The Duck of Minerva

The Quincy Institute is not a progressive foreign-policy think tank

31 October 2022

As readers know, I have something of an interest in progressive foreign policy. So it might not come as a surprise that I’ve spent the last few days ruminating (sometimes in the form of Twitter threads) on the debacle involving the Congressional Progressive Caucus, its letter about U.S. policy towards Ukraine, and the Quincy Institute.

What should we make of the letter itself? Rob characterized it as “half-baked,” as “the signatories called for direct talks while at the same time insisting that Ukraine have a veto over any agreement, which doesn’t really make much sense.” He made a similar point at 1945, while pointing out that the idea of doing direct talks without Kyiv’s input makes little sense.

To be sure, direct talks between Russia and the United States have a surface appeal; why would it be wrong for Moscow and Washington to talk about the conflict in which they have found themselves? In practice, however, direct talks would necessarily exclude Ukraine from many of the most important decisions about its future. The U.S. need not yoke itself to Ukraine, but excluding Ukraine would be a tactical error and strategic idiocy. There is no reason whatsoever to take seriously Russian preferences to exclude Ukraine from negotiations. The idea that the United States and Russia could have or should have negotiated an end to the Vietnam War without involving either the Saigon or Hanoi governments is laughably stupid, and yet it demands “direct engagement” for an analogous situation.

I agree with critics that the letter buckled under the weight of its own contradictions. I suspect that’s precisely why some of the signatories agreed to affix their name to it. The letter provided, they thought, a way for them to articulate basic “progressive” principles, but without appearing too “soft line” on Russia or apparently rebuking the administration.

For their part, defenders of the letter have also embraced the notion that the letter was a toothless, anodyne call for the U.S. to up its diplomacy. The blowback, they claim, provides more evidence that hawks and hardliners maintain a stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy.

Jonathan Guyer, writing at Vox, puts it this way:

The margins of acceptable debate around Ukraine have narrowed to the point of groupthink. How else could one explain the way that a pretty middle-of-the-road letter saying that diplomacy is an important tool could become D.C.’s foreign policy spat of the day?

He quotes a “senior congressional aide” who makes basically the same point:

“We floated the world’s softest trial balloon about diplomacy, got smacked by the blob” — the Washington foreign policy establishment’s pejorative nickname — “and immediately withdrew under pressure,” a senior congressional aide, speaking anonymously, told me. “I hate the idea that it’s going to look now like progressives are endorsing the idea that diplomacy is appeasement,” they added.

In The New York Times, Catie Edmondson notes that:

[Representative Ro] Khanna’s concern about “silencing debate” appeared to refer to the intense wave of criticism that had washed over liberal lawmakers who signed on to the letter. Third Way, a center-left think tank based in Washington, said the letter had effectively dishonored Ukrainians’ “courageous sacrifice by suggesting they give up everything they’ve been fighting for.”

There’s no question that the tone of some of the attacks on the letter has been, to put it one way, problematic. The Third Way statement, for example, leans far too heavily on pathos and goes light on the logos. But that doesn’t mean the attacks are substantively wrong. To the extent that “debates on US foreign policy… devolve into calling those on the other side of the argument stooges of a foreign power” that not only undermines the arguments of the critics. It also can make it easier for “the other side” to sidestep tough questions.

I think some of that’s gong on here. It simply isn’t true that criticism of the letter implies a rejection of diplomacy. The Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine involves wide-ranging diplomatic efforts. Washington and Moscow are talking. What the two parties are not discussing is a settlement. 

(The U.S. also isn’t the only game in town. Macron has made efforts. Turkey’s acting as a kind of broker between the rest of NATO and Moscow; Ankara was involved in some of the few successful negotiations since the invasion. Dan Drezner gets it right when he argues that a more sensible letter would have asked the Biden administration to facilitate third-party diplomacy.)

There are good reasons why the United States isn’t cutting Ukraine out of the loop by engaging in direct negotiations with Moscow about a settlement. 

The Biden administration wants to avoid reducing the conflict to a proxy war between NATO and Russia. But that’s what it would mean for the United States to start exercising control over Ukraine’s strategic decisions. Indeed, Moscow would love for the United States to agree to turn Ukraine into an object of great-power bargaining. That would forward Putin’s long-standing goal of replacing the current, liberal, international order in Europe with one centered on principles of oligopolistic great-power management.

But the central problem with the letter is straightforward: it calls on the Biden administration to pursue a ceasefire in the middle of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Indeed, Guyer flags this as an important part of the kerfuffle:

The fracas started over the letter’s coordination and timing. The letter had originally been drafted earlier in the summer before Ukraine’s stunning September counteroffensive, and though Politico reported some lines had been updated, others appeared out of date. (The caucus’s leadership sat on the letter because they wanted to gather a critical mass of signatures, according to two congressional sources.)

I’m not sure the letter made that much sense in June or July either. There was a reason why Putin issued another round of nuclear threats over the summer: it was pretty clear that the tides of war were turning against Russia.

But that’s irrelevant when it comes to those defending the letter right now (mostly realist and further-left advocates of restraint). Some of them dismiss the idea that a ceasefire implies Ukrainian territorial concessions. That’s… optimistic. As Rob pointed out in our August 4 podcast on Ukraine, ceasefires tend to freeze the status quo — or whatever both sides can grab before the ceasefire takes effect – in place.

The immediate effect of any generalized ceasefire would be to give Russia breathing space to resupply and reinforce combat units, shore up supply lines, dig in, and continue its program of Russification. That’s if the ceasefire holds for very long. Moscow does not have a good track record when it comes to respecting ceasefires; Ukraine would also have incentives to sabotage an agreement that undermined its position.

Whether or not the letter qualifies its “asks” into irrelevance is something of a red herring. The “ask” is bad policy. But I’m not sure the letter is as unambiguously pointless as some suggest. 

From the letter:

we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire. This is consistent with your recognition that “there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here,” and your concern that Vladimir Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that” [emphasis added].

It calls on the Biden administration to: 

… pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine. Such a framework would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians. The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks [emphasis added].

If the Biden administration makes it U.S. policy to achieve a ceasefire as soon as possible, then it would need to make a ceasefire more attractive to Ukraine than continuing to fight. That might not be hard if Ukraine starts to experience major military setbacks. Otherwise, Washington will need to “incentivize” Kyiv to agree to a ceasefire — by, for example, pairing offers of additional economic aid with threats to withhold military assistance.

Under those conditions, it’s not entirely clear what it means to say that a settlement would have to be “acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”

Other parts of the letter further muddy the waters:

We agree with the Administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions, and with the principle you have enunciated that there should be “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” But as legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement [emphasis added].

The language here is odd. It expresses an agreement with “perspective” and a “principle” — which seems a good deal weaker than agreeing with a policy. And how should we interpret the word “but” in this context? It certainly implies that concerns about spending and the risk of escalation override those principles.

This leaves us back where we started. Either the letter is incoherent, because Ukraine is not going to agree to ceasefire in the immediate future, or it calls for the United States to adopt a policy that is more aligned with Russian than with Ukrainian interests.

The United States is currently helping a fledging democracy beat back an invasion by a fascist, imperialist power. To make a soonest-possible halt to hostilities the primary objective of U.S. a diplomacy doesn’t strike me as a particularly “progressive” approach to foreign policy.

It is, however, very much the kind of approach championed by realist advocates of restraint and the anti-imperialist left. That is, a very “Quincy Institute” understanding of restraint.

The circumstances of the letter — and the fact that Quincy seem prepared to amplify it — led many to speculate that the institute was somehow involved. 

Guyer confirms this:

An early draft of the congressional letter was reviewed by the Quincy Institute, which helped build support for it and has advocated for more avenues of diplomacy outside this letter. “It’s to make sure that we’re using every tool at our disposal to make sure that we don’t miss any opportunity to be able to put an end to this war,” Trita Parsi, the think tank’s executive vice president who has written extensively about US negotiations with Iran, told me. “Because when we’re not talking continuously, there’s a high risk that we do miss those moments. Missing those moments means more people will die, and there will be more escalation.”

I’ve made little secret of neither of my increasing frustration with Quincy, nor my belief that it has too much influence in progressive foreign-policy thought. 

Many of Quincy’s “best” progressive voices have left, some for ideological reasons, others for professional ones. That’s made Quincy much more realist than progressive in orientation. Now, it is true that a number of realists are liberal or left-liberal in their politics. But there are fundamental tensions between realist and progressive understandings of world politics.

Realists, for example, believe that force is the “ultima ratio” of international relations, argue that state interests trump other ethical concerns, and are skeptical of the effectiveness of international cooperation. Progressives (and left-liberals) can, albeit conditionally, agree with the first. But any “progressive“ who buys into the second and third confines their ideological commitments to domestic politics.

If progressives subordinate their values to the cause of restraint, then they cease to be foreign-policy progressives in any meaningful sense of the word. This is true even if you don’t agree that, as I’ve repeatedly argued, the logic of progressive values doesn’t currently support “offshore balancing” or ”disengagement” in Europe and Asia, but something closer to ”deep engagement” in Europe and East Asia. Except for with respect to U.S. commitments to the Middle East, progressives are closer to “deep engagement” realists than to “restraint realists.”

Most progressives — at least those who don’t embrace restraint realism — are best understood as advocates of “ordinary language” restraint in U.S. foreign policy. That is, they oppose wars of regime change, want to cultivate non-military instruments of U.S. foreign policy, advocate stepping up multilateral cooperation, and favor some specific policies of ”restraint.” But they aren’t, for example, devoted to the grand-strategic logic of restraint (or what Jonathan Cristol refers to as “restraint as ideology”). 

Moreover, progressives should be deeply uncomfortable with the anti-imperialist left — and their presence at Quincy — as they should absolutely reject the idea that opposing bad U.S. foreign policy choices means running interference for foreign autocrats, kleptocracies, and far-right regimes.

It makes sense, then, that the invasion of Ukraine would become a focal point for tensions within the restraint coalition; Russia’s war of aggression shines a bright light on the deep divisions between progressive internationalists and “anti-imperialists.” It has also prompted intense disagreements between ordinary-language “restrainers” and capital-R restrainers.

But the more important question is whether the momentum that [the restraint coalition] created in Washington before this war still exists. Before deciding to resign, [Joseph] Cirincione says, “I argued internally that the position Quincy’s leadership was taking on Ukraine was going to do irreparable harm to the restraint position. And I believe that it has.”

A number of sources with whom I spoke—who associate with both the left- and right-wing elements of the broader coalition—questioned whether Cirincione was ever a natural ideological fit with the Quincy Institute’s mission or instead shared a focus on arms control without entirely buying into the larger strategy of restraint. But Cirincione maintains that he agrees with much of the work that it has done and considers himself an advocate for restraint. He says, however, that he worries that the reputation the think tank has built up will suffer. “The restraint coalition has defined itself so narrowly and has established these litmus tests for who’s in, who’s out, that it’s ended up isolating itself from the broader currents in national security thinking for those who favor more diplomacy and less military.”

Quincy is not a progressive foreign policy institute. Its purpose is to advocate for restraint, and increasingly that means a realist grand strategy of restraint — one that can’t, apparently, accommodate progressive priorities when the two conflict. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you’re a realist. Unfortunately, it seems that some progressives in congress — or at least their staff — don’t see that.