Although presidential campaigns generally home in on kitchen table concerns, 2020 is likely to feature a long-overdue debate on U.S. foreign and national security strategy. The failures of the national security establishment — endless wars without victory, the global financial collapse, neglect of emerging existential threats such as catastrophic climate change — make a reassessment inevitable. Now progressives in Congress and on the campaign trail are beginning to define a new realism that contrasts sharply with both the keepers of old orthodoxy and President Trump’s posturing.
Trump’s fulminations against failed military interventions, perverse trade policies and growing tensions with Russia surely helped him in the 2016 campaign. But “America First” turned out to be a bumper sticker, not a strategy. Knee-jerk opposition to all things Barack Obama — torpedoing U.S. involvement in the Paris climate accord, the Iranian nuclear agreement and the opening to Cuba — isn’t a recipe for making America great again. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump noted in his recent State of the Union address, but thus far he remains engaged in a fight to pull troops out of Afghanistan and Syria, while doubling down in Yemen and inflating Iran to an existential threat. Launching trade conflicts while giving multinational companies new tax incentives to ship jobs abroad has also generated more noise than change.
The new progressive challenge begins with a call for restraint, starting with terminating wars without end. A first foray — led by Rep. Ro Khanna in the House and Sens. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate — invokes congressional war powers to end U.S. involvement in the gruesome assault on Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (This has even received bipartisan support from conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.) Khanna is also leading a broader debate among progressives sponsoring, along with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a forum this week. (Disclosure: I will be participating.)
On the presidential campaign trail, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have both called for ending the war in Afghanistan and removing U.S. troops from Syria. Sanders has warned against a foray into regime change in Venezuela. The debate in Congress and on the campaign trail has not yet challenged the U.S. effort to police the world — the empire of bases and the recent dispatch of Special Operations forces to an astonishing 133 countries — but progressives are intent on fulfilling the promise that Trump betrayed, curbing the appetite for military intervention.
Second, progressives will elevate the real security threats that our militarized national security policy has neglected. The most imperative, of course, is the existential threat posed by catastrophic climate change. With Trump still locked into denial, progressives are demanding a return to the Paris accord and forcing a debate about a bolder Green New Deal that will put climate at the center of the 2020 debate.
Third is the United States’ failed global economic strategy, from trade to investment to industrial policy. Trump makes his trade disruptions central to his appeal to workers. Among Democrats, declared contenders such as Sanders and Warren and potential candidates such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have led the progressive challenge to the Davos order. As Trump settles his trade war with China and tries to get his NAFTA 2.0 passed, progressives must call not just for fair trade but for an industrial strategy that will greatly increase investment in research and innovation. Sanders and Warren also emphasize taking on the rigged global rules that foster ever greater extremes of inequality, calling for crackdowns on tax havens and shell companies used for trillions of dollars in money laundering and tax avoidance.
The emergence of China and reemergence of Russia as great power rivals of the United States generate the greatest disagreement. The wrongheaded National Security Strategy document of the Trump administration labels Russia and China “revisionist powers” that pose an inflated threat to U.S. security. Much of the foreign policy elite is ramping up to confront both in a new Cold War. Trump is characteristically incoherent, displaying a personal soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin while his administration withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, ramps up an arms race, sends lethal weapons to Ukraine, boots out Russian diplomats and imposes sanctions on Putin’s inner circle. On China, he has demanded that the Chinese abandon their core economic strategy while looking as though he’s willing to settle for promises to buy more soybeans and other products from the United States.
Among Democrats, the fixation on Russia’s intervention in the last election has generated heated rhetoric, while China’s rise has gotten less attention. Sanders and Warren feature tough language about Russia while saying less about China (though Warren condemns both countries as “working flat out to remake the global order”). But progressives must understand that the overriding threats to U.S. security — from climate change to nuclear proliferation — require cooperation with China and Russia. Confrontation with both nuclear powers at once — pushing them into a closer alliance — carries staggering risks and chances for conflict. Progressives urgently need to define a coherent U.S. policy, one that avoids a further descent into the perils of Cold War faceoffs.
Trump campaigns on insults, not ideas. The weakest response of Democrats would be to defend the old consensus. Instead, progressives have to drive the debate, exposing repeatedly how Trump betrayed his promises in foreign policy while making the case for a bold new progressive realism.