Socialists and Libertarians Need an Alliance Against the Establishment

U.S. foreign policy is ripe for disruption—but only if the left and right get their act together.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in front of the Capitol in Washington on March 22, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in front of the Capitol in Washington on March 22, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The United States needs a new foreign policy, but who is going to conceive, articulate, and implement it? In particular, could the emerging democratic socialists of the left, libertarians on the right, and realists in the center join forces to produce a foreign policy that would command support at home and perform effectively abroad? It’s possible, but it won’t be easy.

Over the past quarter-century, U.S. foreign policy has been in the hands of a loose alliance of liberal interventionists and hawkish neoconservatives. Both groups firmly embrace American exceptionalism, see the United States as the indispensable power that must exert active leadership all over the world, favor overwhelming military supremacy, and endorse the broad goal of spreading liberal values (democracy, human rights, rule of law, markets) to every corner of the world. They disagree somewhat about the role of international institutions (liberal interventionists see them as useful tools, neocons as potential constraints on America’s freedom of action), but that’s about it. Despite occasional disagreements on tactics and the usual jostling for position and status in Washington, this broad alliance has held firm across both Republican and Democratic presidents. And since 2016, it has also been working overtime to keep President Donald Trump from abandoning America’s position as leader of the so-called liberal world order.

Unfortunately, the foreign policy to which these elites were committed has been a dismal failure. Their shared strategy of liberal hegemony—defined as using U.S. power to spread liberal ideals around the globe—did not produce a more harmonious and prosperous world. Instead, it helped lead to a series of failed states, deteriorating great-power relations, a global recession, declining confidence in democracy itself, and a xenophobic backlash against globalization. America’s foreign-policy elites once thought the wind was at their backs and that spreading U.S. ideals would be relatively easy; today, these same ideals are under siege and the liberal world order they sought to expand is on life-support.

Not surprisingly, a number of commentators are beginning to realize that the United States needs an alternative. Writing in the Atlantic, the recovering liberal interventionist Peter Beinart now favors a far more restrained U.S. foreign policy, more or less identical to the one that realists have been advocating for years. Last week, the historian Daniel Bessner of the University of Washington wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times calling for the emerging democratic socialist left to get serious about foreign policy and to unite around a platform combining anti-militarism, accountability, greater congressional oversight, and threat deflation.

Which raises the obvious question: Would it be possible to assemble a sufficiently broad coalition behind such a program, one both large and cohesive enough to overcome the liberal-neocon alliance that has caused so much trouble? As noted above, the obvious candidates are anti-war progressives (i.e., the democratic socialists highlighted by Bessner); realists who favor a grand strategy of restraint or offshore balancing; and the libertarian right (e.g., Rand Paul, the Cato Institute) that has been questioning America’s imperial proclivities for decades.

All three groups agree that the pursuit of liberal hegemony over the past 25 years was unnecessary, unwise, and unsuccessful. And a more restrained foreign policy is consistent with many of their individual political objectives, which could make a working coalition feasible.

For the libertarians, liberal hegemony led to a bloated national security state, threatened civil liberties, and forced policymakers either to raise taxes to pay for it or to run permanent deficits, both of which they regard as anathema. For this group, preserving liberty at home means keeping the federal government small and that objective is incompatible with trying to run the world.

For the democratic socialists on the left, liberal hegemony simply didn’t deliver as promised. Trying to spread democracy at the point of a rifle barrel didn’t produce stable, flourishing democracies or advance human rights; instead, it created failed states, violent insurgencies, and encouraged the United States to violate the very principles it claimed to be upholding. Excessive military spending and failed interventions squandered money that could have been spent improving the lives of Americans at home and especially the lives of Americans most in need of assistance. Globalization may have helped raise more than a billion people out of poverty in Asia, but lower- and middle-class citizens in the West saw few benefits, and the global financial order became more fragile, as we learned to our sorrow in 2008. Bessner is correct in saying that these groups lack a well-developed foreign-policy platform, but reducing America’s global burdens and taking a more measured approach to globalization would fit perfectly with their broader social and political agenda.

Needless to say, most realists would welcome a more restrained U.S. foreign policy as well because they believe this would husband U.S. strength, avoid costly quagmires, encourage other states to bear a greater share of global burdens, and allow the United States to rebuild its domestic infrastructure and focus on the big strategic challenges that remain (e.g., China). So, at first glance, it’s easy to imagine these three groups uniting behind a more restrained grand strategy.

A domestically driven revolution in U.S. foreign policy of the sort imagined here will also face significant obstacles, however. For starters, the hypothetical coalition I am depicting doesn’t have a deep bench of knowledgeable and experienced foreign-policy experts. Its ranks are not entirely empty, of course, but it takes a lot of people to run the U.S. government and a reform-minded president would be hard-pressed to find enough experts to staff the National Security Council with restrainers, let alone all the other positions he or she would need to fill. (It’s worth noting that both former President Barack Obama and Trump faced a similar problem and ended up having to appoint a lot of people who were much more inclined to interventionism than either president was.)

Furthermore, the roots of the liberal-neocon coalition go back to the Cold War, and it has been running things for a long time. Even today, the foreign-policy establishment has far more bodies it can throw into public debates on the future course of U.S. foreign policy. Defenders of America’s so-called indispensable leadership role still dominate the commanding heights of elite foreign-policy institutions (e.g., most of the big D.C. think tanks), as well as the op-ed pages of leading journals such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. 

Second, there are significant substantive differences among the three groups, including differences on foreign policy, and those disagreements would need to be resolved or at least papered over. For example, left-wing democratic socialists are strongly committed to the basic principles of human rights, and some of them will be tempted—just as liberal interventionists have been—to use U.S. power to try to improve human rights conditions in distant areas where people are suffering. Realists are much warier of such crusades, however, and while they also believe that human rights should be respected, they believe that the United States can best advance these principles not by trying to impose them on others but by setting a good example. Getting the left to stick to a policy of nonintervention could be tough, and it’s easy to imagine realists and the left disagreeing vehemently over whether to intervene in a bloodbath like Syria or a genocide like Rwanda.

Similarly, realists and libertarians are likely to part company over the need to balance a rising China; the former thinks it is important for America’s long-term security, and the latter thinks it may not be possible and is probably unnecessary. For them, nuclear weapons and geographic isolation are sufficient to protect the U.S. homeland, and there’s no need to deny China a dominant position (or sphere of influence) in Asia if it really wants one. Both groups favor greater restraint, but the libertarians want even more of it than realists do.

Lastly, Bessner’s suggestion that Congress be given greater oversight over foreign policy sounds like a good way to rein in the imperial presidency and correct the foreign-policy establishment’s tendency to wage costly undeclared wars. It is by no means obvious, however, that a more empowered Congress would always favor restraint. Capitol Hill is where lobbies and special interest groups thrive and do most of their work, helping sell follies like NATO expansion or the war in Iraq and pressuring Congress to keep military bases open and defense industries funded. And it is hard to imagine a progressive foreign-policy movement ignoring lobbying efforts by citizens who have come together to press a political cause, for isn’t grass roots activism exactly what democratic socialists are supposed to favor?

Despite my concerns, these recent statements by Beinart and Bessner are an encouraging development. For too long, debates about U.S. foreign policy have run the broad spectrum from A to B, with genuine alternatives confined to the margins of public discourse and with their proponents frequently treated as amusing iconoclasts at best. The result has been a stale consensus behind a package of policies that kept failing—under Republicans and Democrats alike—a consensus kept alive because it was professionally dangerous for ambitious policy wonks and aspiring foreign-policy mavens to wander outside it. But as Walter Lippmann once warned, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” A broader debate about the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy, and one that includes lots of voices from all across the political spectrum, might be the country’s best hope of eventually getting a foreign policy that works.

And for more on this subject, preorder now.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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