Category: American Foreign Policy

In Search of a Strategic Narrative

The left’s inability to develop a comprehensive foreign policy is once again attracting attention. Some of this is driven by Ocasio-Cortez’s pending entrance into Congress and her less-than-clear position on Israel and Palestine. But it also builds upon the staleness of existing US foreign policy ideas. Like Rapp-Hooper and Lissner, Paul Staniland argues that opposing Trump’s foreign policy shouldn’t mean that we accept the claims of mainstream foreign policy intellectuals. They glorify the liberal order as justification for reverting to liberal hegemony. What we need is an alternative, yet none is apparent.

Much of the writing about left foreign policy has focused on the absence of organizational infrastructure, like think tanks and big donors, which can churn out policy papers on various issues for decisionmakers like AOC. But the problem is actually deeper than that. We don’t know how to translate vague left-wing sentiments into actual policy. For example, US progressives routinely support a more diplomatic approach toward foreign affairs rather than a militarized one. These perspectives are strongest among Millennials, who have likely been disillusioned by the Iraq War and have abandoned liberal exceptionalism as a national identity.  But what does that mean in practice? How would a Democratic politician operationalize that feeling into actual policy proposals which could be advanced in Congress or perhaps by a left-wing president? No one really knows, and that’s not a problem that can be easily solved with a think tank.

What’s missing is a leftist strategic narrative (or what Freedman calls a strategic script). According to Laura Roselle and her co-authors, a strategic narrative is a representation of US identity, including its role in world politics and the kind of world order that it wants to build. When policymakers articulate such narratives, they can rationalize policy approaches that deal with various issue areas. Take the standard narrative articulated by advocates of liberal hegemony, the establishment grand strategy supported by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. They define the United States in terms of a liberal exceptionalist identity and a historical mission to spread liberal democracy across the world. This narrative requires that the United States dominate the globe to ensure the stability of the liberal world order, even if that means violating the order’s rules. It’s an extremely familiar story to us because it has dominated our understanding of US national identity and world order for decades, arguably going back to Woodrow Wilson. When politicians like Hillary Clinton adopt this narrative, it justifies the use of US military power to expand the liberal order (think of the Libya intervention) and the pursuit of trade agreements like TPP which prioritize private ownership of property and market competitiveness (the economic values consistent with the liberal narrative). That same story provides a script for think tanks when making foreign policy recommendations. It suggests which actions by the United States will enable it to realize its interests while simultaneously precluding others. The narrative is really more important than the institutions – the former gives the latter their reason for existing and tells them what kinds of ideas politicians who adopt the narrative will likely support.

This is what the left is lacking – a strategic narrative around which it can build a coherent foreign policy. We see this absence of a story about self when we consider how leftists are contesting control for the Democratic Party. As Max Berger demonstrates, the left lacks a “political identity that fuses the various strands of the left’s coalition into a coherent narrative.” Since we have yet to define the national identity of the United States or desired for world order, the social movements which comprise the resurgent political left can’t figure out what they want in terms of foreign affairs. Walzer and others suggest why this is the case.* In general, the left can’t get beyond it’s anti-American identity, one which leads us to form exclusive cliques and reject anyone who doesn’t share a commitment for world revolution and pure communism.

It’s impossible to build a foreign policy based on that story. Hence, we don’t have one, and we ignore all the good left-wing foreign policy material which is already lying around. Amitav Acharya claims that we live in a multiplex, or pluralist world order, one that requires a great power concert for global stability. Patrick Porter makes a similar argument that emphasizes a balance of power. States would resolve their disputes through consensus, respect each other’s security interests, and acknowledge their cultural differences. Right here is a grand strategy (concert) and a vision for world order (multiplex pluralism) that can maintain an internationalist US foreign policy posture without hegemonic dominance. We’re only missing one complementary element of a left strategic narrative, namely a national identity.

I think that’s pluralism, or a political philosophy in which peoples of different cultural backgrounds coexist with each other in a democratic society and respect each other’s rights and political claims. My understanding of pluralism is informed by Chantal Mouffe’s theory of radical democracy. I think it best defines the “ideal” United States for leftists. A person of any race, religion, or gender orientation would have their rights respected on the basis of their particular identity. No one’s freedom would be dependent on assimilating into a white liberal society defined by individualism and heteronormative gender assumptions. Pluralism also means that we don’t have to define ourselves as little capitalists whose lives revolve on the accumulation of wealth. We could live without being dominated by the market in any way we please, so long as we don’t impose our will upon others. In other words, pluralism allows us to define the United States in terms of both liberty and equality rather than just one or the other.

If scaled up to the global level, pluralism allows us to recognize other nations and peoples as different yet equal partners in maintaining world order, a commitment to diplomacy consistent with a concert strategy and a multiplex system. Specific policy proposals which seek to resolve conflict through diplomacy could be entertained within this narrative. For example, Michael O’Hanlon argues that the US can deescalate tensions with Russia by treating non-NATO Eastern European states as neutral. This effective moratorium on NATO expansion would be the policy extension of a concert strategy. The United States would limit its influence in Russia’s near-abroad and agree to resolve disputes in the region through negotiation rather than unilateral action. Many leftists would likely support this idea because it involves treating Russia as an equal rather than a subordinate by accepting a more restrained US foreign policy. But no one talks about it currently because it doesn’t fit into anyone’s story about what the United States should do regarding Russia. If a pluralist narrative existed, O’Hanlon’s proposal would be more prominent in discussions about US-Russia relations.

One might question, however, whether or not this strategic narrative and subsequent policies will be supported by the public. As Guido Girgenti asked, would this proposal just strand a leftist politician between centrists who support liberal hegemony and hard leftists who want revolution? My feeling is no. An “internationalism without hegemony” foreign policy would likely be supported by most Democrats, especially after the failures of the Iraq War. Their tolerance of Democrats who embrace liberal hegemony is more habit than a conscious choice. Give them an alternative and they’ll take it. It would also attract Millennials who themselves are the most diverse generation of Americans. They want an internationalist alternative to Trump’s nationalism but without the insistence on US military domination over others and a die-hard commitment to liberal capitalism. I think it would also attract lots of hard leftists, particularly those who accept the need for major institutional reform now. The only leftists we lose are those who demand ideological purity and have no real interest in building power. They would never support a coherent left foreign policy anyway (the resistance by some leftists to a DSA endorsement of Cynthia Nixon is a clear example).

My argument above is not meant to imply that think tanks are irrelevant. They are not and we do need them. But we still need to clearly develop a story about foreign policy which can connect policy to politicians and left constituencies. That strategic narrative is probably a pluralist one. Once leftists start talking about the United States and world order in this way, we can establish the rhetorical story around which think tanks can offer policy. And maybe in the process, we could even think about economic regulation at the global level that limits the assimilating and exploitative tendencies of capitalism.

*(I actually think Walzer’s proposal for a left foreign policy is wrong, see here)

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New Working Paper: Pluralist Strategic Narratives and US Foreign Policy

I’m presenting a manuscript today at ISA-FLACSO in Quito, Ecuador. It’s entitled “Pluralist Strategic Narratives and US Foreign Policy.” In this paper, I attempt to flesh out many of the ideas about US grand strategy and world order I’ve developed over the past couple years. Overall, it argues that a pluralist strategic narrative can enable the United States to realize a great power concert and create international institutions that regulate the world economy. If you’re interested in reading it, you can download it here. This paper is a work in progress so comments are welcome, but please do not cite it without permission.

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.

Clinton and Obama: Two versions of liberal internationalism

Hillary Clinton made a major foreign policy statement yesterday offering her approval of the Iranian nuclear deal. However, her remarks were more interesting because they provide us an opportunity to understand her worldview and assumptions about foreign policy. While both Clinton and Obama share liberal internationalist strategies, both understand the role of the United States relative to other great powers differently, and thus make different assumptions about America’s role in world politics. Ikenberry’s recent work on American grand strategy provides a useful way to understand these different versions of liberal internationalist grand strategy.

Take Hillary’s discussion of how she would approach Iran if elected president. Her “distrust but verify” principle implies that Iranian commitments to the US are unlikely to be uphold in the absence of some coercive threat (snapback sanctions in this case). It also suggests that the US should be wary of making further commitments in Iran, an assumption reinforced by her proposal to confront Iranian influence across the region. This demonstrates a base belief that Iran’s emergent hegemony is entirely contrary to American interests in the region and that those interests must be forcefully reasserted. Her clear and unambiguous support of Israel is a major part of the restoration of an American-led regional order, despite the fact that the current Obama administration does not view Israel as a partner in regional stability.

In calling for a renewal of American regional hegemony, Clinton is articulating a liberal internationalist strategy consistent with what Ikenberry has described as liberal internationalism 2.5. Such a strategy attempts to renegotiate the terms of American leadership and preserve worldwide hegemony by making itself subject to some rules but not others. Hillary’s approach to the nuclear deal reflects this type of strategy – she accepts it as a temporary limit on American action with regard to Iran but reserves the right to unilaterally use military force while bolstering its relationship with Israel.

While Hillary tolerates some political openness by virtue of her acceptance of the nuclear deal, an American military capability is always at the ready to enforce that new global order. This is further evident in her discussion of Syria and Ukraine, two areas in which she believes the United States must act more forcefully to confront both Assad and Putin. These statements position Hillary as a hawkish liberal internationalist, one willing to flex American muscle to uphold American principles of liberal order.

What’s fascinating is that this position isn’t necessarily that far from that of some neoconservatives. Robert Kagan, who wants the US to avoid superpower retirement, is generally seen as supportive of Clinton and has made moves toward the political center, like working at Brookings rather than a standard right-wing think tank. Same for others like Max Boot. Both would approve Clinton’s past criticism of Obama on Syria, arguing that he has not done enough to support Syrian rebels. As for the US role in the world, she argues that the US can’t “hunker down”. The problem isn’t American leadership. Instead, it’s one of messaging: “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

On the other hand, Obama’s foreign policy is edging away from liberal internationalism 2.5 and more toward 3.0. According to Ikenberry, version 3.0 would see the United States resolve global problems using highly multilateral and networked processes among many great powers, including potential adversaries. This is a post-hegemonic posture that seeks to maintain the liberal world order created by the United States through great power cooperation, including diplomacy with adversaries and rival hegemons.  The P5+1 diplomacy that led to the Iran deal is precisely the kind of engagement that would be pursued by a post-hegemon, and such a strategy would use this diplomatic success as a way to build consensus on solving other problems faced by all major powers.

What’s the difference between these two versions of internationalism? 3.0 would involve a much higher degree of strategic restraint and an acceptance of the limitations of American power. Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” principle is quite consistent with restraint and demonstrates a loss of faith in the use of unilateral military force. Given her assumption that the US must restore its hegemony, Clinton would have much fewer qualms regarding coercive activities.

Overall, these two different versions of liberal internationalism serve as the major grand strategic alternatives for foreign policy in the Democratic Party. Which makes one wonder: will other candidates (Sanders, O’Malley) articulate a foreign policy more consistent with Obama’s liberalism 3.0? Or, more interestingly, might it might possible to develop a strategy that even goes beyond 3.0, or for that matter, even beyond liberalism?

A wider window of opportunity for US-Iran cooperation

War on the Rocks has an interesting piece by Farzan Sabet throwing cold water on the possibility of future cooperation between the United States and Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Both states presumably have a shared interest in the defeat of a common enemy: the Islamic State. However, Sabet warns that Tehran will resist cooperation for two related reasons. The first is Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, a strategy prosecuted by Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani and his support for proxy states and militias. The second is a network of rivalries between Iran and Sunni regional powers threatened by Iran’s bid for hegemony. This argument implicitly assumes that competition is rooted in the Iranian regime’s revisionist foreign policy posture – it seeks to dominate the region and rewrite the rules of regional order consistent with its own ideology.

However, there are developments out of Tehran that suggest Iran is adopting more restraint in its foreign policy. The conclusion of the nuclear negotiations has seen Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif open the door to cooperation on other issues with the United States, which presumably include ISIS and broader regional instability. Most recently, The Economist has reported that Suleimani’s activities are now under review by an external committee following criticisms regarding his proxy-oriented strategy. The same piece notes that Zarif has effectively stepped into Suleimani’s role, and is now seeking to “find an endgame in Syria that limits, rather than increases, Iran’s armed involvement in the civil war there.” Combined with the ascendence of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who initiated diplomatic outreach with the West that led to the nuclear deal, it seems that politics within the Iranian regime thus appear to be driving foreign policy change.

This bodes well for the prospects of a continuing rapproachement between the US and Iran, but it does not necessarily mean that cooperation is forthcoming. An undiscussed factor is domestic politics within the United States. While Rouhani and Zarif are especially secure in their position, no such uncertainty exists in the United States. This country itself is about to undergo a leadership transition with the 2016 election, and there are vastly different opinions on the nuclear deal and presumably future cooperation.

We can safely assume that a Republican candidate will tear up the nuclear deal and resume hostility towards Iran (although Donald Trump has given mixed signals on this). On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, would approach Iran. While she is supporting the Iran deal, this appears to be more about avoiding the appearance of going against President Obama. She has been an Iran hawk in the past, and was Senator from a state who’s politicians fall all over themselves speaking against Iran as resolute defenders of Israel. Bernie Sanders would be most likely to support continued cooperation with Iran. Although he is rising in the polls, he remains an underdog.

If we consider the domestic politics of both Iran and the United States, the window of opportunity for further cooperation is wider than we think, especially on the Iranian side. But, the combination of uncertainty injected by the 2016 election and the highly partisan nature of the issue shows that the real obstacle is American domestic politics.