It is too often said of progressives that they are so obsessed with their opposition to the military industrial complex they completely disregard the fact that a strong military is required for democratic forms of government to persist. While that often sounds like it is the case, any serious student of history or advocate for the continuation of democratic forms of government recognizes the need but also recognizes the need to balance the military's autocratic structure with strong connections to civil society.

In the case of the United States, the need is accentuated because the U.S. has established itself as the hegemonic power which adds self-imposed global responsibilities to secure allies, trade routes and access to resources. The need for the U.S., therefore, is for a much larger military than required for countries with lesser ambition. Too often progressives misjudge the malevolence of those outside U.S. borders while focusing on the malevolence of policymakers and military influences contained within our own borders. This leads to hostility toward the American military establishment that is not wholly deserved.

In a similar vein, liberals worry constantly that the political influence of the military disproportionately sways decisions that adversely impact on personal freedom and civil liberties; create and sustain a national sense of anxiety, fear or anger; or keep the country continuously engaged in wars.


So the question becomes, in approaching elections at all levels of national importance, how does a progressive advocate policy positions that balance between the need to protect national sovereignty; political institutions and traditions; project power to the world; and maintain the highest point on the slippery slope of moral integrity that those constraints permit? Since liberals and progressives only represent around 24 percent of the electorate, this is of particular importance if they ever hope to gain wholesale support in elections.

The size and commitment to the military is not a simple subject. Some of the objectives will necessarily conflict, but there are policy positions progressives can take that both set them aside from centrist and conservative political positions, add materially to the political discourse and should garner increased support for their candidates.

First, as odd as it might first appear, progressives need to advocate for universal service. Every high-school graduate or teenager reaching the age of 18 should be required to serve three years in service to the country. Service need not be in the armed forces, but that should be one of a variety of options presented. Service can include anything from community action like AmeriCorps, government agency internships, oversees missions in Peace Corps, health services or the armed forces. The purpose and use of universal service is to instill and generate a more informed and committed citizenry, provide job and technical training, restrict the pressure on the American labor force and provide a moderating influence on the use of force.

Second, develop a concept of appropriate resource allocation. Military expenditures currently stand at $673 billion and represents just under 18 percent of the U.S. federal budget. This is only part of the defense costs since "overseas contingency operations" (read that to mean Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria) are not included in the budget but are funded separately with supplemental appropriations bills and currently add approximately $130 billion to that number. Progressives can start by demanding that the entire cost of the military be included in the budget, that overseas contingencies require a war tax and a pay-as-you-go approach. To insist on this would highlight the high cost of, and enthusiasm for, questionable wars.

Likewise, progressives can demand audits of the Pentagon, cost-effective analysis of missions, strengthening of defense acquisition procedures, reduced armaments and manpower, and discontinuation of obsolete arsenalry. Oddly enough, these are all suggestions made in 2010 by the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which was populated by mostly conservative analysts. The most important focus for progressives is to advocate the balancing of military spending against diplomatic efforts, intelligence gathering, police action, cultural exchange and education. The budget of the State Department (which encompasses many of these measures) is less than 10 percent of the military budget. If progressives demanded a formula to balance the two efforts, it would force policymakers to better balance efforts for peaceful solutions versus warlike impulses. If the ratio were 75 percent military and 25 percent State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and the like, it would double resources devoted to these efforts without gutting defense.

Third, advocate foreign policy objectives that realistically assess the forces in the world and the level of U.S, engagement desired. The biggest single foreign policy conundrum for progressives is the desire to advocate for human rights, democratic institutions and free markets. The problem is that these goals are unobtainable in many parts of the world. It is hard to imagine, for example, that China could have evolved its current rate of economic development without an autocratic political system. How does a population that massive move from 5,000 years of dynastic warfare and automatically become democratic? Similarly, how can the U.S. expect to achieve any semblance of stability in the Middle East when religious differences, tribalism and ethnic diversity defy our understanding? Progressives should be advocating a containment policy that allows for economic, cultural, educational, travel and security options without dictating the terms of a civil society. Likewise, progressives should advocate for tariffs and duties to enforce our attitudes about cheap labor, unsafe working conditions and political oppression.

Fourth, target and attack the neoconservatives and war hawks with arguments of policy objectives, not just objections. As distance grows from the events of 9/11, it becomes increasingly clear that the mindset of the George W. Bush administration was to create the conditions for preemptive war and the furtherance of imperial America. While these forces have been somewhat subdued and the current administration is dealing with the mess left behind, neocons are still quite visible and many Americans are quite receptive to warlike responses prompted by the fear and anxiety they stir up. Progressives cannot be oblivious to the threats of terrorism, but must work against the political legacy that has taken security measures to extremes that threaten our civil society. Advocacy for the revision of the Patriot Act, the pursuit of legal action against governmental agencies that carried out torture and submittal to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court should all be parts of a progressive agenda.

Finally, state clearly where and how the military should be used. For example, the president has spoken of pivoting the focus of military attention to Southeast Asia and confronting Chinese expansionist claims in the South China Sea. Are progressives for or against? Russia annexes parts of Georgia and Ukraine. At what point is there a need to intervene? What is the appropriate response? As the U.S. draws down on its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and militants like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pop up, where and how can the U.S. withdraw in an arena where it bears heavy responsibility for the current state of affairs?

Americans speak about our system occupying "the moral high ground" or American exceptionalism. But progressives must realize that our system does neither. While military strength is a realistic imperative for survival as a political system, progressives are far better served placing this issue area into an appropriate context. There is far more needed to perfect the domestic system, but ignoring the need for a strong military and a sensible foreign policy is not an option. Without a clear-cut set of policy objectives in this arena, progressives will never be taken to be more than a marginal "feel good" force in American politics.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.