There’s a wide disconnect between the priorities of the electorate and those of the foreign policy establishment, according to a recently released opinion survey by the Center for American Progress (CAP). That CAP characterizes this as a problem of marketing — and not of the actual substance of U.S. foreign policy — demonstrates we can’t count on the national security establishment to deliver progressive solutions.
Failure to communicate
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate: Americans don’t have a clear sense of their country’s foreign policy goals & traditional foreign policy language doesn’t resonate with them”, said Brian Katulis, one of the report’s authors. The report’s findings call for a referendum on establishment policies, yet for CAP, they suggest “that foreign policy elites and policy makers should make these debates more tangible to voters” (paragraph 139 in the report). In other words, CAP contends the “rules-based international order” need not be questioned, but the establishment should change how its essential features such as “democracy promotion” are sold to a skeptical public (137).
However, the survey’s own results indicate the public views the foreign policy status quo as a problem of substance, not aesthetics. The report argues the “rules-based international order” is threatened by “the anti-imperialist left” (1). This in itself is an acknowledgement that ‘order’ is based on coercive practices, while the survey shows the public favors an approach grounded in restraint and de-escalation. CAP’s own institutional practices indicate it’s unwilling to recommend the necessary and fundamental shifts to U.S. foreign policy.
The survey revealed the lowest foreign policy priority among voters is “promoting democracy and democratic values around the globe” (37). This is a predictable consequence of the way democracy promotion has been used to create the perception of American benevolence as a justification for violent interventions. Dick Cheney assured the American public “we will be greeted as liberators” in Iraq because of democracy’s universal appeal. Indeed, the report itself acknowledges that voters link democracy promotion and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (9).
While “democracy promotion” fails to resonate with voters because it’s an ideal deployed in bad faith, it remains among CAP’s chief priorities. So strong is CAP’s attachment to democracy promotion that it has entered an alliance with the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute that employed John Bolton. CAP donated $200,000 to AEI in 2017 and is now issuing joint reports with it. The overt ideological basis for this cooperation is democracy promotion and defending the “rules-based international order”. Critique of this alliance has been called “dumb” by CAP leadership, despite the problematic history of neoconservatism and the modest political support the ideology has amongst Americans.
This relationship rehabilitates the very architects of the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, of which 44 percent of Democrats “strongly agree with a sharply worded criticism: ‘The wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money, and they did nothing to make us safer at home’” (109). Still, CAP believes the association with neoconservatives is a necessary response to Trump’s “tyranny” (even though the foreign policy similarities between Trump and his predecessors are easier to state than the differences).
The survey indicates that voters are war weary; the overall preference is one of “restrained engagement” involving domestic investment in the wake of “more than a decade of what they see as military overextension” (10). With respect to Russia and China, voters prefer an approach based on de-escalation, and reject putting military options on the table (17).
CAP staff appear unwilling to refute military escalation as an approach. Notwithstanding what it describes as “a scant 13 percent” of voters who support considering military action “to stop Chinese expansion in the South China sea and to defend U.S. allies” (135), CAP’s stance toward China reflects the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s bizarre assertion that “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” And in effect, it becomes a justification for expanding the U.S. military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. In the past, CAP has explicitly endorsed this escalation.
In response to China’s regional economic expansion, a CAP Vice President Kelly Magsamen recommended that the U.S. should embrace a policy of “you mess here, we're going to mess in Taiwan.” When two U.S. Navy destroyers passed through the Taiwan Strait, Magsamen characterized the transit not as potentially escalatory, but merely reflective of “strategy” and “international law.”
One of the top priorities in voters’ minds involves foreign influence in policy-making. Forty-six percent of respondents said a top foreign policy should be “protecting our democracy from foreign interference” (37). CAP leadership routinely associate foreign meddling exclusively to Russia, but admitted in the survey that “few participants in our focus groups said they were following the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections” (17). A more expansive view of foreign interference would implicate CAP itself in the corruption of U.S. policy-making.
Foreign donations are a large part of CAP’s revenue stream, and it appears to shape its “nonpartisan” policy analysis. The organization accepted $2.5 million from the UAE to fund its National Security and International Policy initiative, part of the organization’s routine practice of accepting foreign donations. One of CAP's own Middle East policy papers was authored by a UAE government official.
A former employee reported that a CAP national security staffer demanded he stop writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia because this CAP staffer was trying to solicit donations from a Saudi prince, and that president and CEO of Center for American Progress Neera Tanden censored work critical of Israel to facilitate donations from pro-Israel groups.
Moreover, leaked emails from the UAE ambassador reveal that Brian Katulis, an author of the new report, lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of foreign dictatorships, and Lee Fang of the Intercept reports that Katulis "has a long history of censoring” foreign policy analysis.
CAP’s survey data is an important contribution to the literature. However, nothing about CAP’s fundraising model, staffing, or interpretation of its own research suggests it’s an organization prepared to produce foreign policy ideas that reflect progressive values, let alone consistently apply them. Its conclusion that the disconnect between voters and foreign policy elites is a problem of marketing and rather than substance not only reveals a flawed perspective, but obfuscates the flaws of the organization itself. If progressives are looking for new foreign policy ideas, they need to look elsewhere.
 Only 45% of respondents agreed that American values are universal (39).