Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has struggled with the question of when to intervene abroad. While there is widespread agreement that the United States has interests and values that can justify military action, the challenge has been identifying when to intervene and when to leave bad enough alone. Over the past two decades, policy has oscillated between liberal internationalism and neoconservatism. Liberal internationalism dominated during the Clinton years, with UN- or NATO-backed humanitarian interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Neoconservatism defined the George W. Bush Administration’s approach to post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both approaches took an aggressive interest in military expeditions abroad, and, despite their differing conceptions of the national interest, both struggled to achieve positive post-combat political outcomes from those expeditions.
Partly for that reason, both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives have increasingly come under fire in recent years. Critics have been arguing for some time that an excessive willingness to wage wars abroad will overextend American power, leading to the same decline and fall that befell Rome and Britain. Politicians opine that costly nation-building policies are unsustainable during a period of austerity in which the government is cutting food stamps, unemployment insurance, and education funding at home. Warriors and diplomats alike have cautioned that excessive interventionism can spark an anti-American backlash worldwide. In today’s political climate, both camps have lost favor among increasing numbers, if not necessarily yet a majority, of the American people. Libertarians and progressives both support a foreign policy that exercises greater restraint when it comes to using force. They join many in the center who urge less reliance on military instruments and a greater effort to hone non-military means of influencing events abroad.
The Obama Administration has pursued a course of action that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two dominant strains in foreign policy. President Obama oversaw the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but he called the war in Afghanistan a war of necessity and ordered a “surge” there. His Administration supported a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya, which turned quickly into a multinational campaign that ultimately led to regime change. But then the Administration adopted a basically reactive, and far more hands-off approach to Syria. In Egypt, it has shifted between restraint, encouragement, support and silence during the past three years of tumult.
These actions are certainly not liberal internationalist or neoconservative in character, but neither are they clearly isolationist or realist. Obama’s foreign policy has been widely attacked in ways that range from unprincipled to defeatist to incoherent to downright incompetent. The critics protest too much. The Obama Administration may not have designed its policies with a specific worldview in mind. But many of its policies can be justified as a principled, and distinctly progressive, approach to American foreign policy. This approach can best be described as progressive pragmatism—and despite some visible defects, it is well suited to American foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Morality of Restraint
Progressive pragmatism is based on two central principles. The progressive principle is a belief in bottom-up democracy, in the self-determination of a people. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists are both willing to forcefully push political and economic development from outside a country’s borders. During the 1990s and 2000s, each camp supported military interventions abroad, at least ostensibly or in part to promote democracy and human rights. During the 1990s, each group also supported the Washington Consensus’s one-size-fits-all approach to economic development.
Progressive pragmatists believe that communities need to take charge of their own destinies. When it comes to intervention or overthrowing governments, progressive pragmatists will often balk; self-determination calls for revolts to come from below. In a 1980 essay, “The Moral Standing of States”, Michael Walzer explained the relationship between intervention and respect for the self-determination of a political community. If a government ceases to meet the people’s political demands, the people are free to rebel, or not to rebel. In some cases, the people may be loyal to leaders, think success is unlikely, or simply be accustomed to an autocratic style of rule. But they retain the choice to rebel, no matter how draconian their overlords may be. When a foreign state intervenes, it violates the people’s ability to organize its own historical path and to develop its own cultural destiny. Similarly, progressive pragmatists believe that the constitutional design or economic policies of foreign countries need not look exactly like those of the West in order to produce effective and legitimate institutions. People should choose how to govern themselves.
Although progressive pragmatism’s commitment to self-determination cautions strongly against intervention abroad, it is not a form of neo-isolationism; nor does it render humanitarian interventions impossible. The presumption of non-intervention can be overcome in limited situations. Walzer argued that even when starting with respect for the self-determination of a political community, intervention can be morally justified in three cases: when a state consists of multiple communities and one of them is rebelling; when a foreign state has already intervened and another intervention is necessary to counter its influence; or when a government is massacring or enslaving its citizens. In each of those cases, the community’s self-determination has been violated to the point that intervention by another state can be justified. Of course, that does not mean intervention is required. A state poised to intervene might judge the effort too costly, too difficult, or on balance not worth the risks that attend any use of force.
This restrained approach to intervention neither endorses authoritarian regimes nor authorizes intervention whenever they pursue objectionable policies. Rather, it expresses America’s founding commitment to democracy. The American revolutionary spirit of throwing off the yoke of empire is precisely the idea of the people themselves shaping their own destiny. In other words, American restraint abroad is not an abandonment of democratic values but rather an expression of them.
The second foundational principle, the pragmatic principle, is a belief in real-world limitations, in the need to assess carefully the costs, benefits, and unintended consequences of actions. For founding progressives William James, and John Dewey, pragmatism didn’t just mean “what works” in a technocratic sense. It meant learning from experience within the context of a person’s (or community’s) particular experiences, culture, and beliefs. We each have opinions and biases that are frequently challenged by new facts or that are unable to explain new situations. Over time, we learn from these new experiences and change our views. Knowledge is therefore always partial, fallible, and contingent. It is tested and reshaped over time. As a consequence, genuine pragmatists are humble: They cannot discern perfect truths or certain futures, and they know it.
Humility and restraint combine to nurture a skeptical assessment of interests, desires, and consequences. Progressive pragmatists are therefore attentive to the practical costs and risks of action abroad, including the financial costs to the Treasury, the possibility of backlash, and the likelihood of unintended consequences, whether directly in the country at issue or around the world. Their recognition of the limits of knowledge makes them inherently leery of abstract visions of the future, and of imaginative attempts to redesign the world from a distance. Skepticism does not mean inaction, but it does produce a sharp razor for distinguishing between America’s needs and its desires.
The pragmatic principle is best captured by the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, though Niebuhr himself was not exactly a “pragmatist” or even a “progressive.” Niebuhr, whom President Obama has called one of his favorite philosophers, placed humility at the center of his approach to foreign policy. He believed that history is defined by contingency and irony, not by utopian triumph or purely rational actions. The central guide to policy, therefore, is not dogma or ideology, but experience. American idealism, he argued, needs to confront “the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic confrontations of power”, and embrace the “slow and sometimes contradictory processes of history.”
Linking progressive and pragmatic ideals, progressive pragmatists argue that the United States should, as far as possible, pursue interests directly and values indirectly. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists often seek to promote liberal values and democracy directly. Whether toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime or pushing the Washington Consensus, both approaches prioritize the spread of values and are prepared, if not always eager, to use economic and military might to advance that agenda. Progressive pragmatists stand ready to use traditional means of statecraft—political, military, and economic—to preserve and promote America’s geopolitical and economic interests. (President Obama did not hesitate to order U.S. Special Forces into Pakistan to strike against Osama bin Laden, and his Administration has supported crippling economic sanctions against Iran in order to pressure them to the negotiating table.) But when it comes to promoting liberal democratic values, progressive pragmatists adopt a presumption of nonintervention. When one of the Walzerian exceptions applies, they then consider the range of pragmatic factors—costs, benefits, and unintended consequences—to reach a judgment.
Thus, to advance a liberal democratic agenda progressive pragmatists rely on an indirect approach rooted in changing culture and fostering interdependence. They recognize that values are a function of culture, and that changing deeply held values is inevitably a long-term process. Attempts to rush it or impose solutions from abroad can backfire and destabilize a situation. Of course, this insight does not belong to progressives alone; genuine conservatives (as opposed to the “neo” variety), take a virtually indistinguishable view.
Critics might argue that progressive pragmatism is simply a repackaged version of foreign policy realism, also aptly described as a form of selective engagement beloved of many conservatives and liberals alike. But there is a critical difference. Realists follow Thucydides (and Machiavelli) in holding that international politics is a realm of power, in which the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. Morality is absent from international power politics. Progressive pragmatism, however, is fundamentally based on the moral value of self-determination. But its morality respects the dignity of difference rather than insisting that the only morality for everyone is our particular form of it.
Progressive Pragmatism in the Obama Administration
Progressive pragmatism finds expression in many of the words and deeds of the Obama Administration. In his 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama exalted the virtues of self-determination, stating that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” At the same time, he noted that governments should reflect popular will. “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.” In seeking to engage countries in the Middle East, he offered the indirect policies that progressive pragmatists favor: political and cultural exchanges and partnerships to expand economic, technological, and entrepreneurial know-how. Indeed, the President is reported to have told aides that the “best revolutions are organic.”
Despite being widely criticized, the Obama Administration’s approach to Egypt since the so-called Arab Spring can be better understood with progressive pragmatism in mind. Initially, the White House said that President Mubarak needed to address the Egyptian people’s concerns. The Administration appeared to do little to support revolution in Egypt, though it did later engage in behind-the-scenes talks to get Mubarak out of power. After Mohamed Morsi took over, the Administration was willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, much to the chagrin of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. But when Morsi was ousted after massive protests in early July of last year, the White House refused to label the ouster a coup; it called instead for moving forward with the democratic process.
To be sure, the situation in Egypt is still fluid. But this relatively hands-off approach is hard to explain from the perspective of either neoconservativism or liberal internationalism, which seek to promote liberal democracy abroad. Debates among commentators distinguishing between “procedural” and “substantive” democracy are likewise unhelpful, as the Administration neither condemned the Muslim Brotherhood government (thus supporting “substantive” democracy) nor fully condemned the ouster of Morsi (upholding “procedural” democracy). To a progressive pragmatist, however, the Administration’s actions make more sense. At every turn, the Administration deferred to events on the ground—to the self-determination process as it organically unfolded—since truly vital U.S. national security interests have never been at serious risk, requiring direct intervention. In the Egyptian context, patient deferment to reality on the ground acknowledges that Islamist parties and the Army play important roles in Egyptian society, and however we feel about that at some abstract level, there is little to nothing of a practical sort we can do to change it. Obama’s posture embodies progressive pragmatism: respect for changes on the ground while calling for continued progress toward elections and constitution-drafting.
For progressive pragmatists, the Libya intervention was a harder call. On the one hand, President Obama justified intervention on very limited grounds that ultimately support the idea of organic self-determination and the limited exceptions that progressive pragmatists embrace: horrific violence, a capacity to stop the worst of the violence, an international mandate, a broad coalition, Arab support, and a plea for help from the rebels themselves. The President also refused to publicly endorse regime change, on both practical and principled grounds. He argued that the Libyans should “determine their own destiny.” The international coalition’s military actions would provide time and space, and indirect support through freezing bank accounts and the like, but responsibility for regime change ultimately lay with the Libyans in the streets. On the other hand, many who opposed action in Libya did so not because they minimized the evils that were taking place (or might take place imminently), but because of the pragmatic fear that intervention could backfire, or at least not be worth the inevitable unanticipated consequences, given the complexity of the conflict and region.
In Syria, the Obama Administration’s approach has migrated from progressive pragmatism to something more akin to liberal internationalism. Neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and liberal internationalists like Anne-Marie Slaughter have long advocated greater direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. But the President has consistently and firmly rebuffed such calls. Even the Administration’s increase in U.S. aid to the rebels and threat of airstrikes took place only after the Administration concluded that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, and then only in the context of Obama having called chemical weapons use a “red line” that the U.S. government would not permit.
Despite the outrage of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike, from the progressive pragmatist’s perspective the President’s initially cautious approach is easy to explain. The conflict is an internal rebellion, insurgency, or civil war—a classic case of people seeking to determine their own future. In these situations, the progressive pragmatist’s default position is restraint based on respect for organic self-determination and the limits and fallibility of intervention. That is where the President started. President Obama’s caution can be seen as driven by a fragmented Syrian opposition and a complex conflict, with historical, regional, sectarian, and political conflicts wrapped into one.
Where the President departed from this approach was in threatening airstrikes in order to preserve the credibility of international norms. That decision expresses a more liberal internationalist commitment to defending international norms with U.S. force. In contrast, for progressive pragmatists, the key progressive question is whether one of Walzer’s three scenarios—such as a government massacring or enslaving its citizens—was applicable to Assad’s killing of civilians (with or without chemical weapons), and the key pragmatic question is whether any given U.S. action would be overly risky and potentially counterproductive.
Obviously, different people can come to different answers to these questions. Mass killings and killing with chemical weapons are different; the risks of action change over time; the type of action, whether humanitarian, military, a no-fly zone, or airstrikes, all bear different risks and utilities. But it is notable that many who opposed airstrikes assessed the Syria question from essentially the progressive pragmatist perspective: Assad’s actions were reprehensible and might justify action, but American intervention risked making the situation worse. Notably, the opponents of airstrikes tended to focus more on the risks of action, and particularly the risks as they related to the internal civil war and insurgency in Syria.
After the Wars
With the conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is again time for America to reflect on its role in the world. Ten years of war have provided lessons on how best America can achieve its goals abroad. For a generation of diplomats and NGO workers, soldiers, and marines, the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates the challenges of democracy promotion from abroad and nation-building from the top down. Trying to build someone else’s country is costly, difficult, and can often backfire. Change requires the people themselves to want to change, and want to lead that change. Indeed, even the counterinsurgency field manual recognizes that “the host nation doing something tolerably is better than us doing it well.” And in a budgetary environment where resources are limited, Americans simply cannot afford to wage war without consideration of the fiscal consequences. In this context, progressive pragmatism provides a coherent and principled way forward for American foreign policy based on three key themes.
From direct intervention to the indirect approach. Instead of focusing on direct forms of intervention abroad, progressive pragmatism takes an indirect approach as much as possible. The direct approach is well known in American foreign policy; military intervention, special forces raids on terrorist cells or insurgent groups, and drone strikes are all examples. But even though they can be successful at accomplishing their immediate goals, direct actions can have significant longer-term costs, primarily in terms of political and diplomatic backlash in the foreign country. While the direct approach is necessary in some situations where vital American security interests are at stake, in many cases the indirect approach is preferable. Under the indirect approach, as Linda Robinson describes it, special forces work “with and through non-U.S. partners to accomplish security objectives.”1 These efforts can range from advising and training militaries and police forces to providing medical and humanitarian assistance to civilians.
The model for these kinds of operations is not the expansive nation-building missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather the advisory mission in the Philippines. Starting in 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines targeted the terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, in the context of the Philippine government facing a long-standing insurgency from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. U.S. Special Forces have been advising and assisting the Philippine government on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. In addition to providing advice on combat operations, U.S. forces have provided advice on rule-of-law programs, including a police operations course and a criminal investigations course, and they have facilitated medical seminars that bring together the Philippine government, local authorities, armed Philippine and health offices to coordinate and educate village volunteers on basic medical care and preventive health practices. Importantly, Philippine forces alone are responsible for all operations in combating terrorists and insurgents.
In pursuing interests directly and values indirectly, public diplomacy is the non-military counterpart to the training and support missions of U.S. Special Forces. Because values ultimately depend on culture, when it comes to undemocratic regimes, progressive pragmatists seek policies that will foster long-term cultural change within states. They prioritize the political, military, and cultural exchanges that can create long-term changes abroad, such as the Peace Corps, the Voice of America, and the unfortunately now-defunct U.S. Information Agency. And they look to promote open communication policies that will help people everywhere gain access to information. In the long run, these policies, more than direct intervention, will enable local people to change their own systems of government, and those new governments will be based on the strong, sustainable foundation of a democratic culture.
From institutional debates to coalitions of the relevant. Instead of continuing the interminable debate on unilateralism versus the United Nations, progressive pragmatists understand that communities need institutions that fit the challenges of their time, and that institutional change is necessary as new facts are learned. The U.S. government should therefore focus on reforming international institutions and on creating new organizations based on the relevant issues and players at stake.
These “coalitions of the relevant” are pervasive in contemporary diplomacy. Perhaps the best example is the history of the group of major economies. The G-6 forum, created by France in 1975, brought together six major economies to discuss issues of concern. In 1976, Canada was added to create the G-7. When the Cold War ended, Russia began informally meeting with members after the G-7 summits, and it was formally added in 1997. By the 2005 Gleneagles Summit, the G-8 had recognized the importance of developing economies to global affairs, and created the G-8+5, which included Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Then, in 2009, the group was formally expanded into the G-20. Over four decades, the group of major economies has not remained rigid, like the permanent members of the Security Council, which has been unchanged since 1945. Instead it has adapted pragmatically to global political and economic realities.
Similarly, consider the U.S. response to the international need to protect the global trade and communications system. Instead of trying to work through an international organization when no functional institution was suited to the task, the Bush Administration created the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which supports screening and monitoring cargo at ports around the world. Under CSI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection works with local governments, private importers and exporters, and trade and shipping companies to prevent global container shipping from being used or exploited by terrorists. CSI builds local know-how and resilience in foreign ports, is focused on the most relevant and trafficked ports, and at the same time facilitates global trade. CSI is neither a unilateral action, nor does it involve building an international bureaucracy. Instead, it is characterized by respect for foreign countries and partnership with local governments.
Progressive pragmatists recognize that international institutions like the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank and IMF were not designed for the conditions of the 21st century. They acknowledge that the variety of global challenges—climate change, international financial and monetary issues, cyber security, Arctic issues, and space policy, to name just five—all present significant challenges to global order that require new venues for inter-state cooperation. Progressive pragmatists therefore prefer to focus on institutional reform and creating new coalitions of the relevant, rather than continue the tired, pseudo-principled debates about unilateral action or the fate of existing international institutions.
From globalization to development. On economic issues, progressive pragmatists seek to shift the emphasis of American policy toward economic development and empowerment. Too often, the rhetoric of globalization brings with it a sense of uniformity and deregulation, best exemplified by the Washington Consensus’s economic approach of the 1990s. Instead of laissez-faire globalization, progressive pragmatists recognize that trade is not an end in itself, but only a means to the end of development.
The result is that progressive pragmatists focus less on laissez-faire trade rules and more on empowering people to develop their own economies. At the individual level, they pursue policies and programs that educate and empower people so that the entire population of a country can partake in growth and development. Efforts to expand education, empower girls and women, facilitate microfinance, and improve basic public health all fit into this category.
At the level of states, progressive pragmatists hold that states must have greater flexibility to decide how they want to pursue their own development. As economist Dani Rodrik says, “There is no ‘one way’ to prosperity.”2 This is not a rejection of trade or globalization, but a clear-eyed recognition that states, communities and politics are still inescapable features of the modern world. They are also deeply concerned by neo-mercantilist policies that, like the economic imperialism of a century ago, seek to extract resources from developing countries in return for “investments” that often support a corrupt ruling class or foreign laborers at the expense of the economic empowerment of local people. In short, for progressive pragmatists, international economic policy emphasizes efforts to empower states and individuals to build their own capacity for sustainable success.
Readying the World for Democracy
Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives often think of themselves as trying to “make the world safe for democracy”, and rightly so, at least in the sense that both take their basic cue from Wilsonian idealism. In that process, they tend to promote expansive interventions into other countries, whether through regime change or democracy promotion or, too often, both. The results have not only been mixed, to put it generously, but their pursuit is also increasingly expensive and difficult in an era of both rising powers and rising political consciousness within societies.
Progressive pragmatists will take action when necessary to further American interests. But when it comes to promoting American values, they take an indirect approach. Instead of making the world safe for democracy, they seek very patiently to make the world ready for democracy. They focus not on immediate regime change and democracy promotion, but on creating conditions that enable states to become more democratic and more responsible in their own time and in their own ways. Progressive pragmatism requires restraint when it comes to direct intervention, but assertive action when it comes to long-term cultural change. With reforms to international institutions, open access to information, fostering education abroad, cultural exchanges, and other such programs to shape culture and values, the United States can empower people around the world to embrace one of the most important progressive values: self-government.
1Robinson, “The Future of Special Operations”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2012).
2Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (W.W. Norton, 2011).