The Contradictions of “Progressive Realism,” and How to Overcome Them

13 May 2024, 0523 EDT

Labour MP David Lammy has a new piece in Foreign Affairs called, “The Case for Progressive Realism.” 

Where his manifesto is punchiest is in its unsparing critiques of British foreign policy:

the Conservative Party has, over 14 years…sank deeply into nostalgia and denial about the United Kingdom’s place in the world. The government, for example, crashed out of the European Union without a clear plan for what to do next. It treated with contempt the country’s global reputation for upholding the rule of law…it squandered the United Kingdom’s climate leadership by tearing up net-zero carbon emissions commitments, throwing business plans into disarray…

Conservative officials proved especially callous in their approach to the global South. Over the last decade, they have undermined the United Kingdom’s standing as a development superpower with a mismanaged merger of government departments that devalued expertise and forced cuts to crucial programs.

It goes on further, but you get the point: UK foreign policy has not really served anyone well in recent times, save perhaps the US national security state.

Lammy also seems to recognize a reality that too few geopoliticians do: Any foreign policy that distracts from or requires the depletion of societal welfare trades against democracy itself. He’s right to indicate that rebuilding (social) democracy in the UK is not just worthwhile but necessary—any progressive vision must not forsake a nation’s own workers. 

And of course, no foreign policy vision can be taken seriously that is silent on Palestine’s fate in the midst of something even more inhumane than a lopsided war. Here Lammy sketches out a careful position that looks past the ongoing Israeli bombing campaign and associated war crimes, says nothing about a ceasefire or mutual hostage-taking, but nevertheless has ambitions to be more just than the historical status quo:

surge aid to support rebuilding [of Gaza], and…work with international partners to recognize Palestine as a state, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.

Finally, the single most forward-looking aspect of Lammy’s vision is the priority it assigns to the climate crisis and the need to respond to it with both a green transition (moving toward a net-zero carbon economy) and support for global climate adaptation (making others more resilient to the effects of climate change). This is indeed a universal progressive plank and if British foreign policy actually walked the walk on environmental policy, it would be a dramatic reversal from the past. 

But I have many other concerns. I have never been a fan of the term “progressive realism” because it’s pregnant with logical tension

Both realism and progressivism entail a set of political commitments—the binary of interests versus values is a false one. Interests are quite real, but whose interests, when it comes to matters of state, are quite opaque. The language of “interests” is often a particular way of expressing value preferences while reframing those you don’t prioritize as “values” contra your “interests”—a feat of rhetorical obfuscation that usually relies on overheated claims that survival or national status is at stake. 

And while it’s possible to reconcile progressivism and realism in practice—something I try to help with below—that’s largely because both -isms are capacious and often function as floating signifiers.

Whatever might be said in favor of it, Lammy’s vision is full of tensions, doubtful assertions about how the world works, and unanswered questions. And it shows worrying signs of rehashing Blair-style neoconservatism, which was of course disastrous. 

But those are precisely the risks you run when you ground your vision of foreign policy in expressly liberal political commitments that obscure who actually stands to gain—and at whose expense—from the policies you seek. 


Having written a book that links ideology, strategy, and world politics, I’ve concluded that it’s not possible to systematically deduce a singular, fully coherent foreign policy from an ideological commitment. You can do it, but somebody else will do it differently and who’s to say who’s right. Ideologies are too capacious, and too abstracted from the real world. 

Foreign policy, by contrast, is the domain of “What is to be done?” in the concrete sense. A foreign policy agenda must span a dizzying array of functional and geographically specific issues situated in time. Any principled commitment (e.g., to democracy, the balance of power, private property) that follows from a singular ideological stance (liberalism, socialism, feminism, monarchism) is susceptible to multiple interpretations, or to being applied in ways that involve tradeoffs with other principled commitments from the same ideology. 

I say this because 1) I think Lammy’s vision is instinctively cut from a liberal ideological cloth (realism and liberalism both belong to the rationalist tradition) and 2) there are many different bets you can make regarding what to do within even a puritanical commitment to a single ideology. Attempts to reconcile the abstract (the “-ism”) with the concrete (the agenda) will always elicit clashing insights and preferences.

But this is just scratching the surface of my concerns with a progressive realism. There are some content-specific problems with Lammy’s manifesto that deserve the bulk of attention.

Means-Ends Mismatch

In a clever turn of phrase, Lammy says progressive realism aims to use:

realist means to pursue progressive ends…instead of using the logic of realism solely to accumulate power, progressive realism uses it in service of just goals—for example, countering climate change, defending democracy, and advancing the world’s economic development.

It’s commendable to want to steer the logic of realism—depending on what you mean by that—toward horizons beyond power accumulation. But there is no such thing as “realist means.” 

I take this as a poetic way of referring to the coercive power of the state, which is as liberal as it is realist (and liberalism and realism are far less of a contrast than casual IR students sometimes think). And if the coercive power of the state is supposed to be desirable but lacks even a pretense of opposing militarism then we really are just talking about neoconservatism or a liberally inflected military solutionism. 

Where’s the Anti-Militarism?

Anti-militarism is a defining attribute of progressive foreign policy. And a progressivism that is not committed to a theory of peace/anti-militarism is bound to end up being militarist. 

Lammy swears progressive realism will not repeat “the failures of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya,” but makes no attempt to convince us why it will not. He offers nothing to suggest peace-like ambitions, and nothing that would create distance from a militarist mindset. 

To the contrary, he reaches for a disturbing hawk myth about American credibility and Obama’s fabled “red line” fiasco in Syria in 2013:

The fact that the United States did not police its redline against the use of chemical weapons in Syria not only entrenched Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s monstrous regime; it also emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is not empirically defensible, but it also doesn’t reflect the state of the field when it comes to threat credibility. Moreover, the United States eventually did conduct a number of strikes on targets in Syria—in 2016, 2017, and 2018. I fail to see how the Middle East is any better for it. And Putin’s invasion of Ukraine happened anyway. 

But bringing Syria and the Obama “redline” into the discussion at all is bizarrely non sequitur—who talks about it anymore besides the odd right-wing think tank? That this moment figures as some kind of lamentable fixation for Lammy hints at the worrying possibility that his progressive realism lacks the wherewithal to resist the “imperial temptation” that always exists within liberalism. Any manifesto for progress worthy of the name must guard against that tendency. 

A Progressivism Without Workers?

Progressive ends, regardless of what means you use, must on some level entail rebalancing unbalanced power relations. Using power can serve egalitarian/democratic ends, but concentrating or accumulating power is beside the point—how is power, whether deliberately accumulated or not, distributed? 

This is a crucial question in any non-tragic way of seeing the world, and it’s one that stock liberal internationalists can’t ask because it raises too many questions about America’s primacist grand strategy. It also goes entirely unaddressed in Lammy’s progressive realism.

Lammy’s vision in no way engages with or acknowledges the balance of class forces in the UK, or abroad. Neither does it signal anything about the freedom-strangling imbalances between rich nations and much of the rest. 

He gestures at wanting to do right by the global South—it’s the majority of the world’s population so I should hope so—but how to do so is left mostly to the imagination. Lammy’s gesture toward taking the global South seriously matters, but I would push him to cogitate on that further, if for no other reason than to avoid rendering it into eventual sacrifice zones for great-power competition. 

Situating the global South in the context of wanting to fight “for the hearts and minds of the new global middle class” won’t go very far, and wreaks a little too much of the Biden administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class.” 

The middle class, as Haley Clasen reminds us, is not the same thing as the working class. And insofar as we’re talking about separate strata, the middle is not a majority. Sure, when I was growing up, everyone had incentives to identify as middle class…but many weren’t, still fewer are now, and the working class these days is increasingly cohering its own culture apart from that of the bourgeois. 

Globally, most workers are precarious wage earners, increasingly on the informal economy. And in the United States, any “middle class” distinct from the working class refers to a minoritarian white-collar, skilled workforce that is shrinking

All of this matters because foreign policy ought to be working for the majority of folks. And the question of “Who benefits?” from foreign policy should be a way that governments explain what they’re up to around the world to their citizens…yet it’s the question most artfully and systematically dodged by the mandarins who specialize in telling stories to justify the latest bombing campaign or weapons sale. 

But Lammy also directly associates British security with American power.

Placing what remains of American primacy at the center of British/global security is a grave mistake on many levels (some of which I’ll address below), but especially considering that it presupposes an extreme concentration of power in the hands of a single nation—a historical aberration that our generation grew up taking for granted, but that is unsustainable, already on the wane, and generates escalating costs and risks that make the game not worth the candle. 

In fairness, he does not use the word “primacy,” and he acknowledges that “hegemony” is, at best, under duress. Perhaps even a declining asset. But from AUKUS submarines to policing redlines with bombing campaigns, Lammy endorses all the things that America does in the name of its increasingly unrealistic primacy strategy and that’s a problem.

National Security Popularism is…Unrealistic

Honesty about power relations is incompatible with national security popularism.

The reflexive acceptance of that which happens to be popular in national security circles is immensely worrying to me, because I came from that world and I know—as do most folks outside of insular policy cliques—that as a community the national security state tends to exercise poor judgment, has little capacity to tolerate dissenting viewpoints, over-relies on military force, and rarely even makes an attempt to create conditions that might deliver something resembling what a normal person would think of as security. 

So when Lammy counsels that progressive realism requires:

tough-minded honesty about the United Kingdom, the balance of power, and the state of the world. 

I actually agree with this as stated, but I detect problematic understandings about the very world he wants to “get real” about.

He’s right to push for closer security ties between the UK and the EU—I imagine that for Europe there can hardly be any other path. And he recognizes both that the world is multipolar and that the UK is not a major power in the world anymore—rightsizing the UK’s global role is essential. 

But the size of the UK’s ambitions are not the only—or even primary—issue.

On China, Lammy claims that:

Beijing challenges the U.S.-led order in nearly every domain, from developing the technologies and green supply chains of the future to sourcing and processing critical raw materials.

Incorrect. The “U.S.-led order” has never been defined in terms of supply chains and sourcing raw materials—every kind of order will involve both things. It re-writes history to suggest that critical mineral access and inventory management are supposed to be defining features of American hegemony. 

These things came to occupy the national security mind only after a prolonged period of declining (US and global) profitability under neoliberal globalization and the view that preparing the economy for great-power warfighting was worthwhile. 

More importantly, there’s actual research by one of the leading experts on China that flatly repudiates the claim so casually asserted here (and in Western capitals generally): in most domains that constitute “international order,” China does not contest US “leadership.” And we should take our decisions in such a way as to discourage it from doing so.

China has benefited from and mostly works within the actually existing international order—it’s selective about where it challenges the status quo. America is too. So we should retain a little perspective about the degree to which the things we find scandalous about China somehow exist outside of history, or ourselves. 

And if Lammy is serious about climate change, persisting with a framework of great-power rivalry is at best a dead-end contradiction.

In the case of Russia, Lammy’s diagnosis is not necessarily wrong but the prescriptions offer no horizon beyond confrontationalism. In the context of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I get it. But it’s hard to see anything either progressive or realist in uncritically accepting the liberal-internationalist’s response to Russia (military aid, which I have agreed with up to now, while ignoring most of Ukraine’s other problems, which I’ve always disagreed with). 

More imagination is needed. Lobbying in real-time for Ukraine’s admission to NATO surely feels right, but it flies in the face of hard-nosed realities about Russia’s power position vis-a-vis Europe. And while this usually gets me uninvited from fancy NATO events, I fail to see why NATO should be providing military cover to autocratic and freedom-squelching regimes in its midst. The deterrence benefit of keeping someone like Viktor Orban on our side is at best questionable, and it would seem to puncture every moralizing argument about democracy versus autocracy in the framing of why Putin’s invasion must be fought.

Ukraine matters. But “the future of European security” depends on ameliorating the conditions that facilitated Putin’s imperialist bid to conquer Ukraine—and that, among other things, requires accelerating the transition out of a fossil-fuel economy and de-oligarch-izing the world-system. In pure geopolitical terms, I can think of few things more likely to lock in a European future held perpetually at risk of mutual destruction than a forever-deterrence strategy that anticipates being able to include Ukraine in NATO with no political room to so much as speak aloud about pathways out of the current deteriorating situation in Ukraine. 

Finally, there’s the United States. 

Staking your security to the US come what may without acknowledging the fascist thrust of the MAGA right and the brokenness of our politics strikes me as…unrealistic. Europe and the UK can’t just rely on faith—in opposition to the best available evidence—that Uncle Sam will 1) be there indefinitely or 2) be competent enough to avoid making wars more likely. 

American hegemony is curdling into selective domination. This is not good for anyone, including America’s allies, who need a Plan B. Even the mere plausibility that US foreign policy provides global public goods or is in some way “essential” at this point verges on being a sick joke. 

Romance leads British and European politicos to look past America’s sick-man political realities in favor of asking it to continue distorting its own civic and democratic health to sustain a strategy that makes the world more dangerous, offers no prospect of improving the very (China- and Russia-based) problems we worry about in geopolitics, and deflects from efforts to address the common good. 

America’s globe-spanning military and surveillance machine will inevitably be handed over to the very destroyer of worlds that Europe (and the UK) frets about. Encouraging America to just keep doing great-power competition ensures that machine will be not just larger than ever but well-oiled and ready to destroy when the MAGA political movement eventually takes over the White House (whether in 2024 or later).


So how might we improve on this Lammy-festo in a manner that closes its distance from either progressivism or realism? 

Vagaries about great-power competition are not helpful. And any counsel that simply encourages the United States to do more of the same is, for the most part, a path to global ruin. 

The starting point must be positioning the UK in a manner that makes it and Europe (and the global economy) less reliant on America’s coercive power. To cheer on the constitutive elements of a grand strategy of primacy is to cheer on the end of the world. Facilitating a more restrained balance-of-power strategy in the United States is incomplete and not without its own problems, but it would be an improvement. 

Redistributing voting shares at the World Bank and IMF would help materially rebalance power in a stabilizing way, as would ending the practice of IMF surcharges (interest payments that the IMF imposes on heavily indebted countries). 

Shifting economic statecraft to de-emphasize tariffs and sanctions in favor of subsidies, expanded market-access quotas, and sovereign-debt restructuring would help grow developing markets that have no interest in either remaining impoverished or perpetually dependent on foreign assistance. Free trade agreements ought to be the primary way to raise global labor and environmental standards, and therefore embraced, not shunned.

The three grandest, interconnected problems that got short shrift in the Lammy-festo were the emergence of the global far right, drift toward economic nationalism, and the rising risks of nuclear war. 

All are threats to peace. All inhibit the prospects of human liberation. All attempt to secure the few at the expense of the many. All make it harder to do anything productive about climate change. And so strategizing against these problems ought to be central. Notably, each of these problems are heightened by, not ameliorated by, “great-power competition.”

There’s more that can be said, but the larger issue is that invoking realism must be more than a license for amorality or cynicism about power. Realism was once a tradition of prudentialism, and it could be again. The classical realists who worked with progressives, like Hans Morgenthau, would cringe at the framework of moral innocence that seems to guide the West today. 

Similarly, progressivism must at some level affect how you work within reality to pursue what you seek, because for progressivism to matter at all, it must offer something more than simply “ends justifies the means.” And in the end, isn’t “realist means to pursue progressive ends” saying precisely that? 

Cross-posted at the Un-Diplomatic Newsletter