Progressive Realism

PROGRESSIVE REALISM….Last week I skimmed through Robert Wright’s New York Times op-ed about a new school of foreign policy he calls “progressive realism.” I wasn’t able to make much sense out of it, however, so yesterday I read through it more carefully. I still find the writing a bit muddled and opaque, but I think I understand the outline of what he’s saying. Here’s my nickel summary:

  • The world is interconnected enough that “national interest” includes a lot of things it didn’t used to include. Keeping countries from becoming failed states and terrorist havens, for example, is clearly in our national interest.

This sounds a lot like neoconservative idealism, but two things make it “progressive”:

  • A strong belief that promoting economic liberty is the best way of promoting political liberty. This means support for globalization and free trade. Human rights activists and labor unions will object to this, but they can be brought on board by agreeing to give international bodies the authority to regulate not just trade, but also things such as labor and environmental issues.

  • A renewed devotion to international institutions such as arms control regimes and the United Nations. As Wright puts it, “the national interest can be served by constraints on America?s behavior when they constrain other nations as well.” However, the extent to which we should bind ourselves to these institutions is left a bit fuzzy.

Unfortunately, the rest of the essay is oddly disconnected from these main points, especially since it never really addresses head on the problem of non-state terrorist groups. It’s also less persuasive than it would be if Wright had presented some examples of past events in which progressive realism has been a success.

In any case, I think Wright has mainly jumped on the bandwagon of trying to figure out new ways of presenting and labeling good old fashioned liberal foreign policy. Peter Beinart did much the same in The Good Fight. The main difference is that Beinart took his cues from Reinhold Niebuhr while Wright takes his from Hans Morgenthau with a hat tip to Norman Angell.

But that’s OK. If rebranding helps to sell common sense, then we should rebrand away. We’re still looking for our Boswell, though.