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April 17, 2005

Weekly Top 10 List: Top 10 Topics That Belong on Progressives' Homework Assignment
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Most of us seem to agree that progressives need a clear set of ideas that can attract wide support in order to fuel a foreign policy platform that gains traction (there’s some ferment over whether such ideas should be thought of as an ends or a means – to me the answer is both).

We should take the next year or so to formulate ideas in each of these areas, and then work to syndicate them across the constituencies that matter - the military, the unions, the left, interested ethnic groups, business, moderate and independent voters, etc. We won’t get broad agreement in all areas, but if we can forge some new ground in 5-6 (including #10) we’ll be well ahead of where we are now.

This isn't a list of all issues that matter. In some areas – like the war on terror, the Mideast peace process and intelligence reform – change is so fast that platforms agreed now risk irrelevancy by the time the public debate refocuses on foreign policy (sometime in 2007, is my guess). As Derek has touched on here, I think progressives have an idea how they’d approach Europe.

There are areas – I would count armed intervention as one – that we must continue to talk about, but where I don’t think fixed policies necessarily have a whole lot of influence over how specific situations get handled. There are other questions, like the treatment of veterans, where we can do a whole lot better than conservatives without having to forge brand new policy ground.

Here are some ideas where some more homework could make a big difference. I invite commentators to add their own to the list.

1. Non-Proliferation. Too often, progressives seem reduced to arguing over the size shape of the negotiation table on these issues, rather than laying out a clear alternative to policies that are flagging. (see this exchange on North Korea from the first 2004 Presidential debate) This Carnegie Commission Report offers some useful new thinking to get the ball rolling.

2. Trade. We’ve begun to discuss here and here, and we all seem to agree that policy is stalled. Tom Friedman’s new book describes what we are up against, essentially tens of thousands of Indian programmers and call center entrepreneurs who are a lot hungrier than we are. The new issue of Foreign Affairs reports that we’ve slipped to 13th in the global ranking for Internet Development, an area that helped us survive the last big economic dislocation a decade ago. The direction needed (new engines for job growth, much broader and better supported retraining and restructuring initiatives, realistic labor and environmetnal standards, etc.) is obvious though the details will be devilish.  Unions will need to get involved or their fears of irrelevancy will become reality. I read this short piece by Gene Sperling on the topic a while ago and still like it.

3. China. While the Bush Administration has antagonized traditional allies and racked up record trade deficits, the Chinese economy is growing at a record pace (though some think its in for a fall, there’s also a sneaking suspicion the Chinese may be able to sustain it) , and the government is shoring up relations with smaller allies and trading partners throughout Asia, isolating Japan. Meanwhile its hard to escape the conclusion that U.S. influence in the region is gradually waning, which may be precisely what the Chinese were hoping to accomplish. Progressives need a clear strategy for how we will play in Asia.

4. Democratization. We’ve talked about this already here and here. The latest Security and Peace Institute poll reveals that Democrats are less likely to view the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy goal than either Republicans or Independents. That’s understandable given the tainting of the concept in recent years, but we need an agenda for recapturing this issue and reuniting our own supporters behind it.

5. Military Readiness. The question of how we ensure that our military manpower needs are met in future is a tough one, but if progressives are hoping to forge a closer bond to the military (see discussions on Democracy Arsenal here and here) we are going to need to answer it. This provocative piece in the Washington Monthly is interesting less for its argument on behalf of a draft than for its analysis of why each of the alternatives now on the table is so problematic.  We'd better start generating some more options.

6. Latin America. Bush talked a good game, but has failed to deliver. At the same time as our influence is diminishing in Asia, it waning in our own backyard. Relations with Mexico are uneasy. Brazil is stepping out as a leader within the region, and of poor countries the world over.  Meanwhile China is also stepping into the breach, upping its trade and political influence in the region.  Cuba, and the attendant politics, also need to be part of the puzzle.  While none of this may hurt us much for now, this shifts will matter in the long-term. My instinct is that with China shoring up power in its backyard and Europe unified, solidifying relations in our own backyard ought to be a top priority. Bush nodded in this direction at a recent meeting with the Mexican and Canadian heads of government, but odds are he won’t follow through.  Progressives need to explain how we will.

7. Global health. Progressives care a lot about this issue. In the SPI poll, Democrats rated the spread of AIDS as their second highest national security priority (next to bringing the troops home from Iraq). The Marburg virus loose in Angola is tragic and terrifying, and it’s a matter of time before something like that affects us here. But we haven’t seen a lot of new ideas on what to do differently. Maybe we ought to be training tens of thousands of African doctors (and bribing them to go back to Africa), opening a health clinic for every 5,000 residents in Sub-Sahara.  A good place to start would be science writer Laurie Garrett's ideas.

8. Development. Here again, progressives are high on concern (again, see SPI poll), but low on ideas. We should not be intimidated by the Bush track record - the Millennium Challenge Account sounded like a smart idea, but from what I can tell has yet to disburse a dime.  Maybe the answer is broad debt relief, and/or a more aggressive challenge program that has something to offer countries that have the will but not the resources or skill to clean up their acts and institute accountability and governance procedures.

9. Post-Conflict Reconstruction. This is a problem that won’t go away, and an area where current policies have failed. I like the idea of creating a dedicated post-conflict stabilization corps because I think inter-agency coordinators and ad-hoc personnel rosters will never be up to the job. But whether that's the answer or not, we need to come up with something.

10. An Umbrella Philosophy. Most importantly, we need an umbrella that makes all of the and more sound coherent and compelling. I am still toying with the idea of Democratic Consolidation; essentially a policy aimed at shoring up democracy around the world, and soldering together a network of democracies and supporting institutions with the U.S. at the center. A lot -- including policies toward Asia, South America, and Africa -- would fit under that rubric.

Whether you like these ideas or not, I'd be interested in hearing yours.


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That's a pretty good list. I do think, though, that we can do a better job drawing distinctions between our foreign policy philosophies and those of Republicans. It seems like often progressives end up arguing "we want what they want, only done right"; when we're feeling more courageous, we say "Republicans are ignoring important issue y. In either case, they respond, "Of course we care about y, and we're making progress." Tie goes to the party with greater national security credibility.

So if we're going to make political progress, we need to articulate good positions that Republicans will disagree with. In that line, some thoughts on Democratization. First, we (and by 'we' I mean we the United States, now) ought to de-emphasize elections and put more weight on the broader development of civil rights. Various oppressive dictators who would never consent to hold elections and abdicate might well make steady incremental progress past such benchmarks as trial by jury, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and of the press, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, and so on, given sufficient sticks and carrots. And when elections do eventually take place, the resulting democracy is much more likely to be successful given a preexisting commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

Second, I think progress in democratization ought to be systematized; the label of democracy shouldn't be a gold star handed out at the President's whim. International institutions with specific standards for membership could do a lot of good, just as the European Union has helped encourage democracy among would-be members.

Well, you did ask for comments! Thanks for all the work you do.


Best wishes for this site! It could become a great thing for progressives, and for the world in a much larger sense.

Two comments about the list. First, genocide prevention should be on it. Repeatedly the world wakes up too late, unable to mount a timely response. Who knows how much can really be done to create systems that will be in place when they're needed, but the time to be thinking about this question is now.

Second, new issues and ideas may be desirable, but we should also be more aggressive about challenging the other side where they're vulnerable. Why do the Republicans get a free pass on missile defense when, as everyone who reads this site knows, dysfunctional weapons systems aren't just money wasters, but seriously weaken our defenses by introducing fictitious assumptions into military planning? Basically, I think, because there are a lot of Democratic politicians who would be happy to follow along behind someone else on this issue, but who think that a leadership stance would have a lot of downside risk and little upside. This site can take the lead! Here's an idea: each week challenge a specific conservative opinion maker to defend missile defense on its technical merits. If s/he doesn't respond, announce this loudly. If s/he does, then it really gets fun...

One other little thing...I wish I could preview this comment. ;)

Another important topic is global energy. Progressives need to talk about how energy efficiency - better use of existing resources (Amory Lovins's "nega-watts") - and developing new sources of energy can assist in creating better living conditions throughout the world.

Nonproliferation is dead, except as a campaign issue. And as a campaign issue it can backfire, whoever campaigns for nonproliferation is likely to get blamed for each nonproliferation failure on their watch.

What might work better toward nonproliferation is to reduce our own nuclear stockpile, with the public announcement that nukes aren't actually worth having and we're gradually phasing them out. Other nations would pay some attention to our example, while they aren't as susceptible to our coercion these days.

To the extent we avoid tariff wars, we have to expect wages to equilibrate across the world. Except for things that must be done locally. You can't outsource plumbers, even if you make modular parts to snap in somebody has to snap them in. You can't outsource real estate agents. You can't outsource prostitutes or masseurs.

But if wages equilibrate between the USA and china, US standards of living must fall. Other things equal, when 1.3 billion chinese rise to equal 300 million americans, american standard or living can be expected to drop about 75%.

We can set up tariff barriers to discourage, and to the extent our own resources are adequate we can do OK. Likely better than we'd do with free trade. To the extent that there aren't enough resources to go around, we do worse trading our valuable resources for overabundant chinese labor. Free trade is potentially better for world production -- there's more to go around, more for the various poor foreign people, but less for us than we'd have otherwise.

I can't imagine a campaign that advocates US standard of living dropping. The various increased-foreign-trade legislation came with people who believed that we wouldn't be damaged by it, or people who believed that they could trick us into it.

On the other hand, cutting foreign trade would be unpopular too, our reduced standard of living would get blamed on it.

Maybe it's better to take no position until after we have an obvious crisis. Then anybody who can argue that the crisis isn't his fault can suggest solutions.

China --

A long time ago I was concerned about japan being #1 and damaging the US economy. They had a mostly-closed economy themselves and they took a lot of advantage from our trade. They'd dump electronics etc here while charging high prices at home to pay for it, and they destroyed various of our industries that way. I discussed this with an academic political scientist, and he said not to worry about it. Japan had no oil and not much other resources. Blockade them and in a few months they'd collapse. And it turned out it didn't take a blockade, we were able to use their own natural tendencies against them and trap them in a long grinding recession.

China is harder. They have a giant population to use, a large defensive army, they can import resources from siberia etc and we can't stop them without bombing, etc. Maybe they'll collapse for some internal reason. We can hardly avoid letting them become a major regional power. There's some question what they'll consider their region. Afghanistan? How far across the southern XSSR? They want a pipeline from iran....

It doesn't make sense to campaign on a stop-china platform, because if you win you'll have to negotiate with china. Say you want to build up the military to intimidate china, why should china loan you the money? Say you want to outbid china for imported oil, why should china loan you the money? We need to get our economy working first, before we can think about restraining china.

Unless china actually needs us for something. But what? Say they took the stuff they export to us for depreciating dollars, and they just built it and piled it up in the gobi desert instead. Would they be worse off? Say they sold it to the workers who make it, would they be worse off than they are now? Suppose the US dollar gets devaluated another 30%. Then the last 25% or so of their exports to use were freebies. They'd have been better off not to ship those to us -- except for the political advantages they get from being obviously strong while we're obviously weak.

I don't see that they need us nearly as much as we need them. Except -- do we need them? We've been talking like they aren't actually doing us any favors.

We can't make a sensible china policy until we get a sensible economics policy. Better put this one off for a few days.

China's economic growth should be viewed as an opportunity, and US policy should discourage the creation of rival trading blocs. Another go at the WTO would be good. Domestically, we need to boost trade adjustment assistance and get single-payer health care done once and for all. A more sensible approach to energy, in cooperation w/ the G7, would be wise. The worst thing would be some kind of stupid trade war w/ China and its allies on the one side, and the US and Japan on the other. Everyone would end up poorer and stupider.

Unfortunately, John Kerry's comments about North Korea in that presidential debate wildly inaccurate and quite unhelpful. A good progressive North Korea policy would be an articulation of a "trust-but-veryify" approach to multilateral talks with all incentives and disincentives on the table. A simple explanation to the American people that we are ready to reward an international confirmation of North Korea's compliance to the 1994 Agreed Framework would go a long way (IMHO).

Unfortunately, a number of our European allies have presented progressives with two great opportunities. I think strong language about discouraging European arm sales to China would dispel the "get permission from Europe" perception of progressives and make a statement that China is not considered a perfect world neighbor.

Finally, there is a wonderful opportunity of good ol' political idea filching. Bush's Millenium Challenge Account (aka Bush Doctrine) is the most progressive foreign policy shift since the Marshal Plan, but he's never really spoken of it despite its successes. Steal It! Take the idea, rename it, increase funding, and present it to the American people as the "Democracy Fund"; rewarding openness and human rights and eliminating welfare for dictators. I think that would have tremendous appeal to middle America and allow some of the progressives that have been pushed into reactionary foreign policy stances (to oppose Bush) to get back onboard with a sound liberal approach.

Praktike, in a rational world I would agree with you.

But realisticly, every barrel of oil china burns is a barrel we can't buy. Every sheet of US plywood we sell to china, is a sheet of plywood not available to us. China tends to buy resources. (And companies that own IP.)

On the other side, we want to have skilled jobs in the USA, too.

China is treating the USA the way we treated argentina etc. Buy their raw materials, give them loans while manipulating things so they can't compete on anything but raw materials, and then -- call the loans due?

We can't afford to let it go on that way, but the chines aren't agreeing to do otherwise. They're getting 9% growh while we get 0% growth. And it's their trade policies that are doing it.

If we do something to resolve that without china's cooperation it will be bad. But we'll end up poor and stupid either way....

Indigent, what incentives and disincentives do we have for north korea compared to what china can offer?

Try the flip side of the same story. Suppose that china and europe agreed together that they wanted israel to get rid of the israeli nukes. They could talk about discouraging european arms sales to israel. They could even talk about discouraging european arms sales to the USA> They could talk about multilateral talks. They could talk about the various incentives and disincentives that china could offer to israel. In ten years or so china might even hint at some sort of military action against israel, they might have troops in some neighboring countries etc.

But at least over the next few years it makes no difference what europe and china want. If the USA is OK with israel's nukes then israel can ignore them. Same for north korea, if china doesn't mind them having nukes then they'll have nukes.

But the US public isn't ready to hear that. When it becomes obvious then it's OK to say it if you're saying who to blame it on. But today it sounds defeatist, it would sound like you have a bad attitude and it wouldn't get votes.

So it's a bad topic. Tell the truth and you look bad. But come up with some bullshit argument like the other guys but different, and if you win you'll look real bad when it fails.

The best approach progressives can take about korean nukes is to keep quiet about the whole thing now, but be ready to blame Bush and Co entirely for the debacle if the first korean nuke gets tested while Bush is still in office. This is entirely Bush's fault. Bush said he'd stop it and he didn't. Bush did essentially nothing to stop it. He didn't ask for more troops or more funding for the navy, he didn't do effective diplomacy, he did nothing but talk about how he was going to take care of it. This is entirely due to unprogressive stands by american politicians. If republicans try to pass it off onto Clinton, you can say that Clinton was no progressive and he was wrongly following advice from the same people who ultimately failed.

Trying to stop korean nukes is a mug's game. You can't win. You can't even win if you say you won't play. The only way to win is if the other guy loses before you get a chance to play.

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