Less well-known, at least until Governing the World, however, is the extent to which this human rights revolution also wreaked havoc on the intellectual coherence of American internationalists traditionally thought of as liberals. One thread in particular that comes up repeatedly, for example, is the tension between the British historian Mazower and the aforementioned Anne-Marie Slaughter. (In fact, the two were at Oxford at the same time in 1981, Mazower as a final-year undergraduate and Slaughter just beginning a graduate degree after graduating from Princeton.) As Mazower notes, not long after Slaughter came to head Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, she and her colleague G. John Ikenberry chaired a major three-year “Princeton Project on National Security” that drew in not only Princeton faculty but almost all of the big names in the American foreign policy establishment: George Schultz, Anthony Lake, Leslie Gelb, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, Francis Fukuyama, and Joseph Nye were only some of the 400-plus thinkers involved.
Yet while one aim of the project was to formulate how America could build a twenty-first-century global order that reformed the post-World War II institutions of the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and NATO, the results of the Project were, to Mazower, myopic and unimpressive. The Princeton group, he argues, was “critical not so much of Bush’s projection of American power overseas as of his stupidity in not working in a properly multilateral spirit” and ended up suggesting a “a neo-Wilsonian ‘Concert of Democracies’ as a new collective security organization,” one that would forge “a world of liberty under law” that would make the world safe for the “American way of life.” This, Mazower argues, amounted to a betrayal of the legacy of previous American strategists like Kennan, who had died in 2004 and whose old job Slaughter would soon assume. “Kennan,” notes Mazower,
had never tried to argue that America’s values were the world’s; his was an approach based simply on the national interest, and it was evident to him that different states would define their interests in different ways. The Princeton report, on the other hand, assumed that “a world of liberty under law” (what kind of liberty and which conception of law were never specified) had universal appeal. “What does the U.S. seek,” it asked in a revealing elision, “for all Americans and all human beings?”
As arguments for and against some kind of American intervention in Syria should make clear, the debate that Mazower’s criticism of Slaughter represents is far from over. Slaughter, for one, has yet to back down from a stance that would have scandalized Kennan, or at least Mazower’s reading of him. In a recent op-ed for Project Syndicate, for example, the Princeton professor argues that by failing to intervene in Syria, President Obama is betraying, yet again, what America claims to stand for. Syrians, she argues, are willing to march into hailstorms of bullets for universal values—dignity, freedom, democracy, and equality—and yet Washington does nothing. The cost is yet another generation of Middle Eastern youth “who will believe the worst about the U.S., no matter how far-fetched the rumor or extreme the claim.”
This all sounds very clever when coming from the halls of law and public policy schools, or elite think tanks. But is any of it actually true? Left missing is any account of Syrian history or culture explaining what else beyond “universal values” might motivate the rebels. One could be forgiven for thinking that the United States is disliked in the region precisely because of military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan; but Slaughter instead assures us, on faith, that if only Americans can grit their teeth one more time, we will finally have respect rather than more of the same. And if the “Responsibility to Protect” were not enough, Slaughter also refers to Nina Hachigan’s and David Shorr’s “responsibility doctrine,” the idea that “great powers have an active responsibility to uphold global norms and solve global problems.” Yet one wonders how global a norm really is if it is not accepted in Beijing, Delhi, or Moscow, much less Riyadh, Ankara, or Cairo.
Still, the law professors—none of whom seem particularly interested in the intellectual history of the countries they want to attack beyond the week-old tradition of “freedom” they assert—continue to assert that there are in fact global norms. Russian and Chinese recalcitrance towards intervention, they argue, is not based on consideration of business contracts, fears of the implications of pro-interventionist norms for Tibet, Xinjiang, or Chechnya, or intuitions, groomed over decades of Cold War relations, about the possible nightmares unleashed by an unraveling of authoritarian elites from Saddam to Qaddafi. Yet if only Washington intervened, authors like Shorr and Hachigian insist, it would soon become clear how “global” such norms in fact were. Americans, or at least their drones, might be greeted as—liberators? and skeptical parties would realize that decades-long conflicts over Tibet, Kashmir, or Pashtunistan could be solved according to the new norms. Just one more intervention, these thinkers tell us, and the global order will be around the corner.