[Column] US progressives warrant attention when it comes to foreign policy

Posted on : 2021-02-24 17:45 KST Modified on : 2021-02-24 17:45 KST
US Senator Bernie Sanders sits in the bleachers on Capitol Hill during US President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. (AFP/Yonhap News)
US Senator Bernie Sanders sits in the bleachers on Capitol Hill during US President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. (AFP/Yonhap News)
Park Min-hee
Park Min-hee

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

The star of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 was Senator Bernie Sanders, an icon of progressive politics in the US. Images that showed Sanders sitting in a thick coat and mittens among all the luminaries dressed in suits made the rounds around the world, offering an illustration of his political standing.

A little over a month later, a key part of the Biden administration’s political agenda has been working with the progressives that Sanders represents. Progressive demands like a $15 minimum wage and student loan forgiveness have emerged as key issues in the US alongside responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Progressives are very wary of the prospect of Biden and other moderates — who have benefited from full-scale support from the business world — ending up beholden to the interests of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The political weight of progressives like Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is greater than ever before.

Those progressives also warrant attention when it comes to foreign affairs and national security. The key figures in Biden’s foreign affairs lineup are all mainstream foreign policy experts from the Obama administration, among them White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and “Asia czar” Kurt Campbell, who oversees policies related to the Indo-Pacific region.

However, a large number of progressive figures have been appointed to lower-level posts in foreign policy and national security, and their demands are being reflected to a considerable extent in policy. That’s why the Biden administration’s foreign policy won’t be “Obama 2.0.”

Melanie Hart, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (a progressive think tank), has been put in charge of overseeing the State Department’s review of China policy.

Sasha Baker, who served as a foreign policy advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren, was named to a senior post at the National Security Council. Baker is a progressive figure who has called for arms reduction.

Politico reported that Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, will join the State Department as well.

Rob Malley, who has been named special envoy to Iran, is eager to restore dialogue with Iran and has criticized Saudi Arabia for its atrocities.

One of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy steps was halting the sale of arms being used in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. That move was strongly influenced by the demands of progressives who want the US to distance itself from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has played a leading role in the Yemeni civil war and allegedly ordered the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Leading progressive politicians in the US, including Sanders and US Representative Ro Khanna, regard China as a major economic rival. They approve of Trump’s tariffs on China and support taking a hardline stance on Beijing to force it to change unfair economic practices that have hurt middle and working-class Americans.

These progressives also regard human rights as a key value and are very critical of China for placing Uighurs in concentration camps and for ramming through national security legislation in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, they oppose launching a “new cold war” with China, and they have called for reducing US military spending and troop deployments around the world and extricating the US from its “forever wars.”

Sanders expressed his thoughts on North Korea in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in September 2020. “Sanders has expressed support for the [Donald] Trump administration’s recent diplomatic efforts with North Korea, but has said negotiations on denuclearization must involve more than ‘photo ops,’” the CFR said.

The CRF also summarized Sanders as saying “he would seek a ‘step-by-step process’ to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program and [. . .] approves of partial sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea dismantling parts of its program.”

The step-by-step approach to the denuclearization talks that Sanders outlined here differs from the “denuclearization first, sanctions relief later” approach taken by the Trump administration. Sanders also “advocates for coordinating with South Korea, as well as with China, to negotiate a nuclear agreement” with North Korea, the CFR said.

To be sure, another practical consideration is the immense influence of the US corporate and financial sectors. Even as the Biden administration stresses a hard line on China, US companies are ramping up investment there. China has also liberalized its financial market, opening the doors to Wall Street in the hope of bringing in US capital.

Biden’s foreign policy depends on how he harmonizes the progressive establishment and Wall Street’s sharply competing demands.

The US is unlikely to move into a full decoupling or confrontation with China. The US will seek ways to maintain as much of its advantage over China as possible in cutting-edge technology, economic might, and international leadership while also finding areas for cooperation.

South Korea’s conservative establishment is constantly pushing the country to side with the US and sever ties with China quickly, but that’s a truly irresponsible position. It disregards the fact that even the US can’t go down such a path.

That said, the Biden team’s foreign policy stance is to prioritize the US economy and the middle class. If that stance leads to substantial changes to US-China trade and the division of labor, adapting to those changes will present a considerable challenge for the South Korean economy.

At the same time, South Korea needs to face the fact that US foreign policy is undergoing its biggest shift in decades. US progressives are much more favorable toward negotiations with North Korea and a step-by-step solution to denuclearization than mainstream foreign policy experts. Those progressives have also actively supported declaring the formal end of the Korean War.

However, progressives consider human rights issues both in North Korea and in China to be of critical importance. They have even denounced key American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel for their human rights issues.

The tendency for some South Korean politicians to avoid bringing up North Korean human rights issues and to lightly dismiss China’s human rights issues as China’s “internal affairs” is a factor that makes it harder to coordinate South Korea and the US’s foreign policy.

If South Korea clearly expresses a consistent stance on human rights and democracy, the US’s progressive establishment could be an ally in advancing the Korean Peninsula peace progress.

What’s needed right now is neither the fearful claim that South Korea will be in trouble if it doesn’t immediately side with the US nor cocky assurances that Seoul is effectively coordinating its stance with that of Washington. What’s needed is a foreign policy that’s precisely tailored to a thorough assessment of these changes.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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