Most of the Democrats running for president have been reluctant to outline any detailed foreign-policy vision. That’s understandable given how domestic issues tend to dominate presidential primaries, and how difficult and nuanced the answers are to today’s most pressing national-security challenges. The few who have tread into the foreign-policy debate have been criticized for offering plans that are too similar to Obama’s values-based pragmatism, and also for being naive isolationists who fail to recognize the threat to our interests posed by the rise of global spheres of influence due to American retrenchment.
The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, in a recent Atlantic essay, presented several of these concerns with the emerging outlines of a new, progressive foreign policy. I don’t speak for any of the Democratic candidates for president, nor do I have intimate knowledge of their foreign-policy priorities. But from my seat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, I can see a distinct lane for progressive Democrats to occupy when discussing the future role of America in the world. And although Wright and others make some substantive points, I think their criticisms, in some ways, reflect a failure of imagination that leads them to underestimate the power of a new, progressive approach to reset America’s role in the world.
Of course, the test of any Democratic presidential candidate’s foreign-policy ideas should not be “How different are they from Obama’s?” Democrats running in 2020 shouldn’t be shy to pine for a return to the basics of Obama’s foreign policy, which led America to actively defend democracy and human rights abroad, invest in nuclear and climate diplomacy, nurture allies, and improve its reputation in nearly every corner of the world. Obama left a lot of work undone, but his basic philosophy of global engagement is a foundation that should be built upon, not torn down.
But there are also ways that the next Democratic president can thoughtfully pivot from the strategy employed by the Obama administration. Any progressive effort to reorient American foreign-policy needs to take the criticisms leveled by Wright into account. A successful approach would be built around three elements: a clear articulation of the circumstances that justify the use of military force, and those that don’t; a recommitment to security and economic alliances; and, most crucially of all, a focus on building up the United States’ non-military capabilities for dealing with challenges around the world.
Progressives understand that the U.S. military plays a crucial role in defense of our interests. Few progressives opposed, for instance, the decision to take military action in Afghanistan in 2001. To sit idly by after being attacked by a group supported by the Afghan government would have sent a signal of disastrous weakness.
But a progressive foreign policy would apply tough, clearly defined tests to U.S. military intervention, some of which were not uniformly applied under Obama. First, progressives should insist on compliance with the War Powers Resolution and require all major military action overseas to be explicitly approved by Congress. Obtaining the consent of Congress—and therefore, the American public—should be a clear progressive priority. No more massive, unconstitutional, open-ended grants of military power to the president.
Second, progressives should get the United States out of the business of waging secret wars. The Cold War practice of covertly arming or training rebels abroad doesn’t work (see Syria). Hell, America has trouble overtly training and arming government forces (see Iraq and Afghanistan). Suicide bombs, roadside explosives, and drones have made the entry price to effective insurgency pretty low, rendering our quiet investments in rebel armies feckless. And while we’re at it, America’s drone-strike campaign is not delivering actual security gains. Studies show that in Pakistani tribal areas where the most drone strikes hit, Sunni insurgent groups grew the fastest. We kill one, two more sign up. Progressives don’t need to shut down the drone program, but the use of drones should be limited to extremely high-value targets, located with near-unassailable intelligence and with no risk of civilian casualties.
Third, progressives should never support foreign military intervention if the ultimate problem we are trying to solve is fundamentally of a political, rather than military, nature. Take Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991: the enemy was an occupying force, not an entrenched dictator, and there was a stable Kuwaiti regime waiting to retake power after the Iraqis were expelled. On the other hand, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was designed to address a political problem, and our invading force was totally unprepared to deal with the complicated tribal, sectarian, and political fallout of regime change.
Today, most crises that tempt American military intervention—Syria, Yemen, Venezuela—are political problems, not military ones. Military power can, at most, help set the stage for the necessary political work that must be done, but U.S. military actions have too often become ends in themselves. Any progressive call for military intervention must be paired with a plan for what comes next.
Finally, progressives should be humble and realistic about the limits of U.S. military power. The 2011 American airstrikes in Libya, which led to the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, are a stark example of a well-intended military intervention turning into a massive failure. When Gaddafi’s military was reportedly days away from unleashing an assault on Benghazi, Obama officials decided to launch a strike against him in order to prevent mass civilian casualties. In the immediate aftermath, Obama officials called it a “model intervention,” emphasizing that no American lives were put at risk in an operation that saved thousands. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The civil war that erupted in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall is still ongoing eight years later. The nation lies in ruins, thousands are dead, and there is no end in sight for the state of near anarchy wrought by our intervention. Sometimes, military restraint, though it may feel unsavory in the face of evil, is still the best policy. Military action can create more new problems than it solves.
These limitations will certainly lead to greater military restraint, but they will not require us to abandon our position of global military leadership, as Wright argues. There is no conflict between progressive values and investment in mutual-defense arrangements. A strong U.S. military deterrent, working within our alliance structure, has contributed significantly to global stability. We fight fewer wars than we used to, and that’s because the U.S. military provides a security guarantee to dozens of nations worldwide. Progressives are multilateralists. We believe in cooperation. And we shouldn’t shy away from being military multi-nationalists, using the American military as a check against aggression abroad, in cooperation with partners. That means that progressives should support the expansion of our mutual defense treaties, like NATO. But we should also be open to new bilateral defense arrangements as well. Why spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the world’s largest military if you aren’t willing to extend its security protection when circumstances merit? Mutual defense agreements have worked, and progressives shouldn’t shy away from them.
Of course, America should be careful about who it brings under our security umbrella. Defense alliances should only include nations that share both our interests and values. Thus, progressives should reject any suggestion to extend our security guarantees to nations like Saudi Arabia, and focus instead on countries that have made a full commitment to democracy and rule of law.
A second major critique of the progressive foreign policy outlined by 2020 candidates is that their focus on helping democracy and human-rights causes prevail over the dark forces of demagoguery and despotism sounds very much like Obama’s values-based approach to world leadership. But progressive foreign policy, done correctly, could offer up an entirely new approach to soft power projection that would make our use of soft power much more effective than it was during the Obama administration.
Obama’s first two years in office were largely spent guiding our economy out of a cataclysmic meltdown, and his foreign policy was focused on resetting American strategy in Afghanistan and repairing the reputational damage done to America by the Iraq War. By the time Obama could come up for air, he was dealing with a Republican Congress that politicized every foreign policy crisis (remember when Republicans opposed bombing Syria?), tying Obama’s hands on creative ways to remake America’s role in the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked boldly about smart power projection, but by the time she left Foggy Bottom, she was still stuck deploying the same meager, smart power tools that she inherited.
If progressives wish to change this dynamic, they must radically upscale the non-military capabilities of the U.S. national-security apparatus, and employ them aggressively around the world. Progressives care no less about the security of our nation and our allies than conservatives. They just acknowledge—in a way that neoconservatives do not—that many of the most serious threats to our security are no longer conventional military threats, but non-military menaces like information warfare, climate change, the atrophy of the rule of law, the diffusion of violent extremist ideology, pandemic disease, and tyrant-friendly technology. To adequately protect the United States, we need to join these battles where they exist—and none of them can be met by another aircraft carrier. A national-security budget where we spend 20 times as much money on the military and intelligence agencies as we do on diplomacy, democracy promotion, and smart power, is foreign-policy malpractice in the modern world.
Progressives also need to recognize that there is almost no important domestic progressive value that can be advanced without a foreign-policy complement. You care about repairing America’s broken democracy? Well, the better China gets at exporting the tools of tyrants, and the less check Russia feels on its efforts to manipulate foreign elections, the less healthy our own democracy becomes. You want to focus on immigrant rights? Well, the less involved America is in fixing broken countries in Central America, the more refugees show up at our borders. And guess what? The xenophobic, nationalist movement is, indeed, global. When anti-immigrant parties score victories in Europe, it strengthens the hand of similar movements here. Is your priority the fate of the climate? You can’t save the planet without global engagement. And rejoining the Paris agreement is the easy part. After that, we need a massive global diplomatic effort to get skeptical nations back to the table and convince them to comply.
And if progressives want to stay out of wars, then building up non-military means to project strength is a sound strategy. Yes, pushing smart power tools could end up getting under the skin of our competitors, but these non-military capabilities can be throttled up or down depending on the risk of confrontation. And having the ability to go into conflict zones, or potential conflict zones, with economic and political and technological tools lessens the need to assert American presence with soldiers alone.
So, what kind of new tools would a progressive foreign policy rely upon? First, America desperately needs more economic leverage around the world. In the Cold War, there were two superpowers. We didn’t need to be that nimble to win economic friends because the only other choice was the Soviets. Not so today. The Chinese, the Indians, the newly semi-capitalist Russians, the Gulf states—everyone is using economic relationships to try to win friends over to their value system. And we are losing out. Consolidating our international development agencies is a nice start, but we need to supercharge the investments that America—still the world’s biggest economy—can offer other nations.
The Chinese are developing an export model in which they midwife a technology in their closed, government-subsidized and controlled economy, and then release it to the world at dirt cheap prices. We need to have an answer to what China has done with 5G networks and will do with batteries and artificial intelligence in the next decade. And it can’t just be a robust campaign of shaming other nations that partner with Chinese companies. We need to put real public money, ideally in coordination with the Europeans, behind partnerships with Western companies that want to develop true competitor products to Chinese tech exports.
A progressive president should also massively scale up our diplomatic efforts to support Western technology adoption. Today, we have no dedicated technology officers in our embassies, putting us at a tremendous disadvantage. I happened to visit Ireland recently as they were preparing to hand out a contract for a new 5G network, and the Chinese Embassy in Dublin had—not coincidentally—seen a massive staffing increase as they competed for it. In our own embassy, 5G was one small part of the portfolio of a single political officer. Our long-term goal should not be to crush Chinese technology. Instead, it should be to contest the space vigorously enough so that the Chinese are forced to come to the table on privacy and cost standards that create a safe, level playing field.
And progressives should rethink their reflexive opposition to international trade agreements, given the geopolitical advantage of aligning more nations with the economic standards of the United States and Europe. Take Asia, for instance, which has seen Chinese economic influence grow after the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yes, a progressive president should fight for greater worker and environmental standards in trade agreements like TPP, but it would be foolish to simply cede economic hegemony in Asia to China by refusing to try to reconstruct a U.S.-Asia trade agreement. An agreement that is aligned to increase wages and improve worker rights, rather than aligned to increase corporate profits and protections, would be a boon to American security and progressive priorities.
In addition to investing in economic leverage, progressives should supercharge our efforts abroad to fight corruption, one of the key wedges used to undermine democracies. If you total up all the money that the U.S. State Department spends annually on protecting democracy and fighting corruption abroad, it’s about $2.4 billion. Now that sounds like a lot, but that’s about as much money as the U.S. Department of Defense spends in two days, and it pales in comparison to the funding that China, Russia, and others leverage abroad to try to undermine fragile democracies.
How can we fix this? Here’s one idea: Create a new category of Foreign Service Officers dedicated to fighting corruption abroad, so that every embassy in the world has one or more dedicated American staffers working to protect the rule of law from attack. Here’s another: Elevate the fight against corruption by tracking dictators’ dollars the way we do terrorist financing, employing an army of accountants and Treasury Department experts. And we should end the ability of corrupt officials to hide money in U.S. or European real-estate markets, requiring buyers and investors to name the actual beneficiaries of these transactions rather than allowing them to hide behind layers of shell companies.
In order for America to rely less on military deployments, progressives should seek to change the way that the State Department works in conflict zones. In 2011, I visited western Afghanistan where a capable group of U.S. soldiers was protecting Afghan farmers from attacks by the Taliban. The problem? Those farmers were growing poppy and selling it to the Taliban, who now at least paid for the crop instead of stealing it. What those farmers really needed were agricultural advisers to help them grow another crop, and Afghan-speaking political advisers to help them negotiate a détente with the Taliban once the poppy supply disappeared. But because all we can do in dangerous conflict zones is deploy 20-year-old commandos, not diplomats, we’re stuck guarding the poppy fields for the enemy.
We claim over and over that conflicts in the Middle East can’t be solved militarily, but then America sends our military to fix inherently political problems. In Syria, during most of the conflict, do you know how many State Department advisers we’ve had side-by-side with our soldiers? One. We haven’t developed a hybrid class of diplomat/warriors, despite the general failure of soldiers to do effective diplomacy. That can change, and progressives should lead the effort.
Some, like Wright, who criticize progressive calls for military restraint as naive have rightly pointed out that adversaries like China and Russia actually feel more threatened by our work to promote democracy and civil rights than they do by our military prowess. (China doesn’t really worry about the United States invading, but it does worry about our efforts to erode its ironclad political grip on its restless population). Thus, soft power projection might actually be more confrontational than a continued American military buildup. This might be the case, but if we do not put up a global fight to protect the free flow of information or the health of democratic systems of governance, then we cannot protect our own democracy. These fights may involve risk, but they are essential. And confrontations based upon contested values are fights we can be proud of. By contrast, siding with the repressive Saudis against the repressive Iranians (which our current administration tells us is vital to our national security) inspires no one to rally to our side.
Further, fighting for these progressive interests on a global basis is not an all-or -nothing proposition. The “values versus interests” trap that is often presented to progressive foreign-policy thinkers is really no trap at all. Democracy promotion and human-rights advocacy are not soft, fuzzy values driven by our altruism for others; they are hard American interests in the 21st century. A world with more democracies is a safer and more prosperous place.
So it’s not a question of whether or not to maintain relations with nations that don’t measure up on democracy or civil rights, but of how to make sure we’re consistently elevating those concerns in our conversations with them. A progressive foreign-policy vision would require a president to maintain a consistency of effort on democracy and human-rights advocacy, trusting that eventually this work will pay off. And sometimes there may be a nation that crosses a line so bright (kidnapping and dismembering a journalist under American protection, for instance) that we need to reassess the entire nature of our bilateral relationship.
Admittedly, without new tools in the foreign-policy toolbox, the next Democratic president will not see much more success in promoting democracy and human-rights promotion than Obama, and asymmetric, non-military threats to the United States will continue to grow. And without supersizing a president’s non-military options, our nation will continue to be overly reliant on military tools to protect our interests, risking unnecessary war. That’s why progressive foreign policy must focus on capabilities as much as it focuses on strategy and philosophy. And it’s the potential for these new tools to make American foreign policy much more nimble that critics underestimate.
A new Democratic administration, willing to build on and learn from Obama’s foreign policy, would have the chance to advance progressive values at home and abroad, and to more effectively align American national security policy with the actual, modern threats that our nation faces today. Thoughtfully articulated limits on the use of military force, an embrace of alliances, and a dramatic restocking of our national security toolbox should be at the core of a progressive approach to foreign policy. Critics are not incorrect to point out that the 2020 candidates have not yet sufficiently fleshed out their views of America’s role in a post-Trump world, but I don’t share their skepticism of the early outlines of the progressive approach to foreign affairs. Hopefully, in the coming months, more presidential candidates will take the time to present to voters a clear contrast between the incoherent, dangerous Trump foreign policy and a fresh, new vision of America in the world.
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