Universiteit Leiden

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‘Liberal American foreign policy was always entangled with illiberal interests’

American foreign policy in the period after the Second World War is often characterised as liberal. This is, however, not the full picture, argues university lecturer Andrew Gawthorpe. He has been awarded a Vidi grant to research and rewrite this popular narrative.

Gawthorpe will research the way in which the United States tried to shape various international political institutions, such as the United Nations and NATO, after the Second World War. ‘Most people argue that the United States shaped this based on the philosophy of liberalism,’ says Gawthorpe. ‘I don’t argue that liberalism had no influence of American foreign policy, but I think it’s a mistake to say that liberalism was the most important or sole influence on American foreign policy,’ he argues.

Illiberal ways

Gawthorpe suggests that in addition to liberalism, three illiberal mindsets influenced American foreign policy in this period: realpolitik, imperialism and non-interventionism. To understand how these three concepts played a role, you need to know that the liberal approach to world politics generally says that every country is equal and there should not be any kind of power hierarchies between them. ‘When I talk about realpolitik, I mean that it was never the intention of Americans that all countries should be equal. The United States wanted to be the most powerful and influential country in the world. That meant protecting and advancing American power.’

‘Secondly, imperialism can be understood as America treating other nations with a lack of equality whenever it suited them. It has often trampled on sovereignty and the rights of other nations. Take about drone strikes in the War on Terror, for example. The United States blows up terrorists in countries like Afghanistan and Syria. They’re not going to send a drone to France.’ According to Gawthorpe, this strategy implies that certain countries do not have the same rights as others and their sovereignty can be infringed upon.

Lastly, he says that the United States wants to be left in peace. Up until the Second World War, non-intervention was the dominant way of thinking about foreign policy in the United States. ‘We had a resurgence recently with Donald Trump, who in many ways represents this way of looking at the world.’

Distorting impact

While Gawthorpe is not the first person to notice that the dominant narrative is flawed, no one has set out to write such a comprehensive new narrative that can serve as a replacement for the old narrative. He believes it is important to do this, because he argues that the narrative has a distorting impact on how we view and understand the contemporary world. ‘American policymakers have the naive belief that their intentions can and will be trusted by the rest of the world. However, if we look at history in detail, we understand why many people around the world do not have this benevolent view of America,’ he explains. ‘We need to look at the non-liberal ideologies and tendencies to understand what America has done, in order to form a more realistic and less naive world view.’

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