Searching for a Progressive Foreign Policy


by James A. Russell

The debacle of the Trump presidency has had one useful effect. It has re-energized parts of the American electorate that had been on the sidelines watching the Republican pursuit of a one-party state via gerrymandered districts, suppression of poor and minority voting, and helping America’s wealthiest individuals and corporations at the expense of everyone else.

Fortunately, a range of candidates are now seeking higher office who unapologetically espouse a more progressive domestic political program focused on an actual “America First” agenda that emphasizes health care, education, infrastructure investment, and wealth re-distribution to try and rescue the country’s vanishing middle class. Bernie Saunders had the guts to tirelessly and effectively campaign on these themes in 2016. That baton is now being passed to the next generation of potential leaders like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and a host of others.

But if progressive ideas thankfully seem on the upswing in domestic politics, it is less clear how this next generation of leaders will translate these ideas for change at home into change in America’s approach to the world. What does a new approach at home suggest for a strategy and a foreign policy that would make the country stronger and more prosperous? New ideas are as desperately needed for America’s broken foreign policy as they are for its broken domestic policies.

As hard as it is to admit it, a good starting point is President Trump’s calls for America to stop policing the Middle East, reduce commitments in America’s longest running war in Afghanistan, and re-examine and redefine the transatlantic partnership that called on the United States to defend Europe via NATO. Before first: some uncomfortable realities.

Confront the Forever War’s Legacy

The quest for a different set of foreign policy priorities faces daunting obstacles and entrenched interests that will resist calls for change. Any attempt to change foreign policy must first wade through the wreckage of the post-9/11 era that is spread far and wide around the world, wreckage created by Republicans and Democrats alike who are not keen to acknowledge their responsibility and their mistakes.

In the post-9/11 era, America launched the forever war by taking on the unmanageable task of refereeing local political disputes mostly in the Middle East with its armies and, in places it didn’t want to invade, with missile-firing drones and Special Forces jumping out of helicopters to kill people. The result has been hundreds of thousands of people killed, at least four broken countries, and millions of refugees and displaced populations that have changed the landscape of these societies beyond all recognition.

In the era, the American president became the assassin-in-chief—with monthly meetings to debate a kill list—casting aside any consideration of due process with blind faith in supposedly infallible intelligence. The forever war has now spread into Africa, with a new series of bases under construction all over the continent. America’s security sector has enthusiastically taken on these missions, which continue unabated with little fanfare and, most importantly, with little oversight. The forever war will go on, well, forever, until political leaders order it stopped.

Any attempt to create a different kind of foreign policy must squarely address the undeniable political calculus that flowed from the 9/11 attacks: that an American president had to be seen doing everything necessary around the world to protect the country from future attacks. Any successful future attack in the United States would, the thinking went, result in that president being voted (or removed) from office.

When this requirement met up with the well-established U.S. tendency to wildly inflate threats, it created a recipe for military intervention around the world out of all proportion to the actual threat. International terrorism did not represent an existential threat to the republic. The resulting public and policy hysteria surrounding the Islamic State is an example of how distorted the post-9/11 risk assessment became, as groups of Islamic radicals in pickup trucks thousands of miles away were presented as an existential threat. They may certainly threaten the places in which they reside, but they present little threat to the United States.

Abandoning the forever war will of course face significant obstacles at home—mostly from the DC foreign-policy establishment that enthusiastically embraces the idea of a militarized interventionist foreign policy. The alliance of neoconservative republicans and liberal-internationalist democrats regrettably represents the intellectual center of gravity for American foreign policy in organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, The Center for New American Security, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Institute for the Study of War, and the Heritage Foundation.

Any attempt to somehow scale back America’s military commitment in places like Syria and Afghanistan inevitably lead to howls of protests from this powerful alliance—with hysterical references to America’s retreat a la Munich and the end of the so-called liberal international order. Never mind that the military interventions championed by the foreign-policy establishment have helped undermine America’s credibility around the world or the strategic disasters that followed when U.S. troops tried to re-engineer local politics at the point of a gun in places like Iraq. The United States today has an estimated 200,000 troops in over 100 countries in the world.

Establish Different Strategic Priorities

Ending the forever war could lead to the establishment of a different kind of foreign policy with new strategic priorities. These priorities should be informed by a critical feature of U.S. strategy during the Cold War—strategic patience. The George W. Bush administration abandoned this key underpinning of U.S. global strategy after 9/11. It needs to return to its rightful place informing America’s approach to the world. The United States remains the envy of the world’s states with a dynamic and vibrant $20 trillion-plus economy that still accounts for over 20 percent of global GDP. The mighty dollar remains the only viable currency of choice for the global economy. There’s a reason why immigrants want to come to the United States.

According to the National Intelligence Council in its long-range projections on global trends, wealth is flowing from the West to the East. The reality is that Asia’s states are growing faster than the rest of the world. The rise of China represents the most important change to the international system over the last quarter century, and U.S. foreign policy needs to re-orient itself to this reality. To its credit, the Obama administration tried to acknowledge this fact with its “pivot” to the far east.

A globally ascendant China is not, however, preordained. China suffers from acute structural weaknesses that will almost certainly slow and could derails its ascent to superpower status. China’s one-party communist state suffers from many of the same maladies that derailed the other main global experiment in communism in the Soviet Union. At the top of the list is corruption and lack of accountability. The oligarchs now ruling China are helping themselves at the cash register at various levels of the party hierarchy. It’s not a recipe for long-term success.  Add to the list of structural weaknesses the lack of a real currency and banking system and you have a cocktail of problems that undermine China’s long-term prospects.

Fortunately for the United States, the Indo-Pacific region is comprised of mature, viable, and responsible states that actually want to work with Washington in part to balance against the ascent of China. Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and India all can offer the United States something in return in the relationship.  A progressive foreign policy would focus on building such partnerships in Asia.

America’s wars in the Middle East prevented the Obama administration’s sensible “pivot” to Asia, and they still prevent a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy towards something different.  But America’s Cold War era commitment to defend the region and its costly and ill-conceived wars there should be consigned to the dustbin of history. These efforts to police the region have proven nothing short of disastrous and, further, have aligned the United States with a series of undesirable, repressive states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel) in a part of the world that is fast becoming a strategic backwater. The Middle East today badly lags behind the rest of the world in development of human capital and global financial flows, and its income remains overwhelmingly in the hands of the privileged few.

Try as it might, the United States can’t save the Middle East from itself. America’s efforts to construct a more cooperative regional political order have only made the situation there worse.  All that can really be said is that the regional states are taking more of an interest in policing the Middle East themselves—and they should be allowed to do so. Perhaps Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Iran will eventually reach some kind of accommodation so they can focus on their crushing domestic problems. When that happens, the United States should be there to lend a hand.

As for Europe, President Trump is right to raise question of the relevance of NATO and the commitment of the United States to defend Europe. That idea made sense at the end of World War II as a means to prevent the Soviet Union from controlling Europe. Today, however, that geopolitical threat has thankfully receded. NATO and the EU succeeded beyond all expectations—and the continent now contains many economically vibrant, politically mature, and prosperous European states. It’s time for a foreign policy that acknowledges this fact.

True, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seeks to undermine Europe and the wider international system in its vain pursuit of global power and influence. But Russia’s long-term future is bleak. It faces the prospect of a declining population and the debilitating, long-term effects of the rampant corruption of Putin’s mafia-like government. The European Union (with or without Britain) is today far stronger and more powerful in any meaningful indicator (GDP, population, defense spending) than Russia.

The United States should continue a strong political partnership with Europe but leave the defense of the continent to the Europeans, who are more than capable of defending themselves in the face of a far weaker Russia.

Recover the Moral High Ground

One of the casualties of America’s forever war was the abandonment of values that, while never fully realized in foreign policy, nevertheless represented important sources of influence around the world. The forever war drove the United States ever more closely into the arms of despots and dictators around the world who paid lip service to the idea of combating international terrorism while using U.S. support to go after political opponents at home. The forever war associated the United States with their extra-judicial rendition and torture. The damage done to the international prestige and influence of the United States has been significant.

One way to start the recovery process is to publicly embrace and emphasize the ideas of justice, fairness, and equitable global income distribution. As revealed in the Panama Papers and elsewhere, the world’s wealthy individuals and corporate elite have created a global system of financial management that lets them avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Trillions of dollars that could be used by governments to address the pressing needs of their societies are shielded in the labyrinthine world of offshore limited liability corporations and other entities.

A progressive political agenda would start with a cleanup of this problem at home while simultaneously promoting a global leadership position to stop these pernicious practices in the name of fairness, justice, and equality—core U.S. values that have all but vanished in the forever war. The United States would reap the benefits many times over by showing leadership in this area.

The search for a progressive foreign policy is still in its nascent stages as a new generation of political leaders search for a coherent set of ideas to present to their constituents. President Trump’s call to examine these heretofore sacrosanct foreign policy priorities—the forever war, America’s military involvement in the Middle East, transatlantic military subsidies—is an opportunity to broaden thinking on what a new foreign policy can look like.

Sitting astride the path to a new and more progressive approach, however, is the Republican Party and its disciplined pursuit of policies that benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the less privileged many. Changing this approach may be impossible in a country where more than 60 million Americans voted for Trump, who never pretended to be anything other than a corrupt fraud that successfully avoided paying his fair share of taxes courtesy of his army of lawyers and his Republican political allies.

Yet if Americans can’t hope for something better at home, it will be unable to lead in world, which desperately needs help. The international system cannot and should not be surrendered to criminal regimes and corrupt political systems like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China. The people of the world yearn for justice, equality, and fairness. A progressive foreign policy built on these principles can help re-establish US global leadership and responsibility.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Very well meaning comments but highly unrealistic. Right now President Bolton is threatening to invade Venezuela and will soon invade Iran. Naivete has become the hallmark of our current political scientists , alas. US has never followed the norms or values when it comes to the foreign policy. The foreign policy is there to serve corporate power and US imperialism.

  2. What about ‘criminal regimes and corrupt political systems like US’? After all being an ‘exceptional system’ we arrogate the right to take actions which we would deem to be
    criminal if undertaken by others. We blithely invade other countries where we have not been invited!!! And we talk about other corrupt systems!!!

    “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye!!!”

Comments are closed.