Elizabeth Warren Has (Half) a Foreign Policy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A crucial challenge for the Democratic Party is to formulate a foreign policy platform that goes beyond critiquing Donald Trump and lays out a compelling vision of America’s role in an increasingly dangerous world. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who will likely be a leading candidate for the party’s nomination in 2020, offered up her vision in a recent speech at American University. That speech (and an accompanying article in Foreign Affairs) outlined a strategy of progressive internationalism — a commitment to U.S. global leadership on behalf of a liberal international order, influenced by a biting progressive critique of how that leadership has been exercised in recent decades. 

There is a great deal to like in Warren’s vision, which revives the tradition of confident, ideologically assertive liberalism that drove Democratic foreign policy during the early years of the Cold War. The question is whether the senator is willing to support that vision with the specific tools and policies needed to make it a reality. 

Warren’s approach to foreign policy begins with a compelling diagnosis of the international situation: The idea that the central fault line in global politics is the battle between democracy and liberalism, on the one hand, and resurgent authoritarianism and illiberalism, on the other. Authoritarian models are making a comeback in places from South America to the heart of Europe. Autocratic regimes in China and Russia are promoting illiberalism in their regions and beyond; they are even undermining democracy in the U.S. The overarching message of Warren’s speech was that constructive American engagement remains crucial to ensuring that the forces of darkness do not triumph in this defining clash of the 21st century. 

Yet Warren nonetheless offered an ambivalent view of that engagement, arguing that recent U.S. foreign policy has often been its own worst enemy. In her view, the pursuit of globalization after the Cold War was a disaster. It facilitated the rise of authoritarian rivals such as China; it devastated the American working and middle classes. After 9/11, moreover, an exaggerated fear of terrorism led Washington to wage “endless war” in the greater Middle East. Warren charged — and here she echoed any number of progressive critics of U.S. policy over the past century — that American statecraft has become over-militarized and self-defeating.
 
What is needed, then, is a mixture of reassertion and retrenchment. The U.S. must mobilize for a protracted ideological competition with the authoritarian powers by recommitting to vital practices the Trump administration has neglected. American leaders must revitalize the force-multiplying alliances Trump has strained; they must stand firmly with the world’s democratic leaders rather than the coterie of corrupt autocrats whose company Trump seems to prefer. Washington should also crack down on intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and other predatory Chinese economic practices. It should more actively highlight the corruption and despotism of authoritarian regimes. Reinvesting in diplomacy — another course correction from the Trump era — will be crucial to all of these efforts. 

Yet if the U.S. should sharpen its approach to ideological competition, she argues, it should also recalibrate key aspects of its involvement in the world. The military dimensions of counterterrorism need to become less aggressive; the forever war in Afghanistan needs to be wound down so a peace settlement can be reached. Military spending should fall significantly to make budgetary room for domestic priorities; the U.S. should forgo expensive investments in updating its nuclear arsenal. Most importantly, the next president must put the promotion of better labor standards, environmental protections, and outcomes for the working and middle classes at the core of America’s trade agenda. 

This vision of U.S. foreign policy gets quite a lot right. There is no question that the competition between the U.S.-led democratic alliance and its authoritarian rivals is driven in large part by the inherent tensions between liberalism and illiberalism. Nor is there any question that the outcome of those rivalries will have profound consequences for the fate of freedom throughout the world. Preserving an international environment in which liberalism and democracy can flourish is a worthy organizing principle for American foreign policy — and how well American democracy works for the common person at home will indeed be central to the emerging war of ideas between democratic and authoritarian powers. 

Warren also deserves credit for avoiding some of the truly bad ideas that have characterized other progressive approaches to post-Trump policy. There was no hint in her speech of the notion — recently proposed by the progressive journalist Peter Beinart — of selling out Taiwan and Ukraine and conceding Moscow and Beijing spheres of influence in their respective neighborhoods. As Warren recognizes, one cannot put the fight for liberalism and democracy at the center of U.S. foreign policy while abandoning vulnerable democratic nations to the tender mercies of their authoritarian neighbors.

As is often the case with campaign-season speeches on foreign policy, however, Warren’s vision also has its unresolved tensions and challenges. The senator is right that the working and middle classes have suffered in recent decades, yet most studies indicate that automation — not trade — is the primary culprit in the hollowing out of American manufacturing. Warren is equally right that the war in Afghanistan is going nowhere fast, yet if the U.S. begins withdrawing now it will probably undercut any chances of getting the acceptable peace agreement she claims to prefer. 

More broadly, there is no arguing with the idea that the United States needs a limited-liability approach to counterterrorism. Decelerating too much, however, risks allowing ISIS, al-Qaeda and their various offshoots to reconstitute and operate in more dangerous ways. Additionally, in U.S.-Russia relations, verifiable arms control would surely be preferable to a new arms race with Russia. But absent the leverage re-investment in America’s nuclear arsenal will provide, how will the U.S. bring Moscow back into compliance with the arms control treaties it has systematically violated

Finally, the idea of slashing military spending is more problematic than it may seem. Here, too, Warren is correct that there are plenty of parts of the defense enterprise that can be streamlined, and the Pentagon is certainly guilty of buying too many expensive legacy systems with limited relevance to future conflicts. The problem, however, is that the U.S. will find it devilishly difficult to succeed in the global competition Warren rightly identifies without significant new military investments. Contrary to what Warren argued, America’s conventional military superiority is no longer so overwhelming. It has eroded badly in Eastern Europe, the Taiwan Strait and other geopolitical hotspots, as Russia and China have developed capabilities meant specifically to deny the U.S. freedom of action.

The tenfold increase in the number of global democracies since 1940 has ultimately rested on America’s ability to deter aggression by authoritarian powers. That ability is slipping away today, with potentially disastrous consequences. Warren’s speech offers an essential reminder that the trajectory of the current century will hinge on who wins the struggle between the democracies and the autocracies. Yet the balance of ideas has always been closely related to the balance of power, and democracy is far more likely to come out on top in that struggle if it goes well-armed. 

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, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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