When doves fly: a coming rebirth for Democratic non-interventionism?



Less than two years out from the 2020 US Presidential Election, the race to be the Democratic Party’s nominee is well underway. Likely candidates are cultivating donors, releasing grandly titled memoirs, and visiting early voting states en masse.

Some, like Elizabeth Warren, have also begun trying to show voters that they can be a dependable hand at the helm of US foreign policy.

In a November 2018 address, the Massachusetts Senator sketched out her foreign policy vision. In it she pledged robust climate action and defence against ascendant authoritarianism; priorities voiced by other potential candidates of both progressive and centrist stripes.

However, one particularly intriguing facet of Warren’s vision is her rejection of military adventurism.

Exclaiming that ‘we’ve “turned the corner” in Afghanistan so many times that we’re now going in circles’, Warren broadly condemns the rash, interventionist logic underpinning ‘unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments’ made by the US over the past two decades.

Whilst certainly no out-and-out dove—having previously acknowledged a role for US ‘military leadership’ overseas—the Senator stresses the need for deeper appraisal of ‘the long-term costs and benefits of military intervention.’

This call echoes rhetoric that Democratic presidential hopefuls have employed for more than a decade.

However, it also taps into an unequivocally non-interventionist standpoint creeping into the Party mainstream, largely courtesy of one of Warren’s expected rivals for the 2020 nomination: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

In a September 2017 address, Sanders decried the interventionist orthodoxy that has held sway over US foreign policy for over half a century. Citing ill-fated jaunts in Iran, Vietnam, Latin America and the Middle East, he denounced the ‘incalculable harm’ too often unintentionally wrought by ‘American intervention and the use of military power’.

This perspective was evident throughout the Senator’s unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, during which he criticised eventual nominee Hillary Clinton for her support of the Iraq War and 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

However, Sanders’ critique can be understood not just as a challenge to Clinton, but to a prominent line of thinking within the Democratic Party.

Since President Bill Clinton’s military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, a particular brand of liberal interventionism—in short, belief that the US is ‘the indispensible nation’, and must be willing to deploy force to guarantee democracy, human rights and global security—has proven a steady current within mainstream Democratic foreign policy thought.

This idea has proven difficult to shake, despite the intentions of leaders such as President Barack Obama. After campaigning as an anti-war pragmatist, Obama dramatically expanded drone strikes, surged troop numbers in Afghanistan, oversaw military interventions in Libya and Syria, and left office as the only US President ever to spend two entire terms at war.

But perhaps the intellectual grip of this doctrine is beginning to loosen.

Sparked by the Sanders campaign, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is energised. In primary elections leading up to the November 2018 midterms, progressive candidates frequently defeated moderate rivals. Although several lost in the midterms proper, they stoked powerful grassroots enthusiasm that helped propel the Party’s strong overall showing.

Such progressive energy has not gone unnoticed by prominent 2020 hopefuls like Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, who have raced to join Sanders and Warren on the ideological left on issues such as healthcare.

With Sanders and to a lesser extent Warren coming out forcefully against interventionism, could a similar leftward shift occur on foreign policy?

Although would-be candidates like Corey Booker and now-confirmed-to-be-running Kirsten Gillibrand have at times shown their political positions to be malleable to public opinion, some of their past statements and congressional votes seem to indicate more permissive views on the use of military force.

Similarly, former Vice-President Joe Biden—a much-hyped centrist alternative, who is considering a presidential run—has previously embraced the idea of using ‘sustainable’ military force. That being said, he was a resolute sceptic toward the Obama administration’s military actions in Afghanistan and Libya, and shouldn’t be considered a liberal interventionist hawk in the mould of Hillary Clinton.

With the 2020 race heating up, more candidates will likely soon follow the lead of Sanders and Warren and present their foreign policy vision to the American populace. This will hopefully clarify their views on foreign intervention.

Ultimately though, how any of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls would deploy or not deploy military power is something that cannot truly be known until if and when they take office.

As Barack Obama discovered, intentions are one thing, but in the face of crises around the world, interventionism is a tough addiction to kick. Andrew Herrmann is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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