Democratic Foreign Policy Habits

Patrick Porter has a couple of strong pieces out currently. The first discusses the US foreign policy establishment’s adherence to a grand strategy of primacy, or the idea that the United States must possess more power than any other state in world politics and use that power to impose its own liberal rules on the entire world. Primacy is the grand strategy that we associate with the United States when it acts as a “global policeman”. Porter says that primacy is a habit that the United States can’t seem to shake. It’s a path dependent “common sense” about US foreign policy that persists despite changing conditions in the international system. The second piece questions if the liberal world order created by the United States actually lived up to its own promises. It suggests the order was never a singularly liberal one and consisted of multiple sets of governing arrangements, including those which relied on extensive US coercion. Both are worth reading, as are others in this genre (see Ashford and Shifrinson here, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper here, Acharya here, and Meaney and Wertheim here).

All together, these new perspectives on American foreign policy suggest that the Trump administration isn’t that different from its predecessors, including the Bush, Clinton, and to a lesser extent, the Obama administration. They also reinforce the conviction that the United States desperately needs to develop a new kind of grand strategy that can better adapt to a multipolar international system and limit the decline of US hegemony.

This work is important because it helps us make sense of the foreign policy conversation in the Democratic party, which is bereft of new thinking on foreign policy. Democrats rely on a liberal international version of primacy that softens the use of force by laundering it through international institutions or making it covert enough for no one to notice. The habit of primacy is why Democrats rely on bland slogans without any meaning when they describe international affairs. For example, take Ronan Farrow’s new book and his big idea regarding “demilitarizing foreign policy.” What does this mean? As Chase Madar show, it’s an empty soundbite unless the United States abandons its strategy of primacy for something else. Thinking of primacy in terms of habit helps us understand why Farrow can’t flesh out his ideas.

Yet primacy remains consistent with President Trump’s foreign policy, especially his  amoral realism and ethnonationalism. In fact, Democrats routinely echo the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Middle East allies and maximal demands on North Korea. If Trump were so bad (and he is), you would think Democrats would do everything they can to develop grand strategic alternatives, even if that meant discarding their old ideas for how to act in world politics which implicate themselves in the President’s excesses of power. But because of the habit of primacy, they can’t offer the American people a foreign policy alternative to Trump. If they did, they might actually win some elections.

While habit is one part of the reason why Democrats can’t develop grand strategic alternatives, great power identity is another. The liberal internationalist version of primacy espoused by Democrats is rooted in an exceptionalist understanding of the United States as a great power. Exceptionalism is the notion that the United States has a historic mission to remake the world in own image, spreading free-market capitalism and democracy along the way while defending allies and defeating threats to the liberal world order without making concessions to them. The habit of primacy is intimately linked to the liberal version exceptionalism espoused by Democrats: if you believe that the United States must exercise leadership to protect its favored set of international governing arrangements, then you’ll reinforce the habit of primacy.

And like habits, identities are also hard to change. Jennifer Mitzen’s work on ontological security tells us why. Like human beings, states pursue a coherent and stable sense of who they are that allows them to resolve anxieties how they should organize and comport themselves in the world. Achieving ontological security requires routinizing relationships with social orders – if we treat each other in a consistent way over time, we reinforce our beliefs about ourselves and stabilize our very existence. Over time, states become attached to relationships that provide ontological security, even if those relationships are hostile and drive actual physical insecurity. During the Cold War, superpower competition with the Soviet Union reaffirmed an American liberal exceptional identity because enabled the United States to define itself in opposition to its adversary – if the Soviets were totalitarian communists bent on restricting human freedom, then Americans were everything they weren’t. And if those relationships deteriorate (like the US-Soviet one which collapsed along with the Cold War), states might even seek out new relationships or reactivate old ones that confirm an existing identity (like US hostility with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, etc.) Much like habits of grand strategy, attachment to identities persists even at the expense of a state’s long-term objective interests.

If we think about habit and identity as complementary concepts, then we can draw out some implications for the Democratic Party based on Porter’s conclusion in his International Security article. He argues that habits can be broken only when 1) external conditions change rapidly enough to force a reappraisal and 2) when someone comes along who can incur the costs of challenging an existing habit. For the Democratic Party, that means a leader who can mobilize a domestic coalition that will support new ideas about foreign policy that diverge from the establishment’s habit of primacy. We generally think about coalition formation in terms of the aggregation of interests, but they are just as much about the definition of an identity that can link those various groups together as a united movement engaged in collective action.

We know that the dominant Democratic party identity is collapsing, partially because Democrats are losing faith in free-market capitalism (witness the rise of Bernie Sanders and the revival of socialism) and because even liberalism enables the persistence of domination on the basis of race and gender (liberals have been willing participants in mass incarceration, perpetuate patriarchy, and tend to privilege white women at the expense of women of color). As left Democrats develop a new political identity to displace the old neoliberal one, they have a strategic opportunity to redefine the United States’ role in world politics – its great power identity – and then develop some new set of grand strategic habits.

It’s through that path – of party politics and identity formation – that Democrats abandon primacy and embrace great power concert, the preferred strategy of Porter and Acharya given the multipolar/multiplex context of world politics. It’s also the strategy that most compatible with an emergent Democratic party identity. As the movement politics of Black Lives Matter and The Poor People’s Campaign shift into national electoral politics, left Democratic leaders will need to redefine not just the party but also America’s role in the world, including how it relates to other great powers. Because great power concert prioritizes the consensual resolution of disputes and recognition of other social actors as autonomous equals whose rights must respected, it’s consistent with movements for social and economic justice. Both are grounded in what Chantal Mouffe calls agnostic pluralism, the radical democratic commitment to treat other social actors as legitimate enemies, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality.” Although we can disagree with others about how to implement those principles, we commit to treating others with respect and dignity while recognizing the legitimacy of  emancipatory struggles demanding the same.

Apply that habit of democracy to foreign affairs, and you get great power concert – the United States would treat its rivals as equals and joint partners in maintaining world order. A pluralist identity and strategic habits of concert-balancing would thus deescalate security competition in world politics and strengthen cooperation and peace in world politics. But it’s also consistent with a commitment to rules-based procedures and institutions as well as a relatively open international order governed at the global level. And in contrast with Trump’s authoritarian nationalism, a concert strategy will be more appealing to an increasingly polarized electorate no longer satisfied neoliberal primacy.

Bottom line: we should be optimistic about a strategic shift away from primacy because changes in the Democratic Party are making it possible.


Thucydides Won’t Save Us

Politico had an article today about how the very serious thinkers in the Trump administration are currently rehashing Thucydides. The reaction among national security observers and scholars on Twitter seemed to be a collective eye roll. No one wants to talk about Thucydides anymore. Why might that be?

American debates about Thucydides aren’t new. In fact, we’ve been debating Thucydides since the 2003 Iraq War. The Bush administration’s hubris in assuming there were no limits to its power was compared by many observers to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens violated the Periclean policy of restraint from offensive land campaigns. Just as Athens overextended itself militarily, so did the United States. Many of us hoped that readers of Thucydides would learn from this comparison and that a dose of restraint would be injected into future American foreign policy.

But the opposing crude interpretation of Thucydides is alive and well, and it might lead us to war in Syria. This is the version which assumes that power should be used amorally and without limits since international politics is a Hobbesian war of all against all. It’s inspired by taking the “strong do what they will, weak suffer what they must” line from the Melian Dialogue completely out of context. And once again, a Republican administration is asserting American power around the world without any limit. Trump’s “principled realism” inspired him to throw down the gauntlet against Iran and side with the Saudis, Egypt and Israel in their regional power struggle. Rather than deter Tehran from greater expansion, their pursuit of a land bridge linking Syria and Iraq suggests they will respond to force with force. The danger now is that we are about to stumble into a war with not just Assad, but also Iran and Russia. These developments should give us little faith that the administration will avoid a power transition war with China (Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” is merely a trendy, updated version of this theory).

So what does this mean for how we think about Thucydides and today’s foreign policy? If the realism of Trump’s existing Middle East policy is any guide, we shouldn’t have much faith that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis can guide the administration in using force with restraint. McMaster has already squandered his reputation by defending Trump and, along with Mattis, are clearly implicated in his aggressive Middle Eastern commitments. Further, we live in an era of demagogues. Trump is our modern-day Alcibiades, who rallied the Athenian people to war while profiting off of his political power. Add Stephen Bannon to the mix (another self-professed Thucydides fan who happens to be obsessed with power), and we cannot assume that ‘the adults’ will resist the President’s knee-jerk aggression with the proper interpretation of The Peloponnesian War.

Further, it’s not 2003 anymore and the world is more complex. Comparisons between the United States and Athens no longer hold after the emergence of multipolarity and the weakening of American economic hegemony. An emphasis on restraint and the limited use of force is certainly still relevant, but how those principles translate into strategy and policy in an incredibly complex environment remains to be deciphered.

All this shouldn’t be taken to mean that The Peloponnesian War is irrelevant to international politics or that we shouldn’t teach it in IR classes. And there has been wonderful scholarship on Thucydides in recent years (see Lebow’s other work). But it does mean that Thucydidean critiques of Trump’s foreign policy will fall on deaf ears. We are simply talking past each other. And if we want to figure out a concrete way forward for the United States, we might consider other classical realists (thinking of Morgenthau’s discussion of the balance of power) who do articulate clear principles regarding power politics rather than drawing upon a single case whose context is somewhat different from today’s.

Other Cosmopolitanisms

Ross Douthat had an interesting column in the Sunday Times on the contradictions of today’s cosmopolitans, a global elite that functions more like a transnational tribe which clusters around its own people and cultures. In terms of their affinity for their own, cosmopolitans are like the new nationalists, although certainly the content of both groups ideas and their attachment to place is different. What Douthat is really implying is that the old communitarian position still holds true: people always need a source of collective identity to define themselves separate from the Other. Given these dynamics, claiming loyalty to some global human identity still relies on the exclusion of specific cultures and their unique differences.

But just as strict cosmopolitanism is false, so is the communitarian claim that no global identity is possible. So is the notion that the old ideological categories of liberal and conservative should be ignored.  In fact, the cosmopolitanism that Douthat describes is entirely that of liberalism, but superimposed on a world scale. His global elites base their vision of ‘one world’ on the perfectibility of humanity through technical knowledge and science. For them, individual action is guided entirely by utilitarian self-interest within a global system of capitalism rather than any attachment to communal values.  Liberal reason is what guides these cosmopolitans, and so to assume that old ideological categories are irrelevant is false.

By framing all cosmopolitanism this way, Douthat also ignores other versions that do embrace non-liberal (and non-Western) cultures without a assuming the universal superiority of liberal science, rationality, and individualism. Left-cosmopolitanism is interested in developing new forms of knowledge by learning about new cultures and embracing perspectives within them. This is more of a left-internationalist version of cosmopolitanism which is guided by solidarity with all human beings and an acceptance of pluralism. Left-cosmopolitans would pursue a more authentic way of life that sees truth not in utility, but aesthetic beauty, a value that can’t be universally quantified and known based on scientific measurement. Alessandro Ferrara has written about such an approach can inform political decision making in terms of Kant’s paradigm of judgment. In this way, left-cosmopolitanism understands the world from a more humanistic perspective unlike its universalizing (but alienating) liberal cousin.

One could say that this vision of cosmopolitanism has no bearing today. But that’s not necessarily true since left-cosmopolitans do exist. Take the artist Molly Crabapple, who combats today’s rise of exclusionary violence with art, solidarity, universal ethics, and yes – cosmopolitanism. Her examples are murdered MP Jo Cox, who treated Syrian refugees as British citizens since they were all equally human, and Amjad Sabri, the Sufi musician killed by the Taliban because her religiously inspired art deviated from the Taliban’s vision of Islam. These exemplars of cosmopolitanism demonstrate that individuals do exist who respect all human life while also respecting each culture’s uniqueness. Solidarity demands that we give each other that respect. This is the kind of ethic that Fred Dallmayr discusses as a practical kind of cosmopolitanism, one that allows for our ethical principles to emerge over time by learning about difference instead of drawing upon an existing set of supposedly universal principles.

There are more cosmopolitanisms than the liberal versions rightly criticized by Douthat. We should adopt the post-liberal version that refuses to ignore cultural and pluralism. That’s the cosmopolitanism to which we should subscribe, and it’s the only ideology which can defeat the new nationalism.


Balance, But Not so Fast

(Note: if I find time, I will add more links to this. If you have any in mind that are relevant, tell me on twitter at @stevepampinella).

Mearsheimer and Walt have a piece in Foreign Affairs here arguing for a US strategy of offshore balancing. It’s nothing new if you are familiar with such arguments from Mearsheimer’s own work as well as Christopher Layne’s. I’m generally sympathetic to this view and think liberal hegemony creates more problems than it solves.

That being said, Mearsheimer and Walt oversell how easy such a strategy of retrenchment would be to enact. Their discussion on Europe glosses over some inconvenient facts which, if acknowledged, suggest the United States should renegotiate its relationship with NATO in a less drastic way.

The authors argue that the United States should end its military presence in Europe and simply let US allies take responsibility for their own defense. This is bad policy because it fails to recognize the degree of current Russian revisionism, the weakness of NATO and EU institutions, and the potential dominance of far-right parties in Europe which would be natural allies of a revisionist Russia.

It is not a delusion of American ideology to assume that Russia wants to pick apart Eastern European NATO and EU states. The Baltics and Poland are the most obvious target given their proximity to Russia and former subordinate status to Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Insecurity in the East has thus led the Alliance to deploy ground forces as a tripwire to deter Russian aggression and raise the costs of a potential military attack. NATO allies have almost fulfilled the necessary requests for troops, with only one battalion remaining unfulfilled (Canada should make the main commitment, according to Steve Saideman).

To assume that the Europeans could mobilize their own defense without an American commitment is not realistic. Without American participation in these deployments, the Kremlin would assume that they could launch a first strike and defeat any European response that did not include the military capabilities of the United States. It’s not a far-fetched assumption either given the low levels of military spending by European states.

Further, no NATO member would commit to the defense of the East without an American commitment. Yes, the United States does solve a collective action problem here because it can reduce the potential costs of collective defense for other NATO states by committing its own far larger military resources. Without the US, NATO would collapse and a revisionist Russia would become a regional hegemon, precisely the outcome that offshore balancers want to avoid.

Politically, a unilateral American withdrawal would exacerbate political tensions among and within European states. The EU is already teetering with an economic recession, misguided austerity policies, and anti-refugee xenophobia. The result is that leaving the EU is now on the agenda for some states. Today’s Brexit vote is a clear example of this.

While we shouldn’t hope for some misguided revitalization of liberalism across the Continent, the prospect of “Europeans defending themselves” in the realist manner suggested by Walt and Mearsheimer would be a gift to rising far-right parties. A state-centric strategic environment would require national defense strategies as opposed to collective defense. This would exacerbate extreme nationalism and reinforce the belief that only national strength and unimpeded sovereignty can protect each European state. Under these circumstances, Europe’s fragmentation and drift toward fascism would be complete.

I write all this not to completely discredit offshore balancing and the realist critique of liberal hegemony. Yes, the United States should not have ignored Russian interests in Eastern Europe by supporting NATO and EU expansion during the 1990s. Such policies triggered Russia’s historical fear of Western domination and reinforced the belief that only a strong Russia could protect Eurasia from the United States.

But the United States can’t undo history. Instead, it can seek a balance of power with Russia that acknowledges is role in the region while deterring it from aggression. It is not wrong for the United States to make tripwire deployments with NATO partners. But these should not be considered permanent and only as a response to Russia’s existing intentions. Nor should those deployments be strengthened to attempt an actual defense against a first-strike. Russia would perceive strong military capabilities on its border more offensively and less defensively, and would react accordingly.

In addition, the United States should clearly state that it does not support NATO and EU membership for Eastern European states that historically have been Russian clients, especially Ukraine and Georgia. While it should demand that Crimea be returned to Ukraine, the United States should acknowledge Russian naval interests in the Black Sea and at the port of Sevastopol. The point is to make clear that the United States recognizes Russia as a great power and an equal. Doing so would go a long way toward assuaging Russian security concerns.

We should also acknowledge that Russia’s current revisionism is not sustainable. The Russian economy has been hobbled by the collapse of the price of oil, forcing state expenditures to decline. The Russian military is involved in two conflicts currently, which are somewhat costly in terms of personnel and materiel. These are similar (though not identical) conditions to those that resulted in the Soviet collapse in the 1980s. While such a catastrophic outcome is unlikely, the strains on the Russian state will temper its ability to push others around and eventually limit its aggression.

When that moment comes, the United States should consider reducing military deployments in Europe. But to pull the plug now before the appropriate conditions exist (including an American commitment to halt Western expansion into the East) opens the door to more instability on the Continent.


Just a heads up – I’ve updated my CV to reflect some recent publications. I also never posted the “Bernie’s World” piece published in Foreign Affairs back in February, which builds on many of the posts on this blog. You can find that here, though it is paywalled.

Debate takeaways: Bernie needs a foreign policy vision

Takeaways from the debate:

Hillary won on the gun exchange. She crushed that, and otherwise her and Bernie sparred back and forth without either candidate scoring a real blow. There were moments where they both seemed a bit unsure of themselves as well. Lester Holt gets MVP for keeping O’Malley in check.

Most interesting was Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran over time. I don’t think any big-league politician has said that yet. It suggests that Sanders is actually more in tune with Obama on Iran than Clinton is, and based on the diplomatic breakthoughs in the past week, it’s a good play.

But he needs to expand on it because Sanders still has no vision on foreign policy. He needs a broad narrative to tie together his position against regime change and unilateral war alongside a preference for multilalteral diplomacy and engagement with Iran and Russia.

It’s not impossible to conceptualize either. Sanders can easily invoke FDR on foreign policy in the same way he invokes him on domestic policy. Recall that FDR too sought a great power concert strategy (what Sanders is really talking about), one that involves engagement with all major Eurasian powers against a single common enemy (or alliance). It easily leads into a renewed commitment to international law and institutions as a legitimate form of international politics, and one fully cemented by FDR as well as the basis for the post-war global order.

That could be Sanders’ foreign policy vision. If he can articulate it, he can open a new front against Clinton and undermine one of her supposed strengths.