The hottest game in town among would-be pundits is to find ways of reviving liberalism in the United States. By “liberalism” they mean the Democratic Party, although there have been plenty of Democrats lately who can only be called conservative.
The most persuasive of these pundits is Robert Wright, whose op ed piece appeared in the New York Times this past Sunday, July 16: “An American Foreign Policy that Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With.” I didn’t quite fall in love with it, but it gave me pause, making me wonder how far one should bend in an exercise of political compromise.
Wright calls his compromise a new paradigm: “progressive realism.” The progressive part goes me no trouble; it’s the “realism” that puts me on guard. And rightly so, for he acknowledges that his compromise would annoy some interest groups, including my own. As he describes realism, it involves the belief that the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests. I can think of some global, human interests that might properly take priority over national ones. However, let us see what exactly he has in mind.
Wright asserts (and considerable evidence would seem to support him) that free markets, now spreading across the world because they are productive, require economic liberty, which in turn tends to foster political liberty. (He immediately refers to China in connection with this theory, claiming that the Chinese regime cannot repress the expression of personal beliefs altogether because that would halt their economic growth.) Following that logic, a corollary follows: that it makes no sense to invade countries and impose democracy. Since it is bound to arise anyway over time, the appropriate policy is wait patiently while carrying on normal economic relations with the repressive regime. Wright argues that the Chinese dissidents whose lives could be improved by any outside intervention are too few to make it sensible to support them. By refraining from promoting democracy in repressive states, the Democrats might actually help democracy more in the long run, while also increasing their appeal to “realist” American voters. Such a possible trade-off appalls me and most other idealists, for it is unprincipled to ignore the plight of people who suffer from political abuse.
Still, I have to concede that economic freedom, despite all the faults attributed to the market system by leftists, does tend to bring political freedom over time. I won’t deny that, though the corollary that Wright derives from it gives me the creeps. He fully recognizes that a “strong Democratic emphasis on economic engagement always threatens to alienate liberal human rights activists…”
Still, he proposes a second innovation that would compensate for the concessions that we activists would have to make: an expansion of institutions of international governance – a necessary change that runs absolutely counter to recent Republican ideology. The president, having experienced failures in his unilateralism, may be moving in that very direction himself in relation to Iran and North Korea — but certainly not far enough. Wright would make this an important principle of his “progressive realism” — that
“the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will).”
A wiser president would see, according to Wright, that the national interests actually align with global interests. International governance actually benefits the country. Since domestic security depends on popular sentiment abroad toward America, it is vital that the United States be seen as a good global citizen, “respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors.” That doesn’t entail being the world’s army. As Wright rejoices: “We can at least be thankful that history, be intertwining the fates of peoples, is bringing national interest closer to moral ideals.”
Well, this is a tempting picture he’s drawn — so tempting that as an idealist I might even consider selling out the victims of repressive regimes in the short term, in exchange for an equivalently painful concession by the realists: the acceptance of a multilateral system of international governance within the United Nations. It would be a painful, even shameful trade-off, but a case can be made for it.
Still, I do not know of any Democratic candidate who could plausibly merge these two perspectives into a unified platform, nor can I believe that “realists” (who have always banked on American primacy) would suddenly recognize the value of international institutions of governance. More likely, we liberals will continue to support) however ineffectually) democratic dissent in dictatorships, while most conservatives will continue to regard America’s global dominance as the necessary for their security and national well being.
Besides, I have two empirical questions. Is it really true that the world is becoming less of a zero-sum game? I think international cooperation has always been beneficial; that’s not new. Maybe it’s just more obvious today because the environmental crisis can obviously be handled only with global agreements, not just by separate states.
And is it really so that we’d get more concessions from conservatives if we liberals agreed not to speak on behalf of repressed groups such as the Falun Gong in China (see photo) or the Palestinians in the occupied territories? I don’t think so. Maybe it is true that, over time, economic pressures will bring democracy to the whole world. I can accept that. But in the meantime, basic decency requires humanitarian concern from us all.