The many, many, many, many, many Democrats running for president are already recruiting foreign policy talent and embracing the idea of foreign policy via executive action alone. So it is worth interrogating the emerging progressive foreign policy worldview, as distinct from Trump’s populist nationalism, the #NeverTrump’s neoconservatism, and the liberal internationalism that everyone but former vice president Joe Biden seems so keen to rebel against.
Last month in War on the Rocks, Ganesh Sitaraman (a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)) argued that “it is now possible to sketch out the framework of a distinctively progressive approach to foreign policy.” He offered up what that progressive consensus looks like:
- “First, progressive foreign policy breaks the silos between domestic and foreign policy and between international economic policy and foreign policy. It places far greater emphasis on how foreign policy impacts the United States at home — and particularly on how foreign policy (including international economic policy) has impacted the domestic economy.”
- “Second, progressive foreign policy holds that one of the important threats to American democracy at home is nationalist oligarchy (or, alternatively, authoritarian capitalism) abroad. . . . Crony/state capitalism is not a bug, it is the central feature. In a global society, economic interrelationships weaponize economic power into political power.”
- “Third, the new progressive foreign policy values America’s alliances and international agreements, but not because it thinks that such alliances and rules can convert nationalist oligarchies into liberal democracies. Rather, alliances should be based on common values or common goals, and, going forward, they will be critical to balancing and countering the challenges from nationalist oligarchies.”
- "Fourth, the new progressive foreign policy is highly skeptical of military interventions, and opposed to democracy promotion by force."
- “Fifth, the new progressive foreign policy seeks to reshape the military budget by both cutting the budget overall and reallocating military spending.”
This is an interesting list and unsurprisingly bears some strong echoes of what Warren articulated in her Foreign Affairs article from last year. I addressed Warren’s essay earlier this year, but here are my five questions after considering this list:
1. Under what conditions do progressives believe economic openness benefits the United States at home? The implicit assumption in these musings is that economic globalization has widened domestic inequality and should therefore be opposed. While there is no denying that it played a role, it was hardly the only factor. Furthermore, the worst effects appear to be in the rearview mirror. Also, just FYI, Democrats are pretty enthusiastic about free trade.
So what does this mean going forward? Do progressives want to expand the social safety nets to cope with the vicissitudes of global markets or decouple the U.S. economy from global markets? If it is the latter, then what is the progressive foreign policy response to other countries — including our allies, by the way — conducting trade deals that disadvantage U.S. firms and U.S. workers?
2. If nationalist oligarchs are the disease, what is the cure and what is the prevention? The emphasis on kleptocracy is interesting, but there is little discussion about how to ward it off. Do progressives advocate economic containment against nationalist oligarchs? Sitaraman implicitly endorses this position when he writes, “progressives are . . . highly skeptical of a foreign policy based on the premise that the countries of the world will all become neoliberal democracies. Instead, they take seriously the risks that come from economic integration with nationalist oligarchies.” So how, exactly, do progressives propose that the United States approach Russia? China? Germany, which has strong economic links with both Russia and China? South Korea, which has deep economic linkages with China? What is the long-term strategy to deal with national oligarchs in a global economy?
3. What is the progressive foreign policy approach toward the Middle East? Talk about a playground for nationalist oligarchs! It sounds like progressives want to wash their hands of the entire region. Maybe that is the right approach, but there is the pesky question of oil prices, which tend to fluctuate based on Middle East instability and affects the domestic economy pretty strongly. Would progressives support military interventions in the region to keep energy prices stable? And how does Israel — which is a complicated democracy — fit into this vision?
4. What is the progressive foreign policy approach toward backsliding liberal democracies? Progressives are skeptical about converting oligarchies into democracies. How do they feel about democracies trending in a negative direction, however? What about Hungary? Brazil? Poland? Turkey? If progressives want U.S. allies to share liberal values, what is the response when these countries trend in an illiberal direction?
5. How do progressives propose to lock in their grand strategy? A lot of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives will be reversible on day one of the next administration, if Democratic, because it relied so much on purely executive action. How will a progressive president work with a polarized Congress to prevent the same thing from happening to their foreign policy efforts?
So these are my questions. I have little faith that they will be answered. This is not because the progressives’ thinking about foreign policy is incapable of answering them. It is just that they have zero incentive to do so in a campaign cycle in which primary voters do not care about foreign policy.