The New Liberal Democratic Imperialism

The advent of neoliberalism brings into even starker relief the question of the liberal democratic state’s function nationally and internationally. Domestically, if the country is already “modernized” and if the economy works best when “freed” from government interference, it is unclear where and to what ends democratic sovereignty should be directed. Beyond these national borders, the emergence of a global “free market” makes the need for a state-led liberal imperialism close to redundant - the spread of capitalism will arc naturally toward the universal realization of political democracy. Moreover, the failures of modernization to achieve these goals, in practice, produced new calls for the US to give up its “misguided mission” to democratize the world and focus “instead on spreading liberalism and preventing human rights abuses which will ensure better international security” (Farrell, 2000: 583).

Yet, as neoliberalism has steadily expanded across the globe, so too has the reach and power of liberal democratic governments. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attack, the USA and its European allies, primarily the UK, proposed and initiated an ambitious foreign policy of “democratic imperialism.” This strategy was exemplified in the controversial, and ultimately disastrous, American led invasion of Iraq. “President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq signaled the unambiguous return of ‘democratic imperialism’ in American foreign policy,” Encarnacion (2005: 47) observes, “entailing what is tantamount to the imposition of democracy upon a foreign country, this can be seen as the ultimate manifestation of America’s traditional obsession with its role as a global moral crusader.” Driving this “crusade” forward was the right and responsibility of Western governments to intervene as a humanitarian “force for good” (Davidson, 2012). This so-called “humanitarian imperialism” was “part of a strategy for defending the United States by establishing democratic regimes in the Middle East and throughout the world - peacefully, if possible, but by force if necessary” (Nardin, 2005: 21).

Neoliberalism, therefore, reasserted the obligation and power of democratic governments to spread their imperial will. Underpinning this reinvigorated sovereignty was a “liberal imperial perspective” (Bacevich, 2003; Cooper, 2002; Kurtz, 2003; Walker, 2002) that advocated for the state’s “active assertive maintenance of order in the world, along liberal lines, to counter terrorism and WMDs, to end rogue states and help failed chaotic states, to intervene in humanitarian crises and prevent ethnic cleansing” (Green, 2005: 232). This triumphalist liberal agenda fed into a broader affective narrative associated with the anxieties of global terrorism, as:

The terrorist assault on New York and Washington in September 2001 shattered the exceptionalist conceit that the United States was impervious to the carnage that had been a prominent feature of world history in the preceding century ... Americans were forced to recognize that the vulnerability of their society had increased even as their nation had emerged as the hegemon of the global order. (Adas, 2009: 387)

Importantly, this global expansion was meant to be decidedly different from past empires and forms of international interventions. It was explicitly distinguished from previous instances of imperialism, even by the USA, that was done in the name of exploiting foreign markets and securing corporate interests. “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas,” according to Ignatieff in an influential 2003 New York Times article; rather “The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot roundly echoed these sentiments that same year, declaring “A dose of US imperialism may be the best response to terrorism ... Afghanistan and other troubled lands cry out for the same sort of enlightened foreign administration as provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets” (quoted in Harvey, 2003: 4).

These statements may be read as merely particularly vociferous calls by an at best naive and at worst complicit media in the immediate march to war. However, they also shed light on the popular legitimization of an enhanced and expansionist democratically elected imperialism linked to neoliberalism and the advancement of corporate globalization. Enacted was a similar framework of global relations as found in the Cold War, a militant and altruistic liberal America, safeguarding and preserving universal ideals of economic and political freedom against despots the world over. Such contemporized justifications for empire were crystal- ized in Boot’s strident defense of US imperialism in the USA Today. Rhetorically asking “American imperialism?” he declares. “No need to run away from [the] label”:

[O]n the whole, US imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century ... That doesn’t mean looting Iraq of its natural resources; nothing could be more destructive of our goal of building a stable government in Baghdad. It means imposing the rule of law, property rights, free speech and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be. This will require selecting a new ruler who is committed to pluralism and then backing him or her to the hilt. Iran and other neighboring states won’t hesitate to impose their despotic views on Iraq; we shouldn’t hesitate to impose our democratic views. (Boot, 2003)

It is exactly, this discourse of liberal imperialism that provides the grounds for the country to democratically sanction its own authoritarian practices globally. “Indeed, it is precisely American Liberalism that makes the United States so illiberal today,” notes Desch (2008: 7). “Under certain circumstances, liberalism itself impels Americans to spread their values around the world and leads them to see the war on terrorism as a particularly deadly type of conflict that can be won only by employing illiberal tactics.”

This legitimized recourse to “illiberalism” was done, if not fully in the name of, at the very least in the service of, implementing and safeguarding neoliberalism abroad. Emerging was “a new phase of imperialism” that was “marked not only by increased conflict between center and periphery - rationalized in the West by veiled and not-so-veiled racism - but also by increased intercapitalist rivalry” (Foster and McChesney, 2003: 11). In this respect, globalization discourses of a peaceful “free market” transformed into struggles for political and economic supremacy between competing explicitly and implicitly authoritarian capitalists states (Harvey, 2007a). Within Western liberal democracies, it constituted “a project to restore class dominance to sectors that saw their fortunes threatened by the ascent of social democratic endeavors in the aftermath of the Second World War” (Harvey, 2007b: 22).

More though than simply a program of capitalist rule and domination, it reflected a specific neoliberal rational for a resurgent and enhanced authoritarian state. While it minimized the role of democratic governments for shaping economic relations, it channeled this collective agency into utopian discourses of state-led empire. Consequently:

The inner connection between the rise of these new imperial forms and the neoliberal counter-revolution engineered by capitalist class intent upon restoring and reconstructing its power is vitally important ... And, in this project, the classical range of forces - military, political, cultural as well as economic - got freely deployed in highly destructive ways resurgent and enhanced role of the state. (Ibid.)

In doing so, it provided liberal democratic governments with fresh authoritarian legitimacy to creatively and expansively manifest and preserve this new global neoliberal order.

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