The Brood: American Progressives take strong moral stances on human rights in the areas of feminism, sexuality, racial diversity, and voting rights. Why don’t they have a similarly cohesive message on foreign policy?
Originally, I was going to write today’s article about Trump’s current trip to Asia — which you can get a summary of here. I was going to talk about what he is doing there, and why it is important. But as I began to write, I realized that few people would read it. And I mean, really read it. The reason, as most things these days, is a deeply fundamental one.
It’s because Americans, largely, don’t care about foreign policy. They would prefer America focus on its own problems, and let the rest of the world muddle through. Paradoxically, a slight majority still believe the US should stay the world’s superpower. In this sense, Trump is actually in lockstep with the electorate, and so his foreign policy is likely to meet little resistance, even from Progressives. Why is this happening?
Several things have conspired in recent decades to make Americans at worst apathetic about foreign policy, and at best cynical. One of them is the education system. In 2014 the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released a report that showed the vast majority of 8th graders don’t have even proficient knowledge of American geography, civics or history. This means they enter college, and the workforce, without a basic grasp of America’s unique global position, what it offers the world, and what pitfalls that may have.
When they get to college, the financialization and commodification of universities means that students encounter a toxic combination of higher tuitions and cotton candy curriculums. Not particularly helpful in forging a new foreign policy vision.
Neoconservatives & The Scars of Iraq
Progressives, like the rest of the country, have (rightly) been traumatized by the mistakes of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. This is particularly true of Millennials, who were given rosy pictures of a benevolent America in the 90s, and came of age when Bush II tried to spread democracy by the bloody sword.
Coupled with the Great Recession, and social movements revealing the depravity of the War on Drugs and other neoliberal, neoconservative projects, Progressives have become deeply cynical about the US-led international order. Desires to expand basic rights enjoyed by Americans to other countries are viewed as corporate trojan horses, or excuses for war and invasion. Full stop.
There is no alternative model being proposed to spread the values of American progressivism abroad. This included the TPP, which aimed to improve labor conditions in Pacific Rim countries. Though progressives had nuanced critiques of the deal, they lacked a fully articulated counter-proposal, which is strange, as labor rights are purportedly a major tenet of the left’s ideals. We seek to protect the worker and consumer at home, but are reticent to project those values abroad.
The Trump Era
The Era of Trump, I hear the reader responding, presents unique challenges to constructing a progressive foreign policy. “Why should I think about foreign countries when my own country is burning to the ground? Why should I think about American values when they are such garbage? What about XYZ American injustice?”
The first thing I’d say to fellow progressives is to not confuse Neoliberal, Reaganite foreign policy with the essence of American values. Today’s American foreign policy is a perversion of the post-WWII order which was designed by progressives like FDR as an anti-colonial, self-deterministic framework. We don’t need to tear it down, we need to rethink how we’re using it.
The second thing I’d say is this: Barack Obama liked to make the point that our liberties are bound up in one another, and that this was true on a global scale. In 2004 he said “If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.” Similarly if there is a journalist in Russia being rounded up, or a worker in Vietnam laboring in poor conditions, or a black American is locked up in mass incarceration — that affects everyone in the world, because these are blueprints for oppression that can be used anywhere.
Spreading democratic norms makes us safer and more prosperous. The challenge of our time is that we seem to be losing them here at home, while losing the drive to strengthen them abroad. It doesn’t have to be this way – we can recognize the failed tactics in democracy building of the last few decades without giving up on building democracies at at home and abroad.
So, a genuine question: Progressives, what is your foreign policy?