PPI | Key Document | October 30, 2003
Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy

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As Democrats, we are proud of our party's tradition of tough-minded internationalism and strong record in defending America. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman led the United States to victory in two world wars and designed the post-war international institutions that have been a cornerstone of global security and prosperity ever since. President Truman forged democratic alliances such as NATO that eventually triumphed in the Cold War. President Kennedy epitomized America's commitment to "the survival and success of liberty." Jimmy Carter placed the defense of human rights at the center of our foreign policy. And Bill Clinton led the way in building a post-Cold War Europe whole, free, and at peace in a new partnership with Russia. Around the world the names of these Democratic statesmen elicit admiration and respect.

Today America is threatened once again. Our country needs a new generation of Democratic leaders to step forward and provide the same caliber of leadership as their 20th century predecessors.

Two years ago, terrorists declared war on America by killing thousands of innocent civilians. But America was not the only target: The September 11 hijackers acted in the name of a hateful ideology inimical to the cause of liberty everywhere. Like the Cold War, the struggle we face today is likely to last not years, but decades. Once again the United States must rally the forces of freedom and democracy around the world to defeat this new menace and build a better world.

The 21st century has brought a new set of threats whose origins are different but whose consequences are potentially as dangerous as the totalitarian challenges of the last century. We were fortunate that our terrorist enemies did not yet have the capacity to inflict catastrophic harm on us with weapons of mass destruction. Preventing a deadly fusion of terrorism and rogue states on the one hand and mass destruction weapons on the other is one of the paramount challenges of our time.

In times of danger, Americans put aside partisanship and unite in the defense of our country. That is why, as Democrats, we supported the Bush administration's toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. We also backed the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein's malignant regime in Iraq, because the previous policy of containment was failing, because Saddam posed a grave danger to America as well as his own brutalized people, and because his blatant defiance of more than a decade's worth of United Nations Security Council resolutions was undermining both collective security and international law. We believed then, and we believe now, that this threat was less imminent than the administration claimed and that the United States should have done much more to win international backing and better prepare for post-war reconstruction. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the Iraqi people, the region and the world are better off now that this barbaric dictator is gone.

At the same time, we believe President Bush is in many respects leading America in the wrong direction on national security. Having triumphed on the battlefield in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are now in danger of losing the peace in both countries. By insisting on our right to act unilaterally, by ignoring intelligence assessments that conflicted with his desire to act, and by underestimating the resources needed to accomplish the missions, the president is putting America's battlefield gains in jeopardy. By focusing too much on U.S. military might as its main foreign policy instrument, the administration is abdicating its responsibility to fashion an effective, long-term political and economic strategy for changing the conditions in which Islamic fundamentalism breeds and from which new threats to our national security are most likely to arise. And by pushing ideologically motivated tax cuts and repudiating the nation's hard-won commitment to fiscal discipline, President Bush also is reducing our future capacity to act around the world and weakening American economic leadership and leverage.

In addition, the administration has yet to put an effective check on the dangerous nuclear ambitions of North Korea or Iran, or to make any progress toward ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. On the domestic front, it has failed to devote sufficient energy, focus, and resources to the pressing task of defending our homeland against another terror attack. Instead of mobilizing our friends and isolating our enemies, this administration is isolating the United States from the rest of the world, squandering the good will and alliances built up over decades by successive U.S. leaders. American military strength is at an all-time high but our moral authority around the world is at an all-time low.

We recognize, however, that Democrats must do more than criticize this administration's increasingly incompetent handling of our nation's security. That alone will do little to allay the doubts that too many Americans have about our party's willingness or ability to pursue the tough defense and security policies today's world demands. To re-establish our credibility on national security, Democrats must offer a positive vision that spells out how we would do a better job of keeping Americans safe and restoring America's capacity to lead.

We begin by reaffirming the Democratic Party's commitment to progressive internationalism -- the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy. We therefore support the bold exercise of American power, not to dominate but to shape alliances and international institutions that share a common commitment to liberal values. The way to keep America safe and strong is not to impose our will on others or pursue a narrow, selfish nationalism that betrays our best values, but to lead the world toward political and economic freedom.

While some complain that the Bush administration has been too radical in recasting America's national security strategy, we believe it has not been ambitious or imaginative enough. We need to do more, and do it smarter and better to protect our people and help shape a safer, freer world.

Progressive internationalism occupies the vital center between the neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left, between a view that assumes that our might always makes us right and one that assumes that because America is strong it must be wrong.

Too many on the left seem incapable of taking America's side in international disputes, reflexively oppose the use of force, and begrudge the resources required to keep our military strong. Viewing multilateralism as an end in itself, they lose sight of goals, such as fighting terrorism or ending gross human rights abuses, which sometimes require us to act -- if need be outside a sometimes ineffectual United Nations. And too many adopt an anti-globalization posture that would not only erode our own prosperity but also consign billions of the world's neediest people to grinding poverty. However troubling the Bush record, the pacifist and protectionist left offers no credible alternative.

Progressive internationalism stresses the responsibilities that come with our enormous power: to use force with restraint but not to hesitate to use it when necessary, to show what the Declaration of Independence called "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," to exercise leadership primarily through persuasion rather than coercion, to reduce human suffering where we can, and to create alliances and international institutions committed to upholding a decent world order. We must return to four core principles that have long defined the Democratic Party's tradition of tough-minded internationalism:

  • National strength. From Franklin Roosevelt's pledge to make America the "arsenal of democracy" to the present, Democrats have stood for a strong national defense. The armed forces that won such brilliant victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were bequeathed to the current administration by President Clinton. Democrats will maintain the world's most capable and technologically advanced military, and we will not flinch from using it to defend our interests anywhere in the world. At the same time, we recognize that America's global influence is not just a reflection of our military power. It derives as well from our nation's other strengths: a large and dynamic economy, the capacity for innovation and self-correction, energetic diplomacy and the moral allure of our founding ideals. Democrats will not neglect these vital sources of American power.

  • Liberal democracy. Democrats believe that America should use its unparalleled power to defend our country and to shape a world in which the values of liberal democracy increasingly hold sway. History amply demonstrates that true peace and security depend not only on relations between states but also between state and society. Rulers who abuse their own people are more likely to threaten other countries, to support and spawn terrorism, to violate treaties, and otherwise flout norms of civilized conduct. British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it succinctly in his July 2003 address to Congress: "The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack."

  • Free enterprise. Democrats believe that economic freedom is integral to human progress. It is no accident that the world's freest countries are also its richest countries. We stand for equal and expanding opportunity at home and abroad. That is why we favor vibrant, entrepreneurial markets, open trade, and active governance to ensure honest competition. Such conditions not only unleash the creative potential of individuals, they draw nations closer together in a web of economic interdependence. And as the world's biggest economy, America has a vital stake in expanding a rules-based system of world commerce that ensures broadly shared prosperity while steadily lifting global labor and environmental standards.

  • World leadership. Democrats believe energetic U.S. leadership is integral to shaping a world congenial to our interests and values. World order doesn't emerge spontaneously; it must be organized through collective action by the leading powers, in particular the leading democracies. The main responsibility for global leadership falls on America as first among equals. But our country cannot lead if our leaders will not listen. The surest way to isolate America -- and call into being anti-American coalitions -- is to succumb to the imperial temptation and attempt to impose our will on others. We believe, instead, in renewing our democratic alliances to meet new threats, in progressively enlarging the zone of market democracies by including countries that want to join, and in strengthening and reforming international institutions -- the United Nations, the international financial institutions, the World Trade Organization -- which, for all their obvious flaws, still embody humanity's highest hopes for collective security and cooperative problem-solving.

In the 20th century, Democratic statesmen like Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy applied these core principles to lead America out of isolationism into world leadership. They championed democracy. They built up and used our armed forces to combat and contain fascism and communism. They expanded trade and created the world economic system that brought decades of unprecedented global prosperity. They created alliances like NATO that not only deterred the USSR but also subsequently helped to transform former adversaries into new allies. They recognized that to win the Cold War, America had to inspire not just fear in our enemies, but admiration and loyalty in our friends. To that end, they built an enduring network of alliances and institutions that shared our burdens, enlarged our influence, and encouraged other free peoples to stand with America.

That strategy led to victory in the Cold War, the consolidation of a new peace throughout Europe, and a dramatic expansion of global freedom. By the end of the 20th century, the United States was an historical rarity -- a dominant power more admired than feared by others.

That is the legacy the Bush administration inherited, then squandered.

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