Henry Nau repeats his unpersuasive case for what he calls conservative internationalism. Here he talks about his idea that the U.S. should “promote freedom” along the existing “borders of freedom”:

When countries on these borders are threatened, America is threatened. Why? Because as the specter of tyranny moves closer to the core of the democratic world, the world becomes a less hospitable place. The border of freedom recedes, and the violent presence of despotism swells. That was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, where instability threatened to spill over into Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary; and it is the case today in Ukraine or Turkey, where Russian troops and the Syrian conflict endanger stability and freedom in Eastern Europe and Israel. In such cases, the United States not only counterbalances material threats (for example, ensures that Russia does not repeat its interventions in Ukraine and Georgia) but stays for the long haul to pull these border countries toward democracy. It does so not by military occupation and civilian reconstruction but by exploiting powerful nearby free markets and democratic alliances.

This is what a lot of the argument for Nau’s “conservative internationalism” is like: asserting things that are contentious or untrue as if they were simple statements of fact. For instance, the first claim doesn’t seem to be supported by anything. Threats to countries along these “borders” pose no threat to the U.S., and it’s strange to think that they could. While there has been a measurable decline in freedom around the world, this has taken place almost entirely within existing authoritarian regimes. The so-called “borders of freedom” haven’t been receding, and some of the more high-profile conflicts and crises that we’ve been seeing in the last few years have come from an authoritarian backlash against popular uprisings. The conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo were separatist wars that eventually involved Western intervention, and they are strange examples for Nau to use. Kosovo today is under a thuggish majoritarian government, and Bosnia is a dysfunctional international protectorate. Neither is exactly an outstanding example of “promoting freedom” along its existing “borders.” In both cases, the U.S. and NATO did resort to military intervention and subsequently deployed large numbers of troops.

The Balkan conflicts were considered an embarrassment to the U.S. and NATO because they were taking place in Europe, and there was a lot of talk about the “credibility of NATO” in justifying interventions there, but there was no realistic chance that these conflicts would destabilize countries that didn’t even share borders with either place. Likewise, stability and freedom in eastern Europe and Israel aren’t at risk because of the Ukraine crisis or the Syrian civil war. It’s possible that these things may be threatened in some or all of these countries to one degree or another, but it isn’t because of an external threat. One of the many flaws in thinking about these issues in terms of expanding the “borders of freedom” is that it encourages alarmism and threat inflation. Another flaw is that it can distract people from the reality that the most direct and serious threats to freedom in every country come from the erosion of political rights and civil liberties at home.

Trying to expand these “borders” is inherently destabilizing, since it inevitably requires the U.S. to encourage or even foment protests and rebellions. Nau doesn’t seem to recognize that the Ukraine crisis is in part the result of doing just what he thinks the U.S. and its allies should be doing. He thinks that Ukraine should be prioritized for democracy promotion, and he says that this should be done by “exploiting powerful nearby free markets and democratic alliances.” This is what the EU thought it was doing in its own clumsy way, and it has produced a severe and foreseeable backlash from Russia. If the U.S. consistently followed Nau’s recommendations, it would help to create more crises like the one we’re seeing in Ukraine now. Nau’s “third way” remains a dead end.

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