On Foreign Policy, the Left Tries to Out-Trump Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump era offers opportunity and peril for the Democratic Party. The opportunity lies in the fact that Trump’s shambolic diplomacy has given the Democrats an opening to position themselves as the most responsible stewards of American national security. The peril lies in the possibility that the party will instead try to out-Trump Trump on global affairs, and do lasting damage in the process.

The latter scenario, unfortunately, is looming large these days. Two recent progressive foreign policy manifestoes have offered biting critiques not so much of the president, but of the broader tradition of American global engagement in support of a healthy world order.

Writing for the Atlantic,Peter Beinart argues that U.S. foreign policy has impoverished and weakened the republic, and that the nation must adopt a posture of deep retrenchment and protectionism. The U.S. should pull back from the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe and concede China and Russia their spheres of influence; it should throw up trade barriers to protect American jobs. The former initiative might enable the latter: Giving China free rein vis-a-vis Taiwan might just convince the rulers in Beijing to cut America a break on trade, or so Beinart believes. Writing in the New York Times,Daniel Bessner offers a similar prescription: Abandoning the “bipartisan commitment to militarism and American hegemony” that has prevailed since World War II, taking a more relaxed attitude to geopolitical threats posed by actors such as China and Russia, and forbidding American corporations from employing cheap labor overseas.

Intellectuals aren’t the only ones trying to move the Democrats in this direction. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the face of the progressive insurgency, has lambasted the “extreme” costs of U.S. foreign policy. She critiques “corporate Democrats [who] seem to find the cash to fund a $1.1 trillion jet fighter program” so that America can keep committing “global acts of aggression” and “re-fighting the Cold War with a new arms race that nobody can win.” America must instead adopt a “peace economy” predicated on rolling back U.S. overseas commitments to fund democratic socialism at home.

Opinion polling likewise suggests Democrats are less likely than Republicans or independents to support maintaining U.S. military superiority. And only a little more than two years ago, Bernie Sanders came close to defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries by running on a platform that was only slightly less protectionist than Trump’s. Sanders, after all, was just as opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Trump was.

The way to establish a fresh, constructive Democratic identity on foreign policy in the age of Trump, a growing number of party leaders and progressive writers seem to have concluded, is to embrace his basic approach to global affairs.

Progressives would surely object to this characterization, and there are myriad differences between their emerging foreign policy platform and the Trump administration’s agenda. The Democratic left is rightly preoccupied with climate change as a national security issue; the president, most assuredly, is not. Progressives support the Iran nuclear deal, prefer multilateralism over unilateralism, and often question the value of American military power in shaping the international environment; Trump’s views diverge from each of these positions. The list of differences could easily go on, but the core similarities are impossible to ignore.

For the ideas at the heart of Trump’s critique of U.S. foreign policy are also the ideas at the heart of the progressive critique. They agree that deep global engagement of the sort America has pursued since World War II harms rather than helps the American people, that the U.S. has more to fear than to gain in an open global economy, that Washington does not have a vital interest in keeping the peace and preventing aggression in key regions like Eastern Europe or East Asia, and that America should therefore do less — much less — to promote a congenial world. In fact, what Trump has merely hinted at — that Washington should stand aside as Vladimir Putin subdues Ukraine and establishes a buffer of “Finlandized” states in Eastern Europe — progressive commentators now say explicitly.

This should not be so surprising. The range of views on U.S. foreign policy is less a spectrum than a circle, and there has long been a certain affinity between the progressive left and the nationalist right. During the 1990s, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan both railed against globalization; both called for America to pull back strategically, with the Cold War over. They and their supporters did so for different reasons: The nationalist right worried, as it does today, that deep global involvement would compromise American sovereignty and national identity; the progressive left feared, as it does today, that an engaged policy would empower elites at the expense of average Americans. But they ended up, on some key issues and in their broader critique of American internationalism, in essentially the same place.

Back then, these voices were more marginalized than mainstream. Today, the Republican Party has been taken over by a president who fundamentally rejects the central intellectual pillars of America’s postwar statecraft. And although the balance of power on the Democratic side is more fluid, the advocates of retrenchment and protectionism are gaining ground. The U.S. could see a presidential election in 2020 pitting Trump against a Democratic candidate who harshly attacks the president’s specific policies while basically agreeing with his desire to get out of the business of sustaining the American world order.

This would be a disaster. It would signal that the bipartisan consensus on American global engagement has been replaced by a bipartisan consensus on American global retreat. Over the long term, such a shift could undermine the great achievements of postwar U.S. diplomacy — preventing great-power war, preserving relative stability in key regions, catalyzing an unprecedented rise in global and American prosperity, promoting the remarkable spread of democracy and human rights. Even in the shorter term, the effects could be quite damaging.

Around the world, many of America’s allies and trading partners have been suffering the indignities of Trump’s presidency in hopes that he represents only a four-year aberration. (They have not, however, constrained themselves from laughing out loud at his more outlandish statements, as at the U.N. this week.) Yet if these countries are faced with the certainty that they will be dealing with Trump or another critic of American internationalism for another four years after that, they may well conclude that the current moment is not an aberration but the new normal. That could fundamentally break their confidence in American leadership in a way that would unleash the geopolitical demons that leadership has traditionally suppressed — and that would take many years to repair. Who knows what sort of instability might have emerged, what mischief revisionist powers might have made, in the meantime?

With Donald Trump firmly in control of the Republican Party, Democrats represent the only chance America has to recommit itself to a tradition of internationalism that has served the country and the world quite well. Let’s hope the party doesn’t blow it by emulating the very president it reviles.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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