Michèle Flournoy hardly seems like a renegade.
As president of the Center for a New American Security, she and her colleagues have assigned themselves the modest-sounding mission of coming up with a pragmatic foreign policy platform for the next president. But within the progressive foreign policy establishment, this makes them revolutionaries.
“Part of what we’re saying is, let’s have some clear-eyed analysis based on the facts,” said Ms. Flournoy in an interview in her Washington office a few blocks from the White House. “Let’s focus on what works for a while.”
Ms. Flournoy’s nominally nonpartisan group has become part of a debate that has grown sharper as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic presidential field begin to articulate their worldviews, pitting the liberal interventionists who dominated the foreign policy apparatus under the Clinton administration against a new species of progressives seeking, to some extent, to reign in America’s foreign ambitions.
It’s a genuine clash of worldviews, and it’s just beginning. Call it the rise of the liberal realists.
“The biggest cleavage in the Democratic Party is over America’s role in the world,” said Kenneth Baer, a co-founder of the quarterly publication Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a former speechwriter for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Whether America should play an expanded or limited role in the next Democratic administration’s foreign policy, he said, “is the big divide.”
For years, top Democratic advisers on foreign policy have been drawn from the neoliberal or “Wilsonian” school. Its adherents at the Progressive Policy Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council and, of course, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University advocate that a Democratic president project the country’s strength to spread American values. Most of the members of the school favor a careful withdrawal from Iraq, and they are, for the most part, committed multilateralists. But they also argue that the Iraq experience should not discourage future interventions or engagement in support of American values, especially in the Middle East. In an interdependent world, they argue, more democracy, liberty and rule of law will ultimately increase American security.
Ms. Flournoy, a 46-year-old former Department of Defense official in the Clinton administration, and her colleagues think the war in Iraq and the country’s plummeting reputation abroad changes the equation, and that the next president may have to reign in his or her ambitions when it comes to the projection of American power.
As Ms. Flournoy and CNAS co-founder Kurt Campbell wrote in an influential June policy paper called The Inheritance and the Way Forward, “First, U.S. strategy must be grounded in a common sense pragmatism rather than ideology. U.S. national security strategy must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and opportunities of the new security environment as well as realistic objectives derived from our national interests.”
These self-styled realists feel chastened by the raft of problems inherited from the Iraq war and want to ratchet back direct American engagement, concentrate more on rebuilding America’s reputation and, not unlike the paleoconservatives who guided foreign policy under George H.W. Bush, let national interests be the nation’s guide.
Just how much influence their argument is having on the front-runners in the Democratic presidential race is not immediately apparent. While fringe candidates like Dennis Kucinich advocate an almost isolationist foreign policy, the leading candidates speak about international affairs in a language still very much imbued with talk of Wilsonian values.
Still, there have been some clues that the balance of power is shifting—and is leading to increasingly discernible divisions between the leading Democratic contenders.
One of the first indications was an October 2006 speech by Hillary Clinton at the Council on Foreign Relations about balancing “the pragmatic with the moral elements of our strength.” In that speech she approvingly cited a book called Ethical Realism, which hews close to the pragmatic line.
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