Grading criteria for progressive realism report cards

By Robert Wright, Nov 13 2020

(So far we’ve issued report cards to: Tony Blinken, William Burns, and Michèle Flournoy.)


Military restraint is about avoiding military intervention, whether direct or by proxy, unless it’s clearly consistent with international law (e.g., authorized by the UN Security Council) and unless alternatives, most notably diplomacy, have been exhausted. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, and the arming of Syrian rebels are examples of policies that fail to meet this test.  

Cognitive empathy isn’t about “feeling their pain” (that’s emotional empathy). It’s about perspective taking—understanding how things look from the point of view of other international actors, including a country’s leaders and its people. Cognitive empathy can help the US assess, for example, whether a country’s military posture reflects defensive or offensive motivations (it’s common, in the absence of cognitive empathy, to mistake the former for the latter) and whether US policies (such as NATO expansion) may be seen as offensive and threatening even when they’re not intended that way.  

Respect for international law goes beyond using it as a cudgel against adversaries. It means making international law a consistent and explicit part of US foreign policy discourse, and it requires a willingness to accept legal constraints on American behavior. So, for example, people who complain that Russia violated international law by invading Crimea or arming Ukrainian rebels, while supporting the US invasion of Iraq or the arming of Syrian rebels, are failing to evince respect for international law.  

Support for international governance means working to create and sustain international agreements and institutions that deal with non-zero-sum problems like climate change, arms races of various kinds, and such emerging areas of national competition as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. It also means using regional trade agreements and the World Trade Organization to aggressively address environmental and labor issues. From a progressive realist perspective, America’s long-term interests are best served through the development of well-crafted global governance, even when such governance limits short-term national options. 

Universal engagement means maintaining robust diplomatic and economic relations with all nations except in the most extreme circumstances. Specifically, universal engagement avoids two traps: (1) confining robust engagement to countries with which we have an ideological affinity (a policy that could lead to a new Cold War, such as one between a “league of democracies” and a bloc of more authoritarian nations); (2) using economic sanctions not authorized by the UN Security Council to target specific regimes (sanctions that typically—as in Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria—wind up hurting the populace without reforming or displacing the targeted regimes). Robust engagement needn’t entail arms sales or other forms of material support for a foreign government; such things can and generally should be denied to repressive or belligerent governments. And robust engagement doesn’t mean sacrificing bargaining leverage in trade negotiations (though a progressive realist prefers when possible to work for fair trade terms through multilateral agreements and institutions, as opposed to unilaterally imposed tariffs).   

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