On the last day of 2018, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) began her first day as an actual candidate for president of the United States. She announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a 2020 presidential primary run. This is merely the latest of steps that Warren has taken over the past few months.
Warren took one of those steps back in November, giving a big, attention-attracting speech about world politics and publishing her foreign policy vision in Foreign Affairs. This used to be a necessary ticket-punching move back in the day — by which I mean, as recently as 2012. And it might matter again in 2020. As Politico’s Nahal Toosi noted when Warren gave her speech, “If she decides to run in 2020, the Massachusetts Democrat will need to differentiate herself in a crowded presidential field, especially from other progressive favorites such as Bernie Sanders ... foreign policy will be a hard issue to avoid during the 2020 race, not least because of Trump’s repeated clashes with U.S. allies and seeming fondness for autocrats abroad.”
The senator’s article came out just after the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts had written about other progressive foreign policy essays, which is an indirect way of saying I did not want to hammer the progressive foreign policy vision thing too hard at the time. That was then; how does Warren’s essay, “A Foreign Policy For All,” stack up now?
I’m a professor by trade, so let me answer with how I would have graded Warren’s article if she had submitted it to my statecraft class:
This is a well-written, closely argued essay with a clear thesis. You write: “the United States can no longer maintain the comfortable assumption that its domestic and foreign policies are separate. Every decision the government makes should be grounded in the recognition that actions that undermine working families in this country ultimately erode American strength in the world. In other words, we need a foreign policy that works for all Americans.” That is a potent and provocative message with far-reaching implications. It is also politically savvy to connect foreign policy to the domestic concerns that usually dominate campaigns.
Your diagnosis of the ills animating the liberal international order, however, seems to place way too much of the blame on U.S. foreign economic policy. You repeatedly argue that today’s problems are rooted in U.S. efforts to promote neoliberal policies: “in recent decades, Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites. ... They began to export a particular brand of capitalism, one that involved weak regulations, low taxes on the wealthy, and policies favoring multinational corporations.”
There are elements of truth here, particularly in your observations about tax havens. You are onto something by stressing the rise of kleptocracy and policies that only enrich the wealthy. And the essay nicely ties on how President Trump has exacerbated these issues, further stacking the deck in favor of the wealthy.
That said, this is a very 2016 kind of argument, and this argument did not work well back then. There are a lot of factors driving inequality in the United States, and it is far from clear if globalization is the key driver that you think it is. Furthermore, it is very difficult to argue that the time period when we witnessed the greatest reduction of extreme poverty in history as an unmitigated disaster. You stress that U.S. foreign economic policy hurt the middle class without really explaining why. Your alternative — “U.S. foreign policy should not prioritize corporate profits over American families” — is a catchy slogan but lacking in detail (beyond the tax haven point, which is a good one).
More importantly, you might have missed the fact that Americans are bigger fans of freer trade than you presume. Your essay assumes a populist hostility to globalization that was always exaggerated and has eroded badly in reaction to Trump. To put it more plainly, when you write, “None of this requires sacrificing the interests of American businesses,” it is hard to believe you. Your simplistic take on globalization contrasts sharply with your more sophisticated take on markets. These visions need to be reconciled.
You are on much stronger ground in emphasizing the degree to which American foreign policy has become overly militarized. Not only do you critique the Trump administration here, but you offer some concrete solutions that sound eminently sane. Flesh those out more, and your arguments might resonate with your intended audience.
This is a good first step, but in the end this essay is not as much about foreign policy as it is about reorienting domestic policy. That matters more in a campaign, so it’s the smart play. If it succeeds, however, you will need to think more carefully about foreign economic policy. What you have here reads like Trumpism with a human face.