The Contradictions of “Progressive Realism,” and How to Overcome Them
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The Contradictions of “Progressive Realism,” and How to Overcome Them


APLN Senior Research Adviser Van Jackson comments on Labour MP David Lammy’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs, highlights the contradictions of “progressive realism”, and elaborates on how to overcome them. Read the full article here.

Labour MP David Lammy has a new piece in Foreign Affairs called, “The Case for Progressive Realism.”

Where his manifesto is punchiest is in its unsparing critiques of British foreign policy

“the Conservative Party has, over 14 years…sank deeply into nostalgia and denial about the United Kingdom’s place in the world. The government, for example, crashed out of the European Unionwithout a clear plan for what to do next. It treated with contempt the country’s global reputation for upholding the rule of law…it squandered the United Kingdom’s climate leadership by tearing up net-zero carbon emissions commitments, throwing business plans into disarray… Conservative officials proved especially callous in their approach to the global South. Over the last decade, they have undermined the United Kingdom’s standing as a development superpower with a mismanaged merger of government departments that devalued expertise and forced cuts to crucial programs.”

It goes on further, but you get the point: UK foreign policy has not really served anyone well in recent times, save perhaps the US national security state.

Lammy also seems to recognize a reality that too few geopoliticians do: Any foreign policy that distracts from or requires the depletion of societal welfare trades against democracy itself. He’s right to indicate that rebuilding (social) democracy in the UK is not just worthwhile but necessary—any progressive vision must not forsake a nation’s own workers.

And of course, no foreign policy vision can be taken seriously that is silent on Palestine’s fate in the midst of something even more inhumane than a lopsided war. Here Lammy sketches out a careful position that looks past the ongoing Israeli bombing campaign and associated war crimes, says nothing about a ceasefire or mutual hostage-taking, but nevertheless has ambitions to be more just than the historical status quo: “surge aid to support rebuilding [of Gaza], and…work with international partners to recognize Palestine as a state, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”

Finally, the single most forward-looking aspect of Lammy’s vision is the priority it assigns to the climate crisis and the need to respond to it with both a green transition (moving toward a net-zero carbon economy) and support for global climate adaptation (making others more resilient to the effects of climate change). This is indeed a universal progressive plank and if British foreign policy actually walked the walk on environmental policy, it would be a dramatic reversal from the past.

But I have many other concerns. I have never been a fan of the term “progressive realism” because it’s pregnant with logical tension.

Both realism and progressivism entail a set of political commitments—the binary of interests versus values is a false one. Interests are quite real, but whose interests, when it comes to matters of state, are quite opaque. The language of “interests” is often a particular way of expressing value preferences while reframing those you don’t prioritize as “values” contra your “interests”—a feat of rhetorical obfuscation that usually relies on overheated claims that survival or national status is at stake.

And while it’s possible to reconcile progressivism and realism in practice—something I try to help with below—that’s largely because both -isms are capacious and often function as floating signifiers.

Whatever might be said in favor of it, Lammy’s vision is full of tensions, doubtful assertions about how the world works, and unanswered questions. And it shows worrying signs of rehashing Blair-style neoconservatism, which was of course disastrous.

But those are precisely the risks you run when you ground your vision of foreign policy in expressly liberal political commitments that obscure who actually stands to gain—and at whose expense—from the policies you seek.

Image: Unsplash/Andreas*****