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Two Concepts of Liberty: Ideology, the Constitution, and the American Foreign Policy Tradition

April 30, 2019 @ 6:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Brendan Rittenhouse Green, University of Cincinnati, CSS Visiting Fellow


The United States underwent a dramatic change in its foreign policy orientation from the dawn of the 20th century to its closing. Green argues that one underappreciated driver of America’s foreign policy revolution was a change in the political philosophy of the elites who ran it.

The founding generation conceived of liberty, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, as a negative concept: freedom from constraint. They sought to protect the liberty of the American people through the institutional devices of the constitution, and on the whole, both the founding document and the ideological goals that underlay it were a subject of elite consensus in the decades following the civil war. But as industrialization took hold, a new positive concept of liberty became popular in elite circles: freedom as the capacity to achieve valued goals. Adherents to this view saw the constitution’s strictures as unnecessary fetters on the role of a liberty promoting state.

This ideological dispute had foreign policy consequences. Negative liberals saw overseas commitments as threats to liberty at home, with the potential to lead to higher taxes, stronger bureaucracies, centralized management of the economy, conscription, and ultimately, the casualties of war. Positive liberals saw foreign commitments as a means of shaping political outcomes abroad analogous to how the state could promote freedom at home, leading them to pursue liberal world order. The different approaches of Woodrow Wilson and the Interwar Republicans to the problems of European politics illustrate their fundamental ideological differences.

Negative liberty began to wither away among American elites after the Second World War, and remains in eclipse today. It is no accident that the liberal world order has become the central preoccupation of the American foreign policy class. The history of attitudes towards liberty and the American constitution has much to tell us about the foundations of contemporary American foreign policy, as well as the potential sources of change.


April 30, 2019
6:30 pm - 9:00 pm


O’Neil Conference Room (O’Connell Hall)
620 Michigan Ave NE
Washington, DC 20064 United States
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