Pragmatism Versus ‘Big Think’ in Democrats’ Foreign Policy Priorities

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When you’re a global superpower with worldwide interests and responsibilities, it’s hard to come up with a very short list of priorities that will set the agenda and organize the bureaucracy. But that’s just what presidential candidates-and sometimes policymakers-have to do when trying to convince voters of the wisdom of their national security to-do lists. In recent days, we heard just such an exercise from the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as a variation of it from Secretary of State John Kerry.

At last week’s debate, when asked to name “the greatest national security threat to the United States,”  the five Democratic candidates for president offered five very different answers. Jim Webb, a former senator, ranked China as the greatest strategic challenge, with cyberwarfare and the Middle East posing the greatest current operational threats. Martin O’Malley, a former governor, also had a list: a nuclear Iran, the terrorist threat from the self-described Islamic State and climate change. Lincoln Chaffee, both a former senator and former governor, cited chaos in the Middle East as his greatest threat. 

Most interesting was the contrast between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: The former cited climate change and the latter the “continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands.”

Their respective answers capture well the difference between the pragmatic, experienced Clinton and the more “big think” worldview of Sanders. Clinton followed up on a concrete issue that she and President Barack Obama had made a prominent policy initiative while she served as his secretary of state for his first term, while Sanders set out a more ambitious, virtually existential issue for the U.S. and the international community. 

This is not to belittle the seriousness of nuclear nonproliferation issues. After all, keeping WMD materials that could create mass casualty incidents out of the hands of terrorist organizations has been a focus of considerable attention both in Washington and at the United Nations in the years after 9/11, driving new forms of international cooperation across the nuclear and counterterrorism communities. The Obama administration is rightly proud of the creation of the Nuclear Security Summit process, which began in 2010. The series will wrap up next year, after a productive series of meetings in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014. Announcing the fourth and last summit for spring 2016 in Washington, the White House press release said, “As the President stated in his speech in Prague in 2009, nuclear terrorism is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” So Clinton was on solid ground in her response.

But Sanders’ answer offered an increasingly compelling vision of how governments will need to both focus their energies and widen their understanding of what affects our security-not just our “national security,” but a more inclusive sense of security that also embraces that of societies and the international system. Obama himself acknowledged the shift in his own thinking in May, when he addressed the issue of climate change in a speech to the graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy: “I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.” He went on to say, “That’s why confronting climate change is now a key pillar of American global leadership. When I meet with leaders around the world, it’s often at the top of our agenda-a core element of our diplomacy.” He expressed his concerns about climate change as a driver of conflict, but also addressed more practical issues about the readiness of the armed forces and the resilience of U.S. coastal zones for the virtually certain changes underway as a result of global warming. 

Of course, both Clinton and Sanders are right, and prospective leaders should not be forced to put one issue above all others; their jobs entail managing multiple issues, some more urgent than others, but all important. But the two sets of issues reflect the contrast between what intelligence analysts call the low probability/high impact issues, such as the illicit use of nuclear material, and the high probability/high impact issue of climate change. One can argue that because climate change is likely to have a direct impact on the well-being of a large portion of the U.S. and global population, it deserves an even higher priority than the very scary but less likely and less widespread impact of a terrorist incident involving the use of WMD materials. But a policymaker cannot afford to neglect the possibility of such an attack, because the human-and political-costs of doing so would be severe if one did occur.

Meanwhile, as secretary of state, Kerry is probably not interested in the debate over the short list, which must appear to be something of a luxury. He must instead show how he and the administration have made progress on multiple fronts. In his wide-ranging speech entitled, “U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changing World,” which he delivered at Indiana University on Oct. 15, Kerry summarized four major areas of achievement: completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with Asia-Pacific economies; progress on climate change cooperation, much of it at the subnational level; the Iran nuclear agreement; and the coalition of 65 countries working together to confront the terrorist threat of the self-declared Islamic State. 

But his characterization of the global threat environment was notable: 

Because of new technologies, we may find partners and competitors, allies and adversaries, literally anywhere on Earth. Each day, there are more people in the world putting additional pressure on limited natural resources, on the challenges of governance itself. Big chunks of the Middle East and Africa are torn by violence, creating a record flow of refugees. The age-old problems of nationalist ambitions and religious extremism are testing the resilience of the rule of law. And the devil’s marriage of technology and terror prompts us to fear that the 13th century battles will soon be fought with 21st century weapons.
Once in office, a President Clinton or Sanders would have to deal with this messy world in its entirety, not just one issue at a time, in which adversaries and threats emerge without reference to the bounded territory of nation states. National security is now a more porous concept, no longer the exclusive purview of militaries and defense experts. To address the security challenges that terrorism and climate change pose will require broader societal projects that must engage communities and citizens more directly than the security challenges of the past. That will take both pragmatism and big thinking if it is to be successful. 

This piece originally ran in World Politics Review, October 20, 2015

AP photo by John Locher

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