The op-ed by Robert Wright is a serious effort to articulate a liberal multilateralism for the US in the face of broad US and global scepticism over the Bush Doctrine. This piece, as some others including a number suggested by Wright, argues that the damage done by the Bush administration’s incompetence in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere has undermined the global democratic reform ideal and, dare I say, liberal ideals more generally. Neo-conservatism’s blustery rhetoric and feeble and incompetent implementation has undermined liberal reform generally and encouraged many on the left and within the Democratic Party to suggest a “pox on all their houses” and a return to diengagement and even uninvolvement. It has sent many of us liberal interventionists scrambling to redefine American foreign policy reducing, presumably, the price to be paid for global engagement. But that may not be possible. A more effective policy may be all that can envisaged in the New Multilateralism.

So, we are “realists” now which is a bit of code for acting in a far more circumspect manner and only when US national interest is engaged. That is one bell of this two sided dumbbell examined by Wright entitled, “Progressive Realism.” But having said that, Wright admits that, “the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable.” I’d go further. Globalization and the effort to encourage global markets and spread humanitarian rights undermine the notion that there are contexts where US interests are unengaged under a redefined contemporary policy of American national interest. Suggesting that a less engaged American foreign policy is possible may be good politics but I’m sceptical it’s good policy. Whether it’s Darfur, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine, Belarus, Iraq, Iran, North Korea - you name it, the US and I’d argue it’s closest allies are interested. The realist division of national interest is unhelpful in clarifying US and allied invlovement.

Rather it’s means and actions that distinguish policy involvement and how to accomplish it. It’s where Wright suggests that various scholars including GIR’s John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan seek, “to adapt realist principles to a changing world.” And indeed Wright adopts in part the institutional reform and behaviors described by Ikenberry, Kupchan and others. But its this side of progressive realism that remains underdeveloped in Wright’s analysis. To the extent a prescription is identified it goes as follows: “We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervetion and nation building - ideally under the auspicies of the United Nations, which has more global legitmacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these sructures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.” Well maybe but there is a real price to the contribution and new multilateralism not withstanding Liberals’ efforts discount the costs of engeagement in the global system. It needs more explication than Wright seemed able to make at this point.

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