The question of whether narrow nationalism and restrained foreign policy realism will come from the Left or Right is the ultimate choice for an exhausted republic facing crippling inflation, potential overstretch, and insolvency.
Is realism compatible with progressivism? This is at the heart of a crucial recent article by Stephen Wertheim in Foreign Affairs. “Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration was halting its efforts to scale back U.S. political-military objectives: The force posture review affirmed the status quo, and Biden repeatedly claimed that the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan,” Wertheim writes. He classifies progressives into three categories. The first set, exemplified by Samantha Power, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Clinton, argues in favor of a hawkish bend of internationalism that promotes democracy and human rights. The second group is the global governance wonks, which include people such as Anne Marie Slaughter. Wertheim argues that these two categories are distinct because arguably the latter is more multilateral than the former even though they both are in favor of an interventionist foreign policy. Wertheim calls the third category, where his sympathies lie, “progressive realists.” “Whereas progressive internationalists and global cooperators want to shape the world order to their liking, restrainers are skeptical that such a goal either should be paramount or will be achieved through military preponderance.” Ultimately, what Wertheim suggests is progressivism with limits. “Progressive internationalism retains considerable appeal in a world of public discontent, zealous nationalisms, and authoritarian ascent. Democracies need to find better ways to deliver for their people in an interconnected world,” Wertheim writes, adding that, “great-power competition complicates internationalists’ efforts to promote democracy and human rights impartially … Progressives will condemn these governments’ depredations, but if a neo-cold war takes hold, a relentless cycle of accusations and counteraccusations could make China and Russia ever more suspicious and aggressive, generating a feedback loop that rewards the most extreme voices in each country—and in the United States.”
There are several important threads in this essay about the inherent theoretical contradiction within the idea of progress, as well as a way forward. But a few questions were left unanswered. What if progressivism is incompatible with foreign policy realism? And what if the public is inherently reactionary by nature and opposed to progressive aims? These are not mere academic debates. The question of whether narrow nationalism and restrained foreign policy realism will come from the Left or Right has actual policy relevance; it is the ultimate choice for an exhausted republic facing crippling inflation, potential overstretch, and insolvency. Scholars have a duty to lay out clear paths for an informed electorate to choose from. As things currently stand, only one senator from the conservative side opposed further NATO enlargement. Likewise, the voices in Congress opposed to sending more foreign aid and arms to Ukraine were all from the Right. Not a single vote opposing further NATO enlargement or unlimited foreign aid to Ukraine came from the Left. Even Bernie Sanders (and his advisor Matt Duss) are in favor of fighting “imperialism” in Ukraine. As John Mearsheimer outlined in his last book, progress is an inherently universalist instinct that is often at odds with the particularism of electoral politics. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul are in favor of fighting Russian imperialism despite crippling inflation at home, it is safe to say that their idea of national interest is anything but “particularist.”
The ascending coalition for a restrained foreign policy has solely coalesced on the Right and in line with the increasing and underrepresented majority of the public. That is not to say that there are no left-leaning realists or left-wing nationalists. But that is to say that among policymakers (the only ones who count when push comes to shove) the realists are all on the nationalist Right. With an ongoing social realignment in progress, the narrow nationalists form the backbone of this working-class conservatism and foreign policy realism while progressives are led by managerial-class internationalists. This is a return to an older pre-World War II blue-collar conservative nationalism. Nothing remotely similar is found on the progressive side because its theoretical framework is theologically universalist and opposed to nation-states, national borders, and, by definition, national interest. When one defines one’s interest so broadly, there are a lot of global battles to fight. To rephrase Kenneth Waltz, global governance will lead to a global civil war.