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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Progressivism + ‘Nonzero’ism = Realism

by Scott Winship
All I have to say today is T.G.I. freakin’ F.
Well, that’s not all I have to say. What I really want to tell you is that last Sunday’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Robert Wright on a new foreign policy doctrine he proposes. I also want to describe it to you. I also want to finish my beer first….
…OK, progressive realism. First the realism part. Like traditional realists, Wright would put American interests first, but would think more broadly (more realistically?) about the costs and benefits of different policy options. Globalization creates non-military threats such as viruses and pollution, and there may be developments within states that threaten our interests even in the absence of immediate military threats. Failing states, for instance. Hence, it is in our interest to promote stability and democracy in a country, even where there is little immediate threat to America.
As Wright notes, this part of his formula may as well have been pulled from The Neoconservative Bible – the neocons have always combined self-interest with their idealistic vision of democracy promotion. But Wright adds to his philosophy a strong faith in the power of markets to promote freedom – rendering forceful democracy promotion unnecessary – and a willingness to submit to the constraints of international institutions in order to get other nations to submit to the same. This is the progressivism.
Wright’s is actually a program that I would support in principle, though of course the details of any implementation of it matter. But it strikes me as the worst of all worlds strategically. I can already picture those parts of the Democratic coalition who oppose the neoliberal consensus of managed international trade building their giant Wright puppets. And the right will wail about acquiescence to the demands of “foreigners” who want to erode our national sovereignty. Maybe they’ll make puppets too.
Wright would counter the objections of the anti-globalization puppet people by arguing that economic interdependence has a pacifying effect on nations, making war more costly. This seems to me one of the best and most honest frames I’ve seen for winning over those who are unmoved by appeals to the theoretical win-win nature of trade, though I’m not sure how persuasive it would ultimately be to the puppet people.
To the nationalists, Wright would make two different appeals. Unfortunately, one is a quasi-isolationist framing in support of multilateralism – arguing that the United States should not bear as much of the costs of fighting terrorism as it does. He asks why we should let the rest of the world free-ride on our military. The neocons would clearly reply that we should do so in order that we are not constrained in our pursuit of American interests.
But the U.S. can’t simply pursue its goals unilaterally without any thought to how its actions will play in other nations, and this is Wright’s second appeal to nationalists. He gravely makes the case for paying attention to how the world sees us:

when you consider the various ways information technology helps terrorists — not just to recruit more fighters to the cause, but to orchestrate attacks and spread recipes for munitions — and you throw in advances in munitions technology, an alarming principle suggests itself: In coming years, grass-roots hatred and resentment of America may be converted into the death of Americans with growing efficiency

There is undoubtedly a tension here between constraint in service of long-term interests and unilateralism in service of our short-term interests. This tension is nowhere clearer than in our dealings with the United Nations, which Wright would utilize heavily. But even if one accepts Wright’s argument for multilateralism, there are good reasons for relying on alternative new or existing institutions instead of the U.N. If we are to be serious about advancing our values, we ought not to put the values of authoritarian leaders and illiberal peoples on an equal footing as those of our liberal allies. What is more, the membership of the Security Council is anachronistic, and the Council more often than not blocks our ability to advance our interests. I’m with Fukuyama on this one – better to use the nascent Community of Democracies or regional alliances [subscr.].
Wright does not shy away from acknowledging the trade-offs that are necessary in any foreign policy, noting that we must prioritize helping nations that are greater threats to us over struggling nations that are strategically unimportant. He also counsels trying to understand our enemies, advice that shouldn’t make him brave but sadly does in our current world.
When it come right down to it, Wright’s program really doesn’t need the “progressive” half of its name – it is realism with a different understanding of costs, benefits, and American interests. Either progressive realism and traditional realism define American interests differently or one of them is wrong about the best way to advance them. Considering that neither really bothers to define American interests, the appropriate strategy depends on which version of realism is the more accurate one. As for the relationship between progressive realism and neoconservatism, given Wright’s willingness to let the trajectory of history expand freedom on its own time, his proposal amounts to democracy promotion…slowly.

One comment on “Progressivism + ‘Nonzero’ism = Realism

  1. David Stinson on

    Interesting enough that Wright makes little effort to apply his philosophy to the greatest foreign-policy issue of our time: terrorism and the radical ideologies associated with it. He is absolutely right that our present strategy of going after the state sponsors is a temporary solution at best. This article returns neoliberalism (it’s not realism, I don’t care what he calls it) to the state it was originally, before the Iraq war. That’s a good start.
    But if neoconservatives have the wrong approach to fighting Islamicist ideologies, we still need a better one. Our approach should come from recognizing that the Islamic world takes example less from their political leaders than from the outsiders they are constantly at war with. We need to work on reforming governments in places around the world where people believe in a seperation of church and state, before we waste our efforts in places (like the Muslim world) where the government is likely to degenerate into a theocracy. This is how we convince Muslims of the neccesity of seperating their politics from religion – which is how Bin Laden justifies his actions to other Muslims – and also how we eventually bring a lasting democracy to that part of the world. Focusing on totalitarian states, like Iraq, within the Muslim world, just looks like we have an outdated Cold War-era conception of threats coming from the left, instead of the right where they are today.
    None of this is inconsistent with Wright’s “progressive realism.” It just takes the logic a couple of steps further.


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