What Vox Gets Right and Wrong About Democrats and Foreign Policy

A recent Vox.com article entitled “Why Democrats have no foreign policy ideas” was shared on social media by many people who don’t normally share Vox articles, let alone articles by author Zack Beauchamp, most famous for thinking that there was a bridge between the West Bank and Gaza and for implying that democrats should give up on fighting racism or poverty.

Beauchamp’s recent article on the democrats and foreign policy was better than many of his previous articles, and hints at a positive future for left-wing foreign policy. It also demonstrates a limited worldview in a way that is educational.

The reason, according to the article, that democrats have no foreign policy ideas, is that it is difficult to get donors to care about foreign policy, except for when they are animated by an opposition leader, like George W. Bush, who has particularly unpopular foreign policy. The donors fund the think tanks that write policy, and since the donors care a lot more about domestic social justice issues, the progressive think tanks/policy shops don’t end up writing much foreign policy.

The article gives a very good summary of the policy-shop-to-law pipeline in a way that people who always read about current events take for granted. Many journalists, activists, and intellectually curious dilettantes already know that most of our government’s policies, for better and worse, are written by people who write policies for a living, and not by any elected officials. But this is an important point that is often lost on the majority of readers, and it is very good that Beauchamp explains it so clearly.

Beauchamp spoke to Dan Nexon and Heather Hurlburt, two under-recognized progressive foreign policy experts. To his credit, he lets them talk about how little infrastructure there is for them to get their ideas out there, versus how much infrastructure there is to maintain the foreign policy status quo.

Beauchamp comes up with a productive conclusion: that, essentially, we need more left-wing foreign policy coming out of the policy shops. But his explanation for why things aren’t already that way falls short. The answer he gives is actually more nuanced and confusing than the real answer, which is a bit simpler.

Beauchamp’s explanation for why there is a void in left-wing foreign policy comes down to: liberals care so much about domestic progress that they don’t care about foreign policy.

Tellingly, when Beauchamp cites an example of a left-wing foreign policy achievement, he cites the Iran Deal, but when he cites an example of a left-wing donor who is interested in foreign policy, he cites democrat super-donor Haim Saban, who opposes the Iran Deal. Beauchamp also notes that donors seemed to care about foreign policy during the Bush era, but seemed to lose interest after Bush was gone. But Beauchamp doesn’t totally connect the dots he does such a good job of laying out, and he doesn’t take us to the inescapable conclusion: that progressive donors themselves aren’t very progressive.

At another point Beauchamp talks about the Center for American Progress(CAP), where he discloses that he used to work. He also mentions that a lot of American policy exists on a spectrum from the center to the right. Again, he gives us two dots but doesn’t connect them and reveal that CAP, too, exists on that establishment center-right axis.

I’ve found that when I tell people that the Center for American Progress exists, they presume that a policy shop with a name like that would advocate for more progressive policies than they actually do. People imagine, from its name, that CAP would advocate for a public health insurance system like in Canada, or perhaps even for heavy insurance regulation, such as in Germany or Switzerland, that technically keeps private insurers intact but hinders their ability to make the kinds of profits that they would make in the USA.

But instead CAP’s desired healthcare system consists of reimbursements and subsidees to incentivize private insurance companies to deny healthcare to a less people. It is not designed to help people as much as possible. It is designed to help people as little as possible. It is not designed to fix the problem of Americans depending, for their healthcare, on decisions from companies whose business model is denying people healthcare. It is designed to preserve as much of that problem as possible. This is a centrist policy, which is very different from a progressive one.

It is not only foreign policy that, in America, exists on a spectrum from the center to the right. It is perhaps a more glaring problem in regard to foreign policy, but it is American policy in general.

The reason that so many liberals are able to, for example, believe that healthcare should be as cheap as possible and also believe in funding Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen isn’t because they are progressive when it comes to domestic policy but conservative or unimaginative when it comes to foreign policy. It is because their commitments to progressive ideas are loose in general and, deep down, they are not sure what they believe.

If you fundamentally believe that, in a world of extreme economic inequality, wealth should be redistributed, progressive ideas flow easily. And not just progressive ideas about domestic policy — progressive ideas about foreign policy, too. If you believe that Americans shouldn’t die from easily preventable deaths, you’re going to believe that foreigners also shouldn’t die from easily preventable deaths.

But if you believe that Americans killing themselves to avoid medical debt is a tragic but necessary evil because it preserves the wealth of insurance companies, you’re also going to have an easy time convincing yourself that the victims of American foreign policy all needed to die, and nothing could have been done differently. And that when the survivors of America’s foreign policy arrive at our borders, you may find yourself believing that we just don’t have room for them and they should be sent back.

A think tank that fundamentally has a progressive viewpoint will have a hard time attracting the type of donors that a nominally progressive but ultimately centrist think tank like CAP does. If a think tank does accomplish what Beauchamp hopes for, it will most likely be a think tank like the months-old People’s Policy Project, which is thriving on donations as small as $1 a month. The PPP has not yet published a paper on foreign policy. But unlike many other think tanks, its fundamental worldview is solidly progressive, which means its foreign policy will follow suit.

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