It’s the Democrats Who Have a Freedom Agenda Now

The neocons are gone. These days, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the ones talking about fighting tyranny.

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Edelman/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It feels much longer than 14 years since President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. should have “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world … by force of arms when necessary” in his second inaugural address. The “freedom speech” was something of a mission statement for the neoconservative moment in its moment of political primacy, before subsequent events in Iraq tarnished Bush’s foreign policy and turned the “freedom agenda” into a punchline.

Donald Trump, who has defended and even praised the violent tactics of leaders like Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Rodrigo Duterte to crack down on critics and control their citizens, clearly does not see “ending tyranny,” by force of arms or by any other means, as a priority. That has been more evident than ever in recent weeks as the administration has worked to brush off the Saudi government’s apparent murder of a U.S.-based journalist in the name of protecting arms sales. Trump is not the first president to value weapon deals over even the most basic human rights principles, but he’s the first to come out and say it so nonchalantly.

The death of Sen. John McCain in August felt like an inflection point, a sunsetting of the era when the Republican Party touted itself as the one pushing to make the world safe for democracy. The party’s voters have followed Trump’s lead. A recent Pew poll found that only 20 percent of Republicans thought “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” should be a major U.S. foreign policy priority; only 11 percent supported “promoting democracy in other nations.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, with the 2020 campaign season fast approaching, it’s liberal and left-wing Democrats who are speaking the language of freedom and democracy. On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a much-advertised foreign policy speech at American University in Washington. The law professor turned financial regulator turned senator hasn’t traditionally been thought of as a major voice on foreign policy, but as she gears up for a likely presidential run, she’s been burnishing her credentials with an appointment to the Senate Armed Services Committee and several trips to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Warren began her speech last week on a stark note: “Around the world, democracy is under assault. Authoritarian governments are gaining power. Right-wing demagogues are gaining strength. Movements toward openness and pluralism have stalled and begun to reverse.”

She argued that the “combination of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism is a fundamental threat to democracy, both here in the United States and around the world” and said that “President Trump’s actions and instincts align with those of authoritarian regimes around the globe. He embraces dictators of all stripes.”

A version of Warren’s speech was published as an essay in Foreign Affairs and corresponded with her co-introduction of a bill meant to curb Trump’s nuclear buildup. While she has not formally announced her candidacy, these actions taken together seem aimed at establishing her as a player on the world stage.

Warren isn’t the only candidate burnishing her foreign policy bona fides lately. During his 2016 primary run against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders was criticized by many, including me, for his seeming lack of interest in international issues, falling back on criticism of Clinton’s 2002 Iraq war vote or friendship with Henry Kissinger whenever current concerns beyond U.S. borders came up.

But lately, Sanders has been finding his voice on international issues. Most recently, he co-sponsored the bill to cut off U.S. support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which advanced to the full Senate floor by a surprisingly strong majority last week. In 2016, Sanders missed an opportunity to criticize Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy from the left—leaving an opening for Trump to do so from the isolationist right—and he seems determined not to do so again.

Sanders laid out his own grand foreign policy vision in a speech at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in October and an accompanying essay in the Guardian.

Peter Beinart contrasted the Warren and Sanders visions in the Atlantic last week, writing, “Warren’s vision is more conventional; Bernie Sanders’s is more radical.” That’s true to an extent. Sanders is more critical of America’s history of military interventions and human rights violations abroad. He’s also more willing to criticize Israel and puts a much greater emphasis on building solidarity with left-wing movements in other countries. Warren’s rhetoric is far more hawkish on both China and Russia.

But the similarities between the two may be more interesting than the differences. Sanders, too, uses anti-authoritarianism as the leitmotif of his foreign policy agenda. In his Johns Hopkins speech, he described a new “authoritarian axis” whose leaders

share key attributes: intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities, hostility toward democratic norms, antagonism toward a free press, constant paranoia about foreign plots, and a belief that the leaders of government should be able use their positions of power to serve their own selfish financial interests. Interestingly, many of these leaders are also deeply connected to a network of multibillionaire oligarchs who see the world as their economic plaything.

For both Sanders and Warren, the struggle against international authoritarianism led by an unaccountable political and economic elite is closely tied to the struggle to address economic inequality at home. The same unaccountable elites that rig the U.S. political system, they argue, also keep leaders like Vladimir Putin in power.

While it’s far from certain or even likely that either Warren or Sanders will be the 2020 nominee, there’s reason to think that this new “freedom agenda” is going to find a place in the messaging of other prominent Democrats. Both senators’ speeches bear some resemblance to a September report by Kelly Magsamen, Max Bergmann, Michael Fuchs, and Trevor Sutton of the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank, which called for the next president after Trump to embrace a “values-based foreign policy” that is “rooted in faith in democratic self-government, not just as being better than all the alternatives but also as a value in and of itself” and that aims to combat the spread of illiberalism in both the U.S. and around the world.

A new progressive foreign policy advocacy group, National Security Action, founded by Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and former White House deputy assistant Jake Sullivan, has a similar message. In a recent New York Times op-ed following the midterm elections, Rhodes and Sullivan wrote that the first priority of the newly elected Democrats should be to:

send a clear message to the world that we stand by our allies and our democratic values. Congress can make its voice heard in reaffirming our alliance commitments, increasing funding for the State Department, pressing the administration to admit more refugees and providing both tangible and moral support for independent civil society and media around the world. Mr. Trump may not see American values as a part of our strength and influence, but Congress should.

The Yemen bill currently making its way through the Senate—all 49 Democrats and 14 Republicans supported it in a key procedural vote last week—and the larger congressional backlash against U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi could be viewed as something of a test case for the new freedom agenda. The bill is unlikely to pass, and a major shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is unlikely as long as Trump is president, but it’s a sign that Democratic leaders—in cooperation with libertarian-minded Republicans—are becoming skeptical of the notion that autocratic regimes in the Middle East are the best safeguards for either regional stability or U.S. interests.

It’s not a huge surprise that the opposition party would adopt this message at a time when the sitting president is openly contemptuous of these values, but all the talk of freedom and democracy also feels like a repudiation of the last Democratic president. Barack Obama’s early candidacy was defined by his opposition to the Iraq war and rejection of neoconservatism, namely, his willingness to engage with hostile authoritarian governments. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he promised in his first inaugural address.

To a large extent, Obama followed through on this promise. While he often spoke about human rights, his administration’s signature foreign policy achievements—the first-term reset with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, the diplomatic opening to Cuba, breakthrough climate change diplomacy with China—demonstrated Obama’s determination to find common ground with some of the most repressive governments.

Advocates of the new Democratic freedom agenda usually take pains to distinguish their vision from the militarized, unilateral, neoconservative one. “Military force should always be the last resort and only employed to address severe or acute security crises—not to advance a preferred political system,” reads the CAP paper. All place a great emphasis on strengthening and acting through multilateral institutions like the U.N. and NATO.

From the center to the far left, no one is calling for a return to a strategy of regime change, but this rhetoric about confronting tyranny is still going to raise some eyebrows after the debacles of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The same recent Pew poll found that Democrats today are more interested in spreading freedom abroad than Republicans, but the numbers aren’t exactly impressive: 39 percent agree that promoting human rights should be a U.S. priority, 22 percent for promoting democracy.

While there’s widespread agreement that Democrats need a new approach to foreign policy that goes beyond just opposition to Trump, some are arguing for a much different direction. The Hell of Good Intentions, a new book by Harvard professor and Foreign Policy columnist Stephen Walt, a leading proponent of the realist school of foreign policy, argues that liberal internationalism and neoconservatism are simply two sides of the same coin—an arrogant belief in America’s ability to remake the world that has led the U.S. into one catastrophe after another and opened the door to Trump’s brand of belligerent cynicism. Beinart, once a leading liberal internationalist himself, now advocates a far more modest vision of Democratic foreign policy that accepts the existence of spheres of influence for rival powers like Russia and China—an alarming prospect for U.S. allies like Ukraine or Taiwan but a vision that’s certainly compelling after decades of military overreach and chaotic interventions. It remains to be seen whether any 2020 candidate will take up such a realist foreign policy vision.

It is worth asking how new any of this is: Leading Democrats have called for a U.S. foreign policy that’s more, well, democratic since Woodrow Wilson’s time, if not earlier. And the new calls for fighting authoritarianism are likely to face the same challenges and dilemmas as earlier ones.

Democrats across the political spectrum are increasingly demanding an end to runaway defense spending and a reining in of the post-9/11 militarization of U.S. foreign policy. But any future Democratic president is likely to face the thorny problem of humanitarian intervention: What happens when an authoritarian leader’s human rights abuses become so egregious that there’s a groundswell of support for the U.S. and its allies to put an end to them, by force if necessary? No modern president has been entirely consistent on this issue—it’s not called a “problem from hell” for nothing—but it’s something the next president must prepare for.

The new Democratic proposals also fall short in explaining how a values-based foreign policy can make progress on the most pressing global issues. You need not be as cynical as Trump to concede that America’s interests and values are sometimes in conflict. For instance, both Warren and Sanders (rightly!) rank climate change solutions near the top of America’s global priorities. But any serious proposal to address climate change is going to require the world’s largest carbon emitter, China, to play a leading role. Would a Warren or Sanders administration be willing to downplay China’s near-genocide of its Muslim population if that’s what it took to get Beijing’s agreement to binding CO2 targets? Would it let North Korea’s abuses slide in exchange for nuclear inspections? Could it work toward Middle East peace without the help of Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, and yes, even Saudi Arabia?

The answer is that any administration will take these issues on a case-by-case basis. Speeches by potential candidates or reports by think tanks today are a poor guide to how a future Democratic administration would govern or respond to a crisis. But still, it’s been a long time since the Democratic Party had much of a coherent foreign policy vision, and efforts to begin formulating one now are welcome.

What’s more interesting than how the new freedom agenda would be implemented with respect to any particular foreign policy issue is how it ties together foreign and domestic concerns. A foreign policy message built around anti-authoritarianism may be well-suited for a time when voters are concerned about the rise of far-right nationalism, abuses of power by law enforcement, the influence of money in politics, partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the meddling in America’s elections by foreign powers.

This may be what ultimately separates the new freedom agenda from the ones both parties have espoused in the past: It no longer takes America’s own freedom for granted.