Four Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

by Diana Ohlbaum

If there is one thing for which progressives can thank American voters in the 2016 election, it is shaking foreign policy elites from their smug consensus. The basic tenets of the free-trade and military-interventionist orthodoxy, endorsed by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike, have now been called into question.

True, the presidential outcome—which probably reflected a rejection of Clinton more than an embrace of Trump—was not primarily a referendum on foreign policy. Nor is it likely to bring the change that voters intended. If Trump’s foreign policy is anywhere near as uninformed, reckless, spiteful, and impulsive as his Twitter stream, we should all be very afraid.

But November’s wake-up call is not one to be ignored. Instead of asking how the globalization message can be sold or packaged better, its advocates need to consider whether their product delivers as advertised.

Are Americans truly better off when corporations reap the benefits of free trade while exploiting child labor and forced labor, destroying the environment, fueling conflict, and avoiding taxes? Are Americans made more secure by a global military footprint, an ever-growing list of undeclared wars and an upgraded nuclear arsenal?

Under the mantra of “U.S. global leadership,” Democrats and Republicans have united behind a peculiar brand of globalism that brings enormous profits to corporate investors and the military-industrial complex but meager benefits to the American middle class and the world’s poorest. This leaves a dangerous opening for demagogues to blame immigrants, refugees, foreign aid, and “big government,” diverting attention from corrupt and crony capitalism and its apologists.

The left has failed to articulate a clear and persuasive foreign policy vision that reflects contemporary realities, upholds universal values, and speaks to the concerns of the American people. Many had hoped that, as a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders might offer just that. But his message was laser-focused on domestic inequality, leaving progressives without a foreign policy voice.

As Democrats scramble to pick up the pieces from the election, they would do well to consider the following principles:

1) International tax and trade arrangements should benefit those who are left out and left behind. Incorporation and tax laws, bilateral tax treaties, global trade rules, and regional trade agreements are currently negotiated for the benefit of multinational corporations that can afford high-priced lawyers and lobbyists to drive the process. As a result, those whose jobs are on the line are treated as an afterthought, with ineffectual labor rights side agreements or underfunded “trade adjustment assistance” thrown in to appease trade unions. Trade and tax instruments ought to be designed with the middle class front and center by incentivizing better pay and benefits for workers, ending tax haven abuse, and factoring in the costs to natural resources.

2) Overextending the military and over-relying on the use of force undermines U.S. national security. The U.S. global military presence, with an unrivaled web of overseas military bases, forward deployments, and advanced arms sales, is perceived as a threat by adversaries and encourages unrealistic expectations among friends. Instead of keeping Americans safe, this giant military footprint courts military confrontation and creates pressure for intervention even when the U.S. has no vital interests at stake and little hope of achieving desired outcomes. Although the defense budget comprises more than half of all discretionary spending, the growing cost of fancy weapons and foreign entanglements has left troops overstretched and veterans overlooked. The endless wars, drone strikes, and targeted killings seem to increase sympathy for extremists and insurgents, making Americans a bigger target for terrorism at home and abroad.

3) The United States must lead by example. It is difficult to call on other countries to respect human rights and invest in the health and well-being of their citizens when the United States locks people up at a higher rate than any other nation and invests less than any other developed country on social services. To be respected around the world, the United States must play by the rules and pay its fair share, while demanding the same of others. This means working with and through the United Nations to address global problems, as well as meeting its domestic obligation to achieve internationally agreed-upon goals such as eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, providing clean water and quality education, achieving gender equality, and combating climate change.

4) Prevention is better than response. Escalating conflicts and violence, global warming, recurring natural disasters, pandemic disease, and mass migration all pose challenges for global health and security. But the frequency and scope of these crises far outstrips the ability of the United States and the international community to respond to them all. The likelihood and impact of these events can be significantly reduced through careful planning, emergency preparedness, and early warning systems, which must be carried out with meaningful participation of the governments and societies that are directly affected. U.S. diplomatic efforts and development programs should be oriented towards strengthening local capacity to identify risks, reduce vulnerability, deliver basic services, and mitigate tensions before crisis occurs.

Each of these principles has multiple corollaries and could be expanded into a set of specific policy prescriptions. The solutions will vary depending on the situation and are likely to differ even among people who subscribe to the same basic philosophy. But the danger of not getting the basics right is that the progressive community will lose this unique opportunity to seize the conversation. To do that, like-minded groups and individuals need to reach agreement on a common message. But who will be the messenger?

Photo of UN sculpture by David Ohmer via Flickr.

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum


One Comment

  1. Beautiful overview of something the American political class left behind 25 (or more) years ago. The militarization of American foreign policy, together with free trade (i.e., trade free of any responsibility to labour, consumers, and the natural world), is totally incompatible with “progressive” as it’s defined in this article. Bernie was the only progressive voice we heard during the recent campaign, and if he can find an equally progressive specialist in foreign policy to partner with, together they might be able to make the Democrats useful again. However, I’m not holding my breath: the Party is thoroughly under the spell of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and their mountains of cash, which have obviated the need to nickle and dime those repugnant unwashed masses.

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