Reviving Progressive Foreign Policy

A blueprint for the next Democratic president.

Anyone following this year’s presidential campaign would likely conclude that the twin hallmarks of a progressive foreign policy are withdrawal and disengagement, that American power is not capable of playing a productive role in the world, and that the international economy is a malevolent entity from which we need protection. These claims are exactly wrong—and they are not progressive.

In the 1920s and into the 1930s, withdrawal and disengagement were as American as apple pie, broadly held sentiments that turned out to be catastrophically wrong. Protectionism could not save us from the Great Depression—it only made that disaster worse. Isolationism did not make us safe; it allowed mortal dangers to rise unchecked and ultimately threaten our country and our way of life.

It was Democrats, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (initially over the bitter opposition of still instinctively insular Republicans) who championed the engaged, U.S.-led, liberal international order—a set of arrangements, understandings and policy dispositions that, despite real blemishes, was associated with an era of unprecedented international political stability and economic growth.

The logic and wisdom that led progressives to recognize the essential necessity for American global engagement is even more compelling today than it was after the Second World War. Back then, the United States benefited (both economically and politically) from encouraging an open, expanding international economy, but the American economy was enormous, and that part of it engaged in international commerce relatively small. Similarly, back then, the world was a much bigger place, and it was less likely that political turmoil in distant frontiers might threaten a nation bounded by two oceans and weak neighbors. Today, we live with globalization, a tide that cannot simply be swept back. The American economy is a relatively smaller part of, and deeply enmeshed in, the global economy. These stubborn facts mean that the hand-waving resort to protectionism and blaming foreigners for our problems will backfire, causing economic distress—and will not, and cannot, “save” American jobs. Global market forces beyond the reach of American control, along with technological changes that cannot simply be renounced (the internet is not going away), have undercut the position of the American working class. As Bruce Springsteen explained in 1984 (ten years before the vilified North American Free Trade Agreement), “foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” The answer to our problems will not be found in the easy, magic-wand solutions of blaming foreigners.

In much the same way, the abdication of American power abroad would certainly lead to fewer obvious blunders—but it would make us less safe. Our long-standing military alliances and warm relations with countries in Europe and Asia have long provided a foundation for political stability and economic prosperity, to our enormous benefit. If America walks away from its commitments (or is seen as unwilling to fulfill them), that political stability could be up for grabs. More pointedly, international politics abhors a vacuum even more than nature does, and other countries and political actors, many of whom wish us ill, will swiftly look to replace American power as it retreats. It would not take long for the fruits of such isolationism—a more hostile, more dangerous world—to mature, to our dismay and distress.

As Hillary Clinton prepares to accept the Democratic nomination for president, the Democratic Party stands at a foreign policy crossroads. Turning inward and building walls (figuratively or literally) is a recipe for disaster, and it is not the disposition of real liberalism. Rather, it is time for progressives to rearticulate a forward-looking foreign policy that includes promoting civil liberties and tolerance, the protection of human rights and the need to ensure economic opportunity, and that recognizes that American power and influence (and things like trade agreements with other countries) can serve as means to these ends rather than taboo topics to be avoided. Candidate Clinton has laid out the basis for a progressive foreign policy that supports engagement, but she has yet to take a bold stand behind global economic engagement, which remains vital to peace and prosperity.

A reinvigoration of progressive foreign policy will require real soul searching within the Democratic Party. In practice, liberal internationalism has failed on two fronts, military and economic—failures rooted in hubris and elitism. With regard to the former, assertive American internationalists have now twice (in Vietnam and Iraq), at great and tragic cost, overestimated the extent to which the United States could deploy its enormous military superiority to impose its political will on others. But there is a yawning gap between delivering awesome military might and achieving one’s political goals, a lesson liberals should have been more prompt to understand. And so chastened liberals ought to be sent to the blackboard alongside Bart Simpson, and forced to write endlessly: “force must serve politics.”