Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire

Princeton University Press
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Covenants without Swords examines an enduring tension within liberal theory: that between many liberals' professed commitment to universal equality on the one hand, and their historic support for the politics of hierarchy and empire on the other. It does so by examining the work of two extremely influential British liberals and internationalists, Gilbert Murray and Alfred Zimmern. Jeanne Morefield mounts a forceful challenge to disciplinary boundaries by arguing that this tension, on both the domestic and international levels, is best understood as frequently arising from the same, liberal reformist political aim--namely, the aim of fashioning a socially conscious liberalism that ultimately reifies putatively natural, preliberal notions of paternalistic order.

Morefield also questions conventional analyses of interwar thought by resurrecting the work of Murray and Zimmern, and by linking their approaches to liberal internationalism with the ossified notion of sovereignty that continues to trouble international politics to this day. Ultimately, Morefield argues, these two thinkers' drift toward conservative and imperialist understandings of international order was the result of a more general difficulty still faced by liberals today: how to adequately define community in liberal terms without sacrificing these terms themselves. Moreover, Covenants without Swords suggests that Murray and Zimmern's work offers a cautionary historical example for the cadre of post-September 11th "new imperialists" who believe it possible to combine a liberal commitment to equality with an American Empire.

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About the author

Jeanne Morefield is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jan 10, 2009
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Pages
280
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ISBN
9781400826322
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Language
English
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Genres
Political Science / History & Theory
Political Science / International Relations / General
Political Science / Political Ideologies / Conservatism & Liberalism
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The end of the Cold War ushered in a moment of nearly pure American dominance on the world stage, yet that era now seems ages ago. Since 9/11 many informed commentators have focused on the relative decline of American power in the global system. While some have welcomed this as a salutary development, outspoken proponents of American power--particularly neoconservatives--have lamented this turn of events. As Jeanne Morefield argues in Empires Without Imperialism, the defenders of a liberal international order steered by the US have both invoked nostalgia for a golden liberal past and succumbed to amnesia, forgetting the decidedly illiberal trajectory of US continental and global expansion. Yet as she shows, the US is not the first liberal hegemon to experience a wave of misguided nostalgia for a bygone liberal order; England had a remarkably similar experience in the early part of the twentieth century. The empires of the US and the United Kingdom were different in character--the UK's was territorially based while the US relied more on pure economic power--yet both nations mouthed the rhetoric of free markets and political liberty. And elites in both painted pictures of the past in which first England and then the US advanced the cause of economic and political liberty throughout the world. Morefield contends that at the times of their decline, elites in both nations utilized the attributes of an imagined past to essentialize the nature of the liberal state. Working from that framework, they bemoaned the possibility of liberalism's decline and suggested a return to a true liberal order as a solution to current woes. By treating liberalism as fixed through time, however, they actively forgot their illiberal pasts as colonizers and economic imperialists. According to Morefield, these nostalgic narratives generate a cynical 'politics in the passive' where the liberal state gets to have it both ways: it is both compelled to act imperially to save the world from illiberalism and yet is never responsible for the outcome of its own illiberal actions in the world or at home. By comparing the practice and memory of liberalism in early nineteenth century England and the contemporary United States, Empires Without Imperialism addresses a major gap in the literature. While there are many examinations of current neoliberal imperialism by critical theorists as well as analyses of liberal imperialism by scholars of the history of political thought, no one has of yet combined the two approaches. It thus provides a much fuller picture of the rhetorical strategies behind liberal imperialist uses of history. At the same time, the book challenges presentist assumptions about the novelty of our current political moment.
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