The Emergence of Progressive Foreign Policy


Since the end of the Cold War, two camps can claim victory on most U.S. foreign policy outcomes: neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. The neoconservatives have been defined by their support for unilateral military interventions, democracy promotion, and military supremacy. The liberal internationalists have focused on global economic liberalization, multilateral humanitarian interventions, and the promotion of human rights abroad. Both camps gained confidence from the supposed “end of history” and America’s “unipolar moment.” And both camps have undergone a serious reckoning after the Afghanistan, Iraq, and forever wars, as well as the global financial crisis calling into question neoliberal economic policies — namely, deregulation, liberalization, privatization, and austerity. Prominent foreign policy advocates have quite publicly engaged in soul-searching as they confronted these changes, and debates about the future of foreign policy abound.

The emergence of a distinctively progressive approach to foreign policy is perhaps the most interesting — and most misunderstood — development in these debates. In speeches and articles, politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders have outlined an approach to foreign policy that does not fall along the traditional fault-lines of realist versus idealist or neoconservative versus liberal internationalist (disclosure: I have been a longtime advisor to Sen. Warren). Their speeches come alongside an increasing number of articles exploring the contours of a progressive foreign policy. Even those who might not consider themselves progressive are sounding similar themes.

From this body of work, it is now possible to sketch out the framework of a distinctively progressive approach to foreign policy. While its advocates, like those in other foreign policy camps, discuss a wide range of issues — from climate change to reforming international institutions — at the moment, five themes mark this emerging approach as a specific framework for foreign policy.

First, progressive foreign policy breaks the silos between domestic and foreign policy and between international economic policy and foreign policy. It places far greater emphasis on how foreign policy impacts the United States at home — and particularly on how foreign policy (including international economic policy) has impacted the domestic economy. To be sure, there have always been analysts and commentators who recognized these interrelationships. But progressive foreign policy places this at the center of its analysis rather than seeing it as peripheral. The new progressive foreign policy takes the substance of both domestic and international economic policies seriously, and its adherents will not support economic policies on foreign policy grounds if they exacerbate economic inequality at home. For example, the argument that trade deals must be ratified on national security grounds even though they have problematic distributional consequences does not carry much weight for progressives who believe that an equitable domestic economy is the foundation of national power.

Second, progressive foreign policy holds that one of the important threats to American democracy at home is nationalist oligarchy (or, alternatively, authoritarian capitalism) abroad. Countries like Russia and China are not simply authoritarian governments, and neither can their resurgence and assertion of power be interpreted as merely great power competition. The reason is that their economic systems integrate economic and political power. Crony/state capitalism is not a bug, it is the central feature. In a global society, economic interrelationships weaponize economic power into political power. China, for example, already uses its economic power as leverage in political disputes with other Asian countries. Its growing share of global GDP is one of the most consequential facts of the 21st century. As a result of these dynamics, progressives are also highly skeptical of a foreign policy based on the premise that the countries of the world will all become neoliberal democracies. Instead, they take seriously the risks that come from economic integration with nationalist oligarchies.

Third, the new progressive foreign policy values America’s alliances and international agreements, but not because it thinks that such alliances and rules can convert nationalist oligarchies into liberal democracies. Rather, alliances should be based on common values or common goals, and, going forward, they will be critical to balancing and countering the challenges from nationalist oligarchies. Progressives are thus far more skeptical of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia and far more interested in reinforcing and deepening ties with allies like Japan — and are concerned about the erosion of alliances like NATO from within.



Fourth, the new progressive foreign policy is highly skeptical of military interventions, and opposed to democracy promotion by force. This does not mean that progressives are unwilling or would be unable to use force when it is necessary. But after 17 years of war in the Middle East, they do not share the aggressive posture that has characterized the post-Cold War era. Some are skeptical because they think interventions cannot succeed. Others emphasize the potential for backlash and making the situation worse. Still others hold that stable, sustainable democracy cannot be imposed from abroad but must emerge organically.

Fifth, the new progressive foreign policy seeks to reshape the military budget by both cutting the budget overall and reallocating military spending. This should not be surprising. The skepticism of intervention suggests military budgets do not need to be as big as they have been in an era when the goal was to be able to fight two regional wars simultaneously. The centrality of economics to a progressive foreign policy further explains this position; military spending should partly be reallocated to cyber and other technologies that are deeply integrated with the economy and likely to be crucial in future conflicts.

Some critics of progressive foreign policy disagree with one or more of these points, but others have misunderstood the basic tenets of this emergent movement. The critics have gone wrong in three primary ways.

Some commentators have suggested that the new progressive foreign policy stands in contrast to American exceptionalism and American leadership around the world. This is not correct. Progressive foreign policy and American leadership in the world are not zero-sum; they are not even in conflict. Debates over whether or not America should take a leadership role in the world say little about the direction in which America should lead. Many writers and advocates of the new progressive foreign policy are simply not engaging in debates about rhetoric like “American exceptionalism” or “the indispensable nation.” They are instead starting to offer a substantive set of arguments for where America should focus and what America should do as a leader in the world. Action along progressive lines — making a more equitable international economic system, confronting nationalist oligarchy and crony capitalism — will obviously require American leadership. Progressive foreign policy advocates are showing the direction in which they will lead instead of spending time talking about decades-old buzzwords.

Others have pointed out that progressive foreign policy is similar to neoconservatism because it offers pointed rhetoric in the language of democracy. This is a puzzling concern. There is a difference between defending democracy in the United States and among close allies in Western Europe and promoting democracy anywhere, everywhere, and by force. Even if many people who talked about democracy and values over the last generation were quick to suggest military interventions abroad, that does not mean that talking in those terms requires democracy-promotion by force. The new progressive foreign policy is generally opposed to military interventions, particularly for democracy-promotion purposes, but it will also defend democracy at home without apology and work to defend democratic allies from turning into nationalist oligarchies. There is no inconsistency in wanting to defend existing democracies while not promoting new democracies by military force. In fact, there is a good argument that stable, sustainable democracy requires a people to win their democratic freedom themselves.

A related critique is that this approach will require increased military budgets and could lead to war. But the new progressive foreign policy wants to reduce defense budgets and reallocate defense spending toward cyber and innovative technologies that might pose a threat to the United States in the future. The argument about advocating for or needing a military buildup is simply incorrect. Part of the confusion here may be about the nature of the threat. Most foreign policy conversations are not about economic trends or policy, so it is understandable that some take the traditional, narrower aperture and see the language of threats as inexorably implying military action. But progressive foreign policy is premised on breaking down the silos between economics and foreign and national security policy. When progressives use hawkish language, they are doing so with respect to economic challenges, not with an eye toward military buildups and war.

American foreign policy is once again at a crossroads, and over the next two years, progressives have an opportunity to develop this emerging approach to foreign policy in more detail. Doing so will be critical not just to move the debate beyond tired, old binaries like neoconservative and liberal internationalist, but also to shape a foreign policy that actually grapples with the challenges of our time.



Ganesh Sitaraman is chancellor’s faculty fellow, professor of law, and director of the Program on Law and Government at Vanderbilt University Law School. He is the author of The Crisis of The Middle-Class Constitution, one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2017, and The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution: Law in the Age of Small Wars, which won the 2013 Palmer Prize for Civil Liberties.


Image: Michelle Friswell