Chris Murphy Wants A New Progressive Foreign Policy

The Connecticut senator's vision stands out among Democrats.
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Among political observers, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut is widely considered a potential presidential aspirant – articulate, forthright and media-savvy. Notably, his lengthy filibuster denouncing gun violence after the mass shooting in Orlando garnered national attention. But what most distinguishes him among Democrats, perhaps, is his call for a new direction in American foreign policy.

In Murphy’s view, Trump’s global ineptitude makes fresh thinking all the more imperative. “The amateurism of Trump’s foreign policy is absolutely stunning,” he told me. “He has zero interest in learning about the world.” Elsewhere, Murphy has observed that Trump “believes in putting a wall around America and hoping everything turns out OK.”

It won’t, Murphy insists. Nonetheless, he thinks that many Americans are attracted to Trump’s instinctive isolationism because “the version of internationalism we have pursued in the last 20 years hasn’t worked” ― the Iraq war is a mistake for which America is paying still, and many voters blame stagnant wages on the incursions of the global economy.

Nor have Democrats mastered the challenge of linking our policies abroad to our well-being at home. In the last election, Murphy told The Atlantic earlier this year that neither Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders “really represented my views... I think there is a big open space in the Democratic Party right now for the articulation of a progressive foreign policy.”

Such a policy, Murphy believes, must confront unavoidable realities. America faces threats without borders – like pandemics and climate change – which continue to loom. The postcolonial status quo in the Middle East disintegrates, creating terrorism which threatens our national security. Russia and China are challenging international norms in order to expand their influence – including, in Russia’s case, by attacking our democratic institutions.

“The amateurism of Trump’s foreign policy is absolutely stunning.”

- Senator Chris Murphy

“The Russians,” Murphy told The Atlantic, “are bullying countries with oil and gas, the Chinese are making massive economic investments around the world, ISIS and extremist groups are using propaganda and the Internet to grow their reach. And as the rest the world has been figuring out that power can be projected in non–military means very effectively, the United States has not made that transition.”

The challenge he sees is to present Americans with a new and realistic vision for protecting our interests by engaging with the world. Unlike Trump, Murphy believes that America is strongest when working with partners, allies, and global institutions like NATO and the UN. His blueprint emphasizes proactive diplomacy and economic engagement: Doubling the size of America’s spending for diplomacy and foreign assistance. Starting a new Marshall plan to strengthen regions at risk – including struggling to stave off extremists. Engaging with Russia and China to pursue their ambitions within the framework of accepted international norms. Upholding America’s reputation as a beacon of opportunity and an advocate for civil and human rights.

Here Murphy contests Trump’s most basic assumptions ― isolationism, indifference to democracy and human rights, a preference for rhetorical militarism over vigorous diplomacy, and the belief that our posture toward other peoples and countries has no relationship to the terrorist threat.

Take the linkage between terrorism and our policies regarding human rights and refugees. While Murphy recognizes that our immediate security interests can conflict with long-term human rights concerns, he challenges Trump’s affinity for autocrats. One example is Egypt, where Trump funds the al-Sisi government with no strings attached, even though it is “likely creating more radicals than it’s eliminating.”

Another is Trump’s unquestioning support for Saudi Arabia, especially since, Murphy says, “Saudi money fuels the building blocks of extremism” ― including the Wahhabi movement ― spreading instability across the region and menacing the U.S. The primary source of global terrorism is not Shia extremism, or even Iran, it is Sunni extremism. Saudi Arabia was home to the 9/11 hijackers; by comparison, Shia extremism does not drive the terrorist threat to America itself. Trump grants too much credence to the Saudis; and asks far too little.

Trump further exacerbates the threat to America, Murphy cautions, through his refugee policies. As to refugees, Murphy contends that “the historic strength of our country is the ability to rescue people from terror and torture.” He would expand, not contract, our refugee program and believes that policies which discriminate against Muslims will only aid terrorist recruitment and endanger Americans. Murphy tweeted this blunt assessment of Trump’s travel ban: “We bomb your country, creating a humanitarian nightmare, then lock you inside. That’s a horror movie, not a foreign policy.”

Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy wave to protestors as Ukrainian UDAR party leader Vitali Klitschko looks on during a mass rally in Kiev's Independence Square, December 15, 2013.
Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy wave to protestors as Ukrainian UDAR party leader Vitali Klitschko looks on during a mass rally in Kiev's Independence Square, December 15, 2013.
GENYA SAVILOV via Getty Images

Specifically, Murphy would welcome refugees from Syria. While we can insist on stringent vetting, there is no evidence of real and present threat from Syrian refugees – the vast majority of whom, he notes, are women and children. And every time we “dim the light of America,” Murphy argues, we drive people toward our antagonists.

Murphy perceives Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord as another potentially disastrous mistake. Climate change, he insists, is an immediate threat to the U.S. and the world, exacerbating instability in some of the globe’s most volatile regions. Far from ignoring these dangers, America must invest money and political capital to address them.

As to the nuclear threat, in Murphy’s analysis Trump worsens the risks through bluster bereft of policy. One example is his careless indifference to nuclear proliferation. Another is his irresponsible flirtation with abandoning the Iran nuclear deal – “a catastrophic self-inflicted wound,” Murphy told me, alienating our allies while potentially putting Iran on the path to a nuclear weapon.

This has wider reverberations. For the Senate to use Trump’s groundless decertification as a pretext for exiting the agreement would, Murphy warns, shred America’s credibility at the very time we are trying to defuse a nuclear crisis with North Korea ― we can never convince Kim Jong Un to curb nuclear weapons by ripping up an agreement the U.S. exhaustively negotiated with Iran and the other major powers. Thus Trump hazards war in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, further endangering American lives.

As for North Korea itself, in Murphy’s estimate “Trump is deploying the worst negotiating strategy in the history of the American presidency ... placing the negotiations on life support.” The president should empower American diplomats to do their work; instead, Trump insults Kim Jong Un and undercuts his own Secretary of State.

Like the overwhelming majority of military experts, Murphy believes that a preemptive American military strike would be disastrous – not least for those living on the Korean Peninsula. Instead the appropriate pressure point is for America to negotiate multi-lateral sanctions against Korea. But given Trump’s erratic pronouncements and disdain for diplomatic agreements, Murphy judges that America’s position in the world is too weak to achieve that strategy. Even our allies, he adds, wonder if they can still rely on us ― perhaps the ultimate measure of Trump’s failure.

Overall, Murphy’s grasp of complex foreign policy problems is impressive; his indictment of Trump compelling; his proposals for protecting America clear and considered. But how does a progressive Democrat persuade a party, and country, fearful of terrorism yet weary of war and wary of the world at large? One answer may lie in Murphy’s attitude toward military preparedness and the use of military force.

Like many Republicans, Murphy supports a military ready to discourage aggression, promote stability, and protect the free navigation of the seas. He does not advocate a massive transfer of money from the Department of Defense. But, in his reading, American foreign policy cannot rest on “the point of the spear.”

In particular, he asserts that the U.S. should intervene militarily only with express congressional authorization, based on clear goals and exit strategies, and a firm commitment to care for our military when they return. Such actions should focus on creating space for local political solutions. If there is no achievable political solution, one must question the use of military force. This approach restores congressional authority, checks unilateral presidential actions, and respects the lives and welfare of our troops.

For Murphy, another crucial point marks the volatile intersection of domestic and foreign policy – free trade agreements. For Americans who perceive the global economy as a threat to their personal security and livelihood, free trade pacts are inherently suspect; like many Democrats, Murphy opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership. Here foreign policy goals, including countering Chinese influence in Asia, conflicted with the concerns of American workers ― and the political interests of a party beset by Trump’s facile promises to better their lives through protectionism.

Challenged to explain his vote, Murphy is direct. There was a winning foreign policy argument in favor of the TPP, he says – and a losing economic argument. First, he contends, America must invest in people who are displaced by economic change – through free education, job retraining and the like. Only with this as predicate can he support free trade agreements in order to expand our influence and commerce abroad.

One can agree, or not. But successful leaders in foreign policy must be able to bring their constituents along, lest they lose touch, and fail. Clearly, Murphy understands this.

In fact, Chris Murphy clearly understands a great deal more about foreign policy than most of his peers. And more, surely, than Donald Trump ever will. In a world as complex and dangerous as this, that matters – now, and perhaps in 2020.

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