In Biden’s Shadow, Progressives Are Forging Their Own Foreign-Policy Agenda

The incoming class of House Democrats is set to be one of the most progressive ever.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021.
Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021.
Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The left wing of the Democratic Party is expected to have more influence in Congress—including on foreign-policy issues—once the legislative session begins in earnest on Capitol Hill, with the ranks of the Congressional Progressive Caucus set to swell to more than 100 members.

At least 15 of the 18 candidates backed by the caucus won their races, including Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the first member of Generation Z—people born in 1997 or later—to be elected to Congress, making the new class of Democrats one of the most progressive ever.

The expanded caucus will give progressives more leverage as Democrats look to stay unified in the face of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. While the caucus has typically focused its efforts on the domestic front—where President Joe Biden has adopted a number of progressive positions on climate change and student loan forgiveness—the new Congress could provide an opportunity for the caucus to delve more deeply into foreign policy, according to interviews with multiple experts and lawmakers.

The left wing of the Democratic Party is expected to have more influence in Congress—including on foreign-policy issues—once the legislative session begins in earnest on Capitol Hill, with the ranks of the Congressional Progressive Caucus set to swell to more than 100 members.

At least 15 of the 18 candidates backed by the caucus won their races, including Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the first member of Generation Z—people born in 1997 or later—to be elected to Congress, making the new class of Democrats one of the most progressive ever.

The expanded caucus will give progressives more leverage as Democrats look to stay unified in the face of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. While the caucus has typically focused its efforts on the domestic front—where President Joe Biden has adopted a number of progressive positions on climate change and student loan forgiveness—the new Congress could provide an opportunity for the caucus to delve more deeply into foreign policy, according to interviews with multiple experts and lawmakers.

“I think the next two years are an opportunity for progressives on foreign policy,” said Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It seems like there aren’t too many downsides to progressives asserting themselves a bit more on foreign policy.”

This opportunity has also prompted leading progressive lawmakers and foreign-policy thinkers to begin formulating a coherent foreign-policy platform to carry them through future election cycles.

It comes against the backdrop of dramatic shifts in geopolitics in recent years, caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly assertive global footprint.

“Traditionally, progressive foreign policy has been in reaction to American overreach,” Rep. Sara Jacobs, a progressive member of Congress from California, told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. “For the first time in ages, what we’re thinking about is what does a progressive foreign policy look like that is actually responding to external aggression.”

Still, there’s a ceiling on what progressives can get done on their foreign-policy agenda with centrist Democrats dominating the executive branch—and some key committees on the Senate side.

Repeated efforts by progressive lawmakers to cut the ballooning U.S. defense budget—a touchstone issue for the caucus—have failed, with both centrist Democrats and Republicans supporting increased military spending. The latest defense budget, passed by the Senate in December, was a record-breaking $857 billion—a full $45 billion more than the Biden administration requested.

And while the Biden administration can find common ground with progressives on many foreign-policy issues, the president has still made moves on the world stage that have left the most stalwart progressives fuming: his infamous fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman; continued U.S. military aid to autocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt; boosts to military spending; and, most recently, the administration’s expansion of a program known as Title 42 to swiftly expel migrants who cross the southern U.S. border illegally in the name of combating the pandemic.

Biden has also continued the tradition of giving plum ambassador posts to rich campaign donors, even if they have no diplomatic or foreign-policy experience. Democrats criticized the Trump administration for doing that very thing, and one progressive presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said she would break this tradition if elected during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Early efforts by progressive advocacy groups to stack the Biden administration with members of their camp also ran aground. Despite intense jockeying, Biden gave many key posts to longtime aides with centrist foreign-policy views, including Jake Sullivan, his national security advisor, and Antony Blinken, his secretary of state.

Still, progressive lawmakers and thinkers say there’s room for the caucus to flex its muscle in the new Congress and lay down markers for the 2024 presidential election.

At the top of the caucus’s list of foreign-policy priorities is repealing the authorizations for the use of military force, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which provided the legal basis for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Rep. Barbara Lee, chair of the caucus’s peace and security task force.

Critics of the Iraq war authorization, passed in 2002, argue that it gives the executive branch broad and unchecked powers to continue to use military force in the country, despite the war’s official termination in 2011. Former President Donald Trump used the legislation as part of the legal basis for the drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early 2020.

“That’s a very important priority because these blank checks to use force give any president the authority, which takes away the constitutional role and responsibility of Congress,” Lee said.

The caucus will likely find backing on this issue from the Biden administration—which signaled its support in 2021 for a repeal—and from the wider Democratic Party, which made the issue part of its most recent party platform. A House vote to repeal the authorization in 2021 also drew the support of 49 Republican members.

On the need to curb defense spending, Lee said too much money was going to private contractors. “This defense budget is so excessive. It has nothing to do with strong national defense or our troops, who we fully support. It has more to do with military contractors and it’s taking away money from domestic needs,” she said.

The left wing of the Democratic Party may also find common cause with the incoming Republican House majority on a range of foreign-policy issues. Conservative Republicans joined progressives to try to limit military support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen during both the Trump and Biden administrations. Far-right lawmakers who temporarily opposed Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House reportedly pressed to cut federal spending to 2022 levels—a move that would reduce the defense budget by $75 billion.

A number of House Republicans have called for greater scrutiny of military aid to Ukraine to ensure that the billions of dollars in aid delivered to Kyiv is being used as intended. “That could be something that’s a productive conversation,” Wertheim said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proved a challenge for progressive foreign-policy thinking. In the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression, few have quibbled with U.S. humanitarian and economic support to the country. But for many progressives, long wary of U.S. military overreach, spending billions of dollars to arm Ukraine has been a tough pill to swallow.

“It’s a very difficult navigation between defending a people that’s been invaded versus not getting drawn into an endless war, which has been one of the main progressive issues for a while,” said Sarang Shidore, director of studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

These tensions were underscored by the drama surrounding a letter sent from the progressive caucus to the Biden administration in October calling for greater diplomatic efforts to bring the war to a close. The letter sparked outrage and accusations of appeasement, prompting a number of signatories to distance themselves, noting that it was drafted months earlier, when the situation in Ukraine was very different. The letter was ultimately retracted less than 24 hours after it was made public.

Still, progressives pushed back on the notion that boosting support for Ukraine while cutting the defense budget is somehow a contradiction. Jacobs said cuts could come from other places, including plans by defense hawks to increase the size of the Navy.

“I do think it makes sense to continue making sure Ukraine has what it needs to be successful, whereas I don’t think it makes sense to continue building some arbitrary number of ships because we think if we have that many ships, we will be able to deter China, without thinking about how, at the moment, we can’t even man all the ships we have,” Jacobs said.

Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as a foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, said progressives have been engaged in a tough debate about whether and how U.S. involvement in Ukraine reflects their values. “I think progressives, including those who strongly support helping Ukraine defend itself, are rightly concerned that the war could be exploited to reinvigorate an outdated hawkish interventionist ideology whose main beneficiaries are defense contractors and lobbyists,” he said in an email to Foreign Policy. 

On the national security challenges posed by China, a central focus of the Biden administration and of many lawmakers, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has yet to refine its position.

Yet there’s a nascent opposition to Washington’s hawkish China policies brewing in the progressive wing. One vote, over a bill to expand U.S. support for Taiwan, encapsulated the coming debate within the Democratic Party over how to address the China question.

The Senate late last year passed a hallmark Taiwan Policy Act, which overhauls how the United States supports the self-governing island amid growing pressure from China. The bill, which designates Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally and allocates $4.5 billion in security assistance over four years, passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

But when it initially passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, four progressive Democrats—Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland—voted against the bill, underscoring a growing fear among progressives that Washington might be sleepwalking into a new Cold War with China without an adequate policy debate.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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