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February 13, 2013

The "New Foreign Policy Divide"
Posted by David Shorr

JamesMontgomeryFlagg-UncleSamWithEmptyTreasury1920LargeOver at, Tom Wright welcomes us to "the Democratic Party's new foreign policy debate." Wright has noticed a fissure start to crack open, one he expects to pit progressive sister against brother. At issue is America's international role at a time of domestic challenges, and the emerging contrasts in approach could presage clashes over policy. 

Tom labels the two camps as "restrainers" and "shapers": 

Restrainers see a crumbling infrastructure, the budget deficit, a subpar education system, and a sluggish economy as much more threatening than events elsewhere in the world. Democrats of this stripe call for "nation-building at home," to use President Obama's phrase, and want to prioritize these tasks at the expense of international commitments, which they see as a drain or a distraction. 

The shapers have a starkly different view. They agree that domestic challenges are important -- and should be the subject of a strong domestic policy agenda -- but they don't believe international difficulties are on the wane. The U.S. economy is in a slump largely because of a crisis prone international economic order ... On security, the United States is a global power and detrimental developments in the Middle East, East Asia, or Europe will severely damage U.S. interests.

Since reading the piece, I've been test-driving Tom's idea. Are these two perspectives indeed prominent impulses within our major policy debates -- each of them with a clear enough orientation to offer answers to the big questions of our foreign policy? And has he avoided caricature? Actually, I think Tom's onto something. For one thing, he's given us a badly needed framework to talk about adjustments to American hegemony without the overblown specter of isolationism. 

We can start with the test of trying to place oneself in one of the two camps. Pretty easy in my case: confirmed shaper. Just take one line about the US global role from Nina Hachigian and my "Responsibility Doctrine" piece in Washington Quarterly

With a distinct ongoing role as a global leader, it will put great effort into bringing others along and offer its own cooperation for reasons of self-interest as well as broader peace and prosperity. 

Pretty shaper-ish sounding, I have to admit. Now I should also point out that the rest of the paragraph and article are about shifting some of the burden to other nations -- which sounds like restrainer talk -- but that's not a problem. Recall that Tom described shapers as sharing a sensitivity to our domestic challenges and constraints. 

Back during George W. Bush's presidency, we used to contrast the conservative and progressive approaches in terms that may be applicable here. Conservatives preferred to work unilaterally where they could, and multilaterally where they must; the progressive instinct is the reverse. Perhaps we can say that restrainers want the United States to involve itself only where it's imperative, while shapers also want to get involved where it can be constructive. Crucially, we shapers are still exercising prudence to ensure US involvement has good prospects for success. Shapers are picking our shots, whereas restrainers are pulling in their horns.

Naturally I recoil at Tom's forecast of progressives split into rival factions. There's also a best-case scenario in which the two perspectives provide a creative tension resulting in sound policies. Either way, though, I think Tom has identified a key fault line for us. 

UPDATE: Revised since published to add a sentence to the penultimate graf.

GRAPHIC: Cartoon by James Montgomery Flagg


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