The Buzz

Progressive Grand Strategy

Can America develop a grand strategy that’s above ideology? According to Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan, maybe not. In a symposium on “America and the World” from the current issue of Democracy, Kupchan argues for a "progressive grand strategy."

After the collapse of the bipartisan Cold War consensus, Kupchan says, only Democrats are well equipped to lead on foreign affairs. Republicans are in two camps: isolationist Tea Partiers and neoconservatives, with the latter now discredited in the wake of Iraq. Watching the recent primary campaign suggests that Kupchan is correct; besides ineffective attempts by Jon Huntsman, Republicans have offered no foreign policy outside these two extremes.

But for a progressive, Kupchan is remarkably unimaginative about the future of American politics. What if the Democratic Party someday also evinces more isolationist sentiment? Might conservatives eventually reconcile their split personality on international affairs? They could even look to a realist grand strategy, accepting limited interventions while avoiding the neocon overextensions. And wouldn't progressives benefit from a genuine sparring partner, a school of engagement more compatible with political conservatism?

The obvious template for a "conservative grand strategy” is realism. Kupchan co-opts realism's central theme, formulating "a progressive combination of power and partnership to safeguard the national interest while improving the world." But can a holy tandem of enlightened progress and national interest coexist in a grand strategy that easily? Progressives who cannot separate their domestic policy preferences from a clear-headed analysis of the national interest risk depleting the country's resources—the very thing for which Kupchan excoriates neoconservatives.

Kupchan’s invocation of Atlanticism might provide common ground with conservatives, who often see the health of European cousins as a central U.S. interest. But Kupchan's transatlantic solidarity is only accessible to progressives, who are the "natural political allies of Europeans and would therefore provide the Atlantic community a much firmer foundation of affinity and interest." So much for appealing to the common heritage of Western civilization—it's already on the ash heap.

Kupchan is right that conservatives are currently schizophrenic on foreign policy, but his narrow, partisan vision for grand strategy is flawed.

Charles Kupchan replies:

I mean no disrespect to the editors of The National Interest in suggesting that they certainly appear to struggle mightily to muster a critique of the progressive grand strategy that I recently laid out in Democracy.  And I would venture a guess that they seem to struggle because they probably could not find a great deal to disagree with.  Whether they would admit it or not, liberal realists on the center-left (myself included) and traditional realists on the center-right share a great deal of common ground when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, a coalition of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans provided a critical foundation for U.S. foreign policy throughout the long decades of the Cold War.  That coalition is today under threat – and more from the Republicans than from the Democrats.  As the editors of the TNI seem to accept, Republicans have offered no foreign policy outside the extremes of Tea Party isolationism and neoconservatism.  The ideological complexion of the Democratic Party has changed as well.  But the Democrats are still home to at least a remnant of the centrist wing that favors a realist blend of power and partnership to advance the nation’s interests.

One of the main complaints of the editors of TNI is that “Kupchan co-opts realism's central theme.”  Guilty as charged.  My view of the world is heavily colored by realism.  But rather than protest that a progressive writes things with which they fundamentally agree, why don’t they state their concurrence – or perhaps even trumpet it?  At a time in American history when the nation is polarized to the point of paralysis, Democrats and Republicans should be zealously pocketing areas of common ground.  That is especially true on foreign policy; centrists from both sides of the aisle need to lock arms to make sure that the national interest prevails against those who lead the nation toward unsustainable excess as well as those who counsel dangerous retreat. 

—Charles A. Kupchan