Undebated Challenges | The Nation


Undebated Challenges

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A Progressive Narrative

About the Author

Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

Also by the Author

Instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction. 

The crisis was caused by weak governance, excessive speculation and lax regulation. Austerity will only make the disease worse.

For the leading Democratic candidates and their advisers, toughness and global leadership have become ends in themselves. But in today's world these ends do not automatically equal a better world for American interests or make possible a more decent liberal society at home. That requires a strategic vision of how to work with others to build a world order that accommodates the voices of an increasingly pluralistic group of nations yet serves America's core interests and values.

Today's presidential candidates could do worse than look to the Rooseveltian vision that emerged in the latter days of World War II for inspiration. That original vision entailed working to preserve peace by sharing power in international institutions; the promotion of the universality of human rights and self-determination; and the spread of middle-class prosperity through Keynesian economics and the managed expansion of global commerce. (To this narrative, of course, one now must add global climate change and the stewardship of the planet's ecology.) This vision of world order was ever mindful of the intimate link between America's international policies and its goal of socioeconomic progress at home. Maintaining peace among the great powers and avoiding unnecessary wars, it was correctly believed, would allow us to keep our national security costs low, freeing resources to expand our social contract through greater social spending and public investment. Promoting middle-class prosperity abroad would reinforce prosperity at home while helping secure a lasting peace internationally.

If this remains the most promising progressive foreign policy narrative, then the most significant development of the past decade is not the appearance of radical Islamic fringe groups in the Middle East but the extraordinary economic rise of China and India and the integration of more than 2 billion people into the world economy. This development, together with the ongoing integration of the world's markets for goods, services and capital and the global political awakening made possible by satellite TV and the Internet, touches upon virtually every aspect of a progressive world vision and America's domestic society, influencing everything from the price of oil and food, to human rights and governance in Latin America and Africa, to the wages and living standards of American workers.

Yet these developments have commanded little attention in the foreign policy debate of this electoral season, except for a few alarmist concerns about the threat they pose to American primacy. But to Rooseveltian progressives, they define the two overarching challenges of foreign policy in the early twenty-first century. One challenge relates to the classic strategic dilemma of how to amend the international system to accommodate the interests of new rising powers without sacrificing progressive values or undermining socioeconomic progress at home. The other challenge involves how to extend the system of national governance and regulation around the world, creating an effective system of international governance without compromising popular sovereignty at home. In the early twentieth century, the leading powers failed this test, and the result was two devastating world wars and a world depression.

The good news is that none of the emerging powers seek to challenge the United States directly or have hegemonic ambitions of their own--at least not now. But they do want a greater voice in world affairs and more influence in shaping their regional environments. Rather than seeing this desire as an obstacle to American leadership, candidates in the progressive tradition should welcome it as a way to share the burden of keeping order and to reduce the need for projecting military power in the world. They should support the building of what Roosevelt called a community of power, even though in some cases this will require the United States to give up its maximalist demands and accept compromises that seem to fall short of progressive standards. Whether we like it or not China, India and Russia will influence what happens with Iran and North Korea, so better to involve them in a solution than to ignore their interests.

Refashioning today's international institutions--especially but not only the United Nations--to give these emerging powers a larger voice will of course take time. But in the short term, the next administration could pursue the development of regional concerts of power and new arms control measures to prevent destructive geopolitical competition and costly arms races. The successful negotiation, under the six-power framework talks, of a deal to cap North Korea's nuclear weapons program illustrates the promise of such regional concerts. The United States was able to reduce any future threat to American national security without having to expend military power or make major concessions. The successful six-power talks provide a framework for an ongoing regional concert to manage the eventual reunification of Korea and to avoid destructive rivalries among China, South Korea, Japan and Russia and to cap future military spending.

The withdrawal of American forces from Iraq would provide another opportunity to internationalize American policy and draw other powers into the management of regional stability, thus reducing the American burden. Establishing the framework of a more inclusive regional security architecture--one that would both accommodate Iran's legitimate interests and stem its destabilizing tendencies--would, as Trita Parsi suggests, allow the United States to lower America's military profile in the Persian Gulf without sacrificing vital American interests.

The most likely cause of future conflict among great powers lies in competition over oil and other strategic resources. China's and India's rapid economic growth has dramatically increased the demand for strategic commodities, and great powers whose economic growth depends on the import of such materials tend to develop geopolitical strategies to ensure their access to these resources. Accordingly, China has adopted a new diplomatic activism in Africa and Latin America, making long-term supply agreements that lock up access to world commodities and challenge the fragile international consensus of not rewarding countries for human rights abuses.

Some argue that the United States needs to respond with its own geopolitical strategy to maintain control of the world's oil and strategic commodity markets by reinforcing its military position in the Gulf and expanding it to parts of Africa. A better approach would be for the United States to reduce the importance of these resources by helping to lead a worldwide effort, including cooperative ventures with China, aimed at harnessing the resource efficiency revolution and developing clean-energy alternatives. Together with championing new arms control measures to prevent the further expansion of China's naval and space deployments, this would make more sense.

The more immediate and more serious challenge relates to the unusual merger of American corporate capitalism with China's authoritarian political system. To some governments in the developing world, this has created an attractive option--authoritarian capitalism--what some have dubbed the "Beijing consensus." Emerging in the wake of the failure of the neoliberal Washington consensus, the seeming success of the Chinese model poses a threat to the advancement of human rights, as authoritarian governments seek to justify repression by pointing to China's success or seek to expand commercial ties with China in the hope of shielding themselves from Western pressure.

It also poses a threat to the middle-class social contracts of developed economies, which have been a cornerstone of the capitalist peace for the past sixty years, and to the development of similar middle-class contracts in other emerging economies, which will be important to future peace and prosperity. The entry of China and India (and the former USSR) into the global economy has had the effect of more than doubling the world's potential labor force. This has put downward pressure on wages in both the developed and developing worlds--eroding the middle classes in the advanced industrialized countries and slowing the growth of the middle class in developing economies.

Because of the size of China and India, their rapid integration into the world economy has also had the effect of crowding out economic opportunities for other developing countries, as reflected by the fact that China has attracted the lion's share of the world's direct investment. China's economic success has to some degree come at the expense of jobs and economic growth in Mexico and Central America, which in turn has resulted in more immigration of low-wage laborers to the United States.

This pattern of economic integration has resulted in growing disparities of wealth and income in both the United States and the emerging powers. Already one sees the effects--in the growing disquiet in parts of the American heartland, in the rise of religious radicalism in the Middle East and in the populist backlash in Latin America. Should economic growth and job creation falter in China and India, we will see growing instability there as well, perhaps in the form of resurgent nationalism.

That is why the next administration must put jobs and middle-class prosperity at the center of American foreign policy, as Afshin Molavi suggests. And that is why it will have to find a way to encourage change in China away from authoritarian capitalism to a system that allows Chinese workers to enjoy much more rapid improvement in their living standard. That means replacing the widely discredited Washington consensus with what might be called a Rooseveltian consensus, which would aim to raise wages and living standards as well as create robust safety nets in these increasingly productive economies. Indeed, the most important foreign policy initiative the next administration could take would be to use its trading relationship with China to encourage it to develop a comprehensive social welfare system, allowing Chinese workers to save less and consume more. Such an initiative is not just necessary to reduce the US trade imbalance but to save the world economy, which is beginning to choke on excessive Chinese savings.

The success of a progressive foreign policy depends on establishing the right priorities. These include capping military expenditures in East Asia, turning America's withdrawal from Iraq into a new regional security order in the Persian Gulf, promoting a worldwide resource-efficiency revolution, elevating human rights to their proper place in international diplomacy and emphasizing a new Rooseveltian growth consensus. All these goals reinforce one another. And they would enable the United States to prosper, even as its power relative to that of other nations recedes.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size