes is a token neither of national manhood nor sovereignty. Strategic missile defense systems capable of knocking down some, but not all, incoming missiles create perverse incentives for others to compensate by adding more offensive weapons.

If countries choose not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they should not be eligible for civilian nuclear assistance from the United States or any other member of the international nuclear suppliers group. The special cut-out from this rule Washington pushed through for India sent all the wrong signals—to Pakistan today, perhaps to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq tomorrow.

Constructive internationalism would work to break the perverse link between discouraging nuclear weapons and encouraging nuclear power. That contradictory impulse dates all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal of the 1950’s. And it is incorporated in the ground rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency today. If a country signs and ratifies the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has an absolute legal right to enrich uranium for nuclear power, as Iran, an NPT signatory, never ceases to point out.

The problem is that uranium can be enriched to bomb grade by the same processes that enrich it to reactor grade. IAEA safeguards and inspectors don’t really help. Any treaty signatory can legally get itself to within a year of being able to build a bomb, and then just stay at that point until it decides to break out of the treaty and go further. That makes the NPT and IAEA safeguards weaker anti-proliferation tools than they need to be. Wider adoption of an optional additional protocol allowing surprise inspections would help, but not decisively. Countries could still move legally to the brink of a nuclear weapons break-out.

More useful would be to internationalize the fuel enrichment cycle, meaning all legal uranium enrichment would have to take place at international enrichment centers under full IAEA auspices. That way, non-nuclear weapons states could not master the enrichment technologies they need for bomb making. Countries would not accept this arrangement unless they were guaranteed their supplies of enriched fuel for reactor use would never be cut off as long as they remained treaty compliant. (There are no such guarantees today.) Some still would not accept it and would try to master the fuel cycle themselves. The penalty for doing so must be as high as the rest of the world can make it, including a full cut off of uranium imports and civilian nuclear assistance. Companies that export civilian nuclear reactors and technologies won’t like this. But the world will be safer if they are over-ruled. 


Conventional weapons kill too, though on a smaller scale. They feed wars, enable repression, and divert resources from development. They also create jobs and profits for weapons producers in the United States, the world’s biggest arms exporter, with Russia second, Germany third. Constructive internationalism would pay more attention to the costs and less to the profits. In 2010, the Obama administration agreed to sell $60 billion worth of American weapons systems to Saudi Arabia over the next five to 10 years, the largest arms sale in American history. It includes advanced fighter jets, theater missile defense systems, and a full range of surveillance, troop transport, and attack helicopters. Yes, Iran is a potentially threatening neighbor. But selling still more advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia’s spendthrift royals will not provide much help against Iranian sponsored terrorism or subversion.

There is a bigger issue, illustrated by the Saudi monarchy’s leading role in helping neighboring Bahrain crush pro-democracy demonstrations last March. Out-of-touch autocratic regimes are being challenged across the Middle East, and no one would mistake the Saudis as allies of progressive change. If the role of the West in helping Libyans rid themselves of Gaddafi is a hopeful portent of constructive internationalism, selling arms to Saudi Arabia is a throwback to crisis management internationalism and a bet against the future of democracy movements in the Middle East and beyond.


The hardest, though among the most important, challenges facing constructive internationalism concern trade, investment, and globalization. A globalization more actively shaped and regulated by democratic civil society would be more financially balanced, more broadly beneficial and more politically sustainable than the current regime.

Many of today’s bilateral free trade agreements aren’t worthy of the name. It does not take hundreds of pages of fine print to open markets to competition. Much of that legal verbiage, drafted out of public view and shielded from full public scrutiny, has been crafted at the behest of well-paid lobbyists to protect the interests of the firms they represent, while less well represented farmers abroad and factory workers at home are fed pieties about the creative logic of unregulated markets. Moreover, such lobbyists are hard at work wherever free trade agreements are in play—from Washington to Brussels, London to Geneva and beyond.

Meanwhile, the underlying ground rules of the World Trade Organization oblige governments to treat all goods alike, ignoring the working and environmental conditions where they are produced. That tends to make progressive national environmental and labor laws international competitive liabilities. So a contemporary version of the 1944 international economic compact that fashioned the post-war Bretton Woods economic system is essential. That brought three decades of exemplary prosperity, social mobility, and economic security to the then developed world of North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Helping design a similarly progressive successor system would mark a return to the creative American internationalism of the mid-1940s. It would also prevent freer trade from becoming a race to the bottom for poor and rich countries alike.

Bretton Woods succeeded because it allowed market economics and democratic civil society to work in tandem. It permitted limited capital and currency controls that let governments use Keynesian tools to fight recessions. Allowing democracy to reshape globalization would be good internationalist economics and good internationalist politics as well, helpingto strengthen democracy in the developing and the developed world. Today’s feeling that political parties are powerless in the face of blind market forces fuels cynicism and the rise of xenophobic populist parties promising solutions based on scapegoating immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities.

A new Bretton Woods should let countries take account of the labor and environmental conditions where the goods are produced, encouraging voluntary “coalitions of the virtuous.” Built around countries that agree to abide by stricter standards on labor rights, product safety, and environmental emissions, each would grant others privileged trading access for conformity. Governments that have built their growth models on cheap labor and loose environmental rules will object. But such new trade arrangements, by linking these countries’ future growth to higher standards, will provide strong market incentives to change practices in ways most consistent with their own societies.

Crisis management internationalism is an elitist, often violent, and always expensive process with a waning base of popular support in the United States and much of Europe as well. Alternatives suggested here would be more democratic and progressive—and worthy of the name internationalism.



David C. Unger is the Europe-based foreign affairs editorial writer for The New York Times and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna. His new book, The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, was published by Penguin.

[Photo: NASA]

(PDFs of World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGESubscribe to WPJ here)


Related posts