THE BLOG
10/29/2006 09:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Foreign Policy Upper Hand: Now That We've Got It, How Not to Let Go

Hand-wringing has already begun over how progressives can capitalize on the public collapse of faith in the Bush Administration's foreign policies to sustain a political advantage that will endure beyond November 7. George McGovern has resurfaced to claim that if running now on an antiwar platform, he'd win. Others insist progressives not cede the credibility they've won by embracing hard power and rejecting "cut and run."

We're closer than we think to a strategy that makes policy sense and will strengthen public trust in our ability to handle foreign affairs. Dozens of books and articles written by progressives converge on key points: embrace of American military power coupled with a clear-eyed view of its advantages and limitations; vigorous, activist diplomacy - bilateral and multilateral; far-sighted efforts to build institutions and structures that will fortify U.S. interests against threats and counterweights into the future.

My own version was an April, 2004 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "Smart Power." It takes on the Administration's one-track militaristic foreign policy. While not rejecting Joseph Nye's emphasis on "Soft Power" - diplomacy, cultural influence, and moral suasion - it argues that these cannot stand alone in an era of deadly threats. The piece advocates "Smart Power" as a synthesis of hard and soft, arguing that America's military and economic preeminence and its cultural and ideological appeal need to be tied together in a brand of power that reinforces both.

There are countless other formulations better than mine: two good relatively recent ones are the Center for American Progress' Integrated Power and the Princeton Project's Forging a World of Liberty Under Law

In recent weeks, as what remained of the conservative foreign policy consensus has disintegrated, a critical segment of the American public now seems ready to embrace ideas like these. They know unilateralism, arrogance and over-reliance on the military won't work. They are seriously concerned with threats from terrorism, a violent and chaotic Middle East and nuclear proliferation. They know that stronger alliances and more effective diplomacy will advance US interests. They have faith, though not blind faith, in America's purpose and its capabilities.

They will be receptive to cogent foreign policies that reflect these beliefs, and this is exactly what progressives have to offer (in the meantime, the Administration has started to embrace some of this out of necessity, but so far the public is sophisticated enough not to be impressed).

I don't believe Iraq will be the test, in the sense that the key focus must be a unitary, detailed plan for escaping the quagmire. The public understands that Iraq is so far gone that proposals can now only aim to be the best of the worst, and so fluid that any prescription will be out of date by the time it hits hits Baghdad. This is why not having a consensus progressive formula has not hurt to date. The public is tired of an Administration that has pretended to have answers at every turn, and won't fault progressives for failing to do the same.

So now a short list of 5 issues where progressives are well-positioned to build public support based on existing policies, and 5 areas where more work needs to be done:

Five areas where progressives are well-positioned with existing policies:

1. Multilateral Diplomacy - Most progressives have coalesced on a view that recognizes both the strengths and weaknesses of the UN and other multilateral institutions, sees the imperative of making US advocacy in such forums as effective as possible, presses the need to reform and modernize such institutions, and acknowledges that there are times when we cannot depend on such bodies for action. After Iraq and its aftermath, the American public gets that dismissing and sidestepping the UN tends to boomerang, but also realizes the forum's limited utility in solving problems like proliferation.

2. Alliances - Americans see the costs of our frayed alliances. Progressive prescriptions include both reinvigorating existing alliances like NATO and Asean, as well as creating new bodies including a coalition of democracies. They advocate building intensive and multi-dimensional relationships with an array of allies among major countries in the developing world, recognizing that this will require give-and-take.

3. Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process - Progressives have consistently stressed the importance of sustained, activist American leadership toward a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The American people have witnessed the costs of the failure of effort on this score. One rumor is that the Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq will stress this as a way forward for the region.

4. Broader non-proliferation strategy - Progressives have argued persuasively in recent months that bilateral talks with proliferators are necessary, if only for political advantage. They've also made the case for reconstructing the global non-proliferation regime. As the silent treatment fails and the NPT collapses, the public will be ready to embrace this.

5. Real energy security - The public sees the rhetoric-reality gap in Bush-era energy policies and wants strategies, such as progressives have proffered, that are less beholden to industry.

Here are 5 areas where more work is needed:

1. Size and Shape of the Military - Some have argued (including Larry Korb at CAP very persuasively) that the military needs to be enlarged, others (myself included) have stressed the need for new capabilities to better position us to intervene in failing states like Iraq and Afghanistan. The public will be concerned about the future of the military as Iraq winds down and progressives need answers.

2. Free/fair trade - Its distressing that after two elections that have divided progressives on issues of free trade, we're not closer to a broadly agreed set of policies. Gene Sperling of CAP and others have good ideas, but they need further study and syndication. This hits livelihoods and pocketbooks and is a guaranteed political headline issue.

3. The Fight Against Terror - The American public is becoming increasingly receptive to the case that calling it a never-ending "war on terror" has had pernicious consequences in terms of the untrammeled expansion of executive power and the US's moral capital around the world. Its time to pivot toward a new framework for the fight against terror that can endure over time and mitigate some of the excesses. Many progressives have started this work but there's more to be done to build consensus.

4. Democracy Promotion - Progressives generally agree that the baby of fostering freedom and democracy around the world must not be cast out with the bathwater of the Bush Administration's failed policies. We need to continue to promote democracy, but with more sophistication and sensitivity than the efforts of recent years have shown. Progressives will need to spell out what this entails and why it will work.

5. Proliferation: The Details
- While I give progressives credit above for some broad prescriptions that are right and can win support, talking about talking to would-be and actual proliferators is not enough. We need to flesh out what a new non-pro regime would look like, and what to do in the meantime with the likes of Iran and N. Korea.

Suzanne Nossel blogs regularly at www.democracyarsenal.org