Progressivism and American Foreign Policy

By Bradley A. Thayer
Bradley A. Thayer
Bradley A. Thayer
Bradley A. Thayer is co-author of “Understanding the China Threat” and director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.
January 5, 2022Updated: January 5, 2022


Given the rise of the dominance of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, it is important to consider what a progressive foreign policy would be. While progressives have centered on domestic policy, there is only a matter of time before attention is turned to international politics.

Progressivism’s influence on foreign policy is important to address so that Americans know the full costs of progressive ideology. A central difficulty in discerning a progressive foreign policy is that it is not clear progressives have a coherent vision.

There are two contradictory themes in progressive thought concerning U.S. power and foreign policy.

First, progressives recognize that U.S. power may be used to advance their agenda in global politics and so are supportive of a strong U.S. military to advance progressive aims. Thus, it is reasonable that they will support a dominant role for the United States and the sustainment of a preeminent U.S. military and present alliance structure.

At the same time, progressives will require greater involvement in Africa as well as Central and South America—these states are touted by progressivism as their populations are relatively poor and victims of imperialism. Again, this is a result of progressivism’s focus on race and discrimination against African Americans, and Africans should compel the elevation of African security issues to be the equal of European and Indo-Pacific concerns.

Second, they would attempt to change unicultural NATO allies like Poland and Hungary, or major non-NATO allies like Australia and Japan to change their societies as progressives desire. The coercive tools employed will generate tension in the alliance relationships that China will strive to exploit.

Third, Russia’s strong unicultural identity would cause extreme progressives to evaluate whether realism—accepting points of agreement with Russia on the China threat—could supplant ideological fervor and purity. If China is sufficiently adroit to make appeals to progressives against aligning with a racist Russian state, while touting the rise of China as a triumph for people of color globally against racist European or American empires of the past, then Beijing’s political warfare campaign would resonate with progressives and hinder a possible accommodation with Russia against China.

Epoch Times Photo
A resident wearing mask naps on a bench near Beijing’s propaganda slogan “Chinese dream” in Wuhan, China, on April 1, 2020. (Ng Han Guan/AP Photo)

Equally, it could be that progressives reject the present role of the United States in global politics. This would be a significant change in U.S. grand strategy with major adverse implications for U.S. allies and provide considerable benefits for China. Progressives might do as primacy associated with the idea and practice of imperialism, the concept and practice of which historically has been linked to white supremacy in the progressive catechism.

Soviet history has an echo of this when Leon Trotsky argued for the revolution to be spread globally, what he termed “permanent revolution,” and Josef Stalin favored building socialism in one country to secure the revolution. When Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky, his alternative won; and with the Soviet Union as a secure base, he believed that the revolution would never be extinguished. The tension between exporting the revolution or building it at home is relevant for progressives today.

By its own logic, progressives may reasonably argue that the creation of progressivism in the United States requires a form of progressive isolationism. That is, a progressive United States should become “City upon a Hill” as Pilgrim leader John Winthrop argued in 1630, albeit a fiercely secular “City upon a Hill” for progressives.

As Winthrop argued in similar circumstances—the Pilgrims and later Puritans sought to create a new society free from the wickedness of James I’s and Charles I’s England—progressives have the opportunity to create their “New Jerusalem”—a pure state cleansed of the evils of white supremacy, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, lookism, and discrimination against documented and undocumented immigrants. Like Winthrop, they seek to create this new society that requires isolation from the rest of the world to focus upon establishing a pure progressive society.

This tension in the logic of progressivism is likely to be resolved in favor of sustaining U.S. power rather than adopting isolationism. This is because the logic of progressivism dictates that power is both acceptable and necessary when wielded by progressivism. Therefore, the power of the United States wedded to the ideology of progressivism will be inherently positive. Moreover, it is also necessary to ensure that non-progressive ideologies within the United States or in international politics do not return to a position of authority or political control. Were they to do so, the advance of progressivism could be checked or reversed.

An ascendent progressivism provides China with a greater opportunity to undermine the United States in its domestic politics and its global position. The longer and more intense an ideological upheaval exists, the better for China’s position to advance its interests, including the weakening of the United States through internal strife. China’s ability to exploit U.S. internal divisions due to ideological upheaval is acute.

U.S. ideological division allows China to offset the prodigious U.S. advantage in political warfare. The fact that the United States has created strong cultures of non-discrimination—well before the rise of progressivism—while China has not and will not, and sustains its racism and supremacist ideology means that a true and powerful U.S. superiority and point of rightful pride by Americans in their society is rendered nugatory.

The consequences of this are profound. First, the American people will not appreciate how U.S. society has changed and why it is superior to China’s worldview. Second, this fact will be diminished for world populations, and international standards to combat racism will be removed or become feckless were China to dominate. As with other Western political principles and values, efforts to combat discrimination will be reversed under China’s pressure. Abraham Lincoln’s recognition that the United States was the “last best, hope of earth” to create societies of genuine equality will be challenged and perhaps reversed.

The incoherence of progressivism’s foreign policy is dangerous, and underscores that the true costs of progressivism for the United States and its allies are yet to be considered in the political debate over progressive ideology.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.