The Truman Project
Posted by Michael Signer
So, all last weekend I was at the annual meeting in D.C. of the Truman National Security Project (website here) -- an extraordinary new group of young people who want the Democratic Party to reclaim strength on national security and foreign policy as a basic progressive value. (I recently became a Principal of the Truman Project, along with Truman Fellows Suzanne, Lorelei, and Derek, an affiliation which led indirectly to my place here at Democracy Arsenal.)
The meeting was off the record, and I wouldn't want in any event to try and represent the opinions of this diverse and intellectually vibrant group. But I can present some of the general conclusions of the group.
The combined group of about 35 came from all walks of the foreign policy world -- from academics working on the Middle East to lawyers at prominent law firms to former White House speechwriters. You can see some of their bios here.
The Project was co-founded by Rachel Kleinfeld and Matt Spence, two off-the-chart impressive foreign policy thinkers, who were both Truman Scholars (though there is no affiliation between the Scholarship program and the Truman Project -- rather, they chose the name because President Truman transformed his battle against the threat of communism into a broad strategy to secure our country, while building international structures like NATO on American values of rights and freedom. You can read more about the reasoning behind the name here.)
Given the current Administration, and the general ass-kicking progressives have suffered over the last 25 years, you might think this would have been a grumpy bitch'n'moan session, full of piss and bile about Vietnam and the neoconservatives.
What both Kleinfeld and Spence shared, along with the group they had assembled, was instead a buoyant, infectious sense of optimism.
The meeting was dominated by a collective feeling that if progressives are to become, again, bearers of the public trust on national security, it will only happen through affirmative rather than negative ideas -- by talking about what we want, where America should be, why Americans should be comfortable and enthusiastic supporting a foreign policy channeled through progressives, rather than conservatives (or neoconservatives).
It was perhaps no coincidence that a lot of our discussion focused on superheroes as metaphors for the U.S. -- whether Spiderman (we got a little punchy reciting Uncle Ben's "with great power comes great responsibility") or Superman (we're a leader for the world, but we're still vulnerable -- Cheney as Kryptonite? something like that).
I took away from the meeting a set of concepts that, for me, clarified enormously how progressives can take back security, if they scroll back time to Vietnam, and imagine taking another path -- one more like Truman and Kennedy would have taken, toward strength, wisdom, and confidence in America's role as leader for the world.
At least six values grounded our discussion, and showed how Truman Democrats improve on both the left and the right. Our first three values share some similarity to principles currently claimed by neoconservatives:
1) American exceptionalism: Like the neoconservatives, we believe that America is the greatest country the world has known. We are historically, morally, and intellectually unique. Unlike the necons, however, we believe we must constantly earn our exceptionalism through our moral conduct. Our uniqueness stems from our values, and so we bear a unique responsibility for living up to those values in shaping and influencing the world.
2) The use of force: Like the neocons, we're comfortable with the use of force for morally good ends. Unlike the neocons, as a general matter, we believe force shouldn't be the default choice for achieving our ends. We're neither reflexive doves nor pacifists; rather, we're pragmatists on the use of force.
3) American hegemony: Like the neocons, we want America to retain its supremacy as the military, political , and economic leader of the world in order that we can maintain our own security, help strengthen the world's safety and stability, and accomplish morally right goals. We are and should be a unipolar power. Unlike the neocons, however, we believe we must constantly earn and affirm the right to exercise that power.
But Truman Democrats also add three new principles of their own:
1) The world community. The traditionally conservative (rather than neocon, but still threaded through the current Administration's foreign policy) viewpoint borrows heavily from libertarian principles. As a matter of right and obligation, conservatives often believe people are and should be fundamentally selfish and individualistic, and that collective action is wrong. Truman Democrats believe, on the other hand, that the world is a community. America can lead that community -- but, to paraphrase John Donne, we are not an island, and any death diminishes us, because we are involved in mankind. To switch to a more prosaic metaphor, America is like a quarterback for the world. Although he's the most critical member of the team, the quarterback can't win alone; he needs the confidence and loyalty of his teammates, which he earns through leadership.
2) Liberal-mindedness: Neoconservatives believe that the discovery of ideas is basically finished. That's why they constantly return to the ancient theorists and ancient values in search of some lost nobility and greatness. Truman Democrats believe instead that knowledge is constantly expanding, and that to conclude that we have finished knowing, or that ideas are presumptively wrong because of where they come from, is both arrogant and dangerous. We believe in a resilient, flexible national mind, avoiding the calcification of ideology. We believe in learning from events and fitting our thinking to facts, not the other way around. This is why democracy (which encourages the growth of knowledge) is our political system of choice.
3) Helping the least well-off: Conservatives and realpolitikers have generally believed that wealth and power should be the key determinants to foreign policy decisions regarding other countries. Following philosophers like John Rawls, Truman Democrats believe we should instead help the least well-off before we help the most well-off. So building up the economies in many developing nations, or addressing the AIDS crisis, is not only a matter of stability -- it's a matter of moral right. Moreover, helping the least well-off also helps us. Being the only wealthy house in a poor neighborhood makes us the target. Helping the whole neighborhood become richer makes us a leader.
These six principles combine into the single center of gravity for Truman Democrats: we believe in leadership, in inspiring the world community to follow us through our generosity, our values, and our accomplishments.
The philosophy of leadership squares with the value placed by conservatives on American might and American wisdom. But it departs from (and radically improves upon) the neoconservative vision by centering America in the world community.
America must involve itself in the world, and, like an older sibling (OK, the metaphors did get a little out of control), take responsibility for lessons our brothers and sisters learn from us.
The meeting concluded on Sunday amid broad smiles and generous laughter from the members. Strong friendships were created, in part because of the general enthusiasm about the seriousness of the task at hand. We were in agreement: we really could make a difference, by parting ways with the post-Vietnam left in America, in a way that could ultimately convince progressives, and America, to follow.
The left, after all, liberated the world from Communism, created the Marshall Plan, negotiated our way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and invented NATO.
America's greatest successes abroad are ours.
We need to return to our roots -- and we can.