Empathy and the Water’s Edge

Progressives can’t check their values at the door just because the President is a Democrat. A response to Brian Katulis.

By Rachel Kleinfeld

Tagged Foreign Policy

A few months ago, I convened a group of senior Hill staffers to brainstorm about things they could do to advance human rights, development, and democracy. “We’ve got nearly three years,” I reminded them. “You work 14-hour-a-day jobs because you want to do good in the world. What can we do together?”

Before any ideas started flowing, one person spoke up. “Have you seen the Pew polls? The American people don’t want us to do anything. Americans don’t support democracy abroad—they don’t even want us to engage overseas. My boss pays attention to those polls.” The brainstorming never even got started.

In his tour de force piece “Against Disengagement” [Issue #32], Brian Katulis makes the case for progressives to care about the world. That piece followed his earlier op-ed in The Washington Post in which he called for President Obama to articulate a moral vision for his foreign policy. The two arguments are intimately connected.

Katulis beautifully describes the progressive foreign-policy problem. It’s not that Obama doesn’t care about dignity and freedom abroad. It’s that he so often lets other issues come first. As Tom Carothers writes in his Carnegie Endowment study, “Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?,” Obama is no better and no worse than most of our past presidents. America has always been hypocritical, proclaiming its allegiance to democracy, human rights, and development—then supporting the dictators, oil suppliers, and warlords it claims it needs in the name of national security and global stability. Obama is a little more averse to symbolic stands on these issues than George W. Bush, but he’s basically in line with the realist-pragmatist leadership of most American presidents.

The difference is: Progressives expected more. What do we do when a Kennedy fires up a generation of young people for public service, takes them to Camelot to work endless days in windowless offices, then suddenly turns his back on the values that brought them there? President Obama’s coolness to core progressive values has been felt not just by those who work for him but by the broad left. Polling suggests that across the country, progressives are displaying “learned helplessness.” Like the dogs in the famous psychology experiment who decided to just lie whimpering on the floor after receiving too many random electric shocks for trying to do anything, progressives have been jolted so often that they are no longer pushing. Instead of fighting the man we elected, or admitting that we are ignoring our own values, we justify: America can’t do anything. Our big projects keep failing. We are in decline. The economy is bad—let’s stay home and rebuild here. Those views then percolate back up to our democratically elected leaders, who feel they should listen to their constituents, and the vicious cycle continues.

It’s time to break the cycle. In the previous issue of Democracy, Molly Worthen wrote of “empathy” as the core progressive value. At home, progressives stand up for the helpless and marginalized. How can our empathy stop at the water’s edge?

Progressives fight against the death penalty here at home. It’s not okay, then, that the United States seems desperate to restore aid to Egypt when that country has recently sentenced more than 500 people to death. Since the military reinstalled itself in power last year, the Egyptian government has killed at least 2,500 of its citizens and arrested 19,000. That’s approaching the 3,000 estimated dead or missing during the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. When Ronald Reagan was in power, a generation of progressives fought to change U.S. policy on Chile. Withdrawing U.S. support led to the fall of Pinochet’s regime and was a major win for human rights and justice. We should be pushing now to improve U.S. policy toward Egypt.

Progressives fight for minority rights. Yet this President has deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, forcing millions of hardworking people who want to contribute to our country to live in fear. Immigration is not just domestic policy: Since remittances are the world’s largest source of development aid, immigration is also international development policy. And since immigrants are among the foremost supporters of noncorrupt democratic governments in their home countries, remittances are also a crucial lever for building good governments abroad. We need a sensible policy, not a regime that tears families apart and imprisons thousands. Latino groups have mobilized, as have some religious organizations. But the broader progressive movement has been largely dormant on this front.

Progressives fight for civil liberties. But the NSA’s spying programs are written off by many security leaders in Washington as business as usual. Around the country, people shrug their shoulders: Google collects more information than the government. But even if we are unafraid of government overreach at home, and unconcerned about how it has harmed our businesses and our civil rights, let’s remember that the United States sets the global standard. Authoritarian countries that spy on their citizens in order to arrest and torture them can now claim to just be doing what we are. Progressives should be on the ramparts making these arguments.

If these policies had been unveiled under George W. Bush, we would have been up in arms. We cannot let them slide just because they are happening under our first black President. Nor should we let them continue if, as many of us hope, we have our nation’s first female commander-in-chief. Our values don’t disappear when Democrats are in power. Even when the Republican alternative would be worse, we can still push the leaders we elect to do what we elected them to do.

Speaking our values loudly will remind us not only of what we believe in, but of what America can do—because our learned helplessness is based not only on the random shocks we receive from this Administration, but also on a sneaking suspicion that America can’t do much anymore.

Katulis claims that the public’s current lack of interest in international engagement springs from a decades-long process that started in the 1970s. That’s the only part of his article with which I disagree. In fact, following the end of the Cold War, President Clinton successfully rallied public opinion in support of his foreign policy—and we often had great success, stopping genocidal war among the countries of the former Yugoslavia, reducing the number of nuclear weapons with Russia, and deepening democracy around the world through NATO and EU expansion.

But President George W. Bush made so many foreign-policy blunders that America started to look inept. Progressives hoped Obama could right the ship, but his cerebral policies have fizzled.

What progressives, broadly speaking, have taken from this experience is a resignation about what’s possible. If a belligerent right-wing stance did not work, and our long-awaited liberalism also failed, maybe the world has just gotten too complex. Maybe we should just do nothing.

There is, however, one slice of the progressive sphere that has broken with the President’s listlessness and popular progressive resignation. Under the radar, in the middle levels of the Administration, dedicated staffers under the President and Cabinet leaders like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have been working on innovative programs that show what the country can do abroad when it actually tries. Toiling on issues journalists consider not quite important enough to reach the headlines, they have advanced multiple new ways of supporting democracy, human rights, and development abroad that deserve our recognition and support.

Two basic threads unite all of their initiatives. First, they are working to internationalize our values, so that the world knows that freedom, dignity, and human rights are universal, not just made in the U.S.A. Second, they are moving policy out of the public sector and embedding it in partnerships among private, civil-society, and public actors so that citizens and businesses can leverage change from within, rather than using only blunt governmental instruments to push from without.

One example is the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a unique international entity led by a rotating group of countries that commit to transparency initiatives. The initiative strives to place civil-society transparency groups at the same table as their own governments. The goal is to equalize the playing field and force governments to deal with the demands of their people. It is far from perfect, but the OGP serves as a model for catalyzing change that is on the right track. Another example is the State Department’s Internet freedom program, which uses cutting-edge technology to empower those pushing for freedom in their own countries. Open data initiatives further help citizens make change: We build global compacts to make governments release data to their citizens, then let the citizens innovate with that information. We don’t fight their fights; we give them the information they need and help them organize, so they can work without fear of a knock on their door in the middle of the night.

The Global Equality Fund uses the government as a convener to bring together businesses, foundations, and other countries to improve LGBT rights around the world. The fund allows for a nimble response across agencies when, for instance, Uganda suddenly criminalizes homosexuality, or individual LGBT groups are in danger overseas. Similarly, the Lifeline: Embattled NGO Assistance Fund provides fast-moving dollars to fight against governments that are trying to crack down on their country’s civil-society sector.

Various programs leverage private resources for public ends. For instance, multiple State Department initiatives bring American venture capitalists to developing countries to spur local entrepreneurship and break crony capitalism. A $25 million Agricultural Fast Track Fund defrays front-end development costs to unlock private sector investments in agriculture. The Global Partnership Initiative uses small amounts of government money to attract large amounts of private cash toward development ends, such as helping poor women cook over stoves rather than open flames, saving their health and reducing carbon emissions.

All of these ideas advance progressive values, but they aren’t high profile enough to deter those bent on harming others, or to provide drive, energy, and a slipstream that others can ride within to make the world better. Obama needs not just programs, but symbolic action.

A chorus of boos might accompany such a sentence. The last thing we need is empty words. But symbolic deeds are not speeches: They are emotionally resonant actions that speak louder than words. Symbolism tells the world where you are going, and tells obstructionists that you have your heart in it, so they had better get out of the way. In other words, strong symbolic actions don’t just signal direction, the way speeches do—they move in that direction, and create their own momentum.

One master of symbolism is our new pope. Pope Francis took over one of the most reviled and sclerotic bureaucracies on the planet and, through smart symbolic actions, he showed the world what his values were and where he was going to move that ungainly ship.

His first step was to eschew the red shoes, the papal limousine, and the papal palace, choosing to live in the Vatican guesthouse for laypeople—a way to show his heart was staying with the poor. He washed the feet of women and Muslims—an action, not a speech, that showed concretely what tolerance was. He appointed a former child victim to the church’s sex-abuse commission—a symbolic action that will inevitably change the discussion, tone, and decisions of the commission.

The able staffers in Obama’s Administration craft and implement smart, solid programs to press for democracy, development, and human rights. But when Obama himself fails to appoint anyone to lead the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor for more than a year, it sends a signal, loud and clear. It’s just the opposite of the symbolism we want.

We have a little over two years left in this Administration. Are progressives going to lie whimpering on the floor, or make this Administration, which many of us fought so hard to bring to power, live up to the promise it holds? To all the progressives who feel that it’s time to retreat from global leadership and let people take care of themselves, I ask this: Who will lead, if not America? Even in a multipolar landscape in which many countries create their own destinies, much of the world turns to America to pull together coalitions and move global policy forward.

If we step back, the space won’t be left empty. It will be filled, most likely, by China. Now, China has admirably pulled many of its people out of poverty. But China also funds kleptocracies in its quest for oil and mining concessions, keeping millions of people in other countries in poverty. Meanwhile, China’s support for allies like North Korea, which starves millions of its citizens to death, hardly speaks well of its commitment to human rights or reducing poverty. Its other policies are hardly more progressive. It has surpassed the United States as the world’s greatest polluter. If you don’t like the death penalty at home, know that China executed more people than any other country last year—possibly more than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International. We want China to rise peacefully and continue to improve the lives of its people; we don’t really want its government in charge of our planet.

In A Problem From Hell, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on U.S. inaction in the face of genocide, UN Ambassador Samantha Power offers a damning statement about American officials. By spinning and rationalizing to themselves, she writes, “They can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.”

But they don’t get there alone. It is public indifference that lets them make that stand. It’s time for progressives to regain our mojo. The lives, happiness, and dignity of millions of human beings are worth the fight.

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Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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