With Joe Biden leading in the polls and Republicans in trouble in the Senate, progressives are hoping for the sort of political revolution that Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater delivered. Biden has raced left, abandoning many of the positions which gave him his moderate reputation. If victorious, the aging, oft befuddled candidate seems likely to reign rather than govern, allowing energetic left-wing activists to drive his agenda.
However, while the portside shift is pronounced on domestic issues, Biden has made few concessions on foreign policy. Although an advocate of lower troop levels in Afghanistan, he backed the Iraq War and showed no dissent to the Obama administration’s other Middle Eastern misadventures.
Other than denounce the vile Saudi regime and promise to re-engage Iran, he has given no indication that his foreign policy would look radically different in substance than that of President Donald Trump. Rather, the Democrat’s focus is style and image. Biden promises to be much nicer to America’s cheap-riding allies, which likely means increasing subsidies for, deployments to, and entanglements with prosperous, populous countries that prefer to rely on Washington than spend their own money on their own defense. For reasons obvious only to themselves, self-avowed progressives have adopted this for their agenda as well.
No doubt such an approach would be welcomed overseas, since Americans would be taxed even more to indirectly support European welfare states. Yet given progressives’ big spending domestic plans, Americans would be stuck paying twice, since they, not the Europeans, would be expected to underwrite more generous social programs in the US There is nothing genuinely "liberal" in forcing the American people to support residents of prosperous industrial societies able to pay their own way.
The Democrats’ reflexive insistence that Washington should forever whisper sweet nothings in the ears of overseas military dependents, treated as permanent fixtures of the universe, makes no sense. Progressives may have fallen into a trap similar to that which captured President Donald Trump: Just as he figured he had to automatically reverse whatever President Barack Obama did, they appear determined to reverse whatever Trump did.
Unfortunately, establishment Democrats – think Biden, Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and members of what Ben Rhodes famously termed "The Blob," the permanent DC foreign policy elite – often disagree little from their right-wing, neoconservative, warmongering counterparts. For instance, Biden, Kerry, and Clinton backed the Iraq war. Obama and Clinton also gave America escalation in Afghanistan, nearing its 20th year, and intervention in the Libyan civil war, which rages on a decade later.
Obama and Kerry backed Washington’s reentry into Iraq along with Syria to fight the Islamic State, involvement in Syria to try to oust the Assad government, and intervention, as an ally of the oppressive and aggressive Saudi regime, in Yemen, inflaming sectarian tensions and creating a humanitarian catastrophe. All maintained a policy of isolation toward North Korea, which merely yielded a larger nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration spent more on the military than did the Bush administration.
None of these policies should be a starting point for progressives. Indeed, Democratic partisans were in the bizarre position of warning against the threat of nuclear war with North Korea in fall 2017 and then denouncing negotiations with the same regime in spring 2018. At least genuinely liberal activists and officials recognize that reflexive opposition to Trump will not work in the Koreas. They credit Trump for turning to diplomacy with the North, while complaining that the president collected nothing for his effort.
Biden said that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un with "conditions." If that means the standard US demand for complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization before sanctions relief, his approach will remain a dead-end. The Left should similarly reconsider Democratic conventional wisdom favoring endless war and nation-building in the Middle East, impoverishment and starvation as the weapons of choice against Iran and Syria, demonization of Russia as the second coming of Stalin’s Soviet Union or even Hitler’s Germany, growing militarization of relations with China, and more.
What, then, should characterize a progressive foreign policy?
It should begin with the American people. Liberal internationalism rightly points to interests beyond this nation’s shores. However, the foundation of US foreign policy should be representing those who do the paying, with their money and lives, for government policy abroad. Treating war as an eleemosynary exercise – as suggested by Madeleine Albright’s infamous question to Colin Powell, why liberal crusaders shouldn’t be able to use America’s wonderful military to remake the world – is an act of high arrogance which ignores the reality of war.
Albright & Co. might view US military personnel as gambit pawns to be sacrificed on a global chessboard, but that attitude forgets that Washington’s foreign policy ultimately should represent the American people, not the D.C. elite. Such arrogance also undermines the public support necessary for any policy to succeed.
Concern over people should extend to foreigners, the targets of US military action. Of course, many of the regimes challenged by Washington are odious – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya. However, America’s wars are not selective in choosing their victims. Innocents, collaborators, and criminals alike typically are vulnerable. Many Iraqi soldiers seeking to escape back to Iraq on the infamous "highway of death" in 1991 were conscripts, not officers. More recently, the Obama and Trump administrations made Americans accomplices to murder and mayhem by aiding Saudi Arabia’s shameless aggression against Yemen, which appeared to target civilians.
Worse are the consequences when society and system implode. For instance, in Yemen social services have collapsed while human needs have exploded, with the majority of people now in need of outside aid.
The confirmed number of civilian dead in Iraq during the sectarian conflict following America’s 2003 invasion exceeds 200,000. Estimates of the actual number of dead range up to a million. Most of these casualties had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Economic sanctions can have similar consequences. When asked about the deaths of a half million Iraqi babies due to the West’s economic war against the Hussein government, then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright replied: "We think the price is worth it." American policymakers like her act as if they have received divine approval to decide on life and death around the world.
Progressives should see military alliances as a means to an end, enhancing US security. Multilateral cooperation should be a key element of US foreign policy, and there is much that like-minded states can do together. However, security guarantees as presently understood tend to be an extreme form of unilateralism with an international patina, in which Washington defends other nations as well as itself, while dominating "multilateral" policy.
In practice, the arrangement runs almost entirely one-way. Although some US allies have contributed forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, that was mainly to keep Washington from questioning its overriding role in protecting them against big threats – Russia and North Korea for NATO and the Korean alliance, respectively. If Moscow and Washington end up in a major confrontation, most European countries will either be makeweights (only a half dozen have militaries with some punch) or run in the reverse direction (polls show few Europeans want to fight for their neighbors). The only plausible scenario in which America and North Korea end up at war involves defense of South Korea, while Seoul would not get involved in any other conflict, even between the US and China, unless the South was attacked.
America should stop treating allies like Facebook friends, to be constantly accumulated in order to accumulate more than anyone else. Why bring Montenegro into NATO? Why talk about inducting countries in conflict with nuclear-armed Russia, most notably Georgia and Ukraine? Instead, Washington should extend alliances only if there are truly vital interests at stake. There is nothing liberal in risking the American homeland for other nations, no matter how sympathetic they may be. And the danger to America grows as its adversaries believe their vital interests to be at risk and their only means to match US conventional power is to brandish nuclear weapons. For this reason Moscow’s nuclear threshold likely is lower than Washington’s, which makes any confrontation even more dangerous.
It is not isolationist to suggest that prosperous, populous allies should defend themselves. Foreign policy is prudential, highly dependent on circumstances. Europe has some 11 times the GDP and three times the population of Russia; Italy alone has a larger GDP than the supposed colossus to the east preparing to sweep across Europe to the Atlantic. If the US steps in, it should be when friendly nations are unable to defend themselves. That certainly is not the case with Europe, which treats its place on America’s defense dole as a convenient entitlement. The more money the US spends to defend wealthy allies, the less resources are available for domestic programs.
Alliances are expected to deter, of course, but they also entangle. And they discourage self-help. Why do Europeans lag behind America on military spending? Most do not fear Russia. And most also expect the US to take care of any problems. So as major welfare dependents, why would they voluntarily take over responsibility for their own futures? Even the greatest sacred totem of US foreign policy, NATO, requires a rethink.
China could be primarily contained by America’s allies and friends. Notably, the People’s Republic of China does not threaten the US militarily. No one imagines a Chinese carrier task force heading toward Hawaii or the West Coast. Rather, the PRC is seeking to impose its version of the Monroe Doctrine and prevent Washington from intervening against Beijing in its neighborhood. That is a "threat" to America’s influence, not security, and is best countered by empowered local states – Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia spending more on defense, cooperating with one another, and working with nearby rising powers, most notably India. They could deter Beijing just as the PRC is seeking to deter America.
Finally, in developing US foreign policy, liberals should treat military action as a last resort. Even Democratic presidents, most recently Obama and Clinton, appeared to see the military as an all-purpose means to achieve multiple ends. However, as the world’s most consequential nation – with the most important economy, most expansive soft power, most effective military, most protected geography – America has many tools including moral suasion, diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks, international influence, and military prowess. U.S. policymakers have tended to reach for bombs and soldiers because Washington is so far ahead in that regard.
No matter how humanitarian in theory the intended military intervention, the consequences of war rarely turn out as expected. Even under the best circumstances, war is far better at destroying that creating. And circumstances rarely are best.
Almost all conflicts have unexpected turns and generate dangerous and unexpected blowback. The costs of errors and mistakes resulting from expected "cakewalks" like Iraq can be almost unlimited. Imagine a war with North Korea in which the North is able to drop nuclear bombs on Seoul, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. The price of any American victory would be catastrophically high, beyond Pyrrhic.
Indeed, it is worth asking what could justify such a disastrously costly fight. The answer could very well be nothing. It is imperative to realistically consider the likely costs. Aggressors almost always and all participants frequently mistakenly expect conflicts to be cheap and quick. Everyone believed World War I would be short: over four years upwards of 20 million people were killed and even more were wounded. The US Civil War was expected to be a short, local commotion. It ended up costing about 750,000 lives, the equivalent of eight million Americans today. Had anything close to such costs been expected beforehand, these wars would not have been fought.
The Trump foreign policy has been a disaster at many levels. However, the president’s criticism of "endless wars" and engagement with North Korea were well-intended, even though incompletely or badly implemented. Progressives need to develop a better approach, but that requires breaking with the Obama and Clinton as well as Trump administrations. All three meddled when they should have restrained and misused the military for no good purpose. Genuine liberalism requires a new foreign policy vision.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.