The Spectacle Blog

Palmerston and ‘The Dissolution of Iraq’

By on 12.28.11 | 3:38PM

With due deference to Mr. Babbin, his advanced experience within the highest levels of national security and his tempered, thoughtful criticism of the potentially harmful naiveté of "libertarian" policy preference, I'd very much like to respond to one point. Mr. Babbin points to Lord Palmerston's "Principle" regarding foreign affairs, and our "eternal and perpetual" interests. My own historical study of Palmerston -- the progenitor of liberal internationalism, refined in the second decade of the 20th century by President Woodrow Wilson -- suggests the man prioritized an international system that encouraged the emergence and growth of global free trade, liberal economic structures and democracy.

As such, I'd agree that before we enter 2012's "political circus," it will serve us well to return to the lessons imparted by Lord Palmerston. But let us not commit ourselves to the approach of that nineteenth century British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister who initiated not one, but two Opium Wars and clandestinely supported the destabilizing wave of self-determination that rocked Europe in 1848. Considered from contemporary context, the officious Englishman's emphasis on stability in 19th century Europe would be construed as nothing short of domineering. Rather, I'd suggest the next president steer this ship of state on course with Palmerston's softer side. In particular, the liberal internationalism, responsible for the following:

It is the peculiar character of the days in which we live that the merits and advantages of commerce are duly appreciated by all. In the earlier stages of civilization, men look [sic] with admiration the exercise of power -- power employed in conquering and subjugating their unoffending neighbours[...] Men are now well satisfied that the glory of a country consists not in overthrowing the liberties of their neighbours but in diffusing those principles of commercial intercourse which are the great foundation of international peace. [Julie Salis Schwabe, Reminiscences of Richard Cobden, (London: TF Unwin, 1895), p. 66.]

A far better strategy for American security interests would develop the rational postulation that international economic interconnection is far too complex to be policed, aggressively and haphazardly, by a single international hegemon. This would connote a new sort of grand strategy, framed by an authentic presumption about the world in which we live -- perhaps even the world as we would like it to be. This sort of approach would oblige American policymakers to prioritize our most pressing concerns and isolate them from less urgent or extraneous worries that ought not to have been ours in the first place. Rousing invocations of America's leadership role, notwithstanding, from my estimation it appears the next administration must recognize the genuine temperament of our "enduring" American interests, lest U.S. involvement in (seemingly) every possible international security threat remain our uniquely "eternal" burden.

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