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June 10, 2005

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.

It wasn't.

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.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Truman Project:

» The Truman Project from CommonSenseDesk
via Democracy Arsenal. . . 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.This is interesting. [Read More]

» Foreign policy a utilitarian could love from The Ethical Werewolf
So this is all at a pretty high level of abstraction, but these Truman Project people are saying exactly what I want to hear. I feel a bit funny about the American Exceptionalism part, but as long as it's understood as conditional on our behaving bet... [Read More]

» Foreign policy a utilitarian could love from The Ethical Werewolf
So this is all at a pretty high level of abstraction, but these Truman Project people are saying exactly what I want to hear. I feel a bit funny about the American Exceptionalism part, but as long as it's understood as conditional on our behaving bet... [Read More]

Comments

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.

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Only superficially. Libertarian principles encourage maximizing the autonomy of individuals, the traditional conservative approach is to look after our interests first. This may seem libertarian (as libertarians generally think each individual should put that individual's interests first), but it's actually the same approach used by pretty much every government in human history.

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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.

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This is wrong. Conservatives- not just the neo variety- look to ancient theories because they have been studied in tremendous depth, and those ideas have either withstood the test of time and been validated, or they been refuted and discarded. This has nothing to do with searching for lost nobility and greatness, and everything to do with finding things that _work_.

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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.

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This, too, is incorrect. Conservatives and realpolitikers generally believe that our _interests_ should be the key determinants in foreign policy decisions.

I am delighted to see some signs that the left is returning to sanity, but quite disappointed to see that it has yet to understand the reasoning of the other side of the debate. To refute their ideas, you must analyze them, to analyze their ideas, you must _understand_ them. You are no closer to understanding them than Michael Moore and the like... but at least you are trying. That's progress, and as someone who appreciates the value of a viable competition to keep my own side honest, I welcome it.

...rosignol's weirdly arrogant reply not only serves as an example of why the Truman Project is on the right track, it is also a tiny mirror of the attitude in the current administration - an attitude that Americans are finally waking up to…
(see http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/national/AP-Bush-Poll-Method.html).

All well and good, except for the gratuitous slam on libertiarians.

Libertarians belive in minimal government for maxiumum liberty, which is not necessarily the same thing as selfishness.

As a former Democrat I am glad to see some Democratic thinkers trying to regain some of the party's sensibilities.
I find it a little ironic, though, to criticize neoconservatives for looking to the past to define their values while you call yourselves the Truman National Security Project.

This is a promising project. One of the best pieces I've seen come out of it so far is Loren Griffen's analysis of how Democrats lost credibility on National Security--and how to they can reclaim it. It's definitely worth a read:

http://www.trumanproject.org/trumanpaper3.html

That should be 'Loren Griffith'

If more Democrats are talking like Michael Signer, then the Democrat may have a chance in 2006 and 2008. But I believe that his view is of the minority. Sadly, Michael Moore is much louder than Michael Signer.

I didn't find "rosignol's weirdly arrogant reply " either weird nor arrogant. Pointing out a fork isn't a spoon is simply the truth.

There is a voice of hope for the future! It may take the Truman Project 10 years to bear fruit (as it did for Goldwater's ideas to take over the Republican mind), and certainly there are a lot of distortions in the characterization of neo-conservatives in the post, but if our debate on foreign policy is to be a serious discussion of what underpins American exceptionalism (and thus how other countries can become exceptional, too), how we act morally and responsibly abroad without compromising our security and economy, and how to advance democracy in the world; where the major disagreements are on which tyrannies to end first, which wrongs we are morally obligated to end and which must be ended by those wronged, and how to advance technologically and culturally without descending into anarchy or tyranny - if that's the future foreign policy debate that the Truman Project can enable, more power to them.

As a keen observer of the United States from that part of North America that chose to remain British, I take exception with your claim to American exceptionalism. There really is nothing exceptional about American foreign policy, from its hegemonic position atop the current international distribution of power, its preference for a liberal international economic order, or in its incessant evangelism (using force if necessary) of such benefits of American civilization as democracy, human rights, free markets, and minimally interventionist government. In each of these respects, 21st century America is a mirror of 19th century Britain -- the military, economic, and moral hegemon of its day -- with the exception pointed by Niall Ferguson that America is the first empire to deny that it is an empire.

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