There is a deep split over foreign policy within the psyche of the Democratic Party. It is not as pronounced to Democrats because the party has increasingly become focused on domestic issues. Even immigration for the Dems is primarily about American domestic politics, not larger global events or trends.
Democrats have critiqued Donald Trump for his “America First” foreign policy, but they share many of his key tenants, even if they still embrace the rhetoric of global order and cosmopolitan society. Rhetoric matters, but only if you are willing to back it up with action. Trump, for all his bluster and impulsiveness, seems determined to actually follow through on some of his beliefs.
Of course this is a stark contrast from the twentieth century, which produced Democratic internationalists such as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman who laid the global architecture for the rise of a global democratic century. In the most recent Democratic presidential debate, it became clear (though it was clear in the last Democratic president’s foreign policy) that Democrats have abandoned internationalism for an isolationism tinged with a good bit of realism that is dressed in the garb of internationalism.
Rand Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, and Pete Buttigieg share a common view: America has caused more harm than good around the world, and we should greatly scale back our foreign policy. Gabbard and Buttigieg produced one of the memorable moments in the recent debate during their back-and-forth on Syria and the Kurds. The disagreement is rhetorical and apparent but not real. Both agree we should not be in the Middle East or Afghanistan and that America is mostly a force for destruction and not for good—Gabbard herself stated recently that World War II was the only just war in American history! Both think America is the cause of the problem rather than a solution. They disagree about how to withdraw and when, but those are just details.
Barrack Obama’s national security team carried remnants of the older conviction that saw America as a benign power for good in the world. Samantha Power, Hilary Clinton, and Susan Rice all possessed instincts, however imperfectly, that placed the moral vision of a free and prosperous world order at the center of foreign policy, rather than a byproduct of seeking national interest. Obama may have talked this way at the beginning of his presidency, but his instincts were always realist with nice humanitarian rhetoric mostly for window dressing.
The current Democratic Party and its slate of candidates are in line with the foreign policies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, and apparently a significant portion of the Republican electorate: America needs to come home. Letting other people handle their own problems is the common refrain. We created this mess, and instead of taking an assertive posture toward terrorism, the Middle East, and China, we need to stop what we are doing and pare down our foreign policy.
Noble visions of American power securing prosperity and freedom around the world no longer plays well on the campaign trail. “Endless Wars” was the buzzword from these debates.
Realism eschews ethics and moral objectives within foreign policy and warfare. National interest is what should guide foreign policy, not grand notions of global community, democracy, and human rights. The failure of recent wars has made the American public war-weary and skeptical of our involvement around the world. For all the blood and treasure America has spilled the past couple of decades, we have little to show in return. At least this seems to be the prevailing mood. We mostly hear criticisms from allies, so a more restrained and limited foreign policy seems to be the way to go.
This may be where American foreign policy is headed since the broader public is already there, but a deep contradiction is worth noting. Conservatives tend to be less enamored with moral rhetoric in foreign policy. More inclined to use hard power, they see the world as a rough place that sometimes requires military action. Conservatives have also historically been more isolationist, which is why many conservative voters have supported the turn toward isolationist policies. Democrats and progressives, on the other hand, are less comfortable with realism and isolationism since it is at odds with their own moral vision of global community. But at the moment, the deep contradictions between these realist and isolationist impulses and an assertive internationalism are being held in tension.
In rhetoric, Democrats still like to affirm international institutions and the importance of allies. But the failure to marry that vision with the actual means to sustain it is not a position that can be held much longer without resolving this deep contradiction. If Democrats follow their base, we could end up with two parties that are wary of using American power to sustain the global order.
What should Christians advocate for? America has been overextended the past couple of decades, and garnering public support for our foreign policy is essential. A big dose of realism about the limits of what we can and ought to accomplish with our foreign policy and military is in order. But we should fight the tendency for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. American power is still essential for sustaining global order and, when necessary, exercising military force. While the American public seems disillusioned with the last two decades of involvement around the globe, we must also remind ourselves of the good we have accomplished in the near and distant past through the exercise of our power, while learning lessons from recent mistakes.