For decades, every American president and major presidential candidate tried to reconcile the language of universal morality with the language of national interest. From Ronald Reagan to Hillary Clinton, each argued, in his or her own way, that as America grew more powerful than its adversaries, the world became a better place.
Donald Trump does not. “You think our country is so innocent?” he asked Bill O’Reilly soon after taking office. He wasn’t being critical. Trump’s point was that America doesn’t need to be morally superior to be worthy of loyalty and love. America is precious simply because it is ours. In a world of gangsters, America should not strive to be the police. It should be the toughest, shrewdest gangster of them all.
For Democrats who may be seeking to replace Trump, finding a new moral vocabulary isn’t easy. America is entering an era of heightened great-power competition with China. Yet after the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and the election of Trump, progressives are less sure than they have been in decades that American victory in that great-power competition furthers the ideals they hold dear.
On Thursday at American University, Senator Elizabeth Warren will outline her own foreign-policy vision. Her speech—shared exclusively with The Atlantic—charts a careful course, emphasizing progressive ideals while also celebrating the American order. The 2020 presidential campaign is still in its infancy. But it’s already becoming clear that when it comes to foreign policy, Warren’s vision is more conventional; Bernie Sanders’s is more radical. And both leave crucial questions unresolved.
In the tradition of Henry Wallace, George McGovern, and Jesse Jackson, Sanders has decoupled progressive ideals from American dominance. In a speech last year in Missouri, he cited America’s coups against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Salvador Allende in Chile as evidence that “far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power … have caused incalculable harm.” Sanders also promoted the United Nations as a key vehicle for solving global problems. Then, last month, in a speech at Johns Hopkins, he included both U.S. adversaries such as Russia and close U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a “new authoritarian axis,” and suggested that combatting it would require a “global progressive movement.”
In his two speeches, Sanders called for a more peaceful, more just, and more environmentally sustainable world, but he never suggested that achieving those goals required maintaining America’s global dominance. In fact, he avoided the subject of great-power competition entirely. He mentioned China only three times: twice as a potential partner in fighting climate change and once as a potential partner in denuclearizing North Korea.
Warren’s alternative is less radical. Instead of separating the pursuit of progressive ideals from the maintenance of American dominance, Warren tries—uncomfortably—to square the two. Unlike Sanders, she doesn’t challenge the narrative of a virtuous cold war in which America rose to superpower status while at the same time spreading liberty and prosperity. She embraces it. “There’s a story we tell as Americans, about how we built an international order—one based on democracy, human rights, and improving economic standards of living for everyone,” Warren’s speech will declare. “It wasn’t perfect—we weren’t perfect—but our foreign policy benefited a lot of people around the world.” If Sanders is echoing Henry Wallace—the Democrat who in the 1940s challenged the necessity of a cold war—Warren is taking the more conventional path of depicting herself as the heir to Harry Truman.
For Warren, American foreign policy only started going wrong “in the 1980s,” when “Washington’s focus shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites, both here at home and around the world.” The chronology is odd: American foreign policy benefited “everyone” in the 1970s, during Vietnam? It’s another sign that Warren is less interested than Sanders in challenging American exceptionalism, less interested in looking at the dark side of America’s history as a superpower.
That different history sets up a different description of America’s challenge today. Warren is no hawk: She wants to reduce the defense budget, end the war in Afghanistan, and end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. But she’s more comfortable with a foreign policy of us-versus-them, in which America bolsters its allies and contains its foes. Unlike Sanders, she doesn’t mention the United Nations, which Wallace saw as the vehicle for transcending great-power conflict. In a forthcoming Foreign Affairs essay, she instead calls for “strengthening crucial alliances like those with NATO, South Korea and Japan.” And Warren goes easier on America’s allies. In his Johns Hopkins speech, Sanders chastised Saudi Arabia by name 13 times. Warren mentions it only three times. Sanders devoted a paragraph to rising authoritarianism in Israel, something Warren ignores.
Most significantly, Warren acknowledges that “the United States is entering a new period of competition” with China and Russia, which she calls “would-be rivals” that “hope to shape spheres of influence in their own image” and “are working flat out to remake the global order to suit their own priorities.”
She’s not Trump. Warren wants to work with Beijing, in particular, against climate change. But she also wants America to maintain the international order that it has dominated, and prevent a rising China from establishing a sphere of influence. In this way, she’s closer to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who tried to contain China and cooperate with it at the same time, than to Sanders, who doesn’t describe it as a rival at all. If her vision is less radical, it may also be more realistic—more inclined to see the world as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be.
Both leave unanswered questions. If Sanders wants America to avoid a great power showdown with China, he must explain whether he’s willing to grant China a sphere of influence in order to do so, as Wallace was prepared to grant the U.S.S.R. If Warren thinks such a contest is inevitable, she must explain how pursuing it will further—rather than undermine—progressive ideals.
Almost 75 years ago, superpower rivalry split the American left. Today, as China increasingly becomes the dominant issue in American foreign policy, Sanders’s and Warren’s competing responses show how it may do so again.