“The global trend is sour.” So says Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution.
That’s putting it mildly. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Diamond writes, “Democracy faces a global crisis. We have seen 12 consecutive years of erosion in global levels of political rights and civil liberties, with many more countries declining than gaining each year, according to the nonprofit group Freedom House. Over the past decade, one in six democracies has failed. Today only a bare majority of the world’s larger states remain democracies.
“Nor do the numbers capture the full extent of the danger. Behind the statistics is a steady, palpable corrosion of democratic institutions and norms in a range of countries. China, Russia and their admirers are making headway with a new global narrative, hailing strongman rule—not government by the people—as the way forward in difficult times.”
When it comes to hastening this disastrous worldwide decay, Donald Trump, is, of course, an enabler supreme, patting on the back despots like Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, welcoming Hungary’s far right prime minister, Viktor Orban, to the White House (and calling him successful and “highly respected, respected all over Europe”), singing the praises of the Philippines’ Duterte and Brazil’s Bolsinaro, etc. And all the while yearning to yield that same kind of anti-democratic dictatorial power over his own United States.
That’s why the president’s shambolic foreign policy can be both a curse and a sort of blessing. On the one hand, his inchoate fumbling and lack of coherent doctrine has us upending the planet and could at any moment walk us right off a cliff and down into major fresh hell. On the other, this same haplessness and uncertainty has kept some truly gruesome ideas from being implemented. Inertia often reigns because no one in this administration ever seems to know what the boss wants; his mind changes from moment to moment and he has the attention span of a toddler in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
A few days ago, Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair reported, “The White House’s chaotic policymaking process can best be viewed as a series of collisions between Donald Trump’s I-alone-can-fix-it campaign boasts and reality. So far, damage from these crashes with the real world has been contained to domestic issues. But with Venezuela collapsing, North Korea launching new missiles, an escalating trade war with China, and possible real war with Iran, chances are increasing that Trump could stoke an international crisis that will spiral out of his control.”
Nevertheless, as Professor Diamond notes in his Journal op-ed, it’s not just Trump: “… the problem also includes cynical politicians in both parties, calcified systems that don’t deliver public goods and complacent citizens who cannot bestir themselves to vote.”
All important factors, too, especially that “both parties” part. Because you’ll note that you’re not hearing a lot about foreign policy from the ranks of the two-dozen Democratic presidential candidates. If you go to their websites, most have a section touting their “global vision” but for the most part, only Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard have had much to say about international affairs out on the stump. Of them, former Vice President Biden, who also chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has the most comprehensive and direct experience (which to some is not necessarily a plus).
Alex Seitz-Wald at NBC News writes that so far the campaign is “a stark contrast to the last time Democrats had a sprawling presidential primary—in 2008, when the Iraq War was the biggest issue and the main one separating the two final candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, though it took a back seat in the 2016 contest between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.”
This “cone of silence” is in part because the Dems running are in broad general agreement on foreign policy, giving lip service at least to the necessity of international cooperation and democracy. But most of the candidates also don’t wish to expose their lack of experience when it comes to the world stage—although Warren wisely got herself onto the Senate Armed Services Committee to increase her cred (as did candidate Kirsten Gillibrand).
More important, according to polling, foreign policy issues just don’t register among voters right now. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found only 11 percent listing national security and terrorism as a top government priority—down from 21 percent four years ago.
Of course, it would only take a major attack on US soil, an event like the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 that stretched through the 1980 election campaign, or a sudden American intervention overseas to snap the public’s attention back to reality. But this current indifference may also reflect a general distrust of various iterations of the national security/foreign policy establishment that since the end of World War II has made most of the decisions on these issues—with some success but often with disastrous outcomes.
Which is why I attended a morning panel a week and a half ago at the City University of New York, titled “The Making of a Progressive Foreign Policy.” Moderated by historian Steve Fraser, it was essentially a conversation between Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, and constitutional law professor Aziz Rana, author of The Two Faces of American Freedom.
“I think the key in this presidential campaign should be a focus on how we prevent war, not how we wage war,” vanden Heuvel said. “There should be new institutions that appear in this period of ferment that speak to a social democratic, demilitarized, deescalating kind of foreign policy…. One thing that has been a throughline in the nation’s history is that you cannot have democracy or sustain freedom at home if the global context is shaped by militarism, racism and corporate power.”
Aziz Rana agreed, and added, “This is a really remarkable moment in the life of the country but also in terms of thinking about alternatives to the national security establishment when it comes to foreign policy for a number of reasons that kind of join together. One is the way in which the way we’ve fought the kind of forever wars for the last 15 years, the Iraq war at the center, where you have failed intelligence as the basis for a truly regional catastrophe. It delegitimized the national security establishment as the grownups in the room.”
Yes, vanden Heuvel noted, “We’re at this extraordinary moment in which the bipartisan foreign policy establishment is discredited. But that demands activist movements to drive forward, to show how discredited they are, because Washington is a glacial institution… But you know, zombies can keep on moving for long periods of time and I think it’s our job to continue to expose as well as struggle against.”
The question, Rana said, is, “How do you constrain and control the state so that it engages in a global politics of mutual self-restraint and actually facilitates the objectives of communities domestically?” If elected, “At the very minimum, a progressive government when it comes to foreign policy should say, well, let’s take seriously the international legal constraints that are meant to shape a multilateral order organized around peaceful demilitarization and a mutual toleration and recognition as the basic bedrock.”
Specifics were cited: cuts in the defense budget while creating jobs in communities now too reliant on military spending, worldwide environmental standards, an end to overseas tax havens, humanitarian rebuilding in Syria and acceptance of Syrian refugees, pressure on Mideast allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to end their gross violations of human rights.
But both Rana and vanden Heuvel were in agreement that in this age of worldwide disruption and dangers to democracy, any progressive American foreign policy should come down to the three simple words of medicine’s Hippocratic Oath: Do No Harm.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer forMoyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.