By Peter Beinart
Sunday, June 11, 2006

As Democrats approach an election that may make their foreign policy views relevant again, they need to recapture a big foreign policy idea from the past: interdependence. It may not sound sexy, but it goes to the core of how liberals, as opposed to conservatives, see the world.

Historically, conservatives have generally believed that America can best protect itself by itself. In the 1930s and 1940s, that view often took the form of isolationism; by the 1950s, conservative intellectuals were advocating a kind of imperialism, including "preemptive" war.

Since the Cold War, the conservative pendulum has swung again. In the 1990s, many congressional Republicans wanted America to withdraw behind a missile shield. But since 9/11, President Bush has tried to unilaterally remake the world in America's image. Sometimes the right defines America's international mission broadly, and sometimes it defines it narrowly -- but it generally believes that America can fulfill it alone.

Liberals have generally believed the opposite. From World War II through the Vietnam War, they were more hawkish. From Vietnam to the end of the Cold War they were more dovish, until President Bill Clinton's Balkans interventions nudged the pendulum back. But through it all they favored international cooperation, in the belief that America could guarantee neither its security nor its prosperity alone.

In today's globalized age, that belief has never been more relevant. Cold War liberals saw the world as interconnected because they had watched both depression and fascism arise abroad and imperil the United States.

But now, far smaller groups of people, from far weaker countries, can threaten the United States. Diseases in obscure Chinese villages threaten global pandemics, Thailand's banking crisis almost plunged the world into recession and 19 Islamic zealots from one of the most backward countries on Earth carried out the worst foreign attack ever on U.S. soil.

America can't protect itself by withdrawing; the world's pathologies will find us. But if isolation isn't an option, neither is Bush's neo-imperial project. Iraq -- which I mistakenly supported -- has exposed the limits of what America can achieve on its own. And with America's international legitimacy in tatters, the rest of the world is extremely dubious about unilateral U.S. efforts to tinker under the hoods of other countries.

In such a world, the great Democratic foreign-policy project should be to build, and rebuild, key international institutions. The liberals of the late 1940s were frenetic institution-builders: They helped create the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But many of those institutions have now atrophied.

The United Nations was founded on the principle that no country should interfere in the domestic affairs of another. Today, however, one country's domestic failures are quickly exported to others. In response, many conservatives have called the United Nations worthless, and urged the United States to act through ad hoc "coalitions of the willing."

But as Iraq shows, most countries are not willing; they do not trust the United States to decide when intervention is appropriate. The Bush administration, they note bitterly, is increasingly judgmental of other countries while militantly refusing to improve its own behavior -- on global warming or Guantanamo Bay, for instance.

International institutions, by contrast, are premised on reciprocity. By giving many countries a role in defining standards for national behavior, they can make such standards seem legitimate, rather than appearing to be a guise for American interests. And new standards are urgently


The U.N. secretary general needs greater power to identify states on the verge of collapse and to dispatch diplomats, aid workers and peacekeepers before the next Darfur explodes. The International Atomic Energy Agency needs more money, and more authority, to conduct aggressive nuclear inspections and punish countries that don't comply.

And Democrats should not be politically afraid; international institutions are surprisingly popular. A 2004 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto global warming treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- even though many in Washington assume they do not.

Bush is right that America has a mission to build a freer, safer world. What Democrats must argue -- as they did 60 years ago -- is that we can't do it alone.

Peter Beinart is editor at large of the New Republic and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again" (HarperCollins).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company