As one of the Democratic Party’s foremost advocates of progressive economic populism, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s decision to unofficially launch her likely presidential bid with a speech on foreign policy was unexpected. What was entirely unsurprising was her embrace of a familiar sort of cautious retrenchment. The crowd loves the idea that America can retreat from its commitments abroad without sacrificing its interests and security in the process, but such fanciful promises never survive first contact with reality.
In her address at American University’s Washington College of Law, Warren advocated scaling back America’s “unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments,” making major cuts to the “bloated defense budget,” and redirecting those funds toward “investments at home” as a national-security strategy. These are all big crowd-pleasers. Voters want to believe that American hegemony, and the security and prosperity that come with it, is compatible with introverted foreign policy. Why else would the last three presidents have campaigned on just that premise?
George W. Bush pledged to “reject the blinders of isolationism,” but he did not campaign on extended forward troop deployments. “We can help build coalitions, but we can’t put our troops all around the world,” Bush said in a 2000 debate. “Our nation stands alone in the world right now in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble,” he added. “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to say, ‘we do it this way, so should you.’” He even went so far as to criticize the Clinton administration for committing American soldiers to “nation building,” and staffed his administration with realists like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. But when confronted with the threat posed by international terrorism and non-state actors, Bush adopted a foreign-policy doctrine that was even more extroverted than his predecessor’s.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was predicated mostly on his promise to withdraw American troops from the protracted post-9/11 conflicts in which they were engaged. And he did manage to execute an agreement to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq. But he did not—could not—deconstruct America’s counterterrorism infrastructure abroad. Indeed, he increased the U.S. reliance on targeted killings, expanded the number of theaters in which U.S. forces operated, and approved a “surge” of troops into Afghanistan. And when the unforeseen Arab Spring began destabilizing governments in Libya and Syria, he deployed American soldiers there, too. If an American presence remained in Iraq in 2014, it might have been able to prevent the rout of the Iraqi army and the protracted effort to roll back the Islamic State.
When Barack Obama left office, he did so with American troops conducting combat operations in Iraq, with the U.S. committed to the defense of more than 60 countries, and with thousands of soldiers deployed to hundreds of military bases worldwide—even a few new ones. The 44th president promised in 2009 to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons but ended up approving the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal in 2016. Warren says she will pledge never to be the first to use nuclear weapons, but she will soon encounter the realities that forced Obama to abandon that very same promise.
Even Donald Trump, who won the presidency by insisting that idiots and crooks populated America’s foreign policy establishment, has maintained the status quo. Warren attacked Trump for refusing to “halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia” or divest from U.S. support for the conflict in Yemen, but Trump spent the campaign attacking the Saudis for being complicit in the 9/11 attacks and for refusing to take in substantial numbers of Syrian refugees. Trump cannot—and a hypothetical President Warren would not—totally divest from the Saudi prosecution of that conflict because maintaining free navigation through the Aden Strait and preserving U.S. drone capabilities on the Arabian Peninsula is of paramount U.S. national interest. The one thing you can say for Warren is that she did not promise warmer relations with Moscow, as Bush, Obama, and Trump did, only to discover the intractable conflicts that persist between the U.S. and the Federation once in office. Trump may have finally killed the “Russian reset” for good.
Warren’s speech was not all rote memory. There were moments of genuine insight. “Whether our leaders recognize it or not, after years as the world’s lone superpower, the United States is entering a new period of competition,” the senator noted accurately. Indeed, revisionist powers like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are growing bolder, forming coalitions, and challenging American hegemony in new ways. But Warren sowed confusion in the next breath. “Democracy is running headlong into the ideologies of nationalism, authoritarianism, and corruption,” she said. These are not ideologies or theories of social organization as much as styles of governance. You can run a corrupt republic much as you can run a socialist dictatorship or theocracy. And all these systems are, to some degree, nationalist.
By and large, this speech exposed how contradictory Warren’s views on foreign policy are. On the one hand, she is deeply critical of Trump’s semi-realist approach to foreign affairs, which align his administration with “authoritarian regimes around the globe” and “dictators of all stripes.” Indeed, she frames the conflicts of the next century in ideological terms—a battle between genuine democracies and mere pretenders. But on the other hand, Warren sounded a pragmatic note when she criticized the flawed consensus notion that market economies produce free societies. And she has no use for democracy promotion.
Warren challenges the conventional wisdom in some valuable ways. She is correct in her diagnosis of the ills that “champions of cutthroat capitalism” inadvertently brought upon their own ideology in the years after the Soviet Union broke apart, but the remedies she prescribes are either vague to the point of uselessness or trite and tired failures. Warren can promise to bring American troops home, and the public will cheer. It might even win her the White House. But we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.