What should a left foreign policy look like? An Elizabeth Warren adviser offers his vision.

US marines at the beginning of military exercises with Australian forces in 2017.
Jason Reed/Pool/Getty Images

The Democratic Party is in the midst of an ideological crisis. Key party figures are debating huge new domestic policy ideas, like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, and raising fundamental questions about the party’s orientation toward capitalism itself. Yet on foreign policy, this debate has been relatively muted — with fewer big ideas and new departures from the centrist consensus in the headlines.

Ganesh Sitaraman is trying to change that.

Sitaraman is a professor at Vanderbilt and a longtime adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). He recently wrote an essay for War on the Rocks titled “The Emergence of Progressive Foreign Policy.” In the piece, he tries to synthesize a number of recent essays and arguments into a comprehensive new “progressive” foreign policy vision — one that might challenge the foreign policy status quo in the same way that the rise of democratic socialism has shaken the consensus on domestic policy.

The essence of this vision, in Sitaraman’s view, is a reorientation of foreign policy away from narrowly conceived “national security” concerns and toward a concern with “political economy”: the way that the global distribution of wealth is empowering authoritarian states and weakening democracy in the US and abroad. This new progressive foreign policy challenges “liberal internationalism,” the view that’s long been dominant in the Democratic party, by questioning its willingness to use force abroad as well as its openness to untrammeled free trade.

The most important exponents of this new doctrine, according to Sitaraman, are Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — two 2020 candidates with real shots at the Democratic nomination, and thus the presidency. So if the new progressive foreign policy is something that could plausibly shape the next presidency, it’s worth understanding what it’s about and what it stands for.

So I reached out to Sitaraman to flesh out his vision. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

I want to start with a question that’s both the simplest and, in some ways, the most complicated: What is a “progressive” foreign policy?

Ganesh Sitaraman

I think this is a great question, and it’s a controversial one because there are a lot of debates at a very basic level about what it means to be a progressive. But my view is that one of the core elements of progressivism is a belief in democracy — and, in particular, that means democratic control over the economy and a belief in using public power to achieve shared goals.

So I think a progressive foreign policy has to start by looking at political economy, the integration of politics and economics, and it has to be attuned to and very concerned about economic power. That is one of the defining themes of progressives in domestic politics; in the foreign policy context, I think this is partly why the new progressive foreign policy breaks down barriers between domestic policy and foreign policy and between economic policy and foreign policy.

It’s also why people in the new progressive foreign policy are very concerned about what I call the nationalist oligarchy, what other people call authoritarian capitalism.

A lot of the people who write about authoritarianism don’t think this much or write this much about economic policy as integrated into their views of authoritarianism. For example, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of books about the erosion of liberal democracy, the rise of fascism or authoritarianism or the return of those kinds of governments, but what is very striking is that most of these books say comparably little about economics as part of that. I think that is a big difference in how progressives think about and analyze the world.

Zack Beauchamp

This seems like, in broad strokes, a way of orienting and focusing on certain things. But it doesn’t seem, at least in the way you outlined it, like a foreign policy doctrine that would provide clear and specific solutions for individual foreign policy problems.

So let’s take three examples that are in the headlines right now: the still-boiling Syrian civil war, the fight over power in Venezuela, and Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea. I’m not expecting you to be an expert on each of those things and give me an obvious American policy answer, but it’s not clear if the way of conceptualizing “progressive” foreign policy you just described even gives us a useful lens for thinking through them.

Ganesh Sitaraman

In general, foreign policy doctrines don’t just emerge overnight. There’s a large set of debates and conversations that happen in forums like this, and over time, they crystallize in particular ways and are tested and made more specific. And I think one of the exciting things about this moment is that’s what’s happening. It’s starting to happen right now. And I think over the next couple of years, we’ll see a lot more, and I hope we’ll see a lot more shaking that out.

Right now, we’re at a moment where there’s a lot of flux in how people are thinking about foreign policy generally. I focused just now on the political economy components, but another component is a deep skepticism of interventions. I think progressives are skeptical that we should be as willing to do so as many foreign policy professionals were willing to do over the last generation or so.

I also do think there are some specific things that even the political economy approach does suggest. If you think about politics and economics being intertwined together, one of the things that means is that economic power is a vector for political influence.

And so I think progressives in this camp would be concerned, for example, about the ability of foreign governments using their corporate entities to be able to engage in espionage, other kinds of practices, and use their economic power as leverage for political gains. And so that’s something that would have a clearer sense of how we should think about the implications in particular situations.

Zack Beauchamp

When we talk about authoritarian capitalism as an enemy, but then combine that with an ideological skepticism of military intervention, what’s the plan for confronting them? What do you do to check Russian adventurism and Chinese expansionism, or however you want to characterize those two countries’ foreign policies?

Ganesh Sitaraman

A country like China or Russia could use its economic power for political purposes as leverage in a geopolitical dispute or as a vector for influence — either to steal secrets and gain an advantage in technology or potentially for surveillance purposes and espionage. So one of the components there is thinking about how do you build a resilient political economy at home that can address that.

I think one of the striking things is that a lot of progressives see the value of reinvesting in our alliances and spending more effort in developing deeper alliances with other liberal democratic countries as a way to build closer ties and build some more resilience.

A second thing that I think we see is an interest in what I’ve called selective disentanglement. The idea here is that in areas of critical national security importance, we should think about having domestic capacity to be able to produce those goods or services.

So, for example, there’s an entity called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which assesses foreign direct investments, for particularly these kinds of national security reasons. And that’s an entity that I think is important in this context, and needs to take its role very seriously as we move into a phase where there’s an increasing number of authoritarian capitalist countries that are using their power and trying to use their power abroad.

And then the third part is how do we think about our own internal development, our policies that support innovation and industry at home. And I think this is a place where also we could be doing a lot more to invest in our own technological advancement, research and development in science and AI in a lot of different areas. Because that is the kind of thing that will also keep us on the cutting edge for the future kinds of threats that we should expect.

Zack Beauchamp

If I wanted to attack what you’re saying from the left, my argument would go something like this.

You’re talking about an ideological struggle with “authoritarian capitalism,” defined as Russia and China, and deepening alliances with other liberal democracies. Well, that sounds a lot like an updated Cold War policy of US hegemony and dominance — really not all that different from the “liberal internationalist” approach that defines the current DC foreign policy consensus.

So what do you say to that criticism?

Ganesh Sitaraman

I think there is a distinction between the approach of the post-Cold War era, which for many liberal internationalist and neoconservatives is focused on American primacy, and the “unipolar moment” of American power. [It’s about] being able to use that power abroad to advance an economic agenda and a democracy promotion agenda.

The progressive approach is much more skeptical of, as I’ve said, military interventions and much more interested in protecting liberal democracies where they exist. And I think part of the commitment to alliances is about that protection of democracy, in the context in which democracies are increasingly being eroded.

Zack Beauchamp

Sharpen this point for me. What’s the difference between this new progressive foreign policy and what dominates the Democratic Party right now? Or, put differently, what’s wrong with liberal internationalism?

Ganesh Sitaraman

I think there’s two distinctions between this progressive approach, as I see it emerging, and the liberal internationalist approach. (Obviously, as I use each of these terms, we’re painting in broad brushstrokes.)

First, I think many liberal internationalists are interested in democracy promotion. And I think progressives are more interested in democracy protection or democracy preservation. If you really believe in democracy and the people themselves taking charge of their destiny, then it’s hard to see if you’re a progressive how you can promote it by force from abroad, especially in a short period of time. I think progressives are less interested in promoting and exporting democracy and more interested in protecting it.

I think a second difference is that liberal internationalism included the promotion of neoliberal economics, deregulation, privatization, liberalization, austerity, and this happened through in the ’90s — what was generally called the Washington Consensus.

And that is, I think, very opposed to where the progressives are in terms of their views about international economics and domestic economics. So there’s a pretty big difference on that front.

Zack Beauchamp

Would you say that, broadly speaking, a progressive foreign policy is critical of free trade as an idea, maybe even open to the kind of tariffs that Trump has been willing to employ?

Ganesh Sitaraman

I think it’s the wrong binary to talk about free trade or protectionism.

No one believes in either purely free trade or pure protectionism. And we know that because we have economic sanctions on various countries that lots of people support. Those are restraints on trade, and that’s well understood to be an appropriate tool that we use in our foreign policy and national security policy.

I think the way to think about it is when and with whom are we trading? In what ways and how are we building the rules around trade?

And I think that’s a place where progressives have a different view to where a lot of the consensus has been over the last generation, which I think is a little bit more concerned with concluding trade agreements and a little bit less concerned with what the distributional consequences of those trade agreements might be.

Zack Beauchamp

If “progressive foreign policy” is an emerging school of thought, and my readers want to learn more about it, what would you recommend they go look at? Who are some of this new school of thought’s key thinkers or core texts?

Ganesh Sitaraman

Probably the two most famous people [who] made statements on this — famous largely because they’re presidential candidates — are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Both started outlining their approaches to foreign policy last fall.

There was a terrific symposium in the Texas National Security Review on the future of progressive foreign policy. In Foreign Affairs, there was an article [by Georgetown professor Dan Nexon] called “Toward a Neo-Progressive Foreign Policy.” Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner have written a few articles; Tarun Chhabra at Brookings has an article on authoritarian capitalism. I’ve written a few things on different aspects of progressive foreign policy. So I think there’s a wide variety of people who’ve been writing about it.

Zack Beauchamp

Your references to Sanders and Warren, who you advise, are really interesting. By implication, that singles them out as avatars of progressive foreign policy in a field of 20-plus candidates.

I’m wondering if there are any other candidates besides those two who have embraced some of the ideas you’re describing. Or is this something that separates Sanders and Warren from the rest of the field?

Ganesh Sitaraman

I think all the candidates for president are going to have to discuss foreign policy. And I think there’s a good chance that we’re going to see a robust debate over our foreign policy, because I can imagine there being different approaches to how we should think about this moment.

I suspect there might be some people who think about foreign policy as really trying to restore the world before Trump and to undo the things this current administration has done. I think they’ll potentially mostly want to attack what the current administration is doing. And I think there will be still others who have different kinds of views about where the future should go. That’ll range on different topics ... in conversation from different worldviews, but also with different emphasis on different kinds of topics.

One of the exciting things about the next couple of years is that we’ll see a real debate over foreign policy, and I think it’s going to start with commentators and analysts. And it’ll work its way through into politics and into the campaigns. Through that process, especially on the commentary and analyst side, everyone will be refining their views because this is such a moment where there’s a lot that’s up for grabs, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s an exciting moment for foreign policy generally.

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