I’ve said this to a couple of colleagues recently, so I might as well share it on the blog. I think it’s important, as I say in my book, for progressives to do a better job of articulating what we think the difference between left and right on foreign policy is. Everyone understands that what the left is trying to say about the right on the environment is that they’re in the pockets of polluters and indifferent to negative externalities associated with industrial activity. And everyone understands that what the left is trying to say about the right on the economy is that they only care about rich people and indifferent to the fate of the little guy. People don’t necessarily agree with those critiques, but it’s clear enough in a broad sense where progressives are coming from.
On foreign policy, I think progressives tend to fall into the Goldilocks Trap of simply trying to define our stance as a wise middle ground between militarism and pacifism. The problem with that is that actually everyone agrees that we should seek a wise middle ground. People just disagree as to who’s wise and what’s the middle. You can always think of some more extreme idea that you reject.
So my best cut at articulating the difference in a high-level way is that the right sees the world as zero-sum. Arrangements that advance the interests of others are inherently suspect because the mere fact that (say) the Russians think a deal is worth signing indicates that it must be bad for the United States. Progressives see a positive-sum world and believe in advancing American interests by means that including allowing others to advance their own interests. Progressives recognize the Hobbesian aspects of the international system that make positive-sum interactions difficult to obtain, but we see this as a challenge that can be overcome and seek means of overcoming it. Conservatives, meanwhile, are perpetually tempting fate — by sending the message to the world that America cares most about preserving its power relative to others, we indicate that the only way for others to advance their interests is by undermining our position. On human rights, conservatives have (recently) embraced the rhetoric, but the deeper structure of their worldview makes it impossible to incorporate genuine concern for the well-being of foreigners inevitably rendering professions of humanitarian concern hollow and opportunistic.