FiveThirtyEight’s Julia Azari has decided to start writing about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and all I can say is damn her, damn her to the depths of Hades. Consider the floodgates for 2020 hot takes to be officially open.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts does not want to talk about horse races or anything resembling horse races. What will be interesting is the degree of foreign policy debate on the Democratic side.
This is no small matter. Centrists have dominated the Democratic Party foreign policy discourse since the Clinton administration. I’m a centrist, so I should be happy about this. I’m also a big believer in the marketplace of ideas, however, and the homogeneity of Democratic foreign policy discourse has stunted the debate. As I noted last year, “Democrats are as split on foreign policy as Republicans, but there has not been a foreign policy standard-bearer on the left who takes the issue seriously beyond ‘no more wars.’ If you believe in the ‘Overton Window’ of policy articulation, the failure of the progressive wing to talk about foreign affairs has circumscribed the range of acceptable policy options.”
There are no lack of standard-bearers anymore. Sen. Bernie Sanders hired some serious foreign policy folks and is starting to speak in a much more interesting way about foreign policy than he did in 2016. Beyond Sanders, a whole raft of articles, essays and op-eds about what a progressive foreign policy should look like have been coming out. For a sampling, check out:
1. Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner, “The Day after Trump: American Strategy for a New International Order,” The Washington Quarterly.
2. Daniel Nexon, “Toward a Neo-Progressive Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs.
3. Daniel Bessner’s September op-ed in the New York Times,
4. Peter Beinart, “America Needs an Entirely New Foreign Policy for the Trump Age,” in The Atlantic.
And then the centrist pushback:
5. Tom Wright’s essay in the Atlantic pushing back on Beinart
6. Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan’s op-ed in the New York Times this week.
There are some stark differences in the progressive visions articulated above. Beinart and Bessner in particular are not only critical of liberal internationalism, they are also pretty skeptical of any exercise of American power too far away from home. This leads them to advocate for a spheres-of-influence approach toward other great powers. There is a lot of overlap between that view and the realpolitik perspectives of Stephen Walt or John Mearsheimer.
It will also be interesting to see how much progressives drill down beyond overarching grand strategy questions. For example, Nicholas Mulder in the Nation recently made some bold statements about how progressives should approach economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy: “a realistic appraisal must confront the fact that sanctions fail much more often than they succeed, and that their unintended consequences are rarely worth the meager gains. The left in the United States and abroad needs to challenge the sanctions orthodoxy of liberal internationalism, reinventing the power of economic pressure for progressive purposes while reducing its dangerous excesses in world politics.”
As someone who is equally concerned about sanctions overuse, I would suggest that progressives need to think more carefully about the sanctions tool. Mulder is wrong to minimize the utility of sanctions — they have become more and not less successful in this century. But the latter half of Mulder’s essay proffers some interesting suggestions for how a progressive might learn to love financial sanctions.
For far too long, the foreign policy community has skewed rightward because progressives were rarely interested in the topic beyond protesting. That is beginning to change.
Correction: This piece originally misspelled Nicholas Mulder’s first name.