Of course, America should be careful about who it brings under our security umbrella. Defense alliances should only include nations that share both our interests and values. Thus, progressives should reject any suggestion to extend our security guarantees to nations like Saudi Arabia, and focus instead on countries that have made a full commitment to democracy and rule of law.
Asecond major critique of the progressive foreign policy outlined by 2020 candidates is that their focus on helping democracy and human-rights causes prevail over the dark forces of demagoguery and despotism sounds very much like Obama’s values-based approach to world leadership. But progressive foreign policy, done correctly, could offer up an entirely new approach to soft power projection that would make our use of soft power much more effective than it was during the Obama administration.
Obama’s first two years in office were largely spent guiding our economy out of a cataclysmic meltdown, and his foreign policy was focused on resetting American strategy in Afghanistan and repairing the reputational damage done to America by the Iraq War. By the time Obama could come up for air, he was dealing with a Republican Congress that politicized every foreign policy crisis (remember when Republicans opposed bombing Syria?), tying Obama’s hands on creative ways to remake America’s role in the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked boldly about smart power projection, but by the time she left Foggy Bottom, she was still stuck deploying the same meager, smart power tools that she inherited.
If progressives wish to change this dynamic, they must radically upscale the non-military capabilities of the U.S. national-security apparatus, and employ them aggressively around the world. Progressives care no less about the security of our nation and our allies than conservatives. They just acknowledge—in a way that neoconservatives do not—that many of the most serious threats to our security are no longer conventional military threats, but non-military menaces like information warfare, climate change, the atrophy of the rule of law, the diffusion of violent extremist ideology, pandemic disease, and tyrant-friendly technology. To adequately protect the United States, we need to join these battles where they exist—and none of them can be met by another aircraft carrier. A national-security budget where we spend 20 times as much money on the military and intelligence agencies as we do on diplomacy, democracy promotion, and smart power, is foreign-policy malpractice in the modern world.
Progressives also need to recognize that there is almost no important domestic progressive value that can be advanced without a foreign-policy complement. You care about repairing America’s broken democracy? Well, the better China gets at exporting the tools of tyrants, and the less check Russia feels on its efforts to manipulate foreign elections, the less healthy our own democracy becomes. You want to focus on immigrant rights? Well, the less involved America is in fixing broken countries in Central America, the more refugees show up at our borders. And guess what? The xenophobic, nationalist movement is, indeed, global. When anti-immigrant parties score victories in Europe, it strengthens the hand of similar movements here. Is your priority the fate of the climate? You can’t save the planet without global engagement. And rejoining the Paris agreement is the easy part. After that, we need a massive global diplomatic effort to get skeptical nations back to the table and convince them to comply.