Foreign Policy is Possible

A set of lefty policy briefs from Fellow Travelers / June 2021

Is a left-wing US foreign policy possible? More than any time since the end of the Cold War, the answer seems to be a qualified “yes.”

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In the past decade, a bevy of new voices—both institutional and individual—have challenged the logic of global US military commitments, documented the damage done by neoliberal trade policies at home and abroad, emphasized the protection of human rights as more than diplomatic window dressing, and advocated for aggressive action to mitigate the ruinous impacts of climate change. While far from a dominant faction within US foreign policy thinking, the idea of a progressive foreign policy—however interpreted—can garner column space in mainstream publications, be seriously entertained as an aspect of US “grand strategy,” and prompt deliberation within relatively staid security studies journals.

This shift has been made possible by a wide range of developments. The disappointments of the Obama administration highlighted the limits of a technocratic, “don’t do stupid shit” approach to foreign policy, even as successive presidential campaigns by Senator Bernie Sanders (as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primary campaign) provided space for candidates, advisors, and supporters to articulate progressive alternatives. An entirely new think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has emerged alongside new hires, new programs, and new perspectives among existing research centers and Congressional staff. 

Beyond new institutional opportunities, the Trump administration’s haphazard and cruel foreign policy approaches galvanized progressive mobilization in response—and the conviction that the post-Trump era cannot simply revert to an unsustainable status quo ante. Acts such as the Trump administration’s blank-check support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen—picking up where the Obama administration left off—helped cement a broad coalition of anti-war groups now at the forefront of foreign-policy lobbying within the United States.

Likewise, Trump’s clear chumminess with like-minded autocrats, as well as his attacks on US democracy itself, demonstrated the need for a US foreign policy that reinforces democracy at home while serving as a progressive counterweight to authoritarian retrenchment the world over.

With the Biden administration in the White House and (for now) a narrow Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, anti-war and internationalist groups such as Win Without War, Beyond The Bomb, Justice Is Global, Vets For The People, Action Corps, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Women Cross DMZ, and others now have a window as never before to translate progressive foreign-policy ideas into reality. 

While the Biden administration has proved more resistant to leftward lobbying on foreign than domestic policy, progressive still pushback matters – seen in the administration’s rapid recommitment to campaign pledges on raising US refugee intake, but also in its growing willingness to ensure worldwide access to vaccines while privileging human lives over pharmaceutical companies’ profits. Flexing this kind of political muscle will only be more important in the months and years to come, particularly as some usual suspects are itching for a new Cold War with China.

Anticipating the need for concrete foreign policy proposals that progressive voices in Congress can champion, we at Fellow Travelers Blog have spent the last year soliciting, editing, and publishing a series of policy briefs outlining a new US foreign policy. While not an exhaustive agenda, the authors in this briefing booklet cover a number of big-ticket issues, from trade policy and nuclear posture to taking the Green New Deal global. These articles are:

  1. Rethinking Security, by Kate Kizer
  2. Restoring Momentum Toward Nuclear Zero, by John Carl Baker
  3. De-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, by Catherine Killough
  4. Restoring Confidence in International Trade, by Yong Kwon
  5. Climate Justice, not “Energy Security”, by Sam Ratner
  6. Forging an Internationalist Green New Deal, by Taylor Hynes
  7. Immigration Policy for Decarceration and Global Justice, by Jacob Hamburger
  8. Scaling Back Sanctions, by Andrew Leber
  9. Breaking the Horrifying US Drone Habit, by Dan Mahanty and Allegra Harpootlian

These proposals incorporate two overarching aims. First, the proposals within this briefing book seek to limit harms and risks that the United States imposes on the wider world. A sprawling global military presence engaged in dozens of conflicts with limited oversight is a recipe for runaway harm, just as expansive sanctions programs have locked in siege warfare with little hope of relief. 

Second, we emphasize that a progressive foreign policy cannot simply be an alternative elite project, advocated in the halls of power far from the public eye. For a progressive foreign policy to be sustainable in the long run, it must be democratic in terms of its benefits or risk the same kind of backlash that has hit past foreign policy paradigms. While these policy proposals entail global benefits, they also highlight the ways that they can be made to work for Americans at home. 

Thanks to the efforts of grassroots activists, political leaders, and policy experts, the Overton window on US foreign policy has expanded significantly leftwards for the first time in decades. These policy briefs are an attempt to step through that window and to begin laying out in detail a world that could be. Where and when the left exercises its power in Washington, drawing on electoral strength and actionable ideas, a more just and more democratic foreign policy is possible.

Download the full booklet in pdf

Peruse the full booklet in issuu

Kelsey Atherton, Andrew Facini, Yong Kwon, Andrew Leber, Sam Ratner, Emma Steiner & the rest of the FTB crew

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This briefing booklet would not have been possible without support from the wider Fellow Travelers community and readers like you. In particular, we would like to thank everybody who donated to our fundraiser to help print and disseminate physical copies of the booklet, including: Daniel Braaten, Derek Davison, Sean Gude, Annie Jacobs, Elaine McCrate, Paul Musgrave, Andrew Ortendahl, Thomas Porter, Sam Range, Daniel Robinson, Aaron Schwartzbaum, Emma Steiner, Kyle Sparks, Kimberlee Stiens, Nicholas Tonckens, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

And definitely check out some of the great organizations featured in this booklet, such as: