The principles and priorities of a progressive foreign policy have become a prominent subject of political debate during the past two years. The Trump administration’s incompetent foreign policy governance is the first major catalyst for this debate. Rex Tillerson’s “management reforms” during his year as Trump’s first Secretary of State resulted in the wholesale exodus of the post-Cold War civilian brain trust; Trump’s almost-total reliance on the wisdom of “his generals” has done much to undermine the last vestiges of civilian oversight over military affairs; and dramatic own-goals on trade, alliance politics, nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and immigration issues have jeopardized the trust of US allies and partners in Europe, East Asia, and North America.
The second spark for the current progressive foreign policy debate is the resurgence of the left wing of the Democratic Party following Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign in 2016. A group of charismatic, outspoken progressives–notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib–joined the freshman class of the new Congress in January, and each sees re-shaping the Washington consensus on a range of foreign policy issues as a core part of their mandate. Less public, but no less important, is staunch anti-war champion Barbara Lee’s new position in the Democratic leadership. The latest demonstration of the new progressives’ capacity to shape public discussion on foreign policy topics was the media controversy surrounding Rep. Omar’s biting questioning of Elliott Abrams, the current US special envoy for Venezuela and a longtime Republican foreign policy maven involved in some of the Reagan administration’s most disastrous and immoral policy decisions in Central America. This debate, both on public opinion pages and among campaign policy advisers, will only heighten as more than a dozen Democratic primary candidates jockey to distinguish themselves from both Trump and each other ahead of the 2020 elections.
What is a progressive US foreign policy? What can it be? There are three potential ways to approach these questions. The first and most common is in terms of goals and principles. Many advocates see the task of progressive foreign policy as a normative task: they begin by describing the world they would like to see, how it differs from our current world, and what it means for the content of progressive foreign policy. A set of common priorities has emerged from this first-principles discussion. These include: accountability and oversight, both in terms of some form of procedural justice for US officials responsible for egregious policy decisions like torture, and Congressional checks on executive power; restraint, both in US military adventurism and in “softer” attempts at nation-building; and democracy and global equity, or the use of tools of US statecraft to constrain the interests and power of global capital. A number of policy issues transcend these first principles, including mitigating the harm of global climate change, counterterrorism, and US responses to violent conflict abroad.
These principles distinguish the worldview of a progressive foreign policy from its antecedents; in effect, they make up a sort of “grand strategy” for a progressive regime. As with all grand strategies, however, there is a wide gap between the world that progressive foreign policy advocates envision and how those principles interact with the status quo. How, for example, might progressive principles of restraint make sense of the sprawling war-making bureaucracy of the Department of Defense? What institutions beyond our current justice system might be established to ensure accountability for US human rights abuses? Of course, the gap between first principles and the foreign-policy status quo is a feature of progressive critique. Incrementalism in foreign policy reform, progressives argue, has benefited neither the American people nor the world.
The second approach frames the progressive foreign policy debate as a matter of policy applications, rather than principles. These advocates debate the relative merits of specific tools of US statecraft and their potential uses for the major priorities of the progressive policy agenda. A recent exchange between Nicholas Mulder and Neil Bhatiya on the relative merits of US sanctions policy illustrates the policy-first approach. The strengths and pitfalls of US economic and financial sanctions are old hat. On the one hand, economic sanctions, which target entire sectors, and financial tools like asset freezes, which target specific leaders, allow US policymakers to exact material consequences against abusive leaders. On the other, sanctions often result in the same unintended consequences, especially collateral harm to civilian populations, that result from more aggressive policy tools like foreign military intervention. In broad terms, a recent Texas National Security Review roundtable on progressive diplomatic and defense policy relies on a similar policy-first approach.
If the principles-first approach is too imaginative, the policy approach is perhaps too accommodating of the status quo. There is no strictly progressive framework for economic sanctions, diplomacy, military intervention, or any other strategy in the so-called policy “toolbox,” any more than there is a neoconservative or Jacksonian framework for each. These are tools of statecraft that policymakers deploy to achieve specific policy outcomes. A debate centered on specific forms of policy action ensures that these tools, rather than goals surrounding their use, will remain the focus of the foreign policy debate. If the foreign policy status quo is truly broken, a debate overly mired in the details of specific policy instruments does a disservice to the policy agenda that those instruments should serve.
A third and final approach to progressive foreign policy, the sources of a progressive foreign policy, merits more attention than advocates have granted it. There are two ways to interpret the sources of foreign policy, one intellectual and one political. The importance of the intellectual sources of foreign policy is self-evident. As Elizabeth Saunders observes in her study of American presidents and military intervention abroad, the views that leaders hold about the world prior to assuming power are a useful predictor of the style and substance of their decisions. As in any institution, structural factors and contingent events will constrain progressive leaders’ ability to carry out their policy vision. But ideological frames can shape leaders’ cognitive interpretation of events, their emotional response to specific crises, and the range of decisions they view as feasible or advisable.
For their part, the political sources of foreign policy indicate the constituencies to which leaders respond. That there is no “constituency” for foreign policy in American politics is a misguided truism. As Dan Drezner notes in a recent column, the conventional constituency for American foreign policy is comprised of elites: the intelligentsia, business leaders, and a revolving professional community of former and current officials involved in the formal or informal process of US foreign policy decisions. This and all elite networks have a set of collective preferences that shape their expectations of US foreign policy. This network is not monolithic: opinions about the wisdom of specific policy tools or responses to specific crises differ. However, a shared worldview surrounding US national security and the US government’s role in the world broadly underpins these policy disagreements. This is the worldview to which most foreign policy decisionmakers respond.
The structural purpose of the progressive policy agenda is to make policy discourse and decisions more representative of non-elite networks. The exclusion of the broader American public from the constituency of US foreign policy is not accidental, nor the result of well-documented apathy nor lack of information about world events. As in other domains of American politics, politically active Americans outside the foreign policy elite have foreign policy preferences. They have thoughts about the wisdom of two decades of war, about US assistance to foreign governments, and about the various forms of violence that the US military and intelligence services exact on foreign populations. And certainly, they have opinions about immigration and trade–issues that have direct implications for their communities, lives, and livelihoods. Understanding the political sources of progressive foreign policy preferences helps create expectations about the groups and networks that give progressives their power.
What are the intellectual and political sources of a progressive foreign policy? Most commentators interpret this question in terms of intellectual paradigms. For example, many of Bush’s foreign policy advisers drew their ideas from a particular strand of post-Cold War neoconservatism; by contrast, Obama’s moral realism brushed up against the more interventionist outlook of many of his senior advisers and cabinet secretaries. As an explanatory framework, however, foreign-policy paradigms have limited use. They might explain responses to “big” foreign policy questions like US-China relations or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they generally do not explain the regular practice of US foreign policy beyond these cases. A paradigmatic interpretation also assumes a linear relationship between ideology and action. In reality, the effects of ideas on individual and collective behavior are more diffuse.
Movements and networks are a more convincing intellectual and political source of the progressive foreign policy agenda than a particular foreign-policy agenda. Social-movement scholarship indicates that activist networks shape the course of individuals’ political lives. For example, Doug McAdam shows that black freedom activists that participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi were the social foundation of later progressive movements. Foreign policy processes operate in a similar way. People involved in the US policy response to the genocide in Darfur, for example, were some of the most prominent advocates for later policy reforms aimed at preventing mass atrocities. Or, to cite a more contemporary illustration: the freshman class of progressive Congresswomen are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights because they emerge from movements that are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights.
Three intersecting networks make up the intellectual and political core of contemporary progressive foreign policy. The first is the anti-war movement. An obvious through-line runs from the organizations and networks formed in the late years of the Vietnam War to the core principles and constituencies of the contemporary American left. The anti-imperial critique of American power; the concern for accountability and democracy in foreign policy decisionmaking: each of these became politically salient features of progressive politics during the heyday of the anti-war effort. The mass mobilization against the war in Iraq reignited that anti-war effort, but it never achieved a fraction of the earlier peace movement’s political influence. There are multiple plausible explanations for this difference: the growing concentration of war powers in an unaccountable executive; the insufficiency of Obama’s commitment to anti-militarism; and the political urgency of the global financial crisis that enveloped his first two years in office. To some extent, the current progressive movement can be understood as its anti-war antecedents’ greatest chance at a day in court, two decades later than scheduled.
The second political and intellectual pillar of progressive foreign policy is the environmental justice movement. The unfathomable consequences of worst-case climate scenarios, especially when placed alongside the lackluster incrementalism of global climate diplomacy, make it easy to lose sight of the long and growing legacy of American environmental activism. The environmental movement’s political visibility will only grow as the contradictions of the community of states’ Nero-like foot-dragging heighten. In intellectual terms, environmental activism has reinforced the burden of global stewardship as a central tenet of America’s role in the world. Logically, there is no domestic solution to global climate change; any adequate reduction in global carbon emissions will require unprecedented international cooperation. For the world’s largest economies, climate change represents an archetypal commitment problem: no one country wants to sacrifice its global economic advantage without assurances that its counterparts will do the same. In a foreign policy context, the much-heralded Green New Deal framework can be understood as an initial solution to the commitment obstacles to global climate cooperation. If the United States binds it’s growth to an environmentally sustainable economy, it stands a better chance of convincing reluctant first-movers–China, in particular–to do the same. For the American environmental movement, this credible commitment is a moral responsibility of the world’s largest economy.
The last–and perhaps most underrated–source of the progressive foreign policy movement is a network that we can broadly describe as “freedom movements.” The conventional realm of foreign policy ideas rarely takes seriously the policy preferences of the Black, Latinx, Native, and other movements that make up much of the activist core of the contemporary progressive left. The absence of these ideas from the foreign policy debate stands in stark contrast to these movements’ discursive influence on domestic issues like police brutality, criminal justice reform, immigration justice, and Native rights. This is not the result of provincial organizing, nor a lack of ideas about the US government’s role in the world. To the contrary, American social movements have always been transnational in scope, dating back to the early transatlantic suffragist network that won women the vote. A growing historical literature on race and foreign policy in the Cold War period, for example, points to a robust interaction between the consolidation of American power abroad and the Black freedom struggle at home, both in the construction of the postwar order and Black activists’ attempts to critique it. Influential American leaders in the immediate aftermath of World War II, many of them avowed segregationists, saw the postwar order as a buttress of white supremacy in the United States. As a consequence, Black leaders from the integrationist NAACP to the radical young activists of SNCC saw international politics as a logical extension of their domestic struggle. International students joined the leadership corps of activist organizations; national and local leaders built international solidarity networks through quasi-diplomatic visits to the Non-Aligned states. To reference these transnational networks is not to romanticize them: in many instances, these organizations’ transnationalist outlook has led activists to embrace regimes whose abuses were no better than the US government’s, and often far worse. But they were intentional strategies of contention, reflective of an expansive view of international order and the policies that the US government uses to shape it.
All this is not simply an exercise in historical trivia. In the same way that intellectual historians look to the ideological networks that underpin the US foreign policy consensus, the political rise of left foreign policy demands similar attention to its origins. These movements and networks help explain why foreign policy cleavages emerge where they do, and why some progressive priorities are difficult to reconcile with the status-quo consensus. And most importantly, they define the scope of the foreign policy coalition that progressives might hope to assemble once in power.