12 April 2005

Foreign Policy's Growing Center

Although I can now Google the internet, Google my own computer, and Google my e-mail, I cannot yet Google the contents of my brain. The sheer amount of time I spend each day trying to remember things I know that I know (as opposed to the Rumsfeldian "known unknowns") is a tragic waste. That time, if it could be recaptured through the magic of Google, could be better-spent on other pursuits, like Googling things.

Thus it was that it took me several minutes to recall why much of yesterday's excellent Democracy Arsenal post by Suzanne Nossel, "Top 10 Myths Progressives Need to Let Go of to Regain the Upper Hand on Foreign Policy", seemed so familiar. Eventually I realized that I had seen several of these points a few days earlier in the initial issue of The New Libertarian. For those who are not familiar with these sources, I'll attempt a thumbnail sketch of each:

Democracy Arsenal is the recently-launched blog of the Security and Peace Institute, which, in its own words, "works to advance a responsible U.S. foreign policy based on strong defense, collective security, capable international institutions, and effective promotion of democracy and the rule of law." The Institute is a joint effort of two solidly center-left organizations -- The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.

The New Libertarian is the work of a group of bloggers who collectively tend toward the center-right. These bloggers describe a brand of libertarianism which blends traditional libertarianism's emphasis on personal liberty, free markets, and limited government with muscular foreign policy and "pragmatism" in working with real-world institutions that do not reflect the usual libertarian dogma. In describing "neolibertarians", blogger Jon Henke quotes with approval the words of one of conservatism's patron saints, Irving Kristol: "The welfare state is with us, for better or worse, and . . . conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse."

So where is the common ground between the progressives on the left and the Neolibertarians on the right? In the center, of course. It's that center which has existed in semi-silence as the extremes of both the left and right have shouted one another down over the past several years; it's that center which will remain once the extremes have passed from our national political scene, after the hard left commits political seppuku in their attempt to destroy the hard right and the hard right falls off the end of the flat earth they're creating. Let's take a closer look at three broad aspects of this common ground, as reflected in these two communications:

Forming Productive Alliances

Both camps encourage the United States to form foreign alliances which promote our objectives -- but only for so long as these alliances continue to be productive. Each group distinguishes itself from the traditional political structures from which each is emerging -- the Neolibertarians from traditional libertarianism; the Democracy Arsenal progressives from the Democratic party as it has developed since the Vietnam era.

As with any child moving out from its parent's shadow, these groups have to deal with some philosophical baggage. When it comes to forming foreign alliances, it is the Neolibertarians who seek to put more distance between themselves and their "parent". Bruce McQuain, in The New Libertarian article "Isolation Is Not an Option", recognizes this by starting from Thomas Jefferson's noted advice to his nation that we seek "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entanglement with none"; it is this advice which has been a guiding star for traditional libertarians and which is reflected in the Libertarian Party's current anti-war, isolationist position. What the Neolibertarians counsel is a near-complete break with that "tradition", in recognition of the fundamental differences between the international realities of our era and Jefferson's.

For the progressives, the challenge is to recognize that regardless whether or not their tireless support for multilateralism generally and the United Nations in particular has gone too far, it has certainly outpaced the general public's lukewarm support for them. Nossel notes: "Progressives love to cite studies showing that most Americans support the UN. That support may be a mile wide, but its [sic] an inch thick and never translates into political payback for politicians who either undermine or strengthen the world body." One of the difficulties with unwavering support for any durable institution is that that institution often is, by design, slow to react to sweeping changes around it. This has happened not just at the UN but in many of our traditional alliances -- with France and Germany specifically and NATO more generally.

Americans tend to prefer dynamic solutions that are adapted to address specific problems, and changing (or at least changeable) alliances satisfy this preference. Notwithstanding, we demand that our alliances not be capricious, immoral, or counter-productive, and any alliance which fails in these criteria either at its inception or over time will suffer in the court of American public opinion. Democracy Arsenal's Nossel recognizes that "[t]he public likes coalitions in that they save money, and because international imprimatur can save us divisive and politically costly internal debates. But they are also deeply attached to the idea that we can act alone . . . . [W]e cannot totally discount the option of going it alone." The New Libertarian's McQuain shares an openness to alliance, but realizes that an alliance must be the right sort of alliance -- specifically, one which advances our worthy objectives of national security and international democracy:
Practical foreign policy . . . includes engagement with like-minded democracies through treaties and alliances . . . [and] rejects the equal sovereignty premise of traditional libertarian foreign policy and differentiates between free countries and oppressed countries. It also holds as its highest standard the rights of free people, not the 'rights' of nations.

Reciting a Political Serenity Prayer

In Alcoholics Anonymous, adherents often recite the "Serenity Prayer": God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Extremists are unable to compromise and "accept the things they cannot change" and are, as a result, marginalized over time. As Dale Franks expresses in The New Libertarian, "the first principle of the [Neolibertarians] is explicitly defined by comparison between the two types of libertarianism, and can be boiled down to a single word: pragmatism." Pragmatism can also be seen amongst the progressives, including a willingness to "take into account" the self-interests of key support groups (in Suzanne Nossel's article, her example is organized labor seeking trade protection), even when such political concerns modestly diverge from an aspirational, "pure" foreign policy position. As Nossel writes:
Progressives should be working now to put flesh on the bones of compromises involving labor and human rights standards that most agree are the only way forward here . . . . Neither [the left's nor the center's] pure prescriptions will attract a broad enough constituency, so we need both sides under the tent. They can debate all they want in bars and blogs, but when it comes to politics, both sides need to replace purity with pragmatism.

In The New Libertarian, Dale Franks is as explicit:
Politics is the art of compromise . . . . Certainly, one can try to get as much of one's program enacted as possible, but, at the end of the day, you have to have a firm grasp on the sense of where the limits of possibility lie. In doing so, you have to determine that accomplishing a little bit of something is better than accomplishing all of nothing.

While it is important for both groups to disclaim the extremes at the end of their respective sides of the political spectrum, this is especially critical for the progressives. In a very real sense, the Democratic Party has been hijacked financially and ideologically by activists who tend to "blame America first". One of the critical failures for the party in the 2004 presidential campaign was in allowing the activists and 527 group admakers who spoke on their behalf to tell Americans that their nation was an evil abroad. Such a message may play on college campuses and at MoveOn.org fundraisers but will never resonate with the mainstream which believes that their country is a force for good in the world, albeit one which can sometimes do better. As Americans, we are open to constructive suggestions, and progressives, in Nossel's words, "need to assert a confident vision of how American power can be channeled to positive ends."

Embracing Your Inner Hawk

Sovereignty is for a nation what adulthood is for a person -- the right to make your own decisions in your own interests. Both sovereign nations and adults can give up their rights to decide. Ideally, this will be done only voluntarily and in furtherance of a higher purpose; notwithstanding, the right to decide may be lost through weakness, allowing a stronger force to impose its own will. The United States has a long tradition of joining, at times even subordinating, its interests to international efforts; we also have a long tradition of strong self-reliance, ensuring that our interests are protected.

For progressive foreign policy Democrats, post-Vietnam norms within the party are a challenge to overcome, but there is no "tradition of passivity and pacifism" endemic within the party's philosophy. As Suzanne Nossel points out:
Witness FDR, Truman, JFK and even Bill Clinton. We need to get over our own self-doubts if we’re going to win over others. Getting closer to the military as suggested here and here will help. So will elevating people with the background and personality to be convincing in talking about security issues.

Without a past to explain, the Neolibertarians can be more adamant: "Neolibertarian foreign policy . . . reserves for the US the right to preemptively act against any threat anywhere in the world in the name of national self-defense or critical self-interest."

There is considerable strength in the American political center, but the foreign policy views of this constituency have not always been heard in the toxic domestic political climate which has developed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the center-left and the center-right make themselves heard, the extremists on both ends of the debate will find their control over the Republican and Democratic parties waning; such is the only natural outcome when rational , productive compromise is needed. America will not always be either "multilateral" or "unilateral"; we will make alliances with democratic nations to pursue democratic ends, but will not irrevocably sacrifice our right to act alone.


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