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Did Sanders Provide a Blueprint for Progressive Foreign Policy?


I am, overall, very pleased with yesterday’s foreign-policy speech. At its core, Sanders laid out an internationalist agenda, one that recognizes the interdependence of progressive domestic and foreign policy. He opened with a call to “broaden our understanding of what foreign policy is,” and laid out how core progressive concerns—the use of force, budget priorities, democracy and justice, and economic inequality, and environmental protection—both implicate and require an engaged foreign policy.

One of the most important aspects of the speech is to break the link between international liberalism and militarized democracy promotion. Sanders tied the Iraq War to a long, often shameful and counterproductive, record of American coercive regime change. But he made clear that this record is not a reason to abandon the American role in promoting human rights and democracy.

This is an important move. The last two decades of militarized democracy promotion have created, understandably, a deep skepticism among many liberals and progressives toward any talk of a US role in democracy and human-rights promotion. Some have even nodded approvingly as Trump moves to dismantle the organs devoted to ensuring that these concerns play a role in American foreign policy. Others have embraced the paleo-left, which sees activist American foreign policy as so inherently illegitimate that it embraces imperialists, mass murderers, and autocrats so long as they oppose the United States.

What Sanders does, and I hope effectively, is to challenge this tendency. And he does so in ways that explicitly acknowledge the force of progressive criticisms.

We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges “seriousness” according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.

Yes, military force is sometimes necessary, but always — always — as the last resort. And blustery threats of force, while they might make a few columnists happy, can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing US deterrence, credibility and security in the process.

In connecting democracy and justice to foreign policy, much of Sanders’ rhetoric borrows from the tradition of exemplarism: the idea that the “the United States should promote democracy by offering a benign model of a successful liberal-democratic state. The United States should focus on perfecting its own domestic political and social order, and close the gap between the ideals of the American Creed and the actual performance of U.S. political institutions.”

What foreign policy also means is that if we are going to expound the virtues of democracy and justice abroad, and be taken seriously, we need to practice those values here at home. That means continuing the struggle to end racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia here in the United States and making it clear that when people in America march on our streets as neo-nazis or white supremacists, we have no ambiguity in condemning everything they stand for. There are no two sides on that issue.

But he explicitly affirms the connection between progressivism at home and the broader liberal order, which is currently under assault from some of the very same forces that attack American democracy.

In both Europe and the United States, the international order which the United States helped establish over the past 70 years, one which put great emphasis on democracy and human rights, and promoted greater trade and economic development, is under great strain. Many Europeans are questioning the value of the European Union. Many Americans are questioning the value of the United Nations, of the transatlantic alliance, and other multilateral organizations.

We also see a rise in authoritarianism and right wing extremism – both domestic and foreign — which further weakens this order by exploiting and amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and fanning ethnic and racial hatreds among those in our societies who are struggling.

We saw this anti-democratic effort take place in the 2016 election right here in the United States, where we now know that the Russian government was engaged in a massive effort to undermine one of our greatest strengths: The integrity of our elections, and our faith in our own democracy.

I found it incredible, by the way, that when the President of the United States spoke before the United Nations on Monday, he did not even mention that outrage.

Well, I will. Today I say to Mr. Putin: we will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.

When we talk about foreign policy it is clear that there are some who believe that the United States would be best served by withdrawing from the global community. I disagree. As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we have got to help lead the struggle to defend and expand a rules-based international order in which law, not might, makes right.

He also links global inequality, kleptocracy, oligarchy, and authoritarianism. And, indeed, the sources of democratic backsliding in the United States are not radically different from those in other countries. They are also interconnected. Similarly, we cannot tackle climate change without international solutions. There simply is no progressive alternative to internationalism in a world where the threats to progressive values are transnational and globalized in nature.

The part of the speech most likely to receive the most attention is his contrast of the Iraq War and the Iran deal. Sanders argues that the latter shows how US leadership can address international threats by focusing on non-military instruments, including diplomatic and economic power. This is a timely intervention, as it looks likely that Trump will decertify Iranian compliance on completely specious grounds. But it also makes the stakes clear. Opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) often focus on its problems and omissions as if the alternative was some kind of ‘better deal’ that they could deliver. But hard-struck international bargains are never perfect, and what many American opponents of the deal really want is to use force to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation. When measured against military intervention, the JCPOA is an obviously superior policy. The use of force should be the last resort.

I’m curious to know what our readers think, so please do read the whole speech. There are some minor issues, such as mischaracterizing Soviet capabilities in 1946, when Churchill gave his address. The speech is short on policy details. This matters most, I think, in the most difficult area: reforming the international political economy along more progressive lines.

Moreover, the speech highlights a basic tension between what Paul Musgrave and I have termed “intergovernmental” and “enlargement” international liberalism:

We should distinguish between two extreme positions on the proper character of “liberal order”: one that exclusively focuses on the liberal character of the states that populate the international system, and another that overwhelmingly privileges the existence of a liberal order among states. We might term the first liberal enlargement and the second intergovernmental liberalism. The former concerns itself most with state-society liberal practices, while the latter with inter-state liberal practices. Whatever Kantians might think about the direction of historical processes, in practice these two extremes generate tensions with one another.  For example, a commitment to intergovernmental liberalism—in the form of such principles as the recognition of sovereign equality, mutual self-restraint, and multilateral decision-making—effectively shields autocratic regimes against international pressure to liberalize their policies and institutions. A robust commitment to liberal enlargement, on the other hand, implies a relaxation of state sovereignty.

This tension runs throughout the speech. We see it when Sanders recognizes the necessity of addressing climate change by working with the same regimes that, to varying degrees, are undermining democracy and liberty abroad. We see it when Sanders rightly calls out Saudi Arabia, but also calls for investing more in a United Nations that allows Saudi Arabia to lead its Human Rights Council. These contradictions, I contend, are intractable. Progressives are going to have to learn to live with them: to recognize that actual foreign policy will always involve pragmatism in the face of difficult tradeoffs.

What’s missing? Not a whole lot. The big omission, I think, is more explicit discussion of national greatness progressivism. That is, the fact that American power rests on economic vitality. That vitality, in terms, rests on human capital, infrastructure investment, and other policies that are also critical to addressing economic inequality.

Still, in terms of laying out values and principles—and calling out how Trumpism deviates from progressive foreign policy—Sanders speech captures much of what I think we should be talking about.

Image by Richard Lopez from California (Bernie Sanders Rally Stockton California) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons




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