The Next Generation of Democrat Foreign Policymakers

by Peter Spiro

The Truman National Security Project appears to have assembled a remarkably well-credentialed network of young (as in 20- and 30-something) foreign policy experts to devise an alternative among Democrats to neocons on the one hand (to the extent that any remain Democrat) and Vietnam-era leftists on the other. The group articulates a foreign-policy vision that couples strength, including the willingness to use military action (the website’s main page prominently features a photo of fighter planes), with a strategy “to use free trade, democratization from within, liberalization, and well-deployed aid to spread hope, build middle classes, expand economies, foster dignity, and end the repression that breeds extremism.”

The group’s advisory board of relative elders includes Madeleine Albright, Leslie Gelb, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Fellows include New Republic editor-in-chief Peter Beinart, Brookings fellow Ivo Daalder, and former Clinton administration officials Ronald Klain and Jeremy Rosner. The organizing directors and principals, the 20-somethings, are mostly people you probably haven’t heard of (with the exception of bloggers Philip Carter and Rachel Kleinfeld) but almost certainly someday will. (There’s a whiff of a secret society in noting that some principals wish to remain anonymous by virtue of their service as judicial clerks, congressional staff, or because they “are involved in and knowledgeable about the armed forces and intelligence issues.”) Although a surprising number have law degrees, there’s only one law professor among them for now – William Burke-White at Penn – but others (such as Ariel Lavinbuk) will make terrific international law scholars if that’s the path they choose.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see which candidates they fall in behind for 2008, and if they come to power what they can do about executing their agenda. Whoever succeeds the current administration will be playing with a pretty bad hand, and one might wonder how much of a difference the party choice will necessarily make, especially when “strength” is a necessary part of the Democrat message. The Truman Project doesn’t appear to center international law in any particular way, which is savvy politics; and once installed, as Bill Clinton discovered, there’s only so much one can do in the face of a sovereigntist Congress. One might also wonder if the old-shadow government/Council of Foreign Relations model of agenda-setting still works in an era of less centralized power. On the other hand, it can’t hurt to get one’s ducks in line beforehand (in a way that didn’t happen before the 2004 elections), and whoever comes next can’t help but be friendlier to international institutions than the current crowd is.

3 Responses

  1. Speaking as someone who is not a Democrat, I welcome this attempt by Democrats to reclaim the national security political center and move away from the fringes. And some of the names attached to the project – Hoover Institution fellows Michael McFaul and Larry Diamond, for example, or Philip Carter – give me considerable hope; these are serious people. Am I mistaken, though, just eyeballing names and affiliations, in thinking that this looks an awful lot like a Yale Law School production?

  2. Speaking as someone who is not registered as a Democrat, (although I often vote democrat in concession to the lesser of two evils syndrome), all of this sounds like more of the same stuff we got from Clinton: Republican policies in Democratic guise. I suppose I might be termed a ‘Vietnam-era leftist’ (but my worldview is religious rather than secular, on the order of, say, Tikkun, the Sojourners, the Catholic Worker, engaged Buddhists…) but there are very few of us left (pun intended), and we have no power whatsoever within the Democratic party. We are largely alienated from party politics but care passionately about democratic values, principles and processes. We also care about the environment, labor rights as human rights, international law, women’s rights, distributive justice issues both domestic and global (we’re concerned first and foremost about the poor and disenfranchised, well knowing that not a few among the affluent but insecure middle class may one day be among their ranks), housing issues, segregated public schools and neighborhoods, capital punishment, animal ethics, etc., etc. We are not ‘pacifists’ in an absolutist sense, but are constitutionally reluctant about resorting to military options for conflict resolution or as means to achieve otherwise worthwhile ends. I thus find the picture referred to at the website disgusting if not nauseating. Those in power are all to ready to invoke ‘dirty hands’ justifications. As C.A.J. Coady has observed:

    ‘We concentrate upon the particular act that will require dirty hands and ignore the contingency and mutability of the circumstances that have given rise to it. Yet it is precisely these circumstances which often most deserve moral scrutiny and criticism, and the changes which may result from such criticism can eliminate the “necessity” for those types of dirty hands in the future. […] Robert Fullinwider once remarked that we need politicians just as we need garbage collectors, and in both cases we should expect them to stink. But, once upon a time, we needed the collectors of what was euphemistically called “night soil” and, in many parts of the world, human ingenuity has eliminated the for that very malodorous occupation.’

    My late grandmother would not recognize this Democratic party, and yet the Greens, for example, are not a viable alternative for folks like us. I suppose that is one reason many of us do social and political work outside the halls of power politics in Washington and Wall Street (not to mention outside the lights and glamour of Hollywood), hoping our social and cultural work will one day mean that many and diverse incremental changes inspired by visions of the common good will one day have a qualitative effect on the political system itself, no doubt after I’m long gone. With the sociologist and New Left veteran Richard Flacks, we understand the Left (new and renewed) to a be a ‘laboratory for moral vocation,’ an agency for socialization, an opportunity to learn the ethics of social responsibility. We’ve abandoned illusions and fantasies about being the agents of historical change, and are not ashamed to see the meaning of the Left in cultural rather than narrowly political terms, terms that, after all, may have political (spillover, by-product, etc.) effects. In other words, the Left in not a party nor hangs its hopes and dreams on party politics. As Flacks says, ‘Since there is no national organization around any more that can set doctrinal boundaries for the left, there is today more room for expressing and acting upon the full range of issues and perspectives that actually constitute the radical, democratic, critical tradition. One can more easily be a Marxist in the morning, a pacifist in the afternoon, an environmentalist at dinner, and a feminist in the evening while going to church on Sunday and voting Democrat on election day.’ So, I’ll probably still vote Democrat, but I’ll be holding my nose all the while….

  3. correction: ‘…has eliminated the need for that very malodorous occupation.’

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