A progressive vision for the United States needs to include foreign policy. Today’s challenges require a holistic view that recognizes the connections between domestic and international issues. Military-first approaches have long predominated in American engagement with the world, but advancing justice for all amid historic crises will require a new paradigm. Sustainably improving U.S. foreign policy calls for congressional initiative to deemphasize military action and empower diplomacy.
Foreign Policy Isn’t Optional for a Progressive Agenda
Foreign policy has traditionally been isolated in the American political discourse. Policymakers have considered foreign policy separately from domestic projects. Claims that foreign policy is not a “kitchen table issue” for American voters have granted elite circles a near-monopoly over agenda-setting abroad. The assertion that “politics stop at the water’s edge” has too often stifled debate in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, America’s foreign policy establishment, derisively nicknamed “The Blob,” has recycled orthodoxies and shut down attempts to interrogate assumptions about America’s role in the world.
Long-standing siloes in the foreign policy conversation are finally eroding as new debates about race, class, and politics in international affairs come to the fore. As traditional divisions between the domestic and the foreign break down, progressives should envision foreign policy as a central part of their agenda. The United States is in crisis; more than half a million Americans have died from coronavirus, climate disasters continue apace, systemic racism continues to thrive, and the gap between haves and have-nots is broader than it has been in decades.
Each of these challenges has significant international dimensions. Economic globalization has disproportionately benefited the rich while real wages have remained stagnant since 1980. Communities of color and racial justice activists have faced militarized police using tactics and equipment from the global war on terror. The white power movement consolidated in reaction to disillusionment with elites who directed a losing war in Vietnam, a legacy that remained relevant even after the movement entered a new era in the 1990s. U.S. white supremacist organizations today form part of a transnational ideological network. Adapting to climate change requires unprecedented international cooperation to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States arose, in part, from the Trump administration’s marginalization of global health professionals.
In light of these crises and their international components, a bold vision for a progressive foreign policy is not just an addendum to a domestic agenda – it is a necessity. Advancing justice for all in a time of crisis will require imagining a future radically different from the present, and actualizing that vision with progressive policies requires significant investments.
Orienting American foreign policy away from military-first approaches will free up resources for domestic progressive programs. Economists and policymakers have suggested compelling ways to reconceptualize public spending, but the United States also spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the military that could instead contribute to progressive change.
The Failures of Militarism
Many have recognized the corrosive effects of American militarism. President Eisenhower cautioned against the military-industrial complex’s undue influence and warned of its potential to endanger liberties and institutions. Martin Luther King, Jr. listed war among America’s three evils and believed saving the soul of America required opposing American militarism.
Their statements still ring true. The global war on terror has cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, drawn resources and attention away from impending crises, and fueled human rights abuses at home and abroad. The most pressing issues for the United States are climate change, pandemics, and managing the U.S.-China relationship—all of which require sustained investment in diplomatic capacity, not more military-first solutions.
Military Dominance and the Global War on Terror
The United States has been a global superpower since World War II, when military spending spiked to confront emboldened Axis powers and U.S. interests expanded farther than ever before. During the Cold War, the U.S. retooled its military to contain the Soviet Union. However, U.S. military expenditures have become far more difficult to justify since the Cold War ended and non-traditional threats have increased in importance.
Nevertheless, military spending has increased significantly in the past twenty years. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act allocated $740.5 billion to the Pentagon and other national security programs, increasing $8.75 billion over last year and $411.66 billion since 2000. The United States spends significantly more on its military than any other country, three times as much as the next largest spender, China, and over ten times more than India, the world’s third-ranking spender.
Retooling militarism for the global war on terror has come with dire consequences. Defensive measures at home have prevented foreign terrorist organizations from directly attacking the United States, but profiling and surveillance programs have violated the civil liberties of Muslim and immigrant communities in the name of national security. Overseas counterterrorism operations have often done more harm than good, increasing Salafi-jihadist organizations’ influence and facilitating their spread to new regions.
Salafi-jihadism and U.S. militarism have mutually reinforced each other since the early days of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden cited the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the “Land of the Two Holiest Sites” in Islam, to justify war against the United States in 1996. After 9/11, the war on terror weakened al-Qaeda as an organization while fuelling the appeal of its ideology among populations who felt the consequences of American militarism.
ISIS exemplifies this trend. Before the U.S. invasion, al-Qaeda had no significant presence in Iraq. However, as dissatisfaction with de-Baathification and the U.S. occupation grew, al-Qaeda found fertile ground for anti-American narratives. Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch eventually broke away to become the forerunner to ISIS. While ISIS expanded, it caused untold human suffering, forced millions to flee their homes, and drew U.S. troops back into Iraq, where American armed forces remain despite opposition from the Iraqi government.
Policymakers inflated the threat of Salafi-jihadist terrorism while underpreparing for predictable crises like climate change and pandemics. People motivated by Salafi-jihadist ideology have killed 104 people in the United States since 9/11—less than the loss of life in a single season of climate-change-fueled California wildfires or an hour of early-2021 COVID-19 deaths. The United States has committed over $6 trillion dollars to the war on terror since 2001. This disproportionate response has resulted in a global military effort that has destabilized states and caused enormous human suffering. Hundreds of thousands have perished in the post-9/11 wars.
A military-first approach to counterterrorism has contributed to a mentality of endless wars. Just days after September 11, 2001, Congress passed a sweeping law that authorized the president to exercise broad powers to fight the war on terror. Nearly two decades later, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has provided legal justification for military engagements from Niger to the Philippines. In Afghanistan, unclear and conflicting objectives plagued the U.S. campaign from the start. In Iraq, an illegal war launched under false pretenses destabilized the Middle East and spurred the rise of ISIS.
Even now, many decision-makers remain committed to endless wars. General David Petraeus, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency and commanded the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, envisions a permanent military presence in fragile states to prevent the rise of new Salafi-jihadist groups.
After 20 years of the war on terror, the United States should eschew open-ended military commitments and center diplomatic engagement. The most urgent threats facing the United States are collective challenges that call for positive-sum solutions among stakeholders—not military confrontations and endless wars.
Correcting Foreign Policy Priorities
While the U.S. has poured resources into the global war on terror, it has neglected the most urgent foreign policy issues: the climate crisis, global health, and relations with China.
Climate change is the only current existential threat to the United States. Climate change has already altered weather patterns, resulting in more intense wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and droughts. Rising temperatures and sea levels will force communities around the country and across the world to relocate. Building climate resilience, reducing emissions, and protecting carbon-storing ecosystems will require unprecedented commitments on the domestic level. Reducing military operations, too, would be a significant step in reducing emissions as the U.S. military pollutes more than most entire countries do. Still, national efforts could be for naught without collaboration with the world’s other largest greenhouse gas emitters. The international community must collaborate to meet global environmental challenges. Policymakers should incorporate climate change into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy, from supporting green development efforts to incorporating environmental provisions into trade agreements.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that global health ought to feature prominently among U.S. foreign policy priorities. Despite a perception that the United States was relatively well-prepared for a public health disaster, Americans make up nearly 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths worldwide while the country amounts to just 4 percent of the global population. Efforts to blame China or the World Health Organization (WHO) neglect the fact that the United States responded to the pandemic with particular ineptitude. Outbreaks are more likely to cross borders in a globalized world, but pandemics are preventable with sufficient disease surveillance and medical diplomacy.
Policymakers should prioritize equitable vaccine distribution worldwide. The threat of a COVID-19 resurgence will not subside until the Global South has equal access to vaccines, but international patent enforcement laws are preventing the development of generic vaccines. Along with distributing currently available vaccines, the United States should vote to waive World Trade Organization members’ patent enforcement obligations on COVID-19 technologies and facilitate technology sharing. Going forward, the United States must cooperate with international organizations and partners to improve global pandemic preparedness.
The relationship between the United States and China is the most important in the world. Managing relations with China should be a top priority, but Sinophobic rhetoric and narratives of a new cold war hinder collaboration on mutual priorities and fuel anti-Asian violence. While tension with China is likely, war is not inevitable. The United States should carefully balance competition when interests diverge and engagement on shared challenges.
The best approach to China’s rise is setting a positive example for the international community, which requires sustained diplomatic engagement with partners while advancing justice and prosperity at home. Instead of waging trade wars, the United States should ensure that the American working class has a robust role in the coming green economy. Instead of banning allies from using Chinese tech products, the U.S. government should work to provide alternatives. Administrations should call out the Chinese government’s human rights abuses while also rectifying injustices at home, ranging from mass incarceration to environmental racism.
Climate change, pandemics, and the rise of China all require sustained diplomatic engagement in international fora and engagement with allies and competitors alike. A military-first approach—the status quo—is insufficient.
However, the United States has chronically underfunded the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), its premier international affairs agencies. Neglecting diplomatic tools has made conflict prevention more difficult—as General James Mattis observed in 2013, “If [Congress doesn’t] fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” The military has absorbed functions that traditionally belonged to diplomats, ranging from rule-of-law programs to public diplomacy initiatives, but does not implement these functions effectively. The Department of Defense has become the face of American engagement in much of the world, sidelining professional diplomats and hurting U.S. credibility.
Turning Away from Militarism
Building a progressive foreign policy to meet 21st-century challenges requires rethinking substantial aspects of the United States’ international outlook.
A Systems-Based Approach to Foreign Policy
Policymakers should understand foreign policy as part of a broader system of relationships. The national security discourse, which long focused on traditional military threats, should evolve to center human needs. In setting policy objectives, examining the unintended consequences that follow well-intentioned plans should foster humility and an appreciation of American limitations. Finally, as the United States seeks to better live up to its stated values, Americans should not hesitate to look abroad for guidance and admit the United States does not have all the answers.
In recent years, policymakers have increasingly recognized that siloing foreign policy yields worse outcomes in both the foreign and domestic spheres. Narrow conceptions of national security have acted as blinders that mask the human consequences of policy decisions. As conversations about redefining national security and recognizing connections between domestic and international issues continue, policymakers should make structural reforms to institutionalize a systems-based policy approach to foreign policy.
Adopting a system-based approach should entail considering the unintended consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC. The United States habitually invokes human rights and democracy to justify military operations, but wars of choice too often result in human insecurity and political destabilization. The United States needs humility in its goals and caution in its policy implementation. Raising the threshold for American intervention will prevent overextension and reduce unintended consequences.
The United States could learn a great deal from the rest of the world, but American exceptionalism has prevented the United States from considering policy solutions from abroad. Facilitating transnational relationships based in solidarity rather than hierarchy would allow Americans to learn from the experiences of others. Subnational diplomacy programs should expand so cities and states can better draw lessons, whether they be in transportation or trade, from overseas. American progressives can build solidarity with foreign counterparts and exchange strategies. At the highest levels of government, the United States should welcome assistance from partners. Asking for help should be part of U.S. foreign policy.
Solutions from abroad may not perfectly transplant into the American context, but they could offer starting points for healing our relationship with the environment, building stronger public health infrastructure, and dismantling white supremacy. Many countries are far ahead of the United States when it comes to environmental sustainability and climate resilience. Learning from Costa Rica’s decarbonization plan, Japan’s high-speed rail adoption, or France’s efforts to reduce food waste could help the United States accelerate its progress towards a green economy. After a devastating pandemic, U.S. policymakers should turn to countries like New Zealand, South Korea, and Liberia, which developed mechanisms to effectively limit COVID-19 infections and reduce deaths. As American communities grapple with white supremacy, we can also look abroad to truth and reconciliation commissions like those implemented in South Africa and Canada.
Reducing Military Entanglements
The United States should review the status of its overseas military bases and military alliances to ensure they still advance U.S. interests in light of new priorities.
In the long term, the United States should aim to reduce in number its overseas military bases. The United States maintains over 800 military bases overseas, forming a global “empire of points” that extends across more than 80 countries. By comparison, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia run 30 military bases combined while China maintains only one overseas military base. American bases create permanent commitments that entangle U.S. interests in distant locations long after the original rationales for establishing them expire.
The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, established during the Spanish-American War, is a prime example of a base wearing out its welcome and its utility. Originally a naval station, the base housed Haitian refugees in the 1990s before being repurposed as a detention center and illegal torture site for individuals suspected of terrorism. Cuban leaders have repeatedly demanded the return of the land and routinely rejected lease payments. Although President Obama promised to shutter the facility during his first presidential campaign, congressional opposition prevented the closure. Maintaining the base costs $540 million annually.
In the coming decades, policymakers should carefully review whether each of the United States’ permanent military installations still serves U.S. interests in the 21st century. Closing bases will warrant coordination with host countries, which may prefer to remain under the American security umbrella. Gradually withdrawing will allow host countries to take charge of their own national defense over time. In some cases, bases that have outlived their usefulness should be closed and personnel should be returned home. Other bases that remain necessary for deterrence may still be over-resourced.
The United States needs to rethink military relationships that no longer serve U.S. interests. Much like bases, many alliances have transformed from means to specific policy objectives to ends in and of themselves, immune from changing international dynamics and partner governments’ abuses alike. In fact, U.S. backing can encourage foreign leaders to act more recklessly in their foreign policies, and foreign assistance may facilitate state violence. The United States should revisit foreign assistance standards to ensure the United States does not exacerbate violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.
One relationship that has failed to evolve with the times is the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which centered on oil politics when it began in 1945. Much has changed since then. After the occupation of Mecca’s Great Mosque by militants in 1979, the Saudi government became increasingly theocratic and authoritarian. American consumers once depended on Saudi oil and policymakers crafted Middle East policy around energy priorities. However, the United States became a net exporter of oil in 2019 and is working towards a transition to renewable energy, decreasing reliance on the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia remains important for global energy prices, but not enough to outweigh the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which has relied on U.S. military assistance, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The U.S.-Saudi relationship—along with other long-term alliances that no longer serve U.S. interests—is ripe for a reset.
The Role of Congress
Making foreign policy reforms that last beyond a single presidency requires congressional initiative. While presidents exercise broad discretion in how they conduct international affairs, Congress can define the Executive Branch’s options by constraining presidents’ use of military force, using the power of the purse, and providing strategic frameworks.
Restoring Congressional Oversight of War
Congress should hold the Executive Branch accountable by limiting presidential use of force and righting the balance between diplomatic and military tools in the budget.
Congress should repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs. The 2001 AUMF has amounted to a blank check for the global war on terror. Without a sunset provision or reporting requirements, the 2001 AUMF represents an abdication of Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities. Congress should also revisit the 2002 AUMF, which originally authorized the invasion of Iraq but provides broad presidential discretion to conduct military actions unrelated to the 2003 war. For example, the Trump administration resurrected the Iraq AUMF to authorize the 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Revisiting the AUMFs enjoys widespread support, including among the original architects of the bill. President Joe Biden has also voiced support for repealing the laws. If Congress chooses to pass new AUMFs, it should include a sunset provision to require recurring public debate about the necessity of the use of military force and clearly specify targeted groups, objectives, and reporting requirements.
Repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs would be a promising step, but doing so would not fully reassert Congressional oversight. Many military actions overseas—including drone strikes, special operations, and other gray-zone engagements—utilize legal rationales outside of the AUMFs. The legislature can and should explicitly restrain presidential war powers outside of narrow, specific cases of self-defense.
Congress should reduce funding for the Department of Defense. Congress annually considers a National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military for the upcoming year. Specifically, Congress should cut funds for expensive programs like the F-35 and nuclear modernization, which do not sufficiently advance policy goals commensurate to their cost. A growing number of members of Congress support a relatively modest ten-percent cut to the Pentagon’s budget, but rightsizing military spending will be a difficult task due to defense lobbyists and parochial interests.
Putting Diplomacy First
Congress can play an affirmative role in revitalizing diplomacy and ensuring diplomats are equipped to meet today’s challenges.
Legislators can pass laws to push U.S. strategy towards diplomacy. The Global Fragility Act is a promising example of shifting away from militarism. Passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, the Global Fragility Act invests in conflict prevention in fragile states to reduce human suffering and political instability. The Act demonstrates how Congress can rally data, collaborate with civil society, and influence the Executive Branch to formulate new approaches. Building on the model of the Global Fragility Act, Congress can provide input for the Executive Branch and steer foreign policy in a more sustainable and effective direction.
Congress should invest in the capacity and adaptability of U.S. diplomatic agencies by increasing their funding. Diplomats need budgetary support and specialized training to coordinate international climate action, combat global health disasters, and productively engage with counterparts. Rebuilding diplomatic capacity is especially important after the Trump administration gutted international affairs agencies.
Putting diplomacy first requires structural reforms at the Department of State. The Pentagon has dominated the foreign affairs process partly because the constellation of civilian agencies that conduct foreign affairs cannot compete with the Department of Defense behemoth. Centralizing foreign affairs authority would simplify policy processes and allow the Secretary of State to head up a unitary diplomatic agency. The State Department also needs more resources dedicated to long-term strategic planning, which currently falls to the Pentagon. Ending the war on terror will require the State Department reclaiming control of security assistance programs and expanding the department’s underfunded conflict prevention office.
The U.S. government should also build a more inclusive international affairs workforce that better reflects the diversity of the United States. Long characterized as “pale, male, and Yale,” the State Department has become more inclusive in recent decades, but not enough. White men continue to predominate among the senior ranks of the foreign service. Steps to expand foreign affairs fellowships and fund State Department internships are encouraging but insufficient for the scale of change needed in recruiting, training, and retention. Congress can play a significant role in making the State Department more inclusive by allocating funding, instituting reporting requirements, and using the Senate’s advice and consent process to push for appointments of diverse ambassadors and other senior officials. A more representative diplomatic corps will not only make the State Department more agile, effective, and credible, it would also ensure that priorities overseas better reflect the needs and priorities of communities at home.
Foreign Policy Ends at Home
For too long, the United States has overinvested in militarism. Two decades of the global war on terror have left the country ill-equipped to respond to climate change and global health emergencies. To make matters worse, shifting from the global war on terror to war footing with China will make international cooperation all the more difficult.
To advance prosperity for all amid ongoing crises, the United States needs to fundamentally shift its approach to the world. A foreign policy centered on diplomacy is a necessary piece of a broader progressive agenda. For this shift to be sustainable, progressives need to push Congress to restrict the use of military force, offer alternatives to the military-first paradigm, and invest in diplomatic capacity.
A diplomacy-first foreign policy should recognize that our domestic crises are integrally linked to global challenges. American foreign policy inevitably comes back home. The United States has long opted for domination in the international arena and neglected justice, a choice that has begotten police violence, human rights abuses, and white supremacist extremism. Today, though, progressives can commit to a new vision for U.S. foreign policy, a vision that centers diplomacy, solidarity, and cooperation. Progressives can choose to turn away from a system that pours hundreds of billions of dollars each year into state violence and instead repair our relations with the planet and its people. This vision is not optional for a just future. It is a necessity.