Progressive Realism, Take 2

PROGRESSIVE REALISM, TAKE 2….Last week I wrote a short post about Robert Wright’s New York Times op-ed in which he proposed a new foreign policy paradigm for liberals that he called “progressive realism.” I basically thought Wright was correct on substance, but even so I was sort of breezily dismissive of the piece because I didn’t entirely understand his reasoning, especially as it related to non-state terrorism. This response probably didn’t reflect too well on me, but it turns out that breezy dismissal paid off in this case, because Wright followed up via email with a restated version of his thesis that I actually found more persuasive. With his permission, it’s posted below.

For a longer essay that covers much of the same ground but in far more detail, check out “A Real War on Terrorism,” a 9-part series that Wright published in Slate back in 2002.


Progressive Realism, Take 2
Robert Wright

Let me restate the argument in a way that I hope will make progressive realism’s considerable relevance to the problem of non-state terrorist groups clearer.

Various technological trends suggest that, as the decades roll by, hatred of America abroad will translate into the death of Americans (via terrorism) with increasing efficiency. This “growing lethality of hatred” implies a couple of things:

  1. Hatred of America will be increasingly inimical to America’s security, so we should act in ways that minimize it ? e.g., avoid adventures like Iraq, be a good and generous global citizen, respecting international law and norms, and working hard to comprehend and accomodate the perspectives of all peoples. In short, be roughly the opposite of George Bush and the neocons.

  2. So severe is this “growing lethality of hatred” that, even if we succeed in thus minimizing hatred of America, half a century from now America’s security will still require an unprecedented level of intrusive arms control encompassing all nations on the planet. Further, America’s security will best be served if all nations are by then free-market democracies, because (a) such nations have considerable “natural” transparency (regarding biotech facilities with munitions potential, for example) and (b) the entanglement of such nations in the global economy strengthens their incentive to preserve world order and their inclination toward international cooperation ? including, crucially, highly intrusive arms control.

Of course, wanting to bring democracy to the whole world sounds neoconish, but there’s a difference. Progressive realism holds that:

  1. Making free-market democracy pervasive is only crucial to America’s interest in the long run, over decades. Hence: no need to rush into, say, the Iraq war (which, as your reader Detroit Dan noted, I opposed unequivocally).

  2. Progressive realists (unlike neocons) believe that economic liberty strongly encourages political liberty. So (a) America should economically engage, rather than isolate, countries like Iran and North Korea, and (b) more generally, economic engagement offers a path to peacefully fostering the free-market democracy that neocons are inclined to implant via invasion.

In sum: Progressive realism puts great emphasis on dealing with the threat of terrorism, whether or not my NYT piece successfully conveyed this. The basic game plan is: (a) monitor and restrict with increasing severity the kinds of weapons with which terrorists can do the most damage; (b) cut off their lifeblood (hatred of us); (c) give them no place to hide ? i.e., create a world of naturally transparent societies that are economically interdependent and (by virtue of this interdependence) can be readily tied together via extensive global governance (which would go well beyond arms control, as my NYT piece notes).

Now, if your complaint is that I don?t vow to go kill terrorists wherever I find them, well: Killing terrorists is nice when you can do it cleanly (i.e., when the value of killing them outweighs the blowback). But, as I noted in my op-ed, I reject the “premise common in Democratic policy circles lately: that the key to a winning foreign policy is to recalibrate the party?s manhood ? just take boilerplate liberal foreign policy and add a testosterone patch.” The problem is more subtle than that, and Democrats aren?t doing America a service when they fuel a Democratic-Republican arms race on the macho front.