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Meet the Cold War Liberals

They see a new Iron Curtain dividing right-wing authoritarianism and the democratic values embodied by American and Euro progressives.

Democratic presidential hopefuls, Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Before Donald Trump’s election, many progressive foreign policy thinkers were simpatico with conservative and centrist realist thinkers. “Progressive realism begins with the cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: The purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests,” wrote Robert Wright in The New York Times in 2006. Sherle R. Schwenninger was a founder of the New America Foundation and one of those progressive foreign policy thinkers. “The progressive realist critique…,” he stated, “centered around international law; non-intervention; disarmament; and winding down the worst excesses of the post-9/11 period.”

Progressive realists didn’t really disagree with other realists about the importance of those things, though they did also stress that economics played a large role in the country’s out-of-control foreign policy. They blamed the U.S. commitments to liberal hegemony, regime change, democracy promotion, and neoliberal economics for the twin disasters of the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis. Whatever one thinks of that critique, it is true that the Bush administration’s bequest of worldwide instability, a revived Islamist threat, and a new Cold War-like arms rivalry, did not serve U.S. national interests.

You can hear echoes of progressive realism in the statements of leading progressive lawmakers such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Ro Khanna. They have put ending America’s support for the Saudi war on Yemen near the top of the progressive foreign policy agenda. On the stump, Sanders now singles out the military-industrial complex and the runaway defense budget for criticism. He promises, among other things, that “we will not continue to spend $700 billion a year on the military.” These are welcome developments. Yet since November of 2016, something else has emerged alongside the antiwar component of progressive foreign policy that is not so welcome. Let’s call it neoprogressive internationalism, or neoprogressivism for short. 

Trump’s administration brought with it the Russia scandal. To attack the president and his administration, critics revived Cold War attitudes. This is now part of the neoprogressive foreign policy critique. It places an “authoritarian axis” at its center. Now countries ruled by authoritarians, nationalists, and kleptocrats can and must be checked by an American-led crusade to make the world safe for progressive values. The problem with this neoprogressive narrative of a world divided between an authoritarian axis and the liberal West is what it will lead to: ever spiraling defense budgets, more foreign adventures, more Cold Wars—and hot ones too.

Unfortunately, Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have adopted elements of the neoprogressive program. At a much remarked upon address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the site of Churchill’s 1946 address, Sanders put forth a vision of a Manichean world. Instead of a world divided by the “Iron Curtain” of Soviet Communism, Sanders sees a world divided between right-wing authoritarians and the forces of progress embodied by American and Western European progressive values.

“Today I say to Mr. Putin: We will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world,” Sanders said. “In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”

A year later, Sanders warned that the battle between the West and an “authoritarian axis” which is “committed to tearing down a post-Second World War global order that they see as limiting their access to power and wealth.” Sanders calls this “a global struggle of enormous consequence. Nothing less than the future of the—economically, socially and environmentally—is at stake.”

Sanders’s focus on this authoritarian axis is one that is shared with his intraparty rivals at the Center for American Progress (a think-tank long funded by some of the least progressive regimes on the planet), which he has pointedly criticized for smearing progressive Democrats like himself. CAP issued a report last September about “the threat presented by opportunist authoritarian regimes” which “urgently requires a rapid response.”

The preoccupation with the authoritarian menace is one Sanders and CAP share with prominent progressive activists who warn about the creeping influence of what some have cynically hyped as an “authoritarian Internationale.”

Cold War Calling

Senator Warren spelled out her foreign policy vision in a speech at American University in November 2018. Admirably, she criticized Saudi Arabia’s savage war on Yemen, the defense industry, and neoliberal free trade agreements that have beggared the American working and middle classes.

“Foreign policy,” Warren has said, “should not be run exclusively by the Pentagon.” In the second round of the Democratic primary debates, Warren also called for a nuclear “no first use” policy.

And yet, Warren too seems in thrall to the idea that the world order is shaping up to be one in which the white hats (Western democracies) must face off against the black hats (Eurasian authoritarians). Warren says that the “combination of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism” of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China “is a fundamental threat to democracy, both here in the United States and around the world.”

Warren also sees a rising tide of corrupt authoritarians “from Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Brazil,” where “wealthy elites work together to grow the state’s power while the state works to grow the wealth of those who remain loyal to the leader.”

The concern with the emerging authoritarian tide has become a central concern of progressive writers and thinkers. “Today, around the world,” write progressive foreign policy activists Kate Kinzer and Stephen Miles, “growing authoritarianism and hate are fueled by oligarchies preying on economic, gender, and racial inequality.” 

Daniel Nexon, a progressive scholar of international relations, believes that “progressives must recognize 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.”

Likewise,The Nation’s Jeet Heer lays the blame for the rise of global authoritarianism at the feet of Vladimir Putin, who “seems to be pushing for an international alt-right, an informal alliance of right-wing parties held together by a shared xenophobia.”

Blithely waving away concerns over sparking a new and more dangerous Cold War between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, Heer advises that “the dovish left…shouldn’t let Cold War nightmares prevent them [from] speaking out about it.” He concludes: “Leftists have to be ready to battle [Putinism] in all its forms, at home and abroad.”

The Cold War echoes here are as unmistakable as they are worrying. As Princeton and NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen has written, during the first Cold War, a “totalitarian school” of Soviet studies grew up around the idea “that a totalitarian ‘quest for absolute power’ at home always led to the ‘dynamism’ in Soviet behavior abroad was a fundamental axiom of cold-war Soviet studies and of American foreign policy.”

Likewise, we are seeing the emergence of an “authoritarian school” which posits that the internal political dynamics of regimes such as Putin’s cause them, ineffably, to follow revanchist, expansionist foreign policies.

Cold warriors in both parties frequently mistook communism as a monolithic global movement. Neoprogressives are making this mistake today when they gloss over national context, history, and culture in favor of an all-encompassing theory that puts the “authoritarian” nature of the governments they are criticizing at the center of their diagnosis.

By citing the threat to Western democracies posed by a global authoritarian axis, the neoprogressives are repeating the same mistake made by liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. They buy into the democratic peace theory, which holds without much evidence that a world order populated by democracies is likely to be a peaceful one because democracies allegedly don’t fight wars against one another.

Yet as Richard Sakwa, a British scholar of Russia and Eastern Europe, writes, “it is often assumed that Russia is critical of the West because of its authoritarian character, but it cannot be taken for granted that a change of regime would automatically make the country align with the West.”

George McGovern once observed that U.S. foreign policy “has been based on an obsession with an international Communist conspiracy that existed more in our minds than in reality.” So too the current obsession with the global authoritarians. Communism wasn’t a global monolith and neither is this. By portraying it as such, neoprogressives are midwifing bad policy.

True, some of the economic trends voters in Europe and South America are reacting to are global, but a diagnosis that links together the rise of Putin and Xi, the elections of Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, and Kaczyński in Poland with the right-wing insurgency movements of the Le Pens in France and Farage in the UK makes little sense.

Some of these elected figures, like Trump and Farage, are symptoms of the failure of the neoliberal economic order. Others, like Orban and Kaczyński, are responses to anti-European Union sentiment and the migrant crises that resulted from the Western interventions in Libya and Syria. Many have more to do with conditions and histories specific to their own countries. Targeting them by painting them with the same broad brush is a mistake.

Echoes of Neoconservatism

The progressive foreign policy organization Win Without War includes among its 10 foreign policy goals “ending economic, racial and gender inequality around the world.” The U.S., according to WWW, “must safeguard universal human rights to dignity, equality, migration and refuge.”

Is it a noble sentiment? Sure. But it’s every bit as unrealistic as the crusade envisioned by George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, in which he declared, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

We know full well where appeals to “universal values” have taken us in the past. Such appeals are not reliable guides for progressives if they seek to reverse the tide of unchecked American intervention abroad. But maybe we should consider whether it’s a policy of realism and restraint that they actually seek. Some progressive thinkers are at least honest enough to admit as much that it is not. Nexon admits that “abandoning the infrastructure of American international influence because of its many minuses and abuses will hamstring progressives for decades to come.” In other words, America’s hegemonic ambitions aren’t in and of themselves objectionable or self-defeating, as long as we achieve our kind of hegemony. Progressive values crusades bear more than a passing resemblance to the neoconservative crusades to remake the world in the American self-image.

“Of all the geopolitical transformations confronting the liberal democratic world these days,” writes neoconservative-turned-Hillary Clinton surrogate Robert Kagan, “the one for which we are least prepared is the ideological and strategic resurgence of authoritarianism.” Max Boot also finds cause for concern. Boot, a modern-day reincarnation (minus the pedigree and war record) of the hawkish Cold War-era columnist Joe Alsop, believes that “the rise of populist authoritarianism is perhaps the greatest threat we face as a world right now.”

Neoprogressivism, like neoconservatism, risks catering to the U.S. establishment’s worst impulses by playing on a belief in American exceptionalism to embark upon yet another global crusade. This raises some questions, including whether a neoprogressive approach to the crises in Ukraine, Syria, or Libya would be substantively different from the liberal interventionist approach of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. Does a neoprogressive foreign policy organized around the concept of an “authoritarian axis” adequately address the concerns of voters in the American heartland who disproportionately suffer from the consequences of our wars and neoliberal economic policies? It was these voters, after all, who won the election for Trump.

Donald Trump’s failure to keep his campaign promise to bring the forever wars to a close while fashioning a new foreign policy oriented around core U.S. national security interests provides Democrats with an opportunity. By repeatedly intervening in Syria, keeping troops in Afghanistan, kowtowing to the Israelis and Saudis, ratcheting up tensions with Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and China, Trump has ceded the anti-interventionist ground he occupied when he ran for office. He can no longer claim the mantle of restraint, a position that found support among six-in-ten Americans in 2016.

Yet with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, for the most part the Democratic field is offering voters a foreign policy that amounts to “Trump minus belligerence.” A truly progressive foreign policy must put questions of war and peace front and center. Addressing America’s post 9/11 failures, military overextension, grotesquely bloated defense budget, and the ingrained militarism of our political-media establishment are the proper concerns of a progressive U.S. foreign policy.

But it is one that would place the welfare of our own citizens above all. As such, what is urgently required is the long-delayed realization of a peace dividend. The post-Cold War peace dividend that was envisioned in the early 1990s never materialized. Clinton’s secretary of defense Les Aspin strangled the peace dividend in its crib by keeping the U.S. military on a footing that would allow it to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously. Unipolar fantasies of “full spectrum dominance” would come later in the decade.

One might have reasonably expected an effort by the Obama administration to realize a post-bin Laden peace dividend, but the forever wars dragged on and on. In a New Yorker profile from earlier this year, Sanders asked the right question: “Do we really need to spend more than the next ten nations combined on the military, when our infrastructure is collapsing and kids can’t afford to go to college?”

The answer is obvious. And yet, how likely is it that progressives will be able realize their vision of a more just, more equal American society if we have to mobilize to face a global authoritarian axis led by Russia and China?

FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy

The unipolar world of the first post-Cold War decade is well behind us now. As the world becomes more and more multipolar, powers like China, Russia, Iran, India, and the U.S. will find increasing occasion to clash. A peaceful multipolar world requires stability. And stability requires balance.

In the absence of stability, none of the goods progressives see as desirable can take root. This world order would put a premium on stability and security rather than any specific set of values. An ethical, progressive foreign policy is one which understands that great powers have security interests of their own. “Spheres of influence” are not 19th century anachronisms, but essential to regional security: in Europe, the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere.

It is a policy that would reject crusades to spread American values the world over. “The greatest thing America can do for the rest of the world,” George Kennan once observed, “is to make a success of what it is doing here on this continent and to bring itself to a point where its own internal life is one of harmony, stability and self-assurance.”

Progressive realism doesn’t call for global crusades that seek to conquer the hearts and minds of others. It is not bound up in the hoary self-mythology of American Exceptionalism. It is boring. It puts a premium on the value of human life. It foreswears doing harm so that good may come. It is not a clarion call in the manner of John F. Kennedy who pledged to “to pay any price, bear any burden.” It does not lend itself to the cheap moralizing of celebrity presidential speechwriters. In ordinary language, a summation of such a policy would go something like: “we will bear a reasonable price as long as identifiable U.S. security interests are at stake.”

A policy that seeks to wind down the global war on terror, slash the defense budget, and shrink our global footprint won’t inspire. It will, however, save lives. Such a policy has its roots in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. “In the field of World policy,” said Roosevelt, “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a World of neighbors.”

What came to be known as the “Good Neighbor” policy was further explicated by FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull at the Montevideo Conference in 1933, when he stated that “No country has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.” Historian David C. Hendrickson sees this as an example of FDR’s principles of “liberal pluralism,” which included “respect for the integrity and importance of other states” and “non-intervention in the domestic affairs of neighboring states.”

These ought to serve as the foundations on which to build a truly progressive foreign policy. They represent a return to the best traditions of the Democratic Party and would likely resonate with those very same blocs of voters that made up the New Deal coalition that the neoliberal iteration of the Democratic Party has largely shunned but will sorely need in order to unseat Trump. And yet, proponents of a neoprogressive foreign policy seem intent on running away from a popular policy of realism and restraint on which Trump has failed to deliver. 

James W. Carden is contributing writer for foreign affairs at The Nation and a member of the Board of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.

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