A Critic of Liberal Imperialism

Peter Gowan, a Professor of International Relations at  London Metropolitan University who died earlier this month, was a clear-eyed critic of imperialism in all its forms.  As Misha Glenny noted in an obituary in The Guardian Gowan will be particularly remembered as the co-founder (with his wife Halya Kowalsky) of “the highly influential journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, which supported socialist and democratic opposition movements including Solidarity, in Poland, and Charter 77, in Czechoslovakia.” Through his activism Gowan “created an eclectic group of British and émigré activists who provided concrete support for eastern bloc opposition groups.”


Gowan’s opposition to actually existing socialism didn’t make him naïve about actually existing capitalism. He was a powerful sharp-witted analyst of the international regime that emerged after the end of the Cold War, with the United States as a global hegemon using its  now unchallenged power to enforce a new liberal imperialism, a project aided and abetted by allies in Europe and elsewhere. In the name of humanitarianism and global governance, liberal imperialists have tried to legitimize a new international order where the U.S. and its allies claim an unchecked right to reshape the world in their image.


In the wake of the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan, many have come to see the problem with liberal imperialism, but Gowan was far ahead of the curve, making his central argument in his prophetic 1999 book The Global Gamble: Washington Faustian Bid for World Dominance.


I got to know Gowan’s work in the pages of the New Left Review, whose editorial board he sat on. Some of his articles from the New Left Review are available on-line, although not unfortunately all of them. Here are a few highlights:


1) From a 2002 review of John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a prescient warning that America’s domestic economic imbalance could de-stablize the international order:


The commanding vision of the architects of the American century, from Elihu Root through Stimson and Acheson to the Rockefellers, who believed America’s surplus capital could transform and knit the world together, risks turning into something approaching its opposite: a US economy requiring manipulation of global monetary and financial, as well as political, relationships to suck in capital to sustain its domestic consumer booms and speculative bubbles. An American military statecraft and geopolitics geared increasingly to sustaining international socio-economic relationships that serve too exclusively US domestic interests could eventually generate acute tensions at the heart of the new global order.


2) An essay on the United Nations as an instrument of American power:


Bush’s ‘unilateralism’ represents the revival of a global cleavage structure of friend–enemy relations, with a new set of security alliances and greatly expanded basing arrangements to match. To allies grown accustomed to the conventions of the nineties, this has come as quite a shock. But, even if more precariously, the Rooseveltian framework still holds. After the most brazen of all American wars in violation of the un Charter, every hand in the Security Council—some eagerly, others more sullenly—has gone up to endorse the puppet authority installed by the conquerors, ratifying their conquest.


3) One of Gowan’s finest esssays (“Neoliberal Cosmopolitanism,” New Left Review Sept./Oct. 2001) is not available online but it’s worth looking up. Here is the intro:


Over the past decade a strong ideological current has gained prominence in the Anglo-American world, running parallel to the discourse of globalization and rhetorically complementing it. Indeed, in official parlance it is the more insistent of the two, and seems likely to become all the more clamorous in the aftermath of September 11th 2001. We may call it the new liberal cosmopolitanism, as distinct from the more democratic cosmopolitanism …. Its theorists are for the most part to be found in international relations departments of the Anglophone universities, though some have been seconded to offices of the UN Secretariat or NATO protectorate in Bosnia. Viewed historically, the new doctrine is a radicalization of the Anglo-American tradition that has conceived itself as upholding a liberal internationalism, based on visions of a single human race peacefully united by free trade and common legal norms, led by states featuring civic liberties and representative institutions. Such liberal internationalism sought to create a global order that could enforce a code of conduct on the external relations between states. But it still essentially accepted the Westphalian system that granted states jurisdiction over their own territories.


The new liberal cosmopolitanism, by contrast, seeks to overcome the limits of national sovereignty by constructing a global order that will govern important political as well as economic aspects of both the internal and external behaviour of states. This is not a conception advocating any world government empowered to decide the great international issues of the day. Rather, it proposes a set of disciplinary regimes – characteristically dubbed, in the oleaginous jargon of the period, ‘global governance’ – reaching deep into the economic, social, and political life of the states subject to it, while safeguarding international flows of finance and trade.

3 thoughts on “A Critic of Liberal Imperialism

  1. Good piece, Jeet. Gowan had a good article in the January-February New Left Review about the origins of the Wall Street ‘crisis’ of late. He sets out a somewhat different theory than many of the others in that Journal (like Leo Panitch or Robin Blackburn) or other journals of the radical and Marxist left.

  2. I am glad this author is against U.S. control of the world, but the term “liberal imperialism” has a touch of propaganda about it. It does not do justice to liberalism’s conception of equality, and ignores the fact that the most powerful arguments against U.S. hegemony are liberal arguments.

    I also find it sad that rather than make common cause with liberals who oppose Iraq and Afghanistan, people who employ phrases like “liberal imperialism” actively seek to push them away. No effective coalition against U.S. dominance will ever emerge so long as so many critics take such a view, which seems to emphasis ideological purity above all else. Among other drawbacks, it sends a message to moderates that they might as well support the Bush doctrine, as deviations from Bushism that fall short of socialism or pacifism will not be distinguished from apocalyptic conservatism.

    Gowan himself actually seems to approve of some forms of liberalism, based on his work in Eastern Europe and his positive or neutral references to “liberal internationalism.” I therefore can not help wondering if he is really as hostile to liberalism as your headline makes out. The only named target in the cited passages is Mearsheimer, but he is not a foreign policy liberal. A more accurate philosophical representative of global liberalism would be someone like Thomas Pogge, author of the influential book, Realizing Rawls.

    More info about Pogge is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Pogge. I urge anyone following this debate to read up on Pogge and other global liberals before using the term “liberal imperialism.” If we can no longer distinguish the quest for global justice from something as vile as imperialism, that may prove to be the most bitter legacy of the Bush years.

  3. “Liberal imperialism” isn’t meant to be a propaganda term but simply describes the historical reality that there is a strain of imperialism going back at least 200 years which has used the language of liberalism to justify the conquest of non-European nations. To see liberal imperialism in action, just look at the writings of J.S. Mill, de Tocqueville, Woodrow Wilson, etc. Or go through the back issues of The New Republic, where you will find defenses of various imperialist ventures (ranging from World War I to the Viet Nam war to the current war in Iraq), all couched in respectable liberal language.

    To be sure, liberal imperialism doesn’t encompass all of liberalism. There is a noble tradition of liberal anti-imperialism, but that tradition has tended not to excercise much power. It’s been more theoretical and academic, while liberal imperialism has been all too effective in polic making.

    As to Rawls and Pogge, I would refer to Gowan’s book The Global Gambit, page 182 footnote 10: http://books.google.com/books?id=EOkX0K0v2yMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=peter+gowan

    Also relevant are the remarks Perry Anderson made on Rawls, to be found in Anderson’s book Spectrum, chapter 7: http://books.google.ca/books?id=Nxl7tR4CzQ4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=perry+anderson+spectrum&lr=

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