Do Liberals Have an Answer to Trump on Foreign Policy?

“There is a big open space in the Democratic Party right now,” says Senator Chris Murphy.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Chris Murphy sensed well before most people that the 2016 election would largely revolve around U.S. foreign policy. Not foreign policy in the narrow, traditional sense—as in, which candidate had the better plan to deal with Russia or defeat ISIS. Rather, foreign policy in its most primal sense—as in, how America should interact with the world beyond its borders and how Americans should conceive of nationhood in an age of globalization. On issues ranging from trade to terrorism to immigration, Donald Trump reopened a debate on these broad questions, which candidates from both parties had previously treated as settled. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, focused on policy specifics. We know who won that argument, at least for the moment.

This was what worried Murphy months before Trump announced his candidacy, when the Democratic senator from Connecticut warned that progressives had “been adrift on foreign policy” during Barack Obama’s presidency, and that “non-interventionists, internationalists” had to “get their act together” before the presidential campaign. Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote an article in early 2015 titled “Desperately Seeking: A Progressive Foreign Policy,” in which he noted that the modern progressive movement, as exemplified by organizations like and Daily Kos, was “founded on foreign policy,” specifically opposition to the Iraq War. It needed, in his view, to return to its roots.

Ultimately, however, neither Bernie Sanders nor Clinton, whom Murphy endorsed for president, “really represented my views,” Murphy told me, “and I think that there is a big open space in the Democratic Party right now for the articulation of a progressive foreign policy.”

The open question is whether Murphy can fill that space. “I think Donald Trump believes in putting a wall around America and hoping everything turns out OK,” Murphy said in a recent interview. “I believe that the only way that you can protect America is by being forward-deployed [in the world] in a manner that is not just through the point of a spear.”

But where Trump’s “America First” mantra proved a relatively simple and effective sell for voters, Murphy shuns slogans; he repeatedly resisted when I asked him to encapsulate his worldview. The tensions in his vision go beyond the fact that he uses hawkish language like “forward-deployed” to advocate for dovish policies. His central argument is for a dramatic de-emphasis on military power in U.S. foreign policy, and yet he won’t entertain the thought of cutting the defense budget. (As Madeleine Albright would say, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?”) He’s urging Democrats to stake out a winning position on foreign policy … by taking the opposite approach to the guy who just won the last presidential election by promising “simple” solutions and tough measures against “bad dudes.”

“There are no easy answers anymore,” Murphy said. “The bad guys are super-shadowy or are sometimes not the bad guys. One day China’s a bad guy, one day they’re an indispensable economic partner. One day Russia’s our enemy, the next day we’re sitting on the same side of the negotiating table with them. That makes for a really confusing moment.” (Trump’s “America First” platform, it’s worth noting, features its own contradictions and isn’t necessarily coherent itself.) What’s progressive about his philosophy, Murphy explained, “is that it’s an answer to how we exist in the world with a big footprint that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the Iraq War.”

“American values don’t begin and end with destroyers and aircraft carriers,” he told me. “American values come by helping countries fight corruption to build stability. American values flow through tackling climate change and building energy independence. American values come through humanitarian assistance whereby we try to stop catastrophes from happening.”

Murphy’s message amounts to a gamble; he’s betting on active U.S. involvement in world affairs at a time when many Americans are wary of that approach and tired of remaking other societies in their image.  “I think progressives understand that we are Americans at the same time as we are global citizens,” he said. “We are interested first and foremost in creating peace and prosperity here at home, but we aren’t blind to the fact that injustice anywhere in the world is meaningful, important, and worth thinking about. I felt this moment in which even some Democrats and progressives were maybe thinking about closing doors. And I want to make the case that the progressive movement should be thinking about the world.”

Murphy’s profile has risen since he issued his pre-election call to non-arms. He now pops up regularly on CNN and MSNBC, in viral Twitter posts and sober think-tank forums, serving as a spokesman for progressive resistance and moral outrage in the Trump Era. He has perhaps been most vocal about Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Twice Murphy has sought to block the executive order—which he dismisses as illegal, spruced-up discrimination against Muslims that will only aid terrorist recruitment and endanger Americans—by introducing legislation to withhold funding for enforcing the measure. “We bomb your country, creating a humanitarian nightmare, then lock you inside. That’s a horror movie, not a foreign policy,” he fumed on Twitter shortly before Trump announced his initial ban.

This may be true in the cases of Iraq and Libya, but the United States isn’t the main cause of the nightmarish conditions in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and it certainly didn’t bomb and create nightmares in Iran or Sudan, the other countries included in Trump’s immigration order. Yet Murphy defends the point, and maintains that Syria’s catastrophe is directly attributable to the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “Here’s what I’m trying to say: When the U.S. is an active participant in a foreign war, what comes with that is an increased responsibility to try to rescue civilians from the harm done in part by U.S. munitions and U.S. targeting.”

Murphy is profoundly skeptical of military intervention—a conviction the 43-year-old lawmaker attributes to coming of age politically, first in the Connecticut General Assembly and then in the U.S. Congress—amid the debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq. He maintains that it’s foolish for the U.S. government to spend more than 10 times as much on the military as it does on diplomacy and foreign aid. He asserts that climate change is a security threat to the United States and the world, and that U.S. leadership abroad depends on the U.S. government’s commitment to human rights and economic opportunity at home. And he argues that terrorism, which he considers a serious but manageable threat that politicians too often exaggerate, should be fought without resorting to torture; with greater restrictions than currently exist on the use of drone strikes, covert operations, and mass surveillance; and in a manner that addresses the “root causes” of Islamic extremism.

Many of these positions put Murphy at odds with Trump, particularly in light of the president’s reported plans to dramatically increase defense spending while slashing funds for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Murphy likes to point out that after World War II, the U.S. government spent 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on foreign aid to stabilize democracies and economies in Europe and Asia, while today the United States is only spending roughly 0.1 percent of its GDP on foreign aid. “We’re getting what we pay for,” Murphy told me. “The world is more chaotic today, there are more unstable, ungovernable countries in part because the United States doesn’t help you when it comes to promoting stability.”

Murphy proposes a “new Marshall Plan,” a program of economic assistance to Middle Eastern and African countries plagued by terrorism, and other nations threatened by Russia and China, modeled on U.S. aid to Western Europe after World War II. The aid, he says, could be contingent on the recipient countries implementing political and economic reforms. As for why he has more faith in ambitious economic interventions than in ambitious military ones, he cites “the old saying that no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other.” (Military conflicts between the United States and Panama, India and Pakistan, Israel and Lebanon, Russia and Georgia, and Russia and Ukraine have put some dents in this theory, developed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, but Murphy maintains that countries with strong economies and democratic systems tend to be more risk-averse when it comes to war.)

Why, Murphy asks, do U.S. leaders have so much confidence in the military and so little confidence in the country’s non-military means of influencing international affairs? Just because the United States has the best hammer in the world, he argues, doesn’t mean every problem is a nail. Murphy supported sending weapons to the Ukrainian military as it struggled with Russia, but he questions why Congress hasn’t focused more on, say, helping the Ukrainian government fight corruption. He’s a backer of the NATO military alliance, but he asks why the United States doesn’t also seriously invest in weaning its European allies off their dependence on Russian energy sources. He regularly wonders why the Defense Department has more lawyers and members of military bands than the State Department has diplomats.

Yet Murphy, who represents a state where a number of Defense Department contractors are based, doesn’t advocate for reducing defense spending, even though the United States currently spends more on its military than roughly the next seven countries combined. Murphy says he believes in “peace through strength”—an idea Donald Trump also promotes—and wants the United States to maintain its military advantage over other countries. He seems to want it all—the military trombonists and the Foreign Service officers. He notes that Trump’s proposed $50-billion increase to the defense budget could double the State Department’s budget if directed there instead.

If the United States remains fixated on military strength, he warns, it will fall behind its rivals and enemies. “The Russians are bullying countries with oil and gas, the Chinese are making massive economic investments around the world, ISIS and extremist groups are using propaganda and the internet to grow their reach,” Murphy said. “And as the rest of the world has been figuring out that power can be projected in non-military means very effectively, the United States has not made that transition.”

Murphy departs from Obama, who himself offered a type of progressive foreign-policy vision, by further downplaying the efficacy of military intervention. In particular he argues that Obama’s policy of arming the Syrian rebels amounted to “just enough support to the rebels to keep the fight going while never enough to be definitive.” While “restraint in the face of evil feels unnatural, it feels dirty, it feels awful,” he said in a recent interview with the journalist Paul Bass, the United States could have saved lives by not taking sides in the Syrian Civil War. His own standard for taking military action: “It has to be because U.S. citizens are threatened and we have to know that our intervention can be decisive.”

Murphy was one of the first members of Congress to oppose the Obama administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and backing of a Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. He claimed that Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally since the Cold War, wasn’t doing enough to minimize civilian casualties in Yemen, resulting in a humanitarian crisis in which ISIS and al-Qaeda—both direct threats to the United States—were flourishing.

But Murphy also advanced a controversial argument among progressives, many of whom reject associations between terrorism and Islam. He said the United States shouldn’t be unconditionally assisting Saudi Arabia when billions of dollars in Saudi money have financed the spread of Wahhabism—a fundamentalist version of Islam—across the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Indonesia, largely through the creation of madrassas, or seminaries. This strain of Islam, in turn, has influenced the ideologies of Sunni terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“A progressive foreign policy isn’t just looking at the back-end of terrorism, but is also looking at the front-end of terrorism,” Murphy told me. “And at the front-end of terrorism is bad U.S. military policy in the Middle East, is the Saudi funding of a very intolerant brand of Islam that becomes the building block of extremism, and poverty and political instability.”

In this regard, he acknowledges some overlap between his views and those of some Trump advisers, who emphasize the ideological dimension of terrorism. But he also diverges from Trump’s aides by calling for American humility in this ideological struggle. “I don’t think there is any way that the United States is going to decide which version of Islam ultimately prevails globally, and it would be frankly improper for us to try to play that role,” he told me. “What I’m saying is that it should speak to who our allies are and who our allies aren’t. We should be choosing alliances with countries that are trying to spread moderate Islam and … we should question our alliances with countries that are spreading intolerant versions of Islam.”

As a result, Murphy explained during a 2015 event at the Wilson Center, while “it sounds really good to say that the American objective is to defeat ISIS,” U.S. policy “should be to eliminate the ability of ISIS to attack the United States. Whether ISIS is going to be wiped from the face of the Middle East is really a question for our partners in the region.”

Murphy also overlaps with Trump—and Obama, for that matter—in his critique of foreign-policy elites in the nation’s capital. “There’s so many people in Washington that get paid money to think about ways that America can fix the world,” he told Bass. “And the idea that America is in some places helpless really doesn’t pay the bills. So you are constantly getting told as a member of Congress: ‘Here’s the solution where America can solve this problem.’”

But often there isn’t an American solution—especially not a military one, Murphy argues. In such heresies, Murphy feels he has a sliver of something in common with his adversary in the White House. “I appreciate a president who is willing to ask some big questions about the prior rules of the game when it came to how the United States funds or directs foreign policy,” he told me. It’s on the answers where Murphy hopes to prevail.