Preliminary Notes on Progressive Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump

26 January 2017, 1213 EST


I apologize for inflicting this on you all, but I’ve found that blogging helps me think through ideas and questions—especially given the Duck’s readership. So, without further introduction, here are some half-baked notes on Progressive foreign policy.


The 2016 primary contest highlighted the general atrophy of progressive foreign-policy thought and infrastructure.

  • Virtually the entire left and liberal foreign-policy apparatus lined up behind Clinton, whether because of affinity, hope for employment and fear of retaliation, or out of the calculation that she was the only viable game in town.
  • Sanders never articulated a coherent foreign-policy paradigm, although you can find it in skeletal terms: multilateralism in most issue areas, a much higher threshold for military force, the rejection of ‘regime change’ as a legitimate basis for war, a rejection of the ‘neoliberal’ trading order, the pursuit of human rights and human security, lower defense spending, and a moderate position with respect to rival—and potentially rival—great powers.
  • After Sanders, the Greens attempted to claim the mantle of progressive foreign policy. Too often, this took the form of caricature: the old saw that American foreign policy is essentially imperialist and a tool of large corporations, and therefore anyone who opposes US foreign policy should either be embraced—or, at least, flirted with.

The Trump Administration, on the other hand, is a crucible for progressive foreign policy. It forces us to ask basic questions about what we stand for—independent of specific policies.

  • Some of the policies Trump espoused on security—criticism of the Iraq War and the Libyan intervention—and international political economy—opposition to the TPP and to ‘neoliberal’ trade deals—resonated with the progressive left. Both in terms of their own policy priorities—less war, more protectionism—and in terms of their overall distrust of neoliberal variants of internationalism.
  • What is neoliberal internationalism? It combines, in brief, a disposition to use force for liberal ends with the ‘Third Way’ consensus. The progressive left often sees it as indistinguishable for neoconservative foreign policy—a view reinforced in 2016 by Clinton’s votes for the Iraq War, history of support for trade agreements, and Bill Clinton’s role in passing NAFTA.
  • But this is not quite right. As I’ve argued elsewhere—in the context of liberal internationalism—both approaches embrace activist foreign policy and the promotion of liberal order, neoliberal internationalists see multilateralism and multilateral institutions as intrinsic goods. Neoconservatives do not. The neoliberal institutionalists are correct. One reason: a great many of the challenges we face—such as climate change, global disease, and transnational terrorism— require collective action. That depends on multilateral cooperation.
  • Trumpism highlights not only how neoconservatives and neoliberal internationalists are in the same family, but that progressive foreign policy also belongs to that family. This is not to downplay the significance of our differences. For instance, the Iraq War, targeted killings, and the like are matters of life and death. But we are arguing on similar terms. Trumpism, however, represents a stream of thought about the American role in the world that was, until now, marginal—and marginalized—in the post-war era.
  • Progressive foreign policy is a variant of liberal internationalism. In 2003, the Progressive Policy Institute released a report calling for “Progressive Internationalism.” I can’t find the full report, but it looks pretty much like centrist democratic foreign policy. But I think “Progressive Internationalism” is the right term for the variant of liberal internationalism that progressives ought to champion.


The nature of the moment:

  • We are in a moment of right-wing populist ascendency. We should not oversell the parallels, but the 1920s and 1930s remains the best point of reference. The Great Recession cracked open long-simmering problems in the order, fragmented the left, and discredited many bedrock institutions—domestic and international.
  • The transnational character of these developments is highlighted both by actual coordination among right-wing movements and the role of the Russian Federation as a sponsor and supporter of these movements.
  • Power in the United States is now held by far-right elements that have captured much of the Republican party and, in consequence, the entirety of American government. The bulwark of liberal order, in other words, has fallen. Of course, the United States is not some kind of uniform force for good in the world, but this cannot be emphasized enough: it is no longer in the hands of an executive who shares the basic premises that have guided—and served so well—the United States for 80 years.
  • In sum, our politics are interdependent not ‘merely’ in terms of trade, security, and the usual ways in which events in different parts of the world. They are interdependent in that American progressives are part of a transnational political struggle for the fate of global order.

What we stand for:

  • In the short term, we stand for conserving the liberal political and security order. Other foreign policy liberals—neoconservatives, neoliberal internationalists, and old-school liberal internationalists—must band together. Because the order is under intense threat, and parts of it will be broken in the immediate future. Yes, American policies shoulder much blame for our current state of affairs. Yes, many aspects of the current order are flawed. But right now the imperative is to conserve. We need it to address climate change, nuclear proliferation, substate conflicts, global pandemics, terrorism, and a host of other problems.
  • The alternatives are much, much worse. They don’t mean a United States that pursues more benign foreign policy, or respects human rights more, or is in any way, shape or form, more progressive.
  • However, we also stand for a progressive reconstruction of that order. Recall the skeletal principles found in the Sanders campaign. Now build these out. They mean a liberal order with progressive characteristics. For example, progressive internationalism should strive for neither ham-handed protectionism nor open-trade regimes that mostly serve the interests of large corporations. At a minimum, it means governments that capture much larger percentages of the surplus generated by trade and use those surpluses to reinvest in their countries. That is, we stand for an equality agenda.

In the American context:

  • We support pragmatic American international leadership. We reject an embrace of militaristic hegemonism. We are facing great shifts in international power, and we cannot stop those by throwing unlimited funds at the military. Trump is wrong about just about everything, but he’s right to emphasize national greatness. But that greatness comes from genuine investments in infrastructure and human capital, equality of opportunity, civil and political rights for all Americans, and the protection of the common good against the excesses of capitalism.
  • It means inclusiveness under a reflective and historically aware civic patriotism. Progressives tend to be deeply uncomfortable with nationalism, and our commitments incline us toward cosmopolitan ethics. But we should not allow those inclinations to mean a rejection of civic patriotism—of a small-r republican spirit.
  • Indeed, first and foremost, American Progressive Internationalism is about securing the peace and prosperity of the United States. The seduction of “America First” is that it takes a basic truth: the primary obligation of our government is to secure the interests of its citizens, and then uses that proposition to pursue policies that benefit our rivals at our expense. It offers, as I’ve argued elsewhere, geopolitical suicide under the guise of hyper-patriotism. This has always been the case. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that “America First” means pretty much what it’s always meant.

(cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money)