What Does a Progressive Foreign Policy Look Like? A Chance for Peace | Opinion

As Republicans settle into a slim and fractured majority in the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), now including nearly half of all House Democrats, is reportedly preparing a policy agenda for the years ahead. Among the priorities of the CPC is the development of a new progressive foreign policy vision, which has often been regarded as a troublesome weakness for the left.

In particular, the war in Ukraine has exposed deep antinomies within the existing progressive approach to foreign policy. Despite usually being regarded as anti-interventionists, progressives have been hesitant to criticize the Biden administration's approach toward arming Ukraine while foregoing direct negotiations with Russia. In October, a now-infamous letter from CPC members calling for diplomacy with Russia was quickly retracted and ungraciously blamed on staffers. Furthermore, a number of prominent commentators have urged progressives to embrace the Ukraine war as a necessary defense of democratic values.

Progressives have been hesitant to challenge the Biden administration for several reasons. The first is an internalized fear of handicapping a Democratic administration by pressuring it from the left, even when it would be both popular and prudent to do so. The second is the effect which "Russiagate" had in tying political opposition to Donald Trump to an instinctual enmity towards Russia in the minds of many liberals, despite the scandal proving to be essentially baseless. A third reason is the pressure Democrats feel to not be perceived as wimps, a reputation which—for better or often worse—has little historical justification when reviewing the wars of the past century.

Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Chair of Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), speaks during a news briefing at the 2022 House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference on March 10, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alex Wong/Getty Images

But the fundamental obstruction to a progressive foreign policy agenda is an inability to distinguish domestic and international politics as radically distinct realms imposing a completely different set of constraints on political actors.

The existence of a functional and developed state at the national level allows a democratic government to exercise legitimate authority towards particular social, political, and economic ends. The absence of a supervening authority at the international level severely limits this kind of agency. The post-Cold War period, during which the United States possessed an unprecedented degree of power in the world, led many to erroneously believe that the "liberal international order" was a kind of soft world government built on the rule of law, with the United States as its indispensable police force. But the international system is beyond the control of any single state, even one as powerful as the U.S. at the height of its relative power.

Given the world as it exists, this means that a national security strategy whose foremost priority is the universal spread of democracy and human rights puts the U.S. into intractable confrontation with much of the world. Foreign intrusions into internal governance are generally regarded, not only by governments, but by peoples, as illegitimate impositions to be resisted. Unless progressives wish to manage a perpetual condition of omnidirectional war, a different framework must guide American foreign policy.

There is a better, if imperfect and perhaps emotionally unsatisfying alternative provided by realism and restraint. Below are a few guiding principles that would do more to advance progressive principles than the current bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

First, the only legitimate democratic mandate possessed by the American government is endowed by and in the service of its own citizens. American foreign policy should therefore set the security of the American people as its foremost priority, and be sober in its assessment of what do—and just as importantly, what do not—constitute threats to America's vital security interests. As Stephen Wertheim has put it, this is not "narrow nationalism," but rather the advancement of "the public good in an international context."

Secondly, in managing our relations with other states, we should seek to maintain regional balances of power rather than insert ourselves militarily into far-flung regions to act as a pacifier. Whenever possible, we should seek to find a modus vivendi with other states, even those whose systems of government we dislike. The U.S. need not be the gendarme of the world to remain engaged with it productively and effectively. A wise policy would seek to maintain a "free hand" while "passing the buck" to regional actors to maintain their own security, rather than picking favorites based on ideology or inertia.

Third, when considering how American power should be used abroad, we should abide by the doctor's maxim of "first do no harm." Military interventions rarely result in more humanitarian outcomes than non-intervention. Sanctions usually fail to change state behavior, while breeding misery, enmity, and greater dependence on the regime among the target state's population. Countries must develop according to their own internal social processes. Popular movements that cannot assume power on their own will not be able to hold it and sustainably govern on their own. The artificial attempt to substitute American military power for popular power will either leave the country a permanent protectorate, a failed state, or simply waste an enormous amount of blood for an eventual return to the status quo ante bellum.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, rather than pursuing the costly and self-defeating endeavor to spread democracy and human rights through military threats and sanctions, we should instead reallocate more of our attention and resources towards the betterment of our own society to serve as a model that other states would seek to emulate out of their own self-interest. Crusades to make the world "safe for democracy" merely tend to erode democracy and civil liberties at home while provoking resentment and hostility abroad.

Progressives should be among the foremost champions of these principles. A restraint coalition requires an assertive left. Republicans have been as hawkish on China and Iran as Democrats have tended to be towards Russia, so restraint is not likely to be a single-party issue for some time to come. Progressives have cooperated with Republicans on issues like ending support for the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, or on limiting further increases to the defense budget. As they lay their plans for the next election cycle, progressives should buck the establishment and help forge a wiser American foreign policy for the coming years and beyond.

Christopher McCallion is a Non-Resident Fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.