Democrats must engage foreign policy to preserve liberal world order

Many of the Democratic presidential candidates rightly have called for more humane treatment of asylum seekers at America’s border and challenged President Trump’s demonization of Hispanic immigrants. Many have agreed on the need for “comprehensive immigration reform” that would offer a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants already residing in the U.S. A few have advocated foreign aid for Central America.  

However important, such proposals fail to address the massive problems of poverty, violence  and war —intensifying with climate change — that drive people to flee so many countries. Meanwhile, the West’s rising nationalism, fueled by protectionist and nativist responses to the wave of refugees arriving from the Middle East and North Africa, threatens the Western heartland of the liberal international order. Addressing that source of danger is an immediate challenge. 

The Democratic candidates would do well to remember that, as the world descended into the horrors of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt offered a pragmatic internationalist vision that supplanted the isolationism of the original “America First” movement, setting the stage for post-war policies that long prevented the return of right-wing populism and fascism. Those policies resolved a massive post-war refugee crisis by rebuilding war-ravaged countries and creating millions of jobs.  

Democrats need to reclaim the soul of their party by upholding the core human rights values associated with America’s rise to world leadership. That vision can be traced to Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, when he famously affirmed the “Four Freedoms” — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear — to counter the anti-liberal regimes that launched a world war. 

Those principles provided a crucial underpinning for European stabilization and recovery as FDR’s vision was translated into practical plans: the United Nations, Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), forged as integrated components of the emerging international liberal order. 

FDR and his post-war successors well understood that economic prosperity and liberal values should be sustained at home and abroad. Absent such a comprehensive vision from the Democratic Party’s nominee, Trump will come out looking like an international expert by comparison. It will not be enough to challenge his boasts about “defeating” ISIS, restoring foreigners’ respect for America and cutting deals to America’s advantage — all reinforced by insiders’ accounts of his personal talks with foreign leaders.   

Meanwhile, renewed social unrest is brewing in the Middle East and North Africa, and in particular Algeria and Sudan. Refugees are fleeing a resurgent ISIS; the bombing of Syrian cities by Bashar al-Assad’s regime with support from Russia’s Vladimir Putin; and ongoing wars in Yemen and Libya. Western isolationism and fatigue are becoming increasingly dangerous. If Democrats continue to turn inward, overlooking the weakening international liberal order, their failure will only feed what has become a vicious cycle of isolationism and insecurity.

In the Middle East, there is simply no alternative but to address the region’s problems at their source. Democrats should issue a clarion call for comprehensive solutions. Antidotes to right-wing populism and the rise of fascism, fed by the refugee crisis and widening economic inequity, would include confronting the failures of past Western policies toward the region, learning from historically successful endeavors, and promoting the full spectrum of human rights. 

This is no chimera, as there are positive developments that have fallen below the radar of political campaigns. For example, high-level conversations are occurring, particularly in the Arab Gulf, toward expanding regional economic integration — to include modern transportation networks, new financial structures and a commitment to renewable energy across a sundrenched region. These plans could be extended to address the needs of the millions of Syrian refugees displaced to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, along with the region’s massive unemployment.  

As regional powers grow weary of the brutal, financially draining and unwinnable proxy wars driving the refugee crisis, Western leadership guided by liberal values can help provide sustainable solutions. These would include prioritizing efforts aimed at rapprochement between Iran and the Arab Gulf states in Syria and Yemen. More immediately, Western engagement could build on today’s strengthening security cooperation between Israel, Jordan and Egypt by promoting economic development and other human rights for Palestinians, thereby addressing one underlying source of their conflict with Israel. 

The Middle East desperately needs American and Western assistance to advance the interlinked human rights preconditions for longstanding stability. The viability of Western democracy, in turn, needs a peaceful Middle East as an essential step toward halting the global refugee crisis. To rebuild the international liberal order, the Democrats should embrace practical human rights proposals, rather than be complicit through disengagement. 

“The world will either move forward toward unity and widely shared prosperity,” cautioned Roosevelt, “or it will move apart.” The stakes are too high, and the world cannot afford to lose.   

Micheline Ishay is a distinguished professor at the University of Denver and director of the International Human Rights Program in its Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She is the author of “The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights and the Future of the Middle East” (Yale University Press, August 2019).

Tags 2020 Democrats Aftermath of war Donald Trump Forced migration Franklin Roosevelt Human rights Refugee crisis Vladimir Putin

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