What a Real Liberal Foreign Policy Would Look Like

And why giving up sovereignty isn’t part of the deal.

<> on June 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.
<> on June 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich — three Democratic members of Congress — have written an essay in Foreign Affairs titled, “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy.” It is, of course, predictably, terrible. My colleagues are already forming up. Being a good progressive, I can’t resist embroiling myself in the coming silliness.

What really bothers me about the essay is that, despite the title, there are no “principles” to be found anywhere in the text. Just some well-worn clichés (a “new Marshall Plan”) and anodyne recommendations (consult with allies). The essay does not offer a principle that might distinguish those of us on the left from our friends on the right or a principle that might link our domestic and foreign policies. That’s a pretty important thing if we hope that future Democratic administrations will be able to articulate a strategy that amounts to more than “Don’t do stupid shit.”

As it happens, I believe there are such principles — or at least there are for lapsed philosophers like me. My very American strand of liberalism — and I prefer the phrase “liberalism” to “progressivism,” given my choice in philosophers — is defined by the work of the late John Rawls. He argued that justice is the first virtue of social institutions, and his works, A Theory of Justice and “Justice as Fairness,” made arguments about what a just society should look like. One particular principle stands out. After articulating the importance of certain liberties that could not be compromised and the importance of equality of opportunity, Rawls asked how society should view inequality.

We know there are going to be inequities in society — some people just win the genetic lottery. While we want to reward people for putting those talents to good use, we also care about those who are born into far less fortunate circumstances. (I mean, not everyone can be born incredibly smart, good-looking, and humble like me.) For Rawls, the test was something he called the “difference principle.” Society can tolerate inequalities, Rawls argued, only insofar as those inequalities work to the advantage of the worst off. We can have a dynamic market-based economy that generates great wealth, but only for the purpose of helping those who are worst off, not for the gluttony of the winners.

This principle is based on a very important belief. Whatever our individual talents, the vitality of our society as a whole matters to our success. This is what President Barack Obama meant when he said, “You didn’t build that.” As he said, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” Judging by the howls from the president’s political opponents, this is still an important difference in outlook between the left and the right in American life. The difference principle proceeds on the basis that the president was right.

There is a moral consideration at work here, but also a practical one. The lucky few could try to maintain their position in society through sheer power. But since the French Revolution, the downsides of aristocracy have come into sharp focus. And by sharp, I mean like a pitchfork. The American robber barons of gilded ages then and now have usually been wise enough to give generously as a sign of gratitude — and perhaps as a bit of insurance against the mob. We can only sustain social cooperation as long as the benefits are shared — at least a little bit.

The emphasis on social cooperation leads quite naturally to a difference in perspectives on how one thinks about freedom. Conservatives are fond of talking about freedoms in libertarian terms, as though freedom were a sort of patriotic anarchy. Liberals, however, believe that freedom is a product of the rule of law. The anarchy of the French Revolution didn’t result in liberty; it resulted in terror and Bonapartism. This is why liberals tend to see the accumulation of power in the hands of corporations as rather more sinister than conservatives do. Freedom isn’t something the government takes away; it is something that society creates together.

That view is central to how a liberal ought to look at foreign policy — I would argue this is why we are such treaty weenies. Sovereignty is to states what liberty is to individuals. If the rule of law allows for unprecedented human freedom, then treaties and international agreements are central to the creation of modern Westphalian systems of reasonable, functional sovereign states. This is no mean achievement. Conservatives thought they could rush into Iraq and knock down its government, and then a market democracy would magically spring forth as the universalist, God-fearing, capitalist American inside each Iraqi clamored out in the hot desert sun. (Well, the God-fearing thing was right. One out of three ain’t bad?) That’s the kind of thing you believe if you think government is the antithesis of freedom. If you think, on the other hand, that only a functioning society with a strong rule of law can really be free — well, you’d expect Iraq to look exactly like it does today and wouldn’t have much hope for Syria, Libya, or any of the other states that have failed once their governments collapsed.

States that submit themselves to international norms and law have more sovereignty, not less. Think about nuclear weapons. The early U.S. view was that nuclear weapons were just like any other munition. President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, in particular, was devoted to the idea that nuclear weapons were simply a very efficient way to deliver explosive power, one that allowed the United States to meet global defense commitments at a reasonable cost. In this view, the spread of nuclear weapons was good when America’s allies got them and bad when the country’s enemies did. This is the sort of thinking that underpinned ideas like the Multilateral Force, which would have been like L’Auberge Espagnole — but on a boat armed with nuclear weapons.

Early on, however, liberals argued that we couldn’t keep the bomb a secret forever. We needed some rules for the nuclear age. Otherwise, everyone would get the bomb and end up, sooner or later, dead. Under anarchy, you might be free in theory to do anything you’d like, but in practice you’d likely end up enslaved, on the run, or dead. International anarchy with nuclear weapons presents the same problems. You are free to use your nuclear weapons any time you want, as are your neighbors. Good luck with that.

No, the incredibly destructive power of nuclear weapons compels us to cooperate with other countries, even the hated Russians, to manage the danger they pose. Still, this was a minority view until the 1960s. After Mao Zedong’s China tested a nuclear weapon in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration asked a former undersecretary of the Air Force, Roswell Gilpatric, to form a commission. The Gilpatric report represents a turning point in American history, as the debate slowly turned toward the recognition that the United States and the Soviet Union had a strong interest in cooperating to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Liberals were quick to pick up on this idea because we are way smarter already believe that human societies cannot survive unless the benefits of social cooperation are shared equitably. The notion that we need to cooperate globally, as well as locally, is no great jump, especially when nuclear weapons are involved.

Cooperation doesn’t seem at all scary to a liberal. Instead of seeing our sovereignty bound by treaties and international institutions, like Gulliver tied down, we see sovereignty emerging from an orderly, lawful world. Treaties do not rob us of our sovereignty, as John Bolton would argue, instead they also allow us to exercise our sovereignty effectively. This, by the way, is why the U.S. Navy supports the Law of the Sea treaty. There are some problems that are so large and complicated — global economic crises, climate change, and, of course, the spread of nuclear weapons — that we can only address them by pooling our sovereignty with other states. It’s easy for a Boltonite conservative to claim that treaties limit sovereignty, but that seems hollow when pollution from Chinese factories, viruses like Ebola, and rising sea levels don’t give a damn about borders.

Sovereignty for states and freedom for people require cooperation and rules. There is nothing in the essay by Murphy, Schatz, and Heinrich that is obviously inconsistent with such a view. But neither is there much that illuminates the arguments I’ve made or perhaps an alternative vision of liberalism. And that’s too bad. Because the United States faces real challenges at the moment, many of which I would argue are simply impossible to solve with the ideological prescriptions of the other side. No, I am a liberal. At the center of my belief system is the view that the challenges we face, at home and abroad, require a concerted effort to create and sustain social institutions — and that the first virtue of those institutions is justice.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

About the Author

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk

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