The incompetence of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy masked a key fact about progressives: We remain deeply divided on America’s role in the world. These divisions, which we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq War and during the first few months of that campaign, have re-emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring and a new crop of challenges abroad.
President Obama’s assertive actions during his first term—the surge in Afghanistan, the escalation of drone strikes against Al Qaeda, the strike against Osama bin Laden, the campaign against Moammar Gadhafi—have drawn into sharp relief the arguments among progressives. Many praise the successes that were so absent during Bush’s term, but others have voiced their uneasiness with the Administration’s moves. The key questions remain: How do we meet upcoming challenges in international relations? What principles should guide this and future progressive administrations in the conduct of foreign policy?
In this installment of “First Principles,” we’ve assembled a sterling lineup of thinkers to tackle these difficult questions. First, Charles Kupchan positions a progressive American grand strategy as the happy medium between the conservative extremes of Tea Party neo-isolationism and neoconservative adventurism. His suggestions—political and economic solvency, judicious retrenchment, working with rising powers, and strengthening the Atlantic alliance—would lead to a sustainable and resilient foreign policy, even in the face of a rapidly changing world. Rosa Brooks writes on democracy promotion and advocates a humbler strategy when it comes to this difficult task. Our own democracy took centuries to form and is still forming, she notes, so why do we demand and expect it from other nations in just a few years? Relatedly, Rachel Kleinfeld analyzes an unprecedented trend in international relations: the rise of individuals, rather than states, as key actors. America no longer has the luxury of dealing solely with heads of state. As we saw in the Arab Spring, citizens, through new media and technology, can alter the course of events for entire nations. Kleinfeld argues that America must create ties both to and among civil societies to adapt to this new world.
The most divisive issue in progressive foreign policy likely remains whether and when to support the use of force. We asked Tom Perriello to take on the difficult task of laying out first principles for humanitarian interventions. Progressives have long debated these operations, but he illustrates how technology and diplomacy have made them more palatable, if only slightly. We are gaining the ability to perform lethal strikes, and even prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing, without putting Americans in harm’s way. Further, international organizations have matured enough to grant legitimacy to operations that in past decades would have been America’s burden alone. Progressives, even those who disagree, would do well to listen to Perriello’s arguments.
Finally, Bruce W. Jentleson returns us to the overarching question: How is America positioned in the twenty-first century? He uses an astronomical analogy to argue that we’re living now in a “Copernican” world: We have our own orbit, but other nations do as well. We can no longer count on rising nations to bow to our needs or wants without question. Jentleson shows how in this regard conservatism has become an ideology of denial. It is up to progressives to craft a realistic, positive, and sustainable foreign policy.