The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Progressive Foreign Policy

June 15, 2005

At some point I intend to write a long post making substantive contributions to the interesting discussions of center-left foreign-policy principles that have been developing on places like America Abroad and Democracy Arsenal. I think the public debate that’s emerging really goes to show how the benefits of having an increasing number of international-relations experts blogging.

That being said, the discussion over at Democracy Arsenal involves rather different visions of what center-left foreign-policy coalitions, such as the Truman National Security Project, should be about.

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:

But I think that in the case of thinking about the left and national security together, nuance is actually the last thing we need. We need to start with bold propositions and strong passions, and work our way down to the details, not vice versa…. I ask whether we have what it takes. What we learned in the 2004 election — to our shock and chagrin — was we won’t win over the country just with better policies and positions, with superior statistics and by the President’s self-delusion and self-destruction, and with more charismatic or experienced candidates.

We will win it because the public trusts our conviction.

Next, Heather Hurlburt weighed in:

If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time.

I have some problems with Michael’s principles, though not with his passion for them. But more importantly, I think this particular lens is pointing us down the wrong road. This lens is built directly around the Republican worldview that has dominated US politics since shortly after 9-11.

The fundamental problem with this lens is that it is last year’s lens, last election’s lens, or even a just-before-the-Iraq-war lens. It suggests that our problems are primarily military and confrontational in nature and can be solved with the tools of military confrontation first and foremost, if we have the guts to use them.

That’s not the worldview that is going to allow Democrats to break through in White House, Congress and statehouse races. To do that, we need a set of principles that focus on the next set of problems AND a way of presenting them that convinces Americans that progressives see the world the way it is and conservatives don’t. Otherwise, we’ve ceded the field of reality to conservatives — a big mistake.

Progressive chest-thumping on exceptionalism, militarism and hegemonism is never going to be as impressive as full-throated conservative chest-thumping on those themes. And with all due respect, saying that progressives want to help people and conservatives don’t is a real loser. Who doubled US assistance to Africa? (W.) Who broke the stigma around assistance to AIDS patients in Africa? (evangelicals).

As I suggested at the outset, there are three different visions implicit in this debate. The Truman Democrats don’t have to agree with one another, but they ought to recognize that these visions have very distinctive ramifications.

1. The “Credibility Gap” Argument. The problem for Democrats is that they have lost their national security credentials. The party that devised containment, fought the Cold War in the 1960s, and engaged in two humanitarian interventions in the 1990s is now perceived as soft on defense and incapable of fighting the “war on terror.” The goal of the Truman National Security project is to provide arguments and ammunition to eliminate that lack of credibility. This can be accomplished by developing a consistent set of principles associated with “hawkish liberal internationalism.” These principles are not very different, at least in many key respects, from neoconservativism [which should come as no surprise, since neconservativism is an extreme derivative of hawkish liberal internationalism]. However, what the center-left needs to do is convince the electorate that Democrats can be better trusted to implement those principles: to make the right decisions, to execute them more effectively, and to adopt a portfolio of policies that will make the US more secure. The model here is the so-called Cold War consensus – call it “The Post-September 11 Consensus” – in which everyone agrees on the most important principles and goals, but we disagree about some of the means of achieving them.

2. The “Ideas Deficit” Argument. The problem for the center-left is that it lacks alternative ideas, not to mention a passionate commitment to them, that can serve as alternatives to the Republican “worldview” on international politics. In other words, the Republicans are right: Democrats don’t have a real “vision” for American foreign policy. The goal of the Truman National Security Project, and related endeavors, is to develop and systematically lay out what that vision is. Once those ideas are developed, then Democrats will present a real alternative and be able to compete on the terrain of national security policy. If this is the case, then the principles laid out by Singer are clearly inadequate – they do look like nuanced echoes of the neoconservative position, after all – and the Trumanites have a lot more work cut out for them.

3. The “Marketing” Argument. In this view, there already exists a clear center-left vision for American foreign policy. Aspects of It can be found in the work of G. John Ikenberry, John Ruggie, Ivo Daalder, and others. It is a vision of making the US more secure by expanding the current liberal order, reforming and utilizing extant institutions such as NATO, and focusing US influence on promoting democratic openness and resolving humanitarian crises. The failure of the Bush administration is that it doesn’t understand the intrinsic importance of the international architecture the US established after the Second World War – an architecture that led to open markets, unprecedented international cooperation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and made US leadership acceptable to most of the world. The problem is that the Democrats have not been able to “sell” that vision, i.e., the problem is public relations. Unlike the “Credibility Gap” argument, however, the “Marketing” argument seeks to emphasize “big” distinctions.

There is some truth, I would argue, in each of these visions of how the center-left ought to proceed. Yet (and here I agree with sentiments in a number of the posts), the primary concern for Truman Democrats cannot be how to craft a message for short-term success. Instead, the goal should be to decide where the center-left stands, and then passionately articulate those positions. In the short-term, this can be done not only by trumpeting principles, but by: (a) identifying major policy failures of the current administration and (b) suggesting remedies that are consistently tied to whatever broader vision of American foreign policy the Truman Democrats adopt.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.