A lofty—and disengaged—overview of liberal triumphalism at the start of the 21st century.
By “liberalism,” Mandelbaum (The Dawn of Peace in Europe, 1996, not reviewed) in essence means the ideas that Woodrow Wilson brought to the Paris Peace Conference: “peace as the preferred basis of relations among countries; democracy as the optimal way to organize political life within them; and the free market as the indispensable vehicle for producing wealth.” Yet, and much to his credit, Mandelbaum recognizes these three principles as ideals to strive for and not as faits accomplis. In the post–Cold War world, the US has had a special role to play bringing these values from the core—where they are firmly established—to the surface, but it has by no means hewn closely to their ideal. Instances of unilateral military adventurism, interference in the affairs of sovereign states, and gross inequities of wealth between nations and classes abound. Nor is it necessarily an inherently just picture; the market economy presupposes winners and losers, and while Mandelbaum has little trouble plumping for the peace and democracy elements, he is less convincing on the free market angle: Was US intervention in the Middle East—for instance, in Iran in 1953—really conducive to free trade as the oil-exporting countries saw it, let alone pursuant of democracy? As for those “cultural underpinnings” necessary to building a market economy and making a commitment to peace and democracy, Mandelbaum introduces John Locke, Adam Smith, and others like them to the exclusion of the great, complex cultural world that may also seek a voice.
In the absence of a viable alternative, in Mandelbaum’s estimation, the Wilson triad is the best show in town, warts and all: “The one worse thing than the triumph of these ideas that conquered the world is their defeat.”