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Notes From a Career in Progressive Foreign Policy
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest author post from Charles Knight, co-founder of the Project for Defense Alternatives. He has been working in the space between left-progressive political movements and traditional national security policy for more than a generation. I’ve learned a lot from engaging with him, and there’s so much rich insight in what he writes here. For context, this started as Charles’s response to two of my journal articles about progressive grand strategy, which you can find here and here. I also have a forthcoming book, Grand Strategies of the Left, that you’ll hear more about soon. ✌️
I begin with the bedevilling definitional issue of the term “progressive.”
In my experience, the application of this word to American politics arose in the late ‘60s due to Vietnam anti-war activists feeling the need to differentiate themselves from the governing liberals in Washington who refused to stop the war.
The war had moved some considerable numbers in the US leftward. These new activists had nowhere to go for a political identity (there being no social democratic or left party, as such, and the Democratic Party being officially prowar), so someone suggested “progressive” [there had been a short-lived Progressive Party 1948-1955 and, of course, the “Progressive Era” 1895-1918] and it stuck.
But, of course, there being a name but no organized party with platform and practice boundaries, anyone could so self-identify (or choose some other identification.)
This self-identity eventually became absurd when, late in the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton called herself and her campaign “progressive.” The Clintons have been the leaders who extended Reagan’s conservative policies deep into the Democratic Party and largely abandoned what remained of that party’s New Deal social democratic commitments. The Clintons were also extraordinarily destructive of most progressive foreign and military policy goals.
Why does left theory—and thought about international relations, foreign policy, and military policy—get so little attention?
In my experience, most of those who take foreign and security (defense) policy or IR seriously in the US do not take the left in the US seriously. The American left is not a player in their minds.
In particular, left perspectives are absent in the national security policy arena, except as a voice of criticism that occasionally gets a little attention. The left is often considered an irritant or annoyance rather than offering real options for the policymakers. I have witnessed many times: A war lasts longer than Washington plans, the American people tire of it, and left-wing antiwar arguments gain some currency.
On exceptional occasions, this contributes to leaders’ decisions to exit the war. Nonetheless, left-wing thought has little lasting effect on Washington’s thoughts and actions. Instead, the temporary currency of the left-wing antiwar sentiment is dismissed as simply another unwelcome cost of doing war.
An example of the weakness of the left
When, in 1993, Ron Dellums, an Oakland community and antiwar activist, became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee I thought it was a moment to attempt a fundamental shift in Washington’s military policy. However, as things progressed during his chairmanship, he reportedly found that he had his hands full chairing the committee’s routine business while attempting a few minor reforms at the margins.
Dellums was politically isolated as the committee leader. He didn’t have five to ten other members on the committee and 75+ in Congress as a whole ready to work hard for a left military program.
There has never been anything like that in my lifetime, even waiting in the wings. Sadly, few “progressive” pols think it would be worth anyone’s time to meet in the wings. Since the 1970s, I have not been aware of an American left that dreams and plots for that kind of political power (except for a few organizers and advocates in the grassroots who are far from the corridors and rooms of power or the handfuls of sectarian revolutionaries.)
State security versus democracy
I found the introductory section of your “Left of Liberal Internationalism” article very useful. Here you cite Barry Posen for a “conventional” definition of grand strategy. Posen identifies “state security” as the strategic goal for the state. This seems correct regarding how security strategy is thought of in Washington. It is, however, too narrow.
I have always found mainstream realist theory in IR simplistic, reductionist, and perhaps diversionary in its core assumption that international anarchy drives states to be obsessed with state security to the exclusion of nearly any other goals. We should not assume that state security encompasses, circumscribes, or includes the security needs of all citizens (as you say on p. 555 of your article, “theories of international politics exhibit a well-known state-centric bias”).
Furthermore, this core assumption seems ahistorical. When we consider the evolution of the state system from city-states (most frequently ruled by tyrants) to regional monarchies and eventually to republics, the centering of state security in foreign policy seems dubious.
The foreign policies of these types of states have almost always been tightly controlled by a carefully groomed elite from the upper classes. This remains true even for today’s republics, in which rarely does democratic oversight or governance run deeper than “consent giving” in periodic elections or superficial parliamentary oversight (often behind closed doors.)
Efforts to dominate other states economically (and culturally) have always competed with security concerns for the attention of state foreign policy elites. I would argue that, in practice, the predominant state concern is economic advantage/dominance and that the state security apparatus plays a support role in providing the muscle to this end.
This is undoubtedly true in the modern era for monarchies and only somewhat less so for republics. This focus on economic advantage and profit has primarily, and often exclusively, served a small class of subjects or citizens. Progress toward any democratic sharing of the rewards of international engagement has been marked chiefly by institutionalized realignment of relative positions.
At best, this relative position shifting has resulted during ‘normal times’ in a modestly diminished use of the military to coerce tribute from other nations through resource access, cheap labor, and favorable trade terms. Instead, less violent institutional force has been used – until it is judged insufficient and the military is sent to extract compliance.
Many American leftists consider the American state to represent the interests of capitalist leaders and do not believe there is a path to changing that fundamental fact short of a revolution. Consequently, they do not strategize to gain American state power or significantly change security policy.
These leftists can only imagine organizing solidarity with a global revolution led by people from other nations (the foreign policy focus of the American left in the late ’70s and ‘80s) or an anarchic alternative of “peoples’ collectives,” etc. Sadly, I find neither of these convincing in strategic terms or even particularly attractive as goals.
From a left perspective, much of US foreign policy is driven by capitalist class greed pursued on the international stage. In that case, capitalist state self-protection security policy is a derivative concern flowing from their primary economic motivations necessitating violent global interventions, which, in turn, often produce violent resistance from the local right and left.
This, it seems to me, is very different than the conservative realist take on IR, which includes the notion that “war is a natural state of things” and that states cannot avoid an obsession with state security. That said, the Soviet Union (“the real socialism” in my lifetime) certainly taught us that a socialist state could choose to be imperialistic and militaristic despite Lenin’s claim to the contrary (Russia’s leader today is, of course, a reactionary capitalist plutocrat.)
On page 557, you say,
Although progressives can be said to hold security as the ultimate end of foreign policy, they define security as a necessarily political condition. ‘Security’ does not refer to power position or national survival directly; it is a condition of greater peace, participatory democracy, and equality.
I find myself asking if security is,
a condition of greater peace, participatory democracy, and equality [as you say]…
Why not reverse this sentence to say,
Progressives hold that greater peace, participatory democracy, and equality should be the ultimate aim of foreign policy. National, community, and personal security will improve as peace, democracy, and equality improve.
Do I misunderstand you here? Or are you trying to fit progressive foreign policy objectives within the conventional foreign policy frame, which centers state security? If so, many progressives don’t center state security, particularly the military aspect of states seeking security.
It is insufficient for leftists to assert that ‘greater peace’ (or security) will result from more participatory democracy and social/economic equality. Even if conditions of much greater domestic and global equality were achieved, outlier aggression must be addressed (proximately, we have the reactionary Putin). Some military arrangements will have to be part of the preparation for the hopefully infrequent conflict caused by more or less pathological outbreaks.
Specifying that ‘appropriate military’ has always been part of the Project for Defense Alternatives’ work and mission. This is also why your emphasis on ‘non-offensive defense’ work is so important—the left has let this kind of thinking atrophy and it has been to the left’s detriment politically—a political movement that has no vision for the military or its missions will not be relevant to questions of military power.
On pg. 561, you write,
In recent decades, two additional concerns with inequality have also occupied progressive discourses—kleptocracy and the chronic impoverishment of the Global South.
My immediate reaction was, “What about patriarchy?”
I have been surprised by how, very recently, the reactionary right has caught on to the growing progressive challenge to patriarchy. A year ago, I thought they were generally clueless about the developing gender liberation politics.
Progressive grand strategies
I have long felt that any serious progressive national security policy “community” would, at least, have annual conventions/symposiums of advocates, lobbying practitioners, progressive legislators, allies in the military, and sympathetic academic analysts to hear and debate the latest thinking about how to achieve progressive goals in national security policy. To my knowledge, there has never been anything like that even attempted.
Carl Conetta (my PDA co-founder) and I once had the head of a leading D.C. progressive peace organization (advocacy and lobbying) say of us, “PDA is so academic!” implying that she didn’t get the relevance of our sort of policy analysis to her organization’s work.
Our reaction was: We are not academic. If she wanted to develop a more successful strategy for her organization, she would be wise to take our work seriously. So it goes with organizational strategy in progressive circles.
My complicated relationship with your three progressive grand strategies
[editor’s note: Van’s research, to which Charles is referring here, defines types of progressive foreign policy approaches—peacemaking, antihegemonism, and progressive pragmatism.]
I start with Peacemaking because it is a natural-feeling fit. You cite Randall Forsberg twice in that section. Carl and I met at Randy’s Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) circa 1987. PDA is an offshoot of IDDS, and both of us were, in a sense, students of Randy’s ideas and ways of researching. Previously, Carl and I were both anti-war activists during the Vietnam War. In those days, we envisioned transcending the “war system.”
PDA is not part of the “from below” peacemaking “move,” but more power to those trying to make peace from the bottom up. Pragmatically, we have been about nudging the state (the top) and encouraging the American left, such as it is, to take on state policy. Channeling Randy, we have sought to do our work in a serious and informed manner (sometimes we have even used the language of state security and the “national interest”).
Although I consider myself generally against hegemons, I don’t particularly identify with how you describe antihegemonism. Yes, the US military is too big, expensive, and active globally. It should be a national priority to reduce the number of wars and military ops the US participates in (“war as a last resort”). Foreign deployments should be exceptional rather than frequent. And, of course, the Global War on Terror has been an abomination.
By making the promotion of the sales of US-built weapons one of the state’s highest priorities, the US is perhaps the most significant contributor to global interstate and intrastate violence. However, it is not the root cause of global conflict.
Here I agree with Realists in that there are deep problems with the nation-state system as it has developed over the last centuries. A long-run progressive security strategy must include a radical change to the predominant practice of nation-states globally (an enormous topic, to be sure).
Your description of what antihegemonists argue for (pg. 567) reads to me as very similar to the collaboration that has developed between small-r republican—libertarians and some sectors of the left—as manifested by the Koch-backed construction of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Within the Quincy gathering of expert fellows, the particulars of ‘”restraint” will likely be contested between right and left. In the early years of the CATO Institute, that institution also encompassed right and left tendencies…eventually though, CATO leaders purged the left from its ranks entirely.
For PDA, by the late 1990s, we frequently had self-identified conservatives such as Andrew Bacevich and Doug McGregor as presenters at symposia we sponsored. Some of our best institutional collaborators were the libertarian foreign/military policy people at CATO. Initially, this was astounding because I thought of CATO’s domestic policy advocacy as the epitome of opposition to my own.
Many of the “liberal” think tanks thought of us as annoying critics. We, of course, thought of ourselves as offering accurate criticism and effective alternatives.
In a 1993 review for the Boston Review, we wrote of Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s Bottom Up Review:
But leaving in place an oversized military reflects a deeper problem than misguided budgetary priorities and a continuing raid on the public purse. Five years after Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the withdrawal of the Red Army from Europe [...] and more than two years after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has yet to define a military policy appropriate to the new era. A fascination with finding new uses for old tools has eclipsed the search for new instruments of security policy. Too much energy has gone into devising threat scenarios worthy of a big military, too little into determining how the United States can support the evolution of effective regional and global security institutions.
The title of that article was “Free Reign for the Sole Superpower.” That would seem to put us in the antihegemonist camp. On the other hand, the alternative we advocate at the end, “effective regional and global security institutions,” puts us in the peacemaking camp.
On first reading, I was struck by how unfamiliar Progressive Pragmatism is to my experience of progressive politics.
In the first sentence, you say it is “grounded in egalitarian economic and prodemocratic principles.” Yet, this tendency does not appear to be grounded in a critique of the US anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic foreign and domestic policy (most strongly in its laissez-faire treatment and boosterism of unaccountable corporate capitalism and financialization.) Where, I wonder, are international labor and working-class solidarity and policies to advance global living wages and the provision of high-quality public goods?
Citing Saravelle and Newman, you note that progressive pragmatists believe that the power available from the global dollar reserve can serve progressive ends. This seems unlikely to me without a radical change in the practice of American democracy. Currently, policy regarding the global dollar flies well below our people’s democratic radar. Not one in a thousand Americans (myself included) is well-informed about the mechanisms and social effects of the manipulations of international finance that banks, IMF officials, and senior diplomats engage in. The same applies to “the rules of global trade and finance.”
Implied in the preceding is a critique of dividing national regimes into democracies and autocracies. This would appear to be how the Biden administration sees itself—progressive pragmatist—although the idea of democracy versus autocracy is becoming an indefensible dichotomy.
In this regard, I think of Biden referring to NATO as “an alliance of democracies” when several member states are objectively no longer in that category and many more, such as the US, are facing severe challenges from neo-fascist parties on the right wing.
This hypocrisy is starkly different than Progressive Pragmatism’s assumption that,
[US] defense commitments to democratic allies give it a basis for coordinated action against autocrats and the inequalities on which they thrive.
Perhaps more importantly, in the last forty years, there has been an enormous shift in power from public governing bodies to corporations and other private institutions with little to no structural responsibility to the public. These legally constituted privileged entities are, in effect, the antithesis of democracy. They are little (and not so little) non-state autocracies. In some cases, they have accumulated enough collective power to dominate states politically.
This power constellation of unaccountable (primarily private) institutions creates the cauldron of highly conflicted social relations in which neo-fascism flourishes. If we ignore this part of the problem, there is no prospect of greater economic equality, domestically or globally.
Most Democrats prefer to ignore this problem. Instead of proposing programs and making political demands with the potential of unifying a substantial majority of citizens, they reduce any appeals they might make to greater equality to what is essentially a charity appeal. Charity appeals, in the course of at least three thousand years, have never succeeded in meeting the need. Surely, Democrats know this fact.
If you have any questions for Charles, feel free to send them my way. And as usual, paid subscribers can directly engage with this post via the comments section, or via threads in the Notes feature of Substack.