Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
In foreign policy, progressives are adrift, caught between dated paradigms that have not yet come to terms with the current geopolitical moment. Although American progressives—who include left-liberals, social democrats, and democratic socialists—enjoy a rough consensus on many broad domestic policy aims, if not always the means by which to achieve them, recent months have seen an uptick in concern (usually focused on the left) about the lack of a progressive vision for foreign policy. Indeed, the coalition seems divided between two depressingly familiar alternatives: liberal internationalists of the kind associated with the Democratic establishment, and anti-hegemonists, who want to see the United States drastically reduce its pretensions to global leadership. The latter question the desirability of so-called liberal order, which they see as, at best, serving the interests of global capital at the expense of democratic economic governance, and, at worst, a fig leaf for imperialism.
During the 2016 primary and general election, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often appeared to represent a Democratic foreign policy establishment whose views might have been ripped from 2003, when the United States could still claim to be, in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “the indispensable nation”; and a number of luminaries released a blueprint for “progressive internationalism” that staked out a position between the “neo-imperialist right” and the “non-interventionist left.” Clinton, of course, voted for the 2003 Iraq War and supported the 2011 intervention in Libya. But her primary challenger from the left, Senator Bernie Sanders, delayed articulating such an alternative foreign policy agenda until his 2017 speech at Westminster College.
All of this is particularly unfortunate. The new gilded age—of corporate power, concentrated wealth, environmental dangers, corruption—demands a strong progressive movement. But that movement also faces challenges reminiscent of the era of New Deal liberalism: a rising tide of right-wing extremism, post-fascism, and neofascism, at home and abroad. These threats are simultaneously national and transnational in character. Their solutions require a combination of domestic and multilateral efforts, none of which will be possible without U.S. leadership harnessed to progressive goals. Abandoning the infrastructure of U.S. international influence because of its many misuses and abuses will hamstring progressives for decades to come.
The new gilded age—of corporate power, concentrated wealth, environmental dangers, corruption—demands a strong progressive movement.
At the same time, all progressives should recognize that many of the criticisms of U.S. foreign policy offered by the anti-hegemonists are correct. The United States remains overly dependent on military instruments to achieve desired outcomes; its international economic policies favor capital over labor; and Washington too often ignores—or even commits—violations of human rights. For many who live outside of its core, the liberal international order was never terribly liberal nor much of an order. But progressives must incorporate these criticisms into visions of what a progressive international order should look like, while recognizing that the retreat of the United States will in no way create a more progressive world; after all, the main rival suppliers of international order combine various degrees of imperialism, authoritarianism, and capitalisms marked by strong kleptocratic tendencies.
Developing a progressive foreign policy agenda typically begins with specifying common concerns found across the progressive coalition. These include reining in the national security state, reducing defense budgets, and a general agreement that U.S. statecraft relies too much upon military instruments and should place more emphasis on diplomacy and foreign aid.
In this respect, the Iraq War was a defining moment for contemporary progressives, as well as a likely inflection point for post–Cold War U.S. hegemony. It cost Washington more than $1.6 trillion, killed more than 4,000 U.S. troops, and led directly or indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The war underscored the limits of U.S. military power as a transformative force. It also planted the seeds for subsequent devastation in Syria and the refugee crisis that has pushed European politics in a more ethnonationalist direction.
Progressives often lean toward a more “exemplarist” approach to forwarding democratic values: the idea, as Jonathan Monten notes, that “The United States exerts influence on the world through the force of its example” and that “an activist foreign policy may even corrupt liberal practices at home.” Progressives see an important role for human rights in United States foreign policy, but believe that, on balance, Washington should use nonmilitary instruments to advance democratic pluralism, the rule of law, accountability, and transparency.
Whether more liberal internationalist or anti-hegemonist in orientation, progressives also usually share a general commitment to multilateral approaches to international challenges—such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, refugee crises, terrorism, and rights. Trade constitutes a possible exception to this default embrace of multilateralism, as some of the progressive left would rather abandon multilateral trade agreements than seek to reform them.
That set of concerns points to areas of potential agreement, not only among self-styled progressives but also with more muscular liberal internationalists, realists, and even some conservatives and libertarians. But focusing on those shared views is insufficient. A progressive foreign policy vision needs a more affirmative set of values and principles that can provide guidance as circumstances change.
In some ways, contemporary progressivism is just as ambiguous an ideological construct as it was over a century ago. Nonetheless, we see a number of wagers that cross the spectrum from left-liberals to democratic socialists. In brief, contemporary progressives prioritize addressing durable inequality in all of its forms. Such persistent inequalities develop because one or more categorical attributes—such as race, class, religion, sex, or sexual orientation—arbitrarily reduces individuals’ access to the cultural, social, political, or economic capital that enables others to succeed and thrive.
When democracy functions well, governments adopt policies that undermine patterns of durable inequality. Robust welfare arrangements help people to take risks to better themselves—such as leaving their jobs to pursue better opportunities—without fear of being crushed by health-care costs or consumer debt, or being unable to feed themselves or their families. These policies help to facilitate labor mobility and entrepreneurship; they enhance the bargaining power of labor relative to capital.
More broadly, progressives worry about the concentration of power in the hands of wealthy individuals, corporations, and sectoral economic interests. Just as the first wave of progressivism targeted trusts, the current progressive wave worries about developing monopolies and cartels, including in the digital economy; industries, such as payday-loan business, that profit by entrenching poverty; government policies that encourage the creation of a new aristocracy; and the political conditions that distort economic, regulatory, and environmental policy in ways that serve private interests rather than the public good.
What does all this mean for progressive approaches to international security and international political economy? To begin with, progressive domestic policy priorities—whether progressives realize it or not—advance crucial national-security and international-economic goals. Some contemporary progressives are unconformable with nationalist rhetoric, especially given Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” But, just as it was in the early twentieth century, the progressive agenda is its own form of a national greatness agenda.
Market evangelicals try to downplay the role of the government in fostering technological innovation and a skilled work force, but they are gravely mistaken. (For example, the Internet really was the result of government initiatives.) Fairy tales of market infallibility obscure the degree that the United States has been coasting on Cold War investments in education, research, and infrastructure that began in the 1950s. In the absence of a renewed commitment on these fronts—what Sean Kay calls “new Sputnik moments”—the United States will find it much more difficult to compete with other international powers, let alone maintain the underlying engines of U.S. military and economic strength.
Even as the U.S. government—driven by the single-minded conservative goal of cutting taxes and redistributing income upward—either unnecessarily limits or outright reduces these investments, countries such as China are putting significant resources behind researchand human-capital development. As political scientist Paul Musgrave put it in a tweet: “The USA is engaged in a period of ‘Great Power Competition’ with a government that invests billions in education, R & D, and infrastructure...by dismantling our colleges, slashing research funding, and letting our bridges and roads crumble.” Investments in infrastructure will both benefit working-class Americans and make the United States more economically competitive down the road. The progressive equality agenda of higher spending on primary and secondary education, free or affordable college education, and robust social insurance is crucial to American security and prosperity.
The progressive equality agenda is crucial to American security and prosperity.
It is not enough, however, just to note that progressive domestic priorities will improve the United States’ international position. The left also needs a foreign policy vision that points to a clear internationalist agenda. By their nature, progressive values are not specific to the U.S. political system. These values include special obligations to the members of one’s own political community, but progressivism entails duties, and lasting commitments, beyond borders. If it did not, progressives would have no moral basis for objecting to, for example, U.S. violations of human rights and complicity in mass violence abroad. No progressive movement worth its salt is indifferent to the fate of its values outside of the United States.
Progressives simply cannot afford to be indifferent. First, the United States cannot fight inequality at home by resorting to classic protectionism. This will not only hurt the poor and middle class, who will pay more for daily expenses. It will also provide opportunities for the extraction of rents by powerful corporate interests and risks leaving the United States economically isolated. We are already seeing some of these dynamics at play as Trump imposes tariffs on both friends and rivals, who are now building trade networks that bypass the United States. Progressives also cannot ignore the role of economic globalization in producing substantial reductions in world poverty over the last decades. The question, accordingly, should not be whether trade in itself is desirable, but whether we want trade with or without progressive characteristics. Moreover, it is possible to construct tax and social-insurance policies that capture more of the gains from trade and redistribute them broadly in society, as we see in Nordic social democracies.
The question, accordingly, should not be whether trade in itself is desirable, but whether we want trade with or without progressive characteristics.
Second, the development of globalized, transnational oligarchy and kleptocracy requires progressivism to adopt an internationalist outlook. The Paul Manafort trial provided a stark example of how the liberal international order facilitates the movement of capital across borders—not just in the form of legitimate investment but via shell companies whose owners remain hidden. In turn, shell companies facilitate both corporate and individual tax avoidance, via offshore trusts and money laundering through perfectly legal mechanisms such as real estate transactions and the purchase of luxury goods. International service providers such as bankers, accountants, lawyers, wealth managers, second-citizenship providers and real estate brokers enable these transactions, creating an increasingly globalized system of corruption and concentration of wealth.
All of this undermines progressive politics even in democratic countries by, among other things, coopting what should be mechanisms of public accountability and civil society: the media, think tanks, law firms, and public relations campaigns. Because, in part, Americans are losing the ability to distinguish between politics as usual and creeping kleptocracy—especially when the new oligarchs are ideological fellow travelers—the United States is in much more danger than many realize. Moreover, progressives should find themselves at least as alarmed by the prospect of foreign oligarchs attempting to influence U.S. politics and policy—including ending anti-corruption sanctions—as they are by the unhealthy influence enjoyed by domestic economic elites.
Indeed, absent meaningful campaign finance reform, the ease through which transnational dark money can find its way into U.S. politics—and into U.S.-based groups such as the National Rifle Association—poses a fundamental challenge to the country’s democratic system. Russia is only one—and far from the wealthiest—of the authoritarian states able to exploit these kinds of vulnerabilities. And Washington is too tempting a target for oligarchs and authoritarian capitalist regimes to ignore. Why confront the United States on the battlefield or the negotiation table when you can exploit its domestic political cleavages and elect those whose policy preferences serve your own ends?
In addition to reforms aimed at making the United States less vulnerable to political manipulation, progressives should back several current policy proposals—many of which began as bipartisan efforts but have since lost momentum. These include ending the secrecy of all U.S.-based LLCs, creating a national database of beneficial owners, and expanding the scope of the Treasury Department’s Geographic Targeting Orders that mandate title insurance providers to identify the individuals who pay all-cash for luxury residential real estate purchases in major markets. The United States should also support and help expand anti-kleptocracy measures in the United Kingdom and other Western ally governments, such as the freezing of financial assets through “unexplained wealth orders” of individuals who attempt to launder dirty money within Western financial systems. Clamping down on global grand corruption is an agenda very much in the jurisdiction of the United States and its democratic allies. Ultimately, transnational oligarchy requires multilateral solutions, and these will not come about without U.S. leadership and close cooperation with other advanced industrialized democracies. The United States, especially in concert with Europe and Japan, still has the international financial and economic power to address the globalization of oligarchy and kleptocracy.
Third, these dynamics are not entirely separate from the grave threat to progressive values posed by the rising political power of ethnonationalist, post-fascist, and neofascist movements, especially in Europe and North America. Progressives must recognize that there is a very good chance that we are in a moment of fundamental crisis, featuring coordination among right-wing movements throughout the West, and with the Russian government as a sponsor and supporter. Although many progressives have started to take this state of affairs very seriously, too much of the left’s thinkingon the subject remains locked into paradigms developed during the Cold War. Progressives need to adapt not only to a world where capitalist, kleptocratic authoritarian states present the alternative model to liberal democracy but one in which some of those states are themselves implicated in advancing virulently anti-progressive political movements. Meeting these challenges does not require feeding the military-industrial complex, but it does necessitate a willingness to take a firm stance against efforts to undermine democracy and to destabilize the security infrastructure—including NATO—that holds together the advanced industrialized democracies. It also requires that the next Democratic administration work with left, centrist, and center-right forces in Europe and Asia to strengthen democratic institutions.
Finally, progressives cannot ignore longer-term shifts in the geopolitical environment. In the face of these shifts, the United States’ partnerships with most of the world’s second-tier great powers remain its greatest asset. Progressives should commit to mitigating the damage inflicted on those relationships by the Trump administration, especially since the rise of other powers makes those partnerships even more essential for achieving progressive goals. Still, the challenges posed by changes in the distribution of power also provide opportunities for progressives to advance their international values. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers the vision of hundreds of billions of dollars in much-needed spending to upgrade global infrastructure in developing countries. Rather than pressure the International Monetary Fund to block debt relief in BRI recipient countries, the United States should more aggressively recommit to an agenda that takes issues such as transparency, environmental protection, and labor protections as part of the overall practice of international development.
A new progressive internationalism can overcome the divisions between liberal internationalists and anti-hegemonists. Much of the debate between those two camps involves endless relitigation of the pros and cons of U.S. foreign policy and order-building after the Second World War. There is much to be learned from clear-eyed assessments of what the United States has done wrong—and what it’s done right—since 1945. But the task is to develop a progressive internationalism for today. To do that, American progressives need to ask themselves two questions: what do they want the international order to look like, and what are the best ways to nudge world politics in that direction?
Progressives face powerful headwinds, both at home and abroad. The United States enjoys less leverage in international affairs today than it did in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, and that leverage is only likely to diminish over time. This means that progressives should aim high, be prepared for a hard fight, seek to form partnerships with those who share their beliefs in other countries—to match those networks forming around the forces of reaction—and recognize that American power and influence can, if used in ways consistent with our values when it comes to both ends and means, be a force for building a more progressive international order.