Introducing the progressive realism report card

Nov 13 2020

Introducing the progressive realism report card

Remember last Saturday? When the networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect, and it was possible, for one bright shining moment, to imagine that Donald Trump would respond to news of his imminent departure from the White House by preparing to depart from the White House?  

Now, a week later, there is so much worry about Trump refusing to leave that people are semi-seriously talking about how a skilled hostage negotiator would handle the situation. But here at the Nonzero Newsletter we’re choosing to optimistically assume a happy ending to this crisis and focus our worry elsewhere. Namely: on the question of whether, after Trump is finally extracted from the oval office, its new occupant will be much of an improvement over him in the foreign policy department.

Today we launch a series of evaluations of people who are in the running for major roles on Biden’s foreign policy team. We call these evaluations “progressive realism report cards”—which raises two questions:

1) Why progressive realism? For starters, because that is this newsletter’s unofficial foreign policy ideology. (I described its essence concisely in a 2016 piece in The Nation and, less concisely, in the 2006 New York Times essay in which I coined the term.) But also because progressive realism stands in such stark contrast to the ideology of “the Blob”—the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has long managed to retain power in Washington notwithstanding its demonstrated tendency to screw up the world. 

To put a finer point on it: I think that if progressive realist principles had guided America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to get the political traction he got in 2016 by promising to extricate American troops from the various messes we’ve gotten them into. Because, by and large, the messes wouldn’t exist. 

2) Why report cards? Do I honestly think that the people we give low grades will be assigned commensurately low-status positions (or none at all) in the Biden administration? No, for two reasons: (1) the Washington establishment seems to work the other way around: the worse your record on foreign policy, and the more damage your ideas have wreaked on the world, the more influence over policy you are granted; (2) we’re just a little newsletter, not a big and influential platform.  

However, if enough like-minded, public spirited readers share these report cards on Twitter or Facebook, maybe we’ll be able to punch above our weight! And maybe, eventually, thanks to efforts at this newsletter and like-minded renegade outlets, the foreign policy establishment will start to feel the heat. (A guy can dream…) 

Below is our first report card. It’s for Tony Blinken, who is probably Biden’s closest foreign policy aide and will almost certainly wind up with great influence in the new administration. Immediately below the report card itself is the heart of the matter—our justification for each of the grades Blinken received. (If you want to read a subject-by-subject explanation of the grading criteria—which doubles as a short introduction to progressive realism—that’s here.) In the coming weeks we’ll issue report cards to other prospective Biden foreign policy advisers—some of whom, we’re happy to report, will get higher grades than Blinken.

Grading Biden’s Foreign Policy Team: Tony Blinken

Background: Blinken is a liberal interventionist with an emphatic idealism about the virtues of “American leadership.” His relationship to Biden goes back decades, and he is considered a favorite for national security adviser or secretary of state. 

For our grading criteria, click here.


In Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson argues that the time to start worrying about Trump's post-presidential resurgence is now. (And, yes, as the piece’s epigraph reminds us, the New York Times actually did run a “Hitler Virtually Eliminated” headline—albeit a small one—on the front page in 1923.)  

After the terrorist beheading of a French teacher who showed students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a more French, secularized version of Islam and was greeted by criticism and protests in numerous Muslim-majority countries. In Bloomberg Opinion, Pankaj Mishra contends that Macron’s discourse about the “right to offend” Muslim people hurts prospects for harmony between his country’s “secular” (historically Christian) majority and its Muslim minority. “It is one thing to defend freedom of expression—an obligation of all democratic leaders,” Mishra writes. “It is quite another to deploy a whole nation behind a particular expression of that freedom.”

Elixir for tribalism: America is divided in many ways, but in every state where the legalization or decriminalization of drugs was on the ballot, it won, notes Vox.

In Responsible Statecraft, Anatol Lieven argues that a lack of (cognitive) empathy has led American foreign policy astray. He laments our failure to understand Russian interests, even when they parallel our own. In Syria, for example, Russia has supported a dictator in order to avoid a power vacuum—much as we once did in Algeria and currently do in Egypt. Lieven leaves us with advice on how to deal with Washington’s new bogeyman: “We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.”

A video on the philosophy of Thomas Metzinger offers reasons to think that the “self” may not exist. (I interviewed Metzinger in 2018 on my podcast, The Wright Show.) 

In Vox, Umair Irfan assesses Pfizer's Covid vaccine, explaining what 90 percent efficacy actually means, how the drug company's approach to developing the vaccine works, and why it may take a while for the vaccine to get to market. 

In Commonweal, Jesuit Scholastic Fernando C. Saldivar makes the case that the U.S. should join the E.U. and China in ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the export of weapons that could be used to commit atrocities. The priest-in-training condemns the current, unregulated system, which gives arms dealers “a highly lucrative freedom to look the other way while the Saudis target noncombatants” in Yemen. “We can no longer pretend not to know—or appear not to care—what is being done with bombs and missiles made in America,” Saldivar writes.

A thought experiment about utilitarianism raises the oft-overlooked question of whether maybe you should let an AI eat you.