Desperately Seeking:

A Progressive Foreign Policy

“A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations…Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” April 16, 1953


In many ways, the modern progressive movement was founded on foreign policy. After nearly two decades in the wilderness during the era of the Democratic Leadership Council, liberals found their voice — and relevance — again in the early days of the Iraq War. Plucking Howard Dean’s candidacy from obscurity in 2004, progressives mounted their first serious assault in years on the conventional thought hegemony by challenging the neoconservative foreign policy vision. Many of today’s icons of the progressive movement — MoveOn, Democracy for America, Daily Kos — arguably originate from this fight. Today’s progressives were molded in the fire of foreign, not domestic, policy.

Oh, how far we have traveled.

Today, progressives have become at best, reactive, and at worst, absent, from serious, meaningful foreign policy debates. Part of this retrenchment is understandable given that with a Democrat in the White House, progressives are always going to be in the shadow of the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to articulating views on international events. But much of the blame for progressives’ retreat is due to simple rubber-necking. The debate within the Republican Party between the John McCain interventionists and the Rand Paul isolationists has come to pass as the beginning and end of foreign policy discussion outside of the Administration.

The dominance of the President, Senator McCain, and Senator Paul on foreign policy should trouble progressives. Why? To state the obvious, because none of these three camps adequately represents the views of most American progressives.

Of course, the neoconservative worldview is a non-starter — this philosophy of knee jerk military intervention was the original motivating force behind the modern progressive voice. Similarly, isolationism holds little attraction for us, as most progressives believe in America playing a positive role in the world. We simply believe that we should lean into the world with something other than the pointed edge of a sword.

And while many progressives agree with much of the vision outlined by President Obama in his May 2014 West Point speech, where he prioritized the use of our military for counterterrorism efforts and emphasized the need to strengthen rule of law and human rights in developing nations, we break with him on rather substantial questions like domestic surveillance, drone attacks, and most recently, military intervention in Syria.

Because the three corners of American foreign policy offer no safe refuge to progressives today, we need to square the triangle.

It’s time for progressives to outline a coherent, proactive foreign policy vision.

Frankly, it’s not hard to figure out what would be the organizing principles of this vision. A substantial transfer of financial resources from the military budget to buttress diplomacy and foreign aid so that our global anti-poverty budget, not our military budget, equals that of the other world powers combined. A new humility to our foreign policy, with less emphasis on short- term influencers like military intervention and aid, and more effort spent trying to address the root causes of conflict. An end to unchecked mass surveillance programs, at home and abroad, as part of a new recognition that we are safer as a nation when we aren’t so easily labeled as hypocrites for preaching and practicing vastly differently on human and civil rights. And a categorical rejection of torture, under any circumstances.

Recent events only underscore the urgent need for a strong progressive vision for America’s role in the world. We are entering well into the fourth month of unauthorized U.S. military actions in Iraq and Syria amidst calls from the new Republican Senate majority to send ground troops back to the Middle East. The Ebola epidemic, still far from over, demonstrated how feeble public institutions and weak governance in far off places can pose a direct threat to the United States and our allies. And fragile negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions come under threat from good-intentioned but misguided efforts to pass new sanctions legislation through Congress.

These issues cry out for a coherent progressive response. But where we end up isn’t as important as committing to the journey. In the coming months, progressives need to commit ourselves to a process that articulates this new set of ideas. The world is a mess, and while there is no simple pill America can administer to fix things, what we know is that there is significant room for progressives to articulate a foreign policy vision that is truly our own.

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