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July 03, 2006

Bring in the Big Ideas
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I finally got around to reading the slew of new articles which argue that we should adopt the “common good” as the foundation of a new progressive vision for America. Like Suzanne, I think the “common good” frame may work for domestic policy, but it comes up short in providing a coherent, democratic alternative to the discredited amalgam of neo-con posturing and realist essence (i.e. taking the worst of the two approaches, fusing them together, and letting someone relatively unintelligent implement them). To their credit, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin in their American Prospect series did make a point of mentioning democracy promotion, but it seemed more like a concession than a commitment. This is the problem – I don’t know if liberals today really have the stomach for costly, interventionist “adventures” abroad. I call them adventures because that’s probably what they’d end up being. Democracy, as I’ve pointed out before, is, by definition, a risky enterprise characterized by high levels of uncertainty. In democracies, you’re not supposed to know who will win before people actually vote. For some, particularly Rovian republicans and Arab dictators, this is a problem. For small-d and big-D democrats, it usually isn’t (or shouldn’t be).

In an impressive speech to the Take America Back conference, Barak Obama told attending progressives, “Don't doubt yourselves. We know who we are.” I’m not sure that we do, at least as far as foreign policy goes. There remains substantial disagreement among progressives regarding America’s role in the world. But at least now there is a serious discussion underway about the ideas and ideals which will come to guide a progressive foreign policy in the years ahead.

For once, we are beginning to move beyond reflexive criticisms of Bush administration policy and offering bold alternatives to realist neo-isolationism and the belligerence of neo-conservatism. Some of the best efforts in this regard are Madeleine Albright's article on a "Realistic Idealism," Michael Signer's piece on "exemplarism," Peter Beinart's new book, and many others. Give them a read. For all our differences, progressives are finally starting to realize that critiques and policy prescriptions are not enough. Ideas are needed, preferably big ones.   


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