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A Progressive Foreign Policy for the 21st Century

by John Peeler --


The recent crisis between Georgia and Russia, and the ineffectually truculent response of the Bush administration, illustrate the utter bankruptcy of the Bush foreign policy, and the need for a fundamental reexamination. At the same time, there is little in the campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama — and none whatever in that of John McCain— to suggest that such a rethinking is being undertaken. It is incumbent on progressives to do that rethinking, and to keep the pressure on Obama to move our foreign policy in a more sustainable direction.

The confrontation between Russia and Georgia became a crisis in large part because the Bush administration persistently treated Russia as once and future enemy and systematically encouraged neighboring former Soviet republics and former Warsaw Pact allies to defy Russia. And while Russia has no more right to dominate those states than the US does in Central America and the Caribbean, Bush was guilty of encouraging their defiance while he was in no position to help them because of the overcommitment of the US armed forces in Iraq. Instead we had the spectacle of Vice President Cheney showing up afterward to hold their hands and promise large amounts of glue to mend the broken china.

Eight years of a unilateralist, militarist foreign policy in search of a more tangible enemy than the elusive Islamists have left our country perilously isolated and in danger of new military conflicts when we are already faced with challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan that our forces are hard-pressed to handle. Eight years of economic irresponsibility have left us in the position of borrowing from China to pay for oil and everything else we import, since we no longer manufacture most of what we use. Eight years of environmental obscurantism leave us with a worsening crisis of global warming and a world in need of leadership, not obstruction from us. We are still the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, and we are addicted to the fossil fuels that produce those gases. Without producing much of anything useful anymore, we still are the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases. At least when the Chinese pollute, they’re making something.

In short, across the board, we are in deep trouble in the world, and we need new thinking to get out of it.

Developing a Sane Foreign Policy
A sane foreign policy for the 21st century should begin with the principle that the United States’ interests are to be broadly conceived: a world of peace and widely distributed prosperity, a world that seriously confronts major environmental and energy challenges, is a world that serves the true interests of this country. We ought to actively pursue those interests, which can only be ill-served by the truculent militarism of the last eight years.

Iraq is inevitably the place to start, since the US commitment to this ill-begotten war has warped our priorities and weakened our capacity to serve our true interests around the world. Even if we suppose that the “surge” in troop strength is the only explanation for the recent decline in violence there, the goal of a democratic Iraq cannot be achieved by an occupation force. If it is achievable at all, it will only be by the Iraqis, and after US troops are gone. As long as we are there, we will be effectively a colonial power, and any government allied with us will not be legitimate in the eyes of most Iraqis. We need to terminate our military involvement in Iraq, though we certainly have an ongoing obligation to provide a lot of aid, since we overthrew the previous government.

Getting free of Iraq will allow us to increase our military commitment in Afghanistan, to avoid losing a war that we thought we’d won. In fact, we could only win this war with a huge military force capable of long-term occupation of the entire country, and only if we had some workable way to control the adjacent Pakistani regions that serve as sanctuaries for the Taliban. We should use enhanced military power to work for a political settlement (and it won’t be pretty) that would stabilize the country, avoid the most egregious human rights violations, and keep the country from again becoming a base for global terrorism.

Stabilizing Afghanistan will require a long-term military commitment, though the final objective must be a political solution. This is not desirable, but it is necessary because Afghanistan has been thoroughly militarized since the Soviet Union intervened in 1979 to support a communist government, and the US responded by bankrolling, arming and training several insurgent forces, including the Taliban itself. Peace in Afghanistan will, like war, be the work of generations. In contrast, Iraq will be better able to stabilize itself without us than with us.

Having started down the road of leaving Iraq and stabilizing Afghanistan, we will be better positioned to implement more systematic changes to our foreign policy. The underlying principle as outlined above should guide us: a world of peace and widely distributed prosperity, a world that seriously confronts major environmental and energy challenges, is a world that serves the true interests of this country.

Pursuing these goals requires that we not make unnecessary enemies. Russia is a prime example of an unnecessary enemy. The Russian government of Putin has a clear conception of the Russian sphere of influence, and aspires to regain some semblance of the Great Power status that the Soviet Union had. Russia will retain the trappings of democracy, but won’t be a high-quality democracy. Nevertheless, we should avoid doing what Bush has done in pursuing policies seemingly designed to elicit Russian hostility. We ought to establish a hard headed, constructive relationship with Russia, accepting its interest in its region, and calibrating the warmth of the relationship by the amount of cooperation with our objectives.

Iran and Cuba represent other countries where we might benefit by a fresh start after decades of fruitless confrontation. Domestic politics have paralyzed policy toward both these revolutionary antagonists. In Cuba, 50 years of economic warfare punctuated episodically by political interventions have yielded the same result we might have had with normal relations: Fidel Castro is dying, and Raúl Castro is taking over. We will certainly continue to have conflicts with Cuba for the foreseeable future, but they will be more effectively and constructively managed in a context of normal diplomatic relations, the warmth of which can be calibrated by the amount of collaboration that is forthcoming. Any attempt by us to manage the post-Castro transition will only yield a government that Cubans will see as illegitimate.

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Similarly, Iran’s regime since 1979 has defined itself in terms of opposition to “the Great Satan,” and we have reciprocated by treating Iran as a pariah. But we will be better able to impact the internal situation in Iran, and Iranian foreign policy, if we reestablish normal diplomatic relations and calibrate their warmth by Iranian cooperation. We may find we have common interests (e.g., stability in Iraq and Afghanistan), along with inevitable conflicts of interest.

Settling the Israel-Palestine Impasse
The US has a strong interest in a viable settlement of the historic Israel/Palestine impasse. Such a settlement must include both security for a democratic Israel and a viable Palestinian state. The former objective cannot be reached under the current policy of isolating Hamas, which clearly represents a majority of the Palestinian people. Instead, Hamas should be creatively engaged with strong incentives that would lead them toward a cautious negotiation with Israel. The PLO is also a key player on the Palestinian side, and needs to be encouraged to deal with Hamas, not isolate it. To negotiate successfully with Israel, the Palestinians must not be divided against themselves, and the US has an strong interest in such a successful negotiation. The alternative is a continuation of the region as a flash point of Middle Eastern conflict, clearly not in our interests at all.

The US has tolerated, over successive administrations since the 1967 war, the Israeli policy of building settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. This has to stop, and be substantially reversed, if there is to be any chance of a negotiated settlement.

As with Hamas on the Palestinian side, the right wing in Israel has become a powerful force (including not only political parties, but also elements in the armed forces) that appears not to want a negotiated settlement, that prefers the pursuit of a definitive victory. The existence on both sides of powerful, irreconcilable factions means that whenever progress toward a settlement is made, it can be scuttled with a provocation such as a suicide bombing or an Israeli raid into Gaza. Inevitably, the provocation elicits a response which provokes a counter-response. The only way to get past this dynamic is to find ways to bring the irreconcilable factions into the negotiating process. Leaving them out means leaving them free to spoil any initiative.

To the extent we can move these hot political conflicts toward resolution, we will be better able to address long-term solutions to the major economic, environmental, and energy issues. Most immediately, we need to recover from Bush’s disastrous economic management. The domestic and international aspects of this problem are intimately connected, since both the budget deficit and the trade deficit require massive borrowing on international capital markets. The Chinese now hold most of our national debt, and by selling it off, or refusing to buy more, they could easily send the US economy into a tailspin. They also have an interest in keeping the US economy out of crisis, since they need us to keep buying their stuff. Still, should the US pursue an anti-Chinese policy (on Taiwan, for example), China would be capable of yanking our chain quite rudely. The only way to reduce this risk is to put our economic house in order by getting fiscal deficits under control and reducing the negative balance of trade, particularly by increasing exports (which would generate jobs).

Building Trade Agreements That Protect Workers and the Environment
One way of increasing exports will be to negotiate trade pacts that actually protect workers and the environment, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of free trade. It is in our national interest to see higher standards of living for workers in the poorer regions of the world, because they will be better able to buy our exports, and because employers will be less able to undercut US wages and start a “race to the bottom” in wages. Similarly, protection for labor unions as part of trade agreements helps prevent workers from being exploited in the Third World, and that is in the interest of the US and its workers. Indeed, xenophobic Republicans ought to be in favor of raising standards of living in poor countries, since that would reduce the numbers of migrants making their way to US shores.

Environmental protection as part of trade agreements should also be part of a progressive foreign policy. We are now in no doubt that environmental destruction in any part of the world impacts everyone. It is in our interest to commit to aggressive environmental protection at home, and to use that commitment to elicit the same from the countries that want to trade with us.

The environmental crisis posed by global warming is obviously of transcendent importance to the future of human civilization on this planet, and yet Bush has only grudgingly admitted that there is a problem, and has done absolutely nothing to provide the world leadership that should be expected of us. The next president needs to put a very high priority on getting to a global consensus on an aggressive response to minimize the damage from global warming.

The recent spike in world petroleum prices highlights our addiction to fossil fuels and the complete failure of the Bush administration to lead us toward a new energy future. In the short term, the next president should promote the full range of energy options, including not only drilling, but a strategic commitment to alternative, renewable energy, such as wind and solar. Even nuclear power, with extensive safeguards, must have a transitional role, especially because it minimizes greenhouse gas emissions.


The United States of America desperately needs a progressive foreign policy to dig us out of the deep hole Bush has put us in. We need to recognize that our real national interest is not served by unilateralist truculence that only deepens and multiplies crises. Our true interest is in a world of peace and widely distributed prosperity, a world that seriously confronts major environmental and energy challenges and passes a better world to our children.

John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.