Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) isn’t waiting for the president to end endless wars. He wants Congress to do it first. The progressive congressman has helped to spearhead an effort to write a new progressive foreign policy since the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives two years ago.
Khanna led a bipartisan effort alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) in 2019 to pass a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. President Donald Trump vetoed the resolution, but it was the first time in history that a war powers resolution ever made it to the president’s desk. Sanders, his close ally, is currently the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. And Khanna is now at the forefront of an effort to block a war with Iran—with increasing support from both houses of Congress.
The young northern California congressman is clearly just getting started. The National Interest sat down with him to find out what a progressive national security agenda might look like after 2020. Below is a lightly-edited transcript of the conversation.
Good afternoon. Thanks for your time today.
You’re part of a coalition in Washington that’s advocating for a more restrained foreign policy. It spans the aisle and it runs the gamut from people who might call themselves hardcore realists to people who might be considered hardcore idealists. Where would you place yourself on this? How would you characterize the underpinnings of your foreign policy philosophy?
I would call myself a progressive idealist. I believe in a world where multicultural, multiracial democracies will cooperate to tackle climate change, to fight disease, to expand educational and economic opportunity, to provide more people with basic water and nutrition. I am skeptical of the projection of military force to reshape societies. I believe that war needs to be a last resort if force needs to be used to protect us against attack, but that we need to be far broader in the use of our diplomacy and our economic aid and our cultural influences to shape a better world.
In a similar vein, you’ve talked about the need to compete with China on things like tech, green energy, infrastructure—to beat them at the game of making everyone's life better.
That’s a good way of framing it.
But do you think that there’s also anywhere where we need to engage in zero-sum competition? Things like trade secrets or the balance of military power—
Sure! We need to make sure that China stops stealing intellectual property. There’s no doubt in my mind, for example, that Huawei took Cisco’s technology, and that’s probably what allowed it to gain the competitive advantage it has. There’s no doubt in my mind that there needs to be greater restriction and enforcement about intellectual property rights and against intellectual property theft.
I believe that we need to have the freedom of the seas and have to have a military presence in the Indian Ocean and around South China to make sure that the navigation there is free and that you don’t have expansionist powers—that China doesn’t take over the Vietnamese islands.
So, absolutely there has to be a role for a strong enforcement of intellectual property and a presence of our military.
Iran is facing what looks to be a very serious coronavirus outbreak at the moment. We don’t know how serious it is, partly because of their own government’s lack of transparency and lack of trust, but this is partly because U.S. sanctions have devastated their healthcare system.
Yesterday, the Iranian medical importers’ association complained that U.S. financial sanctions are blocking them from actually bringing in coronavirus test kits. And this is despite the humanitarian channel that was opened about a month ago by the Trump administration. Do you think the Treasury and the State Department should do more to help or stop hindering Iran’s coronavirus response, and if so, is there a way Congress can help push for this?
We should look at how we can help Iran in the humanitarian efforts of stopping the coronavirus. That is a humanitarian cause that transcends any division. If we are capable of helping Iran stop the virus, then that affects countries around the world, including eventually the United States. This should be an area where the administration looks at what we can do in cooperation with other countries around the world to aid Iran in fighting disease.
Iran is probably, apart from coronavirus, one of the largest crises a post-Trump administration would face.
Everyone on the Democratic field has talked about going back to the nuclear deal, but there is a risk that there may be irreversible steps, whether steps towards military conflict or Iran building up its nuclear program. What would you say should be the “first hundred days” plan for rolling back the damage that’s been done?
We would immediately end the maximum pressure campaign. We would say that we want to return to the [2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action] and work with our allies to do that. We would make it clear that we don’t have an interest in regime change, but that we ultimately do want to see greater human rights recognition in Iran, and Iran negotiating to be part of a negotiated peace in Yemen, and Iran working on a negotiated peace with Israel and other regional allies.
It’s interesting that you bring up Yemen in Saudi Arabia. You’ve been part of a push to rethink America’s problematic alliances. Saudi Arabia’s been the big test case.
Another alliance in the Middle East that’s been getting a lot of flak is Turkey. Even hawks now are pushing back hard against Turkey’s actions in Syria. But there hasn’t been much of a discussion of the role that U.S. military aid has played in Turkey’s internal conflict with Kurdish and left-wing dissidents for forty years. Do you think that a progressive foreign policy should include a push for Turkey and other recipients of U.S. aid to deal with their internal human rights abuses?
Yes! I think human rights has to be at the top of our human rights agenda as a progressive foreign policy. When we talk to Erdoğan, we should talk about, “what are they doing to recognize the rights of Kurds?” When we talk to China, we need to talk about, “What are they doing to recognize the rights of Uyghurs?” When we talk to India, we need to make sure, “what are they doing to remain a pluralistic democracy?” and the rights of Muslim Indians.
Here at home, we need to make sure we are being as multiracial, as multicultural a democracy as possible. Human rights would return to the progressive agenda in a way they haven't since Jimmy Carter.
Would you push for Turkey to sit down at the table with the Kurdish insurgent groups?
I think dialogue certainly helps. They should. I understand that we would not necessarily be wanting to dictate to Turkey in terms of recognizing secession, but they should figure out a way for incorporating the Kurds’ grievances—addressing the Kurds’ grievances and incorporating the Kurdish people into the country of Turkey in a way that recognizes their rights.
You also brought up India. This is the world’s largest democracy, and while the U.S. president is visiting, there are major anti-Muslim pogroms across New Delhi. What should a progressive foreign policy look like in terms of that country?
We have to recognize that India is a strategic ally, of course, on issues of national security, on issues of trade, on issues of being a democracy. But what we ought to say to India that the India that has captured the imagination of the world, and the world respects, is the India of 1947, an India shaped by Gandhi and Nehru. It’s not the India of the eleventh century. Any effort to undermine India’s conception as a pluralistic democracy and go back to the medieval ages will not be in India’s interest.
Moving to our own backyard, Americans think of the so-called “migrant caravan” as a domestic immigration issue. But it’s very much tied to foreign policy. We’ve had a hand in many of the failing states that created refugees . . . Do you think there’s a positive role the U.S. can play in Latin America in making these countries safe—
—beyond humanitarian aid and development aid?
First, we have to recognize our complicated history with the Northern Triangle. We were, with the United Fruit Company, involved in destabilizing Guatemala. We have supported right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras. We have to have some sense of accountability for the instability in that part of the world.
I would look at what U.S. aid was doing successfully under the Obama administration. We were aiding these countries in fighting gang violence, and my understanding was that studies show that gang violence had reduced fifty percent. We were aiding these countries in economic development so that people have economic opportunity there. So we ought to be continuing constructive engagement in these countries so that people don’t feel the need to flee.