Progressive circles are abuzz with debate over the "common good" a frame for the progressive agenda that Barack Obama, Michael Tomasky, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin have been developing through recent articles and conferences. Reading their stuff will give you a good handle on what a "common good"-based politics would mean domestically. The ideas have resonance, and have been picked up by the mainstream media as a potentially powerful core for progressive messaging.
As applied to foreign policy, an area that the leading articles on the "common good" tend to touch only lightly, the concept has both potential and some ostensible limitations that I will lay out in this piece. My hope is to start a discussion on whether we can somehow build on the concept of the "common good" to help sharpen a progressive foreign policy message.
The notion of the common good works well for foreign policy in the following ways:
1. It signals a rejection of insular policy-making, cronyism and corruption - The secrecy and dishonesty that led us to war in Iraq, the unchecked profiteering that wasted billions in reconstruction monies, the manifest lack of accountability and the stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes all run counter to a foreign policy aimed to serve the common good. Greater openness, beefed up Congressional oversight, more thorough review of intelligence matters and heightened transparency in contracting are all important goals that could be advanced in the name of the common good.
2. It supports spreading the burdens of military intervention and other national imperatives more widely - A common good-based foreign policy suggests that the burdens of promoting America's interests abroad need to be shouldered by society as a whole, rather than an unlucky few. This could start with improved health care, education and economic opportunity for veterans. It could encompass a broadened vision of national service, and potentially a stabilization corps that would draw a larger swath of Americans into the responsibilities being shouldered today by the military. The same case could be made for broader distribution of the costs of free trade, for example through greatly enhanced assistance to vulnerable American workers.
3. It suggests a long-term perspective on issues like proliferation and global warming - The common good, at least implicitly, encompasses the good of future generations. Adopting policies in areas like nuclear proliferation, the environment, alliance and institution building, and engagement with the Muslim world that reflect a long-term view and aim to ensure American security for decades to come would represent a huge step forward. This would force the hard work of forging new security agreements and bodies, restraining the worst of our environmental excesses, investing heavily in international relationships, etc.
4. Recognizing the link between global and American interests - Many progressive arguments are based on the premise that what is good for others will ultimately benefit the US. The case for a stronger UN, third world development, lower trade barriers, better AIDS prevention and countless other goals all fit this pattern. The common good is a way to draw the link between American interests and those of foreign nations and peoples.
Now for the ways in which the "common good" works less well as a framing device for foreign policy: