Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
One year ago, progressive foreign policy was riding high, or so it seemed. Joe Biden was beginning to deliver on the priorities he had outlined during his presidential campaign, chief among them putting an end to the United States’ “endless wars” and spurring a transition to green energy. Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Climate Accords and pursued bold legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And he launched a review of U.S. global force posture that might have downsized the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. “Major military operations to remake other countries” were out, Biden said; “a foreign policy for the middle class” was in.
Today, however, progressives are losing ground on policy and losing distinctiveness in politics. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration was halting its efforts to scale back U.S. political-military objectives: The force posture review affirmed the status quo, and Biden repeatedly claimed that the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan. The war in Europe accelerated the turn to primacy, setting up the United States to bear mounting financial costs and risk involvement in major conflicts for the foreseeable future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerence, meanwhile, has fractured the American left. In the emotionally charged debate over the war, advocating restraint is alleged to resemble appeasement. On the other side, arming a victim of aggression appears liable to generate blowback and fuel U.S. militarism.
Progressives can count important victories under the Biden administration, including recent legislation that makes historic climate investments. But the past year exposes deficiencies in the project of progressive foreign policy that will only get worse unless they are confronted now. As the United States descends into intense rivalry with China and Russia, progressives can no longer treat great-power competition as a secondary concern. They need to decide where they stand, or else great-power competition will decide for them.
Since the Cold War, U.S. progressives have approached foreign policy from three overlapping but distinct perspectives. The first, and the one arguably best represented in policymaking, seeks to promote democracy and human rights against authoritarianism and atrocity. Like more mainstream liberal internationalists, progressives who espouse this view believe that U.S. power should promote universal values and standards. As progressives, however, they are prone to worry that the United States might violate international rules, abet repression, cause suffering, and benefit elites at the expense of working people. This strain of thought includes a spectrum of figures ranging from Samantha Power, the current USAID administrator, who made her name urging U.S. military intervention to prevent genocide, to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for a global progressive movement to counter the “new authoritarian axis.” They want the United States to be consistent in upholding human rights and building a just world, putting less emphasis on serving U.S. interests or adopting a particular grand strategy.
A second position emphasizes global cooperation, often through global governance. From this perspective, the highest priority for the United States and the world is to address transnational and planetary challenges, such as climate change, pandemic disease, nuclear proliferation, and economic inequality. Global cooperation and internationalism frequently combine, as in the person of former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, who prizes “people-centered policies” above geopolitics while supporting U.S.-led humanitarian interventions. Some cooperators value U.S. military superiority for muting geopolitical conflict and forging collaboration among states. Yet because they prize wide international participation to tackle common problems, global cooperators oppose dividing the world into hostile camps and fault the U.S. alliance system and overuse of coercion for doing just that. Under the rubric of “progressive realism,” for example, the journalist and scholar Robert Wright has championed global governance along with strategic humility and nonintervention.
The third viewpoint takes political-military restraint as its lodestar. Whereas progressive internationalists and global cooperators want to shape the world order to their liking, restrainers are skeptical that such a goal either should be paramount or will be achieved through military preponderance. Instead, they believe the United States’ expansive global military role has become detached from U.S. interests and produces a vicious spiral, constantly generating problems for the United States to try to solve. Progressive restrainers, such as this author, Kate Kizer of the Center for International Policy, and Sarang Shidore of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, often appeal for regional or global cooperation, arguing that geopolitical modesty by the United States could reduce international tensions. Regardless of the prospects for cooperation, however, they maintain that the security and well-being of the American people demand extricating the United States from far-flung defense commitments. Otherwise, the national-security state will put armed primacy above all else, preventing the country from acting strategically in a changing world and from meeting its citizens’ needs at home.
Progressives can no longer treat great-power competition as a secondary concern.
These three positions developed during the period when the United States enjoyed unrivaled global dominance after the end of the Cold War. Unipolarity allowed progressives to mix and match elements of each position without much contradiction. One could easily oppose the United States’ brutal wars and illiberal security partnerships in the greater Middle East on grounds of national interests and universal values alike while advocating scaled-up diplomacy on climate change and a slimmed-down Pentagon budget.
Now, however, intensifying strategic rivalry presents progressives with difficult choices. In the worst scenario, internationalists and restrainers could split apart, the former signing up for a prolonged security contest with China and Russia, and the latter opposing it. Cooperators, meanwhile, could dwindle as global divisions deepen even though planetary threats worsen. Yet a crackup on the left would be unfortunate, and it should be avoidable. The question is how to integrate progressives’ three perspectives and set priorities among them.
Progressive internationalism retains considerable appeal in a world of public discontent, zealous nationalisms, and authoritarian ascent. Democracies need to find better ways to deliver for their people in an interconnected world. The Biden administration has taken several steps toward this goal. Last year it got more than 130 countries to agree to impose a global minimum tax, which would prevent corporations from moving jurisdictions to evade their public obligations, although the United States is not yet in compliance. Likewise, the war in Ukraine spurred the United States and Europe to crack down on illicit finance connected to Russian elites, thereby demonstrating that public authorities can counter kleptocracy when the political will exists.
Over the past six months, progressives have rightly supported Ukraine’s fight to defend itself. Even those calling for a diplomatic resolution to the war have nonetheless maintained that “Russia’s blatant aggression,” in the words of two Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders, merits a robust U.S. response. At the same time, progressives should ask themselves how closely they are willing to align with advocates of long-term strategic rivalry with China and Russia. For decades, progressives have contended that the United States should spend less money on the military in order to fund social welfare at home. If inflation endures, this argument may finally gain purchase: Americans will for the first time in decades have to choose between guns and butter.
But if the United States continues to underwrite the defense of allies and partners in Asia and Europe simultaneously, even as the risk of conflict rises in each region, it is virtually impossible to imagine the Pentagon budget declining from current levels—and easy to imagine it ballooning to well over $1 trillion per year. Congress is already working to increase defense spending for 2023 on top of the $9.9 billion it has sent to Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. This month, Democratic senators, as well as the Independent Sanders, were unanimous in backing the enlargement of NATO to include Finland and Sweden. On its face, this decision will increase the United States’ military burdens by turning the 830-mile Finnish-Russian land border into a defense responsibility of the United States.
In addition, great-power competition complicates internationalists’ efforts to promote democracy and human rights impartially. Beijing and Moscow are engaged in highly objectionable domestic and international practices and are moving in an even more repressive direction. Progressives will condemn these governments’ depredations, but if a neo–cold war takes hold, a relentless cycle of accusations and counteraccusations could make China and Russia ever more suspicious and aggressive, generating a feedback loop that rewards the most extreme voices in each country—and in the United States.
Moreover, progressives could lose what makes them distinctive: their willingness to hold their own government to the standards it preaches. Progressives have long argued, with little success, that the United States should stop partnering with illiberal and rights-abusing regimes in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. U.S. policymakers will become only more reluctant to back away from the United States’ more unsavory alliances in the face of Chinese and Russian competition. This was one reason why Biden recently traveled to the Middle East to bump fists with Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, signaling a return to business as usual with the region’s autocrats. And if the White House changes hands and Donald Trump or a Trump-esque Republican becomes president in 2025, the United States will become even less likely to act systematically to advance liberal democratic principles.
For these reasons, restraint remains valuable, not just in its own right but as part of progressive foreign policy. Recently, restrainers have found themselves on the back foot amid an outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians and outrage at Russia’s brutality: the moment has rewarded flag-waving moral clarity rather than the caution and consequentialism urged by advocates for U.S. restraint. Restrainers might get a fuller hearing in the coming months and years as the war in Ukraine drags on and reaches an almost inevitably less than satisfying conclusion. More profoundly, the factors that have elevated restraint over the past decade—the costs of an overreaching and unachievable U.S. foreign policy and the demand for more “nation-building right here at home,” as President Barack Obama put it—are likely to become more salient as Americans confront the prospect of catastrophic war with the world’s number two power, China, or a first-rank nuclear power, Russia.
The U.S. public and its representatives in Congress will not easily accept the need to fight a war likely to cause mass casualties or a recession. Accustomed to dealing with minor threats from small states and terrorist groups, the U.S. political system has been slow to adjust to this reality. This inertia gives progressives an opportunity to drive the national debate by laying out the consequences of great-power war. At this late date, there remains room to shape U.S. politics before the moment of crisis arrives. Despite overwhelmingly supporting Ukraine, few Americans favor sending U.S. forces into the fight. Biden has rightly ruled out that option, warning of “World War III.” And although a Pew Research Center poll taken in March made headlines for revealing that a whopping 82 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of China, it also found that only one-quarter of the public sees China as an enemy, with most preferring to describe it as a competitor.
To succeed, progressives, who prefer to speak the language of values, should not shy away from talking about the national interest. To some on the left, that phrase can sound like narrow nationalism. In fact, it expresses the public good in an international context. As competition with China and Russia unfolds and exposes Americans to larger risks and costs, it will be essential to show why overreach would harm the people whom U.S. foreign policy is supposed to serve, and why a principled and restrained approach would make them safer. A hardheaded progressivism is not a concession to right-wing nationalism but the antidote to it, robbing demagogues of the specter of a naive, anti-American “globalism” to decry.
There remains room to shape U.S. politics before the moment of crisis arrives.
Finding a prominent place for interests in addition to values also suggests a way forward on the global challenges of climate change and pandemics. Progressives of all stripes agree that these problems must be combated urgently on the planetary scale at which they occur. Yet it now seems easier to envision the world successfully transitioning to green energy and preparing for the next pandemic than to imagine China, Russia, and the United States establishing a predominantly cooperative relationship. Although universal cooperation should be advanced where possible, solutions may equally be found through competitive measures—domestic investments in renewable energy, a Western carbon-taxing alliance, and G-7 financing to green the “global South,” for instance. Global cooperators should instead become problem solvers, aiming not to transcend power politics but to work through it.
Little more than a century ago, as war convulsed Europe, progressives in the United States considered how to respond and tore themselves apart. By 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive reformer, decided to abandon neutrality. The United States, he announced, had “no selfish ends to serve”; it would enter the war against Germany to make the world “safe for democracy.” The progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne, who held up the United States’ multicultural identity as the basis for a new internationalism, did not agree. Declaring irony to be dead, he assailed “this willingness of the American intellect to open the sluices and flood us with the sewage of the war spirit.” Historians often date the end of the Progressive era to the end of World War I, in part because the conflict fractured the movement.
That clash echoes now. Progressives are far less sharply divided on foreign policy than they were then. Nevertheless, some of the same basic tensions—between shaping conditions overseas and building democracy at home, between serving universal ends and avoiding imperial hubris—still roil the left and will be felt more acutely as the stakes of foreign-policy choices grow. This is all the more reason for progressives to develop their ideas on strategic rivalry straight away and articulate their differences forthrightly and respectfully. A vital progressive movement will not be single-minded. And it will not hesitate to orient itself to the problems of today and tomorrow.
Rivalry With China and Russia Reinforces the Real Causes of American Decline