What is a Hard Power Progressive?

With the U.S. Congressional elections approaching fast, Democrats appear poised to make major progress in both the Senate and House of Representatives, perhaps taking one or both chambers. The myth of Republican superiority in foreign policy, which helped Republicans for so long (and sometimes even had some truth to back it up, especially in the 1980s and early ’90s), has been demolished by a failing operation in Iraq. But Democrats, whatever the outcome this November, will need to do more than oppose George W. Bush in subsequent elections. In fact, the United States needs a vigorous two-party debate on foreign policy, with lots of new ideas on the table, to deal with predicaments from Iraq to Iran to North Korea–not to mention a host of other key issues such as energy policy and the rise of China.

In our new book, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security, longtime Asia expert Kurt Campbell and I make a number of arguments about the centrality of the national security issue for the nation’s well-being–and for the political fortunes of any party asking the nation for the privilege of leading it through dangerous times. Among our key arguments are the facts that 25 million members of the voting-age public have worn the nation’s uniform at some time, ensuring that defense matters will always be near the top of their concerns; that Americans know the special role the Constitution accords presidents in making foreign policy decisions, meaning that they particularly expect presidential candidates to speak convincingly about their views on matters of war and peace; that defense issues have a certain straightforwardness that allows voters to assess a candidate’s character when he or she discusses them (more than when they discuss say tax or health care policy); and that voters can sense when a candidate or party doesn’t take national security seriously enough (note that a whopping 86 percent of voters who considered the war on terrorism the top issue facing the country in 2004 chose George W. Bush over John Kerry, as the latter purposefully avoided the issue as much as possible due to the advice of his top political advisors).

All these considerations argue strongly that anyone purporting to be able to sit in the Oval Office must focus squarely on national security as one of the top two or three issues of the day–not only in 2008, but in general. And it is worth underscoring what should be obvious. National security must be a top concern of a would-be president not only because voters insist on it, but because voters are right to do so. A president’s first job really is to protect the country, and that is as it should be.

So when we are asked what is a “hard-power Democrat,” or similarly minded moderate Republican (or independent), and how do they differ philosophically from conservative or neoconservative Republicans, the first part of the answer is to say that hard-power moderates actually should emulate conservatives and neocons in their attention to the national security issue. Moreover, they should first demonstrate their focus on traditional national security matters–using military force against the nation’s enemies, protecting the homeland against terrorists–rather than be in a hurry to redefine, generalize, or soften what they mean by U.S. national security policy. To be sure, there is a serious argument that the nature of national security is changing, and that the forces of globalization or the nuclear revolution or some other transformative development of modern times mean that we should modify what we mean by security. But even those who would make this argument must clearly convey to the country their willingness to sternly confront traditional foes and apply every lethal tool of the U.S. national security machine against those who would do us harm.

Still, the question remains, what is a hard-power Democrat, or a kindred soul from a different political tradition? Surely it must be more than someone who is a moderate on domestic policy and nothing but a conservative Republican clone on foreign affairs. Indeed, that is true. In fact, moderate Republicans of the recent past–notably those of the Bush 41 presidency–are much different than officials of the current administration in their humility in the use of U.S. power, their emphasis on diplomacy and coalition building, their attunement to the political realities of key overseas regions, their seriousness of purpose in implementing U.S. foreign policy (rather than hoping that good theory or the self-confident proclamation of the innate superiority of American values will replace the need for good execution).

So part of what makes a good hard-power moderate is to work in the tradition of Bush 41 and Clinton 42. As we argue in our book, they did a great deal of good, with more similarity of approach than many realized at the time. Each focused on building a Europe whole and free. Each worked hard to implement the nation’s most successful major military downsizing in its history. Each worked hard to develop a strong partnership with China while working closely with allies such as Japan to draw firm lines in the sand against its possible expansionism or aggression against Taiwan. Each kept its eye on the big issues of the day–rogue states, nuclear proliferation, changing power balances in Europe and Asia, management of the military. As Democrats we would acknowledge that the Bush 41 foreign policy record will probably go down in history as particularly distinguished, probably more than the Clinton legacy. But it is still true that the broad parameters within which each made policy had many similarities–as well as many sharp differences from the Bush 43 approach.

So beyond arguing that any hard-power moderate should take defense matters seriously, we also argue for pragmatic and concerted focus on the big issues of the day, with a consistency and seriousness of purpose that are sincere and apparent to voters as well as to America’s friends and enemies around the globe. To the above list of issues, in light of today’s realities, we also would add the need for a strong strategy to win the long-term war on terrorism and a recognition that the next American head of state should be our first “energy president” who begins to wean the nation from its extreme dependence on foreign oil.

The overall message is that a hard-power Democrat or other moderate need not have the radical new vision of a George Kennan to be successful. But he or she needs to view national security as inherently one of the two or three top priorities of the nation, at all times and for substantive as well as political reasons. And he or she needs to get smart on the core issues of managing the military, defending the homeland, winning the long-term struggle against terrorist ideology, moving toward greater energy independence, addressing the significance of China’s rise, and addressing proliferation as well as the challenge of extremist states. While being willing to criticize Bush for major mistakes in Iraq, such a hard-power Democrat or moderate should–unless absolutely convinced that we have already lost in Iraq–work hard to develop new ideas that give us some hope of salvaging a passable outcome in Iraq. We have some ideas on how to do this in the book; while some other Democrats offer ideas themselves, too many fail to do so and talk only of troop withdrawals.

Some additional guidelines are important too. A hard-power moderate should study Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not to emulate his excesses but in recognition of the fact that a milder version of strong civilian leadership of the Pentagon is healthy for the nation. He or she should understand that good homeland security strategy requires some of the tools of preventive action, such as the Patriot Act, that the Bush administration has pursued (even if it has done so in an unnecessarily polarizing manner). The hard-power proponent should recognize the centrality of alliances, and the need for international legitimacy in taking decisive action abroad, without viewing multilateralism as a strategy in and of itself. And he or she should focus extremely diligently on extremist states, especially those with weapons of mass destruction or ties to terrorists, but develop firm strategies toward them that are attentive to the need to have allies in dealing with and confronting them.

Among other things this outlook leads us to a different type of North Korea policy proposal, much different from Bush 43 but somewhat different from Clinton as well, that would work with regional partners to forge a serious and specific carrot and stick approach for dealing with Pyongyang. We should try to encourage North Korea to move in a reformist direction like that of Vietnam, and make specific pledges about how to help it should it do so, while at the same time preparing for the possibility of failure of such talks–and getting China and South Korea to agree that in the event of failure, more stringent economic sanctions will surely be appropriate.

In short, a hard-power Democrat is a far different creature than a Bush 43 Republican. He or she may strongly resemble a Bush 41 Republican in foreign policy views, but with some new ideas to reflect developments in the world in the decade and a half since President George H.W. Bush left office. He or she may have a coherent new articulation of America’s grand strategy, but regardless, will definitely convey seriousness, competence, and decisiveness in handling the big half-dozen issues of the day (whether or not the approaches can all be described with a single clear theme). And in the words of our friend Joe Nye, who coined the term soft power, such a moderate will have a clear sense of how to blend hard and soft power into an effective mix that adds up to smart power for the new era and new challenges that so threaten the United States today.