This past Thursday I attended the last installment of ‘Progressivism on Tap,’ a discussion series from the Progressive Studies Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP). We heard from Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at CAP, and Spencer Ackerman, national security correspondent for The Washington Independent, while John Halpin, founder of the Progressive Studies Program, moderated their conversation.

The topic of the evening was “Progressive Foreign Policy”: what exactly might that mean, what would it look like, what would its core values be, how close are we to it, and if we don’t yet have it, assuming more progressive foreign policy is desirable, how do we get it?

The speakers began by defining of progressive foreign policy (from here on PFP). Ackerman, although noting that it was difficult to bind together all the various connotations, described the core value of PFP as a “conception of social justice.” PFP would be a strategy meant to increase the “collective good” by approaching international situations “through the lens of justice” in order to engage in “positive sum interactions” to minimize conflict. Katulis went further, saying that PFP was not only a set of guiding values but actions that actively augment the “global good” over the conservative view that national interests should solely guide what we do.

As Katulis eloquently said, “the biggest threats know no borders,” from terrorism, to climate change, and beyond. For those IR theory buffs out there, Brian likened the framework of PFP to be similar to a hybrid of “liberal internationalism” and “liberal institutionalism“. He urged discussion around the types of power that America uses in the world, not just military force, but diplomacy and persuasion, because the day is going to come when the US is not the dominant power in the world. Ackerman and Katulis both cautioned over-extention of our military resources and the restrictive position that the assumption of “US hegemony” has put us in the world. Ackerman urged a “population-centric” model, whereby people (and not regimes) set the agenda. He also put forth the concept of a “politics of dignity,” an idea he would return to a lot, to describe governing principles.

After the panel, the Q&A ranged from very specific questions about the lack of attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, to how PFP grapples with the human rights framework and the idea of dignity. How can the US address regimes that commit human rights violations and not delegitimize the self-determination that may have put that regime in place?

As interesting as the questions were, I wanted to take away concrete ways to act to not only shift the discourse, but change action. I wanted to hear more about the different types of power we have and the different, more democratic, and more socially just ways we could use them, but we didn’t really get there. Halpin rightly sensed the undertones of the questions: despite a huge change in rhetoric from the Bush-era “politics of fear,” people still seem to feel that we have not revolutionized the way American foreign policy is conducted. Understandably, a lot of important domestic issues have taken over much of Obama’s time in the last two years, but it is the expansion to seeing the domestic in the context of the global, and vice versa, and acting accordingly that would truly redefine the way we conduct our foreign affairs. Katulis suggested that the times have indeed changed, but the effects of 9/11 on the way “the international” is presented and discussed in the US still linger.

AID was founded just after the September 11th attacks. Nearly 10 years later, with a new administration, those of us now in college have a powerful political moment to change not only the face of progressivism, but the actions of America-in-the-world. It’s already happening, but I wish ‘Progressivism on Tap’ had focused more on discussion of action and little less on the abstract.

I guess that’s where we come in.

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