CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis and Washington Independent national security correspondent Spencer Ackerman spoke on progressive foreign policy last week at the Progressive Studies Program’s final Progressivism on Tap event for the spring. They discussed various schools of thought in international relations, the progressive international legacy and its uncertain future, and ways the Obama administration is pursuing a progressive foreign policy strategy.
Katulis and Ackerman began by trying to outline where progressive foreign policy falls in relation to other approaches to international affairs. Ackerman explained that progressives have long hoped that international institutions could be designed to help responsibly balance power throughout the world. He added that progressive foreign policy starts from a conception of social justice, and takes human rights and human dignity as core goods. Katulis noted that progressives see that most urgent 21st-century security threats are global in nature, and as a result the United States needs to use its leadership position to work collaboratively with other countries to advance the global common good.
The Obama administration has changed the tone of American foreign policy, but they noted that some administration actions to date remain out of step with this change in rhetoric. Katulis suggested that a number of policy and political constraints make it difficult to implement significant changes in the international arena, including an unprecedented economic crisis and a shift in focus to domestic affairs. Ackerman and Katulis agreed that the United States still lacks clear measurements for determining whether it is seeing progress in defeating terror networks globally, and in Afghanistan there is still only a vague idea of what the end goals are. Katulis argued that the Obama administration’s policy in the region risks becoming an open-ended commitment with no clear end point unless there are clearer military, political, and economic development objectives.
Both speakers agreed on the importance of President Obama’s emphasis on responding to national security threats with different forms of American power, such as economic development aid. A progressive approach to stabilizing developing countries attempts to maximize human dignity and minimize daily uncertainties. Katulis argued that American political leaders should pursue greater clarity in their foreign policy objectives with an eye to get other countries to act more responsibly and pull their weight. This sort of planning will help to extend current advantages of American leadership into the uncertain future, but only if leaders build for a secure, sustainable, multilateral peace.
If progressives can build such a future—where a strong America is compatible with inclusive global institutions—they will achieve important progress in the goal of advancing shared global interests.