Conrad Russell and liberalism 5: Internationalism and utopias

All utopias depend on one person’s vision taking priority over another’s and therefore they all come into existence, if at all, by the draconian enforcement of one person’s vision on others. All utopias are potentially dictatorial. The beauty of the idealism is soon taken to obscure the beastliness of the enforcement. This is why utopias are not a liberal pursuit. A creed which is founded on consent and on respect for difference of ideals is one which can dream dreams, but when awake, it can never be utopian without abandoning its own essence.

This, I think, is the core of liberal internationalism that is sometimes forgotten by those that use the term. It’s interesting that Russell wrote this four years before we were led into war in Iraq in service of a supposed ‘liberal internationalism’ that essentially argued that it could bring about a liberal end by the use of illiberal means. Those ends, of course, were never delivered, but even if they could have been, the true meaning of internationalism within liberalism is that it applies to everyone. Part of the lessons liberals learnt in the twentieth century was that the elite liberalism that had encouraged nationalism in the nineteenth century had been a mistake, and one of the lessons twenty-first century liberalism is learning is a similar lesson that liberal ends cannot be achieved, no matter how tempting they may appear:

However desperate the need for haste, there are no short cuts. Desperate need for haste does not make it possible to do a job faster than it can be done. The route by consent may be painfully slow, but it is the only route which does not become dictatorial and therefore self-defeating. It may not be fast enough to do what is needed, but it is the only route there is.

I think this rejection of utopia and promotion of the importance of consent provides a very interesting idea for liberalism in international affairs. It’s not a vision of ‘this is where we must get to, now plot a route to get us there regardless’ more ‘these are the routes available, which best represents our principles?’ It fits in with Russell’s general view of liberalism as principles that have emerged from dealing with power in reality, rather than drawing up utopian visions and then expecting to be able to conform reality to fit with that vision. However, it also rejects the conservative interpretation of ‘this is how things are, and we better not change much in case we make it worse’ in saying that things can be better as long as we hold on to our principles.

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