What Is A Progressive Foreign Policy?
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
In 2014, pending an unforeseen disaster, the United States will withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan, putting a symbolic, if not literal, end to a chapter in its foreign policy history. For many students in Claremont today, the aggressive unilateral foreign policy begun under George W. Bush and continued to a lesser degree under Barack Obama is the only US foreign policy they can remember.
It is clear that many progressives oppose this type of foreign policy, and even some of President Obama’s most ardent supporters have trouble squaring their personal views on foreign policy with the realities in the world today. However, in the recent presidential election, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney proposed a radically different foreign policy. The question is then, what will a future progressive foreign policy entail?
According to Phillip Streich, professor of International Relations at Pomona, some of the most important aspects of a progressive foreign policy are multilateral action, respect for international law, support for human rights, support for liberal democratic values, and respect for environmental rights and issues.
“I would have to say that the last time the US had a progressive foreign policy was during the first two years of Jimmy Carter’s first term,” said Streich. During that time, Carter dialed back the tensions of the Cold War and chose instead to focus on upholding human rights, including openly criticizing American allies like South Korea for stifling dissent. However, after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, American foreign policy became much more realist and adversarial towards the Soviet Union and has since left Carter’s focus on human rights behind.
Heather Williams, professor of politics at Pomona College, believes that this new foreign policy, along with the end of the Cold War and the increasing prominence of interstate terrorist and narcoterrorist groups gave rise to a global network of American military bases, the end product of which has been a militarized American foreign policy.
A major stumbling block in forging a progressive foreign policy, the combination of the extremely high monetary costs associated with maintaining a global military presence, and the political costs of being a global hegemon stifles efforts to establish components of a progressive foreign policy. The US spends far too much money on their global network of military bases to commit to an expensive international environmental regime, and the various abuses committed by American soldiers abroad weakens any moral claim the US has on human rights issues.
Using American policy in Latin America as an example of this militarized foreign policy, Professor Williams characterized the American military in the region as “an army in search of a purpose… it has found its purpose in a supply-side War on Drugs, which for the most part has been an absolute disaster for rural communities… and has created widespread resentment towards the United States.”
Respect for international law, said Streich, is another area where the US falls short. Since the creation of the International Criminal Court the US has consistently opposed the organization and has actively tried to undermine it. Obviously, for a court that focuses on human rights abuses and war crimes, not having the country with the strongest military and most global reach as a member is a serious blow to the credibility of the organization.
The role of environmental issues in American foreign policy, or lack thereof, is particularly infuriating to many progressives. In the third US presidential debate, which was ostensibly focused on foreign policy, there was not a single mention of the environment or the topic of climate change. Professor Streich sees this as myopic.
“The greatest threat to American security is climate change,” said Williams. “The United States needs to prioritize issues like access to water. Almost a quarter of all people lack access to clean water.”
Sabina Dewan, Director of Globalization and International Employment at the Center for American Progress, believes that economics and development are key aspects of a progressive foreign policy.
“I think there’s a need, when we talk about progressive foreign policy, to extend the definition to include economic security,” said Dewan. “I think that we’ve seen that economics and national security are closely tied, and in an interconnected global economy we have to think of both.”
However, Dewan is not just talking about the US advancing its own economic interests. She also points out how foreign economic growth benefits the United States.
“When we raise living standards in other parts of the world through creating jobs and development we create greater political and social stability,” said Dewan.
On many fronts, the American foreign policy as it stands is not progressive one. As progressives look forward to the next four years, we must be ready and willing to hold their leaders accountable for the country’s foreign policy and to push for the changes they desire.