The Biden administration’s controversial decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions is a telling illustration of liberalism’s limitations as a guide to foreign policy. The administration’s rhetoric extols the superiority of democracies over autocracies, highlights its commitment to a “rules-based order,” and steadfastly maintains that it takes human rights seriously. If this were true, however, it would not be sending weapons that pose serious risks to civilians and whose use in Ukraine it has criticized harshly in the past. But as it has on other prominent issues (e.g., relations with Saudi Arabia, the expanding Israeli oppression of its Palestinian subjects, or the commitment to an open world economy), those liberal convictions get jettisoned as soon as they become inconvenient. This behavior shouldn’t surprise us: When states are in trouble and worried that they might suffer a setback, they toss their principles aside and do what they think it takes to win.
Liberalism begins with the claim that all human beings possess certain natural rights, which should not be infringed upon under any circumstances. To preserve these rights while protecting us from each other, liberals believe governments should be accountable to their citizens (typically through free, fair, and regular elections); constrained by the rule of law; and that citizens should be free to speak, worship, and think as they wish, provided that exercising these rights does not harm others. For the record: I like these principles as much as anyone, and I’m glad I live in a country where they are (mostly) intact.