How to Make a Liberal Foreign Policy

The American Prospect was founded 20 years ago, giving it a birth date that coincides nicely with the end of post-Cold War American foreign policy. "It is a conceit of new publications that their appearance coincides with an historic change," wrote Paul Starr in the magazine's debut issue, "by good fortune, ours does." And he was right. A set of international issues that had dominated national politics for decades -- d├ętente, containment, and deterrence -- vanished from the scene, and a new era began. Unlike in the previous 25 years, American liberals have managed to disagree about national security without it tearing the movement apart.

But it's also been a time when, to a much greater extent than on domestic policy, liberalism has shown a tendency to flail ineptly and to have real trouble articulating where we have to take the country. Huge progress has been made on this in recent years. But a fundamental gap between hawks and doves remains, and the problematic situation in Afghanistan threatens to throw liberal foreign policy back into chaos.

Liberals disagree vigorously, of course, about everything from financial regulation to health care. But on most of those subjects, the disagreements are about politics or tactics or policy details. Even on fraught and much-debated topics such as charter schools or performance pay for K-12 teachers, there's a basic agreement that what we're trying to do is educate children and that this is an endeavor worth investing resources in.

On foreign policy, by contrast, there's almost no agreement on core issues. Many liberals are pacifists or near pacifists who see their aim as fighting for "peace" and discrediting the concept of war. Others are very conventional advocates of American hegemony and military power who just happen to believe in universal health care and legal abortion. The conservative movement has been divided on international topics as well -- especially during the late 1990s when there was a brief flowering of thought somewhat resembling old-school interwar "isolationism" on the right -- but in general, people understand conservatives to be interested in nationalism and militarism, eager to invest in the Pentagon, quick to resort to force, relatively unconcerned with the sensibilities and interests of foreigners. Where the left stands is harder to say, even for liberals themselves.

The conservative vision on this score is fairly clear -- the right wants to maintain American military hegemony for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

By contrast, progressives have been much more divided. Much of the controversy over the past two decades has centered on the concept of "humanitarian intervention." This was exemplified by 1990s arguments over military intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia and ultimately by the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign that forced Serbia to concede Kosovo's de facto independence. In world-historical terms, this war will go down as extremely trivial, but it was a key moment politically. It led, in particular, to the development of a (purportedly) new "liberal hawk" approach to world affairs in which American power would be unleashed to do good all around the world.

In retrospect, there was nothing new about this vision. In its fundamentals, it is identical to the conservative view (albeit at times with different points of rhetorical emphasis) in terms of positing American military primacy and freedom from institutional restraint as key planks of foreign policy. Sensible liberals were able to see the humanitarian ventures of the 1990s as perhaps-praiseworthy things done at a particular time and place without redefining their entire worldview around the idea of serial humanitarian wars. But many intellectuals and political leaders of the Democratic Party ended up following the liberal-hawk line right into the disaster in Iraq.

Post-Iraq soul searching combined with the emergence of a presidential candidate untainted by support for the invasion has bolstered the development of a clearer idea of the liberal goal in international affairs, what the Obama National Security Strategy calls "a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests." Several years earlier, the Princeton Project on National Security came up with the more elegant "A World of Liberty Under Law." The idea in either case is that instead of struggling fruitlessly for perpetual dominance of the anarchic international realm, America liberals should strive to tame it by helping build a set of rules and institutions that can accommodate the legitimate interests of all nations.

Realistically, however, the Obama administration's quiet efforts to turn this concept into a reality -- from the New START treaty to defusing the pointless Latin American Cold War -- are overshadowed by the reality of military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These operations don't seem to be going very well and don't fit within this new framework. Semi-secret predator drone strikes conducting an officially nonexistent undeclared war in Pakistan, to name one example, fit awkwardly with the idea of a rule-governed world. As a result, hawk-versus-dove tensions are once again resurfacing, as seen in the refusal of many House Democrats to vote for Afghanistan War appropriations and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' recent outburst about how progressives won't be happy until the whole Pentagon is eliminated.

The task of making this work -- of bringing the war to an acceptable conclusion and reincorporating the "Af-Pak" region into the overall framework of U.S. foreign policy -- is something only the president can do. But ultimately the entire progressive movement's ability to regain credibility of national security may hinge on whether or not it happens. The right's approach was temporarily discredited by Iraq, but knee-jerk nationalism remains an important force in American foreign policy, and only demonstrated success will persuade the American people that liberals have what it takes in this important field.

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