There’s a good reason why rising stars of the progressive left – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and now Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17) – are stumping for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy.
Americans across the political spectrum are fed up with the status quo offered by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, what Ben Rhodes once referred to disparagingly as “The Blob.” But they remain just as skeptical of Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, especially as time reveals the conventional interventionist agenda behind it, stripped this time of its noble pretensions.
According to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, a majority of the American electorate (Democrats, Republicans and independents) believe the U.S. should continue to play a leadership role in world affairs. But when it comes to American exceptionalism, at least insofar as this refers to the interventionist position of the Bush Doctrine and its legacy under Secretary Hillary Clinton, the consensus is considerably less enthusiastic.
This should not come as a surprise. In recent years, support for interventionist wars in the Middle East has reached historic lows. And for good reason. In his detailed analysis for The Nation, US Army strategist Danny Sjursen explains how the last fifteen years of hawkish foreign policy not only contributed to cascading instability and humanitarian disasters across the Middle East, but also significantly compromised America’s strategic interest in the region.
As the veil of Trump’s isolationist rhetoric is lifted, as America turns its attention to pivotal elections in 2018 and 2020, Democrats find a unique opportunity to lead on this issue by offering a new framework for U.S. foreign policy. In any case, if popular discontent does not convince U.S. politicians to abandon the status quo, perhaps historical forces will.
The changing international context
There is growing consensus among foreign policy experts, particularly in America’s transatlantic partner countries, that America’s post-Cold War unipolar moment is over, and that the historical window in which America once emerged as an exceptional superpower has decisively closed.
According to Giovanni Grevi, Senior Fellow at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, the rise of competing great powers has left America with far less room to maneuver, and radically changed the context in which it can pursue strategic interests (not only in the Middle East).
“Since the late nineties and early two-thousands we have seen the rise of emergent powers, and increasing controversy on the part of other countries, Russia and China in particular, regarding the objectives and motivations of Western policies. As a result, there is more constraint on the implementation of Western policies and more opposition to the goals and drivers of American foreign policy on the part of non-Western countries whose importance and clout has been growing.”
The new international order will not be organized around America’s efforts to shape the world in its own image, but by multiple centers of power each one capable of engaging in sheer power and soft power politics on equal footing with the U.S. “This is a more diverse, heterogeneous and contested international system,” argues Mr. Grevi, one that will compel the U.S. to fundamentally rethink its role in the world.
Rather than acting as global policeman with a prerogative to promote democracy through military intervention, the U.S. can best pursue its interests and those of the international community by acting as an “ordinary superpower,” which is to say, as a good-faith multilateral partner with its traditional allies, at the same time willing to engage in dialogue with geopolitical rivals like Russia and China.
Bobo Lo, an Associate Research Fellow with the Russia/NIS Center at the French Institute of International Relations and former head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, argues that America’s unipolar moment never existed in the first place. The concept of American exceptionalism never meant to express the reality of the post-Cold War balance of power so much as satisfy a hubristic worldview according to which America’s self-interest represented the interests of the world as a whole.
“We’re not talking here about the occasional aberration. The aberrations of the West have become so commonplace that many people now view them as the norm…It’s not just that Western exceptionalism is perceived as hypocritical and arrogant. The problem is that when it becomes routine, others are encouraged to give rein to their exceptionalist tendencies. And the result is an increasingly disorderly world.”
From this perspective, the exceptionalist position of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the neoconservative movement won the White House in 2000 has done little more than create a world without international rules. It is in this context, Mr. Lo adds, that Russia is totally unapologetic about its efforts to interfere in Western political process.
“Russia is undoubtedly a huge problem for the West. And it’s important to find ways of countering Russian propaganda and cyber-warfare. That said, Russian soft power is actually very weak. The biggest problem the West faces is itself. What the Russians have done is exploit its failings. So the primary response should be to address our own problems much more effectively.”
In an increasingly diverse, heterogeneous and contested international system, geopolitical rivalries will be won and lost more and more often by a contest of narratives, rather than by sheer power politics. In this scenario, America will never compete while it fails to resolve domestic issues that foreign soft power can easily exploit.
How Democrats can win
Republicans now find themselves caught between Trump’s backwards-looking isolationist rhetoric and an unpopular interventionist status quo. And this opens up new ideological space where Democrats on both sides of the progressive-centrist divide can offer a more forward-looking foreign policy platform.
In practical terms, this means exercising far more restraint with regard to military intervention, investing in principles-based international partnerships (and divesting from those which undermine the West’s human rights agenda), and tackling the problems within America’s own political system – wealth inequality, private campaign finance and the rollback of civil rights – that have led to a critical breakdown of democratic values.
Bernie Sanders is not the only one advocating for a more “progressive” foreign policy position. After winning California’s 17th Congressional District last November, Democrat Ro Khanna now finds himself leading the conversation on Capitol Hill, sponsoring a resolution to de-authorize American military assistance to the Saudi Intervention in Yemen (the resolution passed earlier this month by an overwhelming 366-30). Like Sanders, Khanna ran his campaign on donations from individuals only, refusing contributions from Political Action Committees and corporations.
What foreign policy experts like Giovanni Grevi and Bobo Lo help us to understand is how, in the new international order, it is the connection between these two positions that matters.
[Featured Image by Win McNamee/Getty Images]