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The Trouble With Hillary's Vision

Our old boss Peter Beinart has a sharp column on Hillary's speech. This bit, on her vision of an international order to pursue allegedly common goals captures what's so vexing about idealistic internationalism:

The problem with Wilsonians is that in their efforts to, as Clinton put it, “forge” a “global consensus,” they sometimes exaggerate the degree of global consensus that really exists. There really is a global consensus that global warming and financial meltdown threaten all nations. (Even if not everyone wants to do much about it.) But there’s no global consensus on human rights or nuclear proliferation. China and Russia believe sovereignty is more important than individual liberty; Wilsonians don’t. And that means you can either forge truly global institutions—which include Moscow and Beijing—or you can forge institutions whose members genuinely respect freedom. You can’t do both. Similarly, it would be nice if there were a global consensus that nuclear proliferation was bad, but there’s not. Countries with nukes mostly think that no one else should enter the club. Lots of countries without nukes want in.

It’s all well and good to say that we can have different kinds of international institutions for different issues: global ones where there really is a moral consensus; limited ones where there is not. But in the real world, you can’t keep things so separate. The more you alienate non-democracies by creating powerful new institutions on human rights, the harder it is to get their cooperation on issues of common concern. That’s what Jimmy Carter learned when he tried to forge agreements with the USSR on nuclear arms while bashing them on human rights at the same time. A foreign policy that doesn’t involve painful choices between competing priorities is a foreign policy headed for trouble, and Clinton’s speech offered no hint about painful choices whatsoever.

Bob Wright and Bob Kagan had a good Bloggingheads argument along related lines last year.

--Michael Crowley