Over the last calendar year, the Atlantic Council of Washington, DC, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation, has framed a number of their public deliberations in accordance with a shared “Declaration of Principles for Freedom, Prosperity, and Peace.” The four co-chairs are former American Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine Albright, former American National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, and former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi; and the document has been signed by 19 mostly former foreign ministers. Being a central expression, during these eventful times, of many “establishment” thoughts and beliefs concerning international politics, this note shall devote critical attention to that multilateral declaration.

Its somewhat garbled thesis is that current disturbances within international capitalism are resulting in renewed autocratic tendencies. “In many of our nations,” write Albright, Hadley, Bildt, and Kawaguchi, “stagnant wages, income disparities, and uneven benefits from global trade are leading many to question free market economics and the value of engagement in the world… Politicians are exploiting these challenges, denigrating the rule of law, and undermining faith in democracy.” In order to resist this authoritarian reaction, the authors submit seven principles to prevail at an international level: freedom and justice, democracy and self-determination, peace and security, free markets and equal opportunity, an open and healthy planet, the right of assistance to those threatened by violations of these principles, and collective action. Faithful adherence among nations—democratic and non-democratic alike—will “create a more effective and responsive set of global rules…on the basis of international law.”

These principles, in the first instance, reflect the values of the international theory usually termed neoliberalism, in which wars are to slowly cease and humanity is to steadily improve on the basis of the international development of democratic institutions and unification within a globalized capitalist economy. Also frequently described as the “Washington consensus,” this philosophical faith in globalization derives mostly from Adam Smith and liberalizing ethos mostly from John Stuart Mill; and this enormously influential framework is professed by most leading economists and Wall Street financiers, the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and typically the chairs of political science departments within American research universities. Neoliberal doctrine reflects the democratic capitalist, cultural progressive, and institutionalist world polity that such elites characteristically seek to create, sustain, and justify. Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter of by turns Princeton University, the Department of State, and the New America Foundation is an especially prominent exponent, calling in A New World Order (2004) for an integrated global system in which “national government officials interact intensively with one another and adopt codes of best practices and agree on coordinated solutions to common problems” (263). This neoliberal worldview therefore lies at the heart of the Atlantic Council’s declaration.

Yet a neoliberal manifesto is liable to perpetuate neoliberal error. No “child of light” in the Niebuhrian sense disagrees with the moral imperatives of human dignity, of self-determination, and of solidarity among all nations; but he or she is at liberty to interrogate any collective means suggested to those ends, especially if they appear to entail the significant, much less the violent, transformation of the lives of foreign peoples. In this case, the fourth and sixth principles, in particular, might not fully withstand critical scrutiny. “Free Markets and Equal Opportunity” (four) fails to problematize what sort of political economy is to be created and where the instrument, if any, of economic justice is to be located, given that the same paragraph calls for a “share in the benefits of national prosperity,” of the need to “promote the free and fair flow of trade and investment,” of the commitment to “support an open global economy,” and finally to “encourage inclusive, equitable, and well-regulated economies” (emphases added). The inherent tensions are obvious. National prosperity frequently if not usually depends on behavior neither free nor fair. “Open” and “well-regulated” are in conflict, and the Atlantic Council authors not only propose no solutions, but what is worse fail to acknowledge the frequent and probably intensifying discrepancies between the accumulation of local, national, and international wealth. The “Right of Assistance” (six), meanwhile, affirms “the right of national sovereignty, while recognizing that sovereignty obligates governments to uphold these principles.” By implication, Albright, Hadley, Bildt, and Kawaguchi advance the astonishing claim that only the sovereignty of capitalist nations need be respected. “We” are therefore formally obliged to “take action” against, say, Iceland for imposing capital controls during the Great Recession, which the Icelanders did to preserve their country from total annihilation. Seldom did even resolute Cold War hawks, furthermore, suggest that mere profession of historical materialism was sufficient to invalidate national sovereignty. The right of assistance therefore in some respects appears highly problematic.

The purpose of publicly giving utterance to such critiques is not to discourage sincere praxis, but rather unnecessary posturing. Several of the principles invoked in the declaration, to begin with, are already codified in magisterial instruments of multilateral law and governance that receive no mention at all. The appeals for “Freedom and Justice” (1) have already been stated with much greater eloquence in such milestones of human liberation as the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Atlantic and United Nations Charters, while “Democracy and Self-Determination” (2) is imported from Locke’s second treatise on government. The Geneva Conventions of 1906–07 and 1949 enacted through the Red Cross and guaranteed by the Swiss government have successfully imposed codes of conduct in war upon even the most horrific revisionist regimes; and therefore mightily transcend any superficial appeal to “Peace and Security” (3). “Free Markets and Equal Opportunity” (4), meanwhile, was established at Bretton Woods through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the subsequent institution of an International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The United States helped conceive and establish such instruments of international jurisprudence and rightly retain formal commitments to them; wherefore a more useful approach would be to prosaically remind the executive branch and the body politic of their existence and competencies. But second, “An Open and Healthy Planet” (5), “The Right of Assistance” (6), and “Collective Action” (7) tread upon such uncertain theoretical terrain that it might be advisable to leave them unsaid, at least insofar as any informed commentator from the global south could with dignified scorn point to enormous discrepancies between modern American words and actions in any of these fields, a discrepancy that may partially account for the unfortunate lack of any signatories from Africa.

Liberal declaration of the kind described above is generally well-intentioned. Yet as often as not, it appears to but embarrass the democrat whilst amusing the dictator; and in the year 2019, the United States, in the conduct of foreign policy, can meaningfully rely upon the instruments of global governance established during the transformative Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Our collective task is therefore to preserve, protect, and defend the international laws already on the books, rather than to circulate manifestos that overlook all of those books.

Mark R. Royce, Ph.D., is a political scientist and international relations scholar, author of The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). A founder of the Alexander Hamilton Society, he was awarded (Oct. 10, 2017) an Associate Provost commendation for outstanding undergraduate teaching at George Mason University, and currently instructs there and at Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale.

Photo Credit: Peace Monument in Washington, DC, via Wikimedia Commons.