Traditional American foreign policy is dead. The President of the United States is now fundamentally hostile to the institutional structure of traditional American diplomacy, from his own State Department and intelligence agencies to international organizations like NATO and the WTO that the US has traditionally championed. Republican elected officials are broadly okay with this, believing it to be a worthwhile trade for its economic and social agenda. And the Republican base thinks it’s awesome, or, at minimum, an acceptable tradeoff for other priorities. So, now what?
The current liberal foreign policy agenda is primarily defensive, an attempt to preserve what is already lost. This is doomed to failure. The rest of the world knows there are going to be future Republican presidents. The GOP was only in exile for one presidential term after Watergate. George W. Bush started a war of aggression based on a lie and served two terms and the Democrats still only had a united government from 2008-2010. Iran-Contra, possibly the closest analogy to the nebulous Trump-Russia scandal, led to no negative electoral consequences for Reagan at all. And given where the GOP base is, they’re highly likely to nominate candidates in the Trumpian mold for the foreseeable future. Thus, unless drastic measures are taken, the next Republican president will take another chunk out of the “Rules-Based Liberal Order” and the next one yet another until there’s nothing to defend at all.
Rather than pining for what was lost, Democrats must undertake an offensive and aggressively partisan campaign against illiberalism and global kleptocracy. This means not only taking a firmer stance against Russian interference, but proactively rooting out Gulf money from think tanks, Chinese influence in the academic and corporate sector, and cracking down on domestic corruption that embraces and enables foreign influence. Such a foreign policy is by definition partisan because while the Democrats are far from perfect, the Republican Party is deeply and thoroughly aligned with these kleptocratic forces, and is committed to using them to achieve absolute power.
The partisan nature of the fight against kleptocracy is not something Democrats should hide from, because partisanship rules everything in foreign policy. Politics never truly stopped at the water’s edge, and to continue pretending it ever did and still does even now would be delusional. Despite being far from the first American president to pursue détente and arms control, Obama was thoroughly despised by the Republican base and accused of kowtowing to Russia and abandoning America’s allies. Meanwhile, Trump, who openly desires to align with Russia and abandon America’s established alliances, is treated by this same base as a paragon of strength and stability.
Partisanship-induced pliability also gives Democrats a remarkable degree of flexibility in pursuing a radical foreign policy agenda, assuming the country is not destroyed by nuclear hellfire first. An aggressively progressive foreign policy has the benefit of being something the Democratic base can instinctually grasp and understand because the issues in foreign policy are fundamentally tied to the domestic issues that they care about and that matter in their daily lives. The lunatic evangelicals looking for the right to discriminate against sexual minorities here are literally trying to kill them in Africa. The dark money interests in league with the Russians which work to undermine liberal democracy in Europe are gutting the social safety net and democratic system of the United States. It’s easy for the Democrats to present policies to counter these forces. “The bastards are screwing you, and we’re going to go after their money,” is a powerful and easy to understand message.
This is not to say pursuing such a policy will be easy; success is far from guaranteed. Consider how much Russia was able to accomplish with Brexit and the 2016 presidential election as a borderline destitute pariah state with little institutional support. Then consider how much China or Israel or the Gulf States could do to shape the political narrative in the United States or other democratic countries. Sophisticated multi-billion dollar political support networks with attached media apparatuses could put up far more of a fight than a legion of underpaid schmucks working a troll farm. It’ll be a long and ugly fight. Yet the alternative is to acquiesce to an insidious vampirism in which the forces of globalization are yoked to autocracy, bigotry, and graft.
If we acquiesce , everything good our country has ever built will be sold off piecemeal and perverted into tools of oppression by a transnational league of grifters and racists. Look under the rug of every corporation and think tank for dirty money and shady foreign ties. Ram campaign finance laws through Congress in the name of national security and if it looks like Supreme Court stands in the way, start rummaging through the justices’ dirty laundry too. It probably won’t be that hard to find something. Have painful but necessary conversations with close allies, and make it clear to them that the American alliance system is not sustainable if kleptocrats continue to expand their influence unchecked. Strongarm the British into squeezing every last ruble from London. Force the Germans to look under every last rock Deutsche Bank has ever touched. Tell the Arab states and Israel to back off American domestic politics or get kicked off the gravy train.
In short, the great paradox of liberal foreign policy is that globalization can only be saved through a reassertion of national sovereignty. So long as the kleptocratic elite and the global reactionary movement are allowed to infiltrate, corrupt, and plunder US and international institutions, any attempt to mount a meaningful defense of them is doomed to failure; but they are indeed worth defending. Some on the left see traditional American foreign policy as a morally bankrupt imperialist debacle, and there is some truth to this. No one can tell the ghosts of Cambodia or Yemen that the Pax Americana is entirely benevolent, or even peaceful. The fall of the liberal order, however imperfect, hypocritical, and at times outright barbaric it is, will not automatically yield socialist utopia. If that were so, the transnational kleptocratic-racist alliance would not be trying so hard to tear it down. This does not mean that the Democrats should not reign in American excesses once in power. They should, for example, end their support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen. However, it does mean that existing traditional instruments of liberal foreign policy are the only practical way for progressives to achieve their foreign policy goals. A Democratic presidency will need the State Department as it is now (or at least as it was pre-Tillerson) to make positive changes to American foreign policy. It is impossible to take the fight to the international forces of illiberalism and kleptocracy without instruments of global power and influence, and thus any serious left foreign policy must use the tools that are available instead of throwing them away.
Tyler Lovell is a graduate of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce and low-level corporate drone looking at PhD programs in Security Studies. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.