The Duck of Minerva

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First Principles and the Truman National Security Project

June 18, 2005

Dan posted a while back on the debate over at Democracy Arsenal by members of the Truman National Security Project on what a progressive national security platform would/should look like. He provided a summary-to-date of the discussion, which I shamelessly pilfered for this post:

Michael Singer started by posting a series of common principles that he felt had emerged from the Truman National Security Project’s annual meeting. At America Abroad, Ivo Daalder took issue with Singer’s description of American exceptionalism. Suzanne Nossel also responded to Singer’s post, taking issue with each of the three principles that Singer identified as being common to both “Truman Democrats” and neoconservatives. Singer modified, but also reaffirmed, those three principles.

While I agree with much of the project I believe it has a way to go. First, there needs to be a separation between the first principles of a national security policy and the marketing of that policy. Second, I believe there is an overblown concern about Democrats and the use of qualification and nuance when discussing policy, especially when it comes to the use of force. Finally, Signer’s latest argument regarding hegemony and coercion seems to play against the group’s true “center of gravity”, that being their vision and appreciation for America as a ‘persuasive leader’, one that is ‘centered in the global community’.
The first three principles espoused by Signer were:

1) American exceptionalism: Like the neoconservatives, we believe that America is the greatest country the world has known. We are historically, morally, and intellectually unique. Unlike the necons, however, we believe we must constantly earn our exceptionalism through our moral conduct. Our uniqueness stems from our values, and so we bear a unique responsibility for living up to those values in shaping and influencing the world.

2) The use of force: Like the neocons, we’re comfortable with the use of force for morally good ends. Unlike the neocons, as a general matter, we believe force shouldn’t be the default choice for achieving our ends. We’re neither reflexive doves nor pacifists; rather, we’re pragmatists on the use of force.

3) American hegemony: Like the neocons, we want America to retain its supremacy as the military, political, and economic leader of the world in order that we can maintain our own security, help strengthen the world’s safety and stability, and accomplish morally right goals. We are and should be a unipolar power. Unlike the neocons, however, we believe we must constantly earn and affirm the right to exercise that power.

In Signer’s most recent post, “The Passions of the Left?”, he takes issue with Suzanne Nossel’s qualifications of each of the three principles. His response left me with a few questions and concerns regarding this project, which I discuss in turn below.

First, Signer weighs in on the notion of American exceptionalism:

American exceptionalism: Do we really believe that America is unique, historically graced, and responsible for the world’s greatest ideas? (When Suzanne writes, “We recognize that by claiming exceptionalism, we risk undercutting values and norms whose broad acceptance would advance U.S. national interests,” I fear this is an exception that swallows the rule.)

The first question we must ask about American exceptionalism is whether it is a concept a) that is necessary as a grounding principle of center-left foreign policy and b) whether laying out first principles necessitates that we included how to sell the policy to the public (which is where I see the notion of exceptionalism fitting in, not that it makes it a bad thing).

The notion that one’s country is exceptional is hardly unique to the United States. One can quickly peruse the globe and find signs of feelings of exceptionalism in the rhetoric, symbols, culture, and national myths of just about any state. And while exceptionalism may serve as a useful focal point for collective action (e.g. appealing to exceptionalism in order to recruit the support of the public behind a massive political undertaking such as building and maintaining a global empire in the case of the British, enlarging a states global commitments militarily, financially, and politically in the case of the US, etc.) I am not sure what difference it makes as a guiding principle for foreign policy. Exceptionalism seems like more of a rhetorical justification for some bundle of policies rather than a grounding principle. The question we need to ask is whether a belief in American exceptionalism is required for many of the policies that follow (i.e. whether being comfortable with the use of force and maintaining hegemony require first that we believe in vague notions of American exceptionalism). If these policies would still be possible without a strong belief in exceptionalism (by policymakers, not the public) then I fail to see why it must be a cornerstone of a progressive foreign policy.

Suzanne’s point is a valuable one because it forces us to examine whether the benefits of adopting this principle are worth the potential costs. If the costs outweigh the benefits then again, this principle is more trouble than it is worth. For domestic political purposes is might be necessary, but as a founding principle of a coherent policy it is more likely superfluous and potentially thorny vis-à-vis allies and ‘undecided’ around the globe. This also relates to the 3rd point about American Hegemony, which I will discuss below.

Finally, the notion that we must believe that America is “responsible for the world’s greatest ideas” also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The greatest ideas in the world have had many roots—for sure, some emigrated from America to other parts of the world but the flow of ideas has been reciprocal. It is impossible to argue that the greatest ideas can be solely credited to Americans since most thinkers from the US who we would credit with such ideas borrowed heavily from thinkers outside of the US. The works of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Madison (to name a few) were all heavily influenced by thinkers from Spain, France, Great Britain, and Greece to name just a few locations. This is not say that American thinkers essentially produced “old wine in new bottles”, but surely we can identify a lineage of democratic/liberal thought which made possible the contributions of American thinkers. From this perspective, to say that America is responsible for the world’s greatest ideas comes off more as hubris than national pride.

Next, Signer returned to the question of the use of force:

The use of force: Are we truly comfortable with the fundamental proposition that
great ideas are worth dying for, and that great injustices are worth suffering
and pain to rebuke? (I think Suzanne’s nuances here probably improve on my post — she writes, “We are hard-headed about what force can and cannot accomplish, and we’re committed to ensuring that force is used wisely in combination with other forms of power.” — but I still am concerned about what “wise use” ultimately means.)

I am not sure about the nature of Michael’s discomfort regarding the Suzzane’s phrase “force is used wisely”. It seems pretty straightforward—progressives understand the nature of military force (which is only one form of coercion), what it can accomplish and what it cannot, as well as how plans to use force must be executed in order to ensure that goals are met through its use. I do not see how this can be construed as some type of equivocation or ‘nuance’. In fact, if we want to contrast ourselves against the current administration, the Bush team has always maintained—both in rhetoric and practice I would argue—that using force is not enough. It is how you use force, under what conditions, for what goals, etc. The biggest critique of Clinton’s use of force during the first campaign was not that he didn’t use force but that it wasn’t used wisely (i.e. he didn’t use our military in situations that were clearly in our national interest—the whole “we don’t do national building” theme).

Should progressives be afraid to use force? No. Should progressives retreat from honest and frank discussions of what the wise or proper use of military force is and when other types of power and coercion should be utilized? Absolutely not. Again, I think this comes down to mixing principles and the marketing of those principles.

Finally, the issue of hegemony:

American hegemony: Do we truly believe that America is great and good enough to be in a single leadership position over the world? Especially when China — which would surely manage the world in a much different (and worse) fashion than us, looms? (Suzanne writes, “But we don’t think even a hegemon (even one that has “earned” its status) can rule by fiat.” But I believe this drains the concept of hegemony of its core value. In many cases, the ability and threat of fiat is what starts and pulls along cooperation, right?)

While Michael is correct in that many times “the ability and threat to rule by fiat is what starts and pulls cooperation” along, it isn’t what maintains it—at least, it isn’t what has made the current liberal world order as resilient and effective as it has been. Certainly there have been international orders based heavily (if not solely) on sheer power and coercion, but their record of success seems less than ideal. One could argue that the Soviet Union attempted to build its own, separate international order during the Cold War. What the Soviets lacked to a large degree, I would argue, was leadership vs. coercion. Peoples and states cooperated with the Soviets over the long haul not because they necessarily consented to Soviet leadership, but because the Soviets utilized both direct and indirect coercion against them. In contrast, the US liberal order was maintained and more effective (save the occasional French defection) precisely because the US fostered a sense of partnership and leadership. Hegemony (or, successful hegemony) isn’t simply a matter of relative material power, but rather a matter of leadership—without leadership hegemony quickly deteriorates into a game of counter-balancing by other powers which works against US interests. Leadership requires that a first among equals wields power with tact and responsibility.

This does not mean that the US must “allow a global consensus to determine its policies”. Rather, it requires that the US shape and inform a global consensus. In his first post on the subject, Signer himself notes that (post link) “these six principles combine into the single center of gravity for Truman Democrats: we believe in leadership, in inspiring the world community to follow us through our generosity, our values, and our accomplishments.” I agree with Signer, but he seems to have either forgotten his own position on leadership or failed to square with his view on hegemony. The idea that the preponderance of US power should not be treated as a ticket to run roughshod over the concerns of allies and other world powers

Signer ends his post by noting that “We’ve got to have conviction on these three ideas. The exceptions can’t swallow the rules. Then we can get down to details and nuances, and to specifics on hard cases. But we need to work on the big ideas first.” I couldn’t agree more. And it is a consensus about the big ideas/principles that needs to be reached before worrying about how to market these ideas. Conflating the two makes this task more difficult. In any case I am excited that there are a group of thinkers discussing and debating this topic. It is sorely needed.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.