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Recent Developments on the Progressive Foreign Policy Front


I’ve been on a self-imposed blogging hiatus so that Alex Cooley and I could complete the first draft of our book. It’s now with the publisher. While it will be a while before I can return to regularly scheduled contributions, I thought I’d at least try to draw some attention to some international-affairs writings that have caught my eye.

Over at War on the Rocks, Ganesh Sitaraman, who is advising the Warren campaign, has an interesting piece on the emerging contours of progressive foreign policy. This is an interesting time for efforts to stake out foreign-policy principles situated between traditional liberal internationalism and what I have termed “anti-hegemonism.” For many of us, the 2016 campaigned proved a missed opportunity to articulate such a vision, but it opened the door for creative thinking.

A number of trends make this imperative. The United States is clearly in relative decline. Right-wing populist and crypto-fascist movements, including Trumpism, pose a severe threat to progressive values at home and abroad. Russia’s efforts after 2014 to destabilize western democratic governance, in part by supporting such movements, are impossible to ignore. The same is true, more generally, of the rise of extra-territorial authoritarianism. Yet Cold War models, at best, make little sense. At worst, they promise to give new legitimacy to Washington’s own use of authoritarian practices to manage its international challenges.

Against this backdrop, Sitaraman lays out “five themes” for progressive foreign policy.

  • “[P]rogressive foreign policy breaks the silos between domestic and foreign policy and between international economic policy and foreign policy. It places far greater emphasis on how foreign policy impacts the United States at home — and particularly on how foreign policy (including international economic policy) has impacted the domestic economy.”
  • “[P]rogressive foreign policy holds that one of the important threats to American democracy at home is nationalist oligarchy (or, alternatively, authoritarian capitalism) abroad.”
  • “[T]he new progressive foreign policy values America’s alliances and international agreements, but not because it thinks that such alliances and rules can convert nationalist oligarchies into liberal democracies. Rather, alliances should be based on common values or common goals, and, going forward, they will be critical to balancing and countering the challenges from nationalist oligarchies.”
  • “[T]he new progressive foreign policy is highly skeptical of military interventions, and opposed to democracy promotion by force. This does not mean that progressives are unwilling or would be unable to use force when it is necessary. But after 17 years of war in the Middle East, they do not share the aggressive posture that has characterized the post-Cold War era.
  • “[T]he new progressive foreign policy seeks to reshape the military budget by both cutting the budget overall and reallocating military spending.”

The balancing act here should be clear. If see the current moment of clashing values—one in which progressives need to situate defense of democracy, opposition to oligarchy, and mobilizing against right-wing populism as a transnational phenomenon—then how do we avoid the ‘neoconservative trap’ of creating a New Cold War? This is precisely the criticism offered by people like Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg of current trends in progressive foreign-policy thought.

Indeed, Robert Kagan, once happy to deride NATO for its lack of unified support of the invasion of Iraq, is now doubling down on the the need to combat an axis of authoritarianism and defend the liberal order. When he last made this argument in a 2008 book and accompanying articles, I suggested that, first, the Bush administration had done a lot to make this future plausible and, second, Kagan’s recommendations would likely bring about the very axis of authoritarianism that he decried.

Despite Kagan’s reflexive efforts to tar progressives as isolationists, there are clear parallels between how he describes the threat environment and neo-progressive foreign-policy principles. But there are two key differences. The emerging progressive consensus agrees, albeit with some qualifications, with Michael Lind that it makes no sense to treat all authoritarian states as identical.

I write “with some qualifications” because while Lind is right that there is no generalized authoritarian axis, he downplays the degree of transnational cooperation among western right-wing and illiberal movements, and the degree that Russia (but not China) has successfully positioned itself as a broker and enabler for those movements. Alex and I devote a chapter to this in our book, which also highlights how there are systemic reasons for the ‘authoritarian wave’—although ones rooted in likely irreversible changes in the global distribution of power.

The other important difference can be found in Thomas Wright’s criticism of Sitaraman. Wright complains that “this progressive vision seems to be laying out an agenda to do much more in the world, while doing less in the Middle East, but it is also promising to do so on the cheap.” Maybe that’s correct, but it seems far from self-evident that current military budgets and allocations are calibrated for the level of deterrence the United States needs to secure its strategic interests. I am not at all convinced that we cannot cut defense lest the United States jeopardizes its ability to prevent military incursions into Europe or leaving its East Asian allies undefended. And resisting the siren song of higher military budgets is part of how we avoid the neoconservative trap.

On a final note, Daniel Drezner thinks that there’s no way to come back from Trump foreign-policy, and the worst is yet to come. Things are so bad, Drezner maintains, that all of these discussions are basically OBE. To the extent that this is true it certainly complicates grand plans. But it isn’t like we have much choice but to try to secure American interests, however we understand those.

UPDATE: I’m going to follow Rob’s lead and mention that I have an ongoing, non-financial consulting relationship on foreign policy issues with the Sanders campaign.

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