Zack Beauchamp at Vox has an interesting piece on why the Democratic Party is bereft of ideas on foreign policy. While there are a number of themes in the piece, Beauchamp zeroes in on the lack of foreign policy institutions (and committed donors) on the left as a major source of the problem. While the Center for American Progress is one of the Beltway’s most prominent think tanks, its focus is largely domestic. There is no real equivalent to the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute on the left.
I think this is correct, and it is going to be a difficult problem for liberal and progressive foreign policy hands to solve given the deep divisions between the “Clinton” and “Sanders” wings of the party right now. But the problem seems to go deeper than that.
Reading Beauchamp’s piece, I was reminded of a 2008 article by political scientists Brian C. Schmidt and Michael C. Williams explaining the debate between neoconservatives on the one hand, and realist international relations scholar opposed to the Iraq war, on the other:
By linking issues of foreign policy to questions of domestic political virtue, neoconservatives were able to draw upon powerful social, political, and rhetorical resources that could be applied directly against their realist adversaries. Most importantly, by linking the public interest and the national interest, and by making foreign policy a part of the same logic as controversies about domestic politics, neoconservatives were able to draw links between the debate over Iraq and the broader controversy over values that has dominated much of American politics for at least a decade—what are colloquially known as the “culture wars.” Indeed, neoconservatism’s impact arises to no small degree from its ability to position itself within a broader field where culture is seen as the defining element of politics and where questions of virtue and culture have become key points of political controversy.
Schmidt and Williams argue that this appeal to American values allowed neoconservatives—a number of whom held prominent positions at the conservative think tanks mentioned above—to communicate their policy preference in a way that unified the political right in support of the invasion because they spoke on behalf of “real Americans.” Of course, while successful, the consequences of the neoconservatives’ rhetorical strategy turned out to be disastrous.
As Beauchamp notes, the Iraq war provided a window of opportunity for the Democrats on foreign policy that they were never able to fully exploit because there was little agreement on the left beyond opposition to the Bush administration. That the Trump administration is wreaking havoc on the right’s relative cohesion on foreign policy provides another opening for Democrats. To take advantage of it though, and to provide a counterweight to reflexive Republican hawkishness, the left still needs to decide what exactly distinguishes their foreign policy from that of the right. And they need to communicate it in a way that unifies a fractured political party around it (preferably with consequences less disastrous than the neoconservatives’ effort to do so on the right).