Progressives and the new great power rivalry

Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and a lecturer at Yale Law School and Catholic University, has written an essay in Foreign Affairs that inadvertently exposes "progressive" foreign policy thought as confused, conflicted, and dangerous.  I say "inadvertently," because Wertheim is a proponent of what he calls "progressive internationalism," but in attempting to forge a distinctive approach to the world that satisfies the progressive agenda, he proves that progressives should not be entrusted with protecting U.S. national security.

In the essay's opening paragraphs, Wertheim sets forth some key components of the progressive international agenda: retreating from "endless wars," moving toward green energy to account for climate change, downsizing the U.S. military, promoting democracy and human rights to build a "just world," addressing "transnational and planetary challenges" by improving "global governance," emphasizing "people-centered policies" instead of geopolitics, and exercising U.S. global "restraint."

Wertheim praises the Biden administration for its support of a "global minimum tax," rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, pursuing "bold legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions," and launching a "review of U.S. global force posture" that seeks to reduce American military presence in the Middle East.  But then he criticizes Biden for engaging in great power rivalry and failing to scale back U.S. force posture.  The United States, Wertheim laments, is descending into "intense rivalry with China and Russia," and it is up to progressives to call for international "restraint" or else the U.S. will "violate international rules, abet repression, cause suffering, and benefit elites at the expense of working people."  Progressives, as Jeanne Kirkpatrick once said, always "blame America first" for the world's problems.

Wertheim identifies the three "overlapping but distinct" approaches to progressive foreign policy: promoting democracy and human rights abroad, urging global cooperation and global governance, and exercising political-military restraint.  Wertheim is in the "progressive restrainer" camp and urges policymakers to shed U.S. defense commitments abroad.  Yet he also supports aiding Ukraine in its war with Russia but decries that we are underwriting the "defense of allies and partners in Asia and Europe."  The U.S., however, should also slash defense spending and refrain from adopting "neo-cold war" policies in relation to Moscow and Beijing.  Great-power competition, he worries, will complicate progressive efforts "to promote democracy and human rights impartially."  And above all, progressives must "hold their own government to the standards it preaches" so that the U.S. stops partnering with "illiberal and rights-abusing regimes in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East."

So in the midst of a return to great power rivalry — with Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, a renewed nuclear arms race, and faced with a hostile Eurasian-based Sino-Russian strategic partnership — the progressives advocate slashing U.S. defense budgets, ending strategic alliances with imperfect regimes, while simultaneously promoting human rights, democracy, and global governance.

Wertheim's essay has exposed not only the disconnect between the various policy agendas of progressive internationalism, but the muddled and confused nature of the progressive worldview.  Progressives abhor wielding U.S. power on behalf of concrete national security interests but wish to shape the international system toward democracy and human rights.  They recognize that we are in an era of great power rivalry against dangerous regimes in China and Russia, yet they urge policymakers to lessen American power because they worry that America will violate international rules and partner with unsavory governments.  They are most concerned not with America, but with the "international community," and their policy preferences relate to global, not national, interests.

Wertheim's essay should convince any serious reader that progressives are not to be entrusted with promoting and protecting the national security interests of the United States.  It's just not part of their agenda.


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