Since 2017, Matt Duss has served as the foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders. From that position, Duss, who has a background in U.S.–Middle East policy, has been able to draw attention to issues—such as how U.S.-supplied arms to Saudi Arabia are contributing to humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen—that often go unchallenged. But his path to his current position was an unusual one. In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talk about how his background informs his thinking, what the Biden administration is doing well and where it should be doing better, and how to build a more robust infrastructure for progressive foreign policy.
Patrick Iber: Why did you become interested in foreign policy?
Matt Duss: A few reasons. First, my father’s family are refugees from Ukraine. He was born in a [displaced persons] camp in Germany after the Second World War and came as a young child to the promised land of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I grew up in Nyack, New York, but I spent a lot of time down in Brooklyn with my grandparents. Interacting with the community of Polish and Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in Greenpoint, hearing the conversations that took place around the table even if I wasn’t aware of their full political scope, gave me an awareness and interest in the wider world. Then, when I was ten years old, our family spent a year living in the Philippines while my parents both worked in a processing center in Bataan for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, who were fleeing in the wake of the Vietnam War. It was a very interesting time to be in the Philippines. It was the Ferdinand Marcos era; I was there when [opposition leader Benigno] Aquino was assassinated. It was also interesting to observe the Cold War from that vantage point. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down [by the Soviet Air Forces] when I was there. Two global superpowers eyeing each other with their hands on their guns certainly feels different when you aren’t behind them. I think those experiences planted an interest in international affairs.
Iber: And what about your path to progressive politics?
Duss: I grew up in a small Evangelical community in Rockland County, New York, which was otherwise very liberal. My parents’ lives and work reflected a very progressive understanding of Christianity, a strong emphasis on the care ethic we see in Jesus’s message in Matthew Chapter 25: “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to Me.” That’s the approach that undergirds my understanding of progressivism. What does it mean to love one’s neighbor? What does it mean to see the divine and the beautiful in all human beings, and to care for and act in solidarity with them? Even if I didn’t think of it in those terms then, that idea leant itself very easily to a progressive politics. I became much more active toward the mid- and late 1990s around the global justice movement. I did some organizing around the April 2000 protests against the IMF and the World Bank.
Iber: It makes sense that spending time outside of the United States would promote thinking about the welfare of people around the globe, and the effects of U.S. policy that are not always visible to people living in the United States.
Duss: And to be in the Philippines in 1984 and ’85, still dealing with the consequences of a U.S. war that had been over, as far as the United States was concerned, for ten years.
Iber: And in a former U.S. colony.
Duss: Exactly. The year before we arrived, Marcos had outlawed video games because they were leading to truancy. I learned this upon arriving in the Philippines. I was like, “Wait, you’ve outlawed what?” But you could play video games at the U.S. military bases, which were, and still are, made to resemble the imperial core as much as possible.
Duss: Yes, freedom. Real freedom is to plow quarters into Ms. Pac-Man.
Iber: Let’s move to the most immediate crisis of the moment: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s an event that has, in the eyes of many, given liberal democracy a renewed sense of purpose and has also caused some divisions on the left. How do you think about what’s happening on both those dimensions?
Duss: First of all, I think we need to start with the main question: what’s American foreign policy for? In its most basic sense, it’s for promoting the security and prosperity of the American people. But progressives take it as an obligation to think through what it means to act in solidarity with others, to consider the effects of U.S. foreign policy on others as well. What does that mean in Ukraine?
I think it’s simply right and responsible to acknowledge some of the steps the United States took to contribute to this situation. There’s been an ongoing discussion about some poor choices that were made, and what expanding NATO meant from Russia’s perspective. That’s not the total story. But there is a tendency to try and dismiss that, or to say that if you bring up NATO, you’re excusing what Putin is doing, which I think is completely wrong. Even U.S. officials like former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and current CIA Chief William J. Burns have said, in no uncertain terms, that this is something that really was problematic for Russia’s political leadership. That doesn’t mean that we take Putin at his word; even if we did, I think Putin has made it clear that he has a much broader set of grievances and a much more expansive set of goals about establishing a new Russian imperium.
There’s also the role the United States played in the 1990s in imposing the neoliberal shock therapy that basically auctioned off the Russian people’s resources, placed control in the hands of a small oligarchic elite, and helped set the stage for Putin’s rise—all because it served the geostrategic purposes of our own elites. We’ve seen similar things like this play out again and again, in Iran, in Iraq, in Chile, in various other countries and regions. Our political class wants to pretend it’s all ancient history, but it’s not, certainly not in the minds of the populations we’ve inflicted it on.
Turning back to today, what does it mean to stand with Ukrainians as they’re defending their country? We need to be clear that is what we’re doing, even if Ukraine faces its own problems with corruption; it’s a struggling democracy. The question is, how do we support Ukraine’s independence and its democracy in a way that doesn’t escalate into a larger war? How do we get to an outcome that results in fewer dead people rather than more? Right now, I think that’s continuing to help Ukrainians defend themselves from the Russian invasion, while being careful not to commit to any maximalist aims that could foreclose a negotiated settlement. Hawks will inevitably condemn anything short of complete Russian surrender as insufficient, as they always do, but some kind of negotiated agreement is the only way this ends. So even though supplying Ukraine is the right policy now, we should be ready to embrace and defend a settlement once one is possible. I just don’t see evidence that one is possible yet.
Iber: Though there are many differences between the two situations, the position the left is in now reminds me of the moment after 9/11. You have malevolent actors, in Osama bin Laden and Putin, whose actions caused the deaths of innocent people. Those who can’t acknowledge that will struggle to be taken seriously, as is appropriate. But, at the same time, in the years after 9/11, the left’s skepticism about how to respond to bin Laden’s attacks proved prescient. In those years and in that environment, it was difficult to call for a reevaluation of the U.S. global posture, because it would seem like arguing that bin Laden’s grievances against the United States justified his actions.
Duss: Right. I think here of Susan Sontag’s piece published in the New Yorker a few days after 9/11, in which she correctly noted that U.S. policy had contributed to the attacks and urged caution about being drawn into a righteous revenge crusade. She was pilloried for it, but she was totally correct. What’s interesting is that the Bush administration’s short-lived “Freedom Agenda” basically acknowledged that she was correct. The premise of the Freedom Agenda was that the United States had been supporting repressive, corrupt, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the name of security and stability, and that this support had blown back on us. When progressives make these arguments, we’re accused of blaming America, but that claim was valid. We supported these horrible regimes because we think they stabilize energy markets, they maintain security, they cooperate with us on intelligence—all of which is a nice way of saying they imprison their own populations—and that is part of what created a very receptive audience for someone like bin Laden.
Unfortunately, having made a partly correct diagnosis of the problem, the Bush administration’s course of treatment—the invasion of Iraq—made the problem far, far worse. There’s no question about that. So, let’s understand the challenges here. Let’s see the invasion of Ukraine and our response amid the broader challenges of the day: climate crisis, the pandemic, food shortages, the global erosion of democratic legitimacy, and a rising ultra-nationalist right, much of which sees Putin as an avatar of white, Christian nationalism.
Iber: One of the dynamics of Biden’s foreign policy has been to present an autocracy versus democracy binary. In part, that’s in response to domestic politics, because Biden’s view was that the Trump administration was an autocratic threat to U.S. politics. (I think there’s plenty of evidence in support of that view.) Is this somewhat different from the communism versus capitalism framework that made up the first Cold War, when the United States obviously supported many undemocratic governments because they were anticommunist? The United States still has undemocratic allies, many in the Middle East—and there are geostrategic and economic reasons to explain that. But if foreign policy is going to be organized around autocracy and democracy, what are the tools that the United States can legitimately use to support democratic flourishing around the globe?
Duss: Obviously that’s a problematic framing, because as you noted the United States remains the main patron and armorer of some of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world. The first thing we can do if we’re actually serious about defending democracy is stop providing arms and giving political and diplomatic cover to abusive, undemocratic regimes. I’ve been really frustrated at how, despite some very bold claims about putting human rights back on the foreign policy agenda, the Biden administration has essentially pursued a realpolitik approach to a lot of these regimes, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The attitude is that we need them for certain things, and the domestic political costs of actually pressing them on human rights are higher than we feel like paying, so let’s just do business as usual. If it keeps going like this, it’s possible that the Biden administration could end up doing more damage to the cause of human rights than even the Trump administration, which was at least honest about the transactional nature of its foreign policy. No one was under any illusions that it cared about human rights. The Biden administration proclaims support for those values, but its policies show that it’s all just words. The cynicism that generates is devastating for our credibility, for our democratic allies, and an enormous boon to authoritarians, who love being able to point to this hypocrisy.
Any administration will always have excuses about why we need to work with bad guys to help us against these other, worse guys. It’s an endless cycle. Well, let’s end the cycle. A lot of it is driven by a perceived reliance on authoritarian petro-states. This is the moment, if ever there was one, to accelerate a green energy transition, to use this geostrategic crisis and the climate crisis to make the case that we need to use every tool in the executive toolbox to transition away from fossil fuels.
Iber: Beyond doing less harm, and committing to a green energy transition, are there other things that the United States should be doing, other kinds of tools that we have to reduce the power of oligarchy?
Duss: I think this is a place where the Biden administration has taken some good steps: targeting, freezing, and seizing oligarchs’ wealth, and ending tax shelters and the beneficial ownership rules that a lot of these kleptocrats use to hide and launder their money. The real hard stuff comes from recognizing that the United States is one of the biggest kleptocratic laundromats in the world. I’m not sure the Biden administration is going to be up for dealing with that problem, because that would require confronting powerful domestic interests, which is something they haven’t shown that they have the political stomach for.
Oligarchy is not just a foreign problem. Huge sums, tens of millions of dollars, are plowed into races by very wealthy individuals to beat back progressive challengers. Campaign finance is a central part of any genuine anti-corruption agenda—you cannot understate it. Mitch McConnell has made it clear that the number one mission of his political life is to prevent campaign finance reform. That should tell us a lot, right?
Iber: The United States is regularly criticizing other countries for corruption, but there’s a lot of rot right at the core of our own institutional arrangements. Some of it is legal, which maybe is part of the problem. There’s something really central to the way our system is supposed to work that makes it vulnerable to these pressures.
Duss: There’s a tacit agreement among our political class that we’re just not going to call this corruption. We’re supposed to agree that members of Congress and candidates and elections being dominated by special interest money is not corruption. If our democracy is going to survive, we need to be honest about the extent of this corruption, how it severely constrains, if not completely obstructs, our ability to govern democratically.
Iber: You’re concerned about broad-based U.S. sanctions on Russia. In cases like Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, sanctions do not have a strong record of producing the kind of discontent with the regime that leads to the pressure to change systems. They do have a record of causing significant suffering. At the same time, you have spoken approvingly of targeted sanctions such as seizing assets of oligarchic wealth. How do we distinguish between sanctions that are likely to be productive and those that are likely to be counterproductive?
Duss: I think we have to make a distinction between sanctions that target individuals with actual decision-making power and sanctions that just brutalize populations without that power. How do we expect sanctions that immiserate populations to change the behavior of regimes that don’t care about their populations? The logic seems to be that if you just pressure people hard enough and make them miserable for long enough, eventually they’ll revolt. But where has that worked?
With regard to Iran, I think the key is that eventually there were concessions made by all parties, including regarding Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which created the possibility for an agreement and the lifting of sanctions. Trump reversed it, because his goal was not to have a deal with Iran at all. Despite what Trump and some of the hawks say, it’s very clear: they don’t oppose this Iran deal; they oppose any kind of deal with Iran. And this is part of the problem. Sanctions are seen as a politically easy way to demonstrate, “I am against this bad thing!” but they’ve started to be used mainly as a way for opponents of diplomacy to create political costs for future diplomacy and to lock in policies that point us toward continued conflict.
It’s tough politically, because no one wants to be on the side of defending a lot of these governments. That’s the point. But we’ve had this embargo against Cuba for decades, we’ve had massive sanctions on Venezuela, and we now have massive sanctions on Russia. Do we just keep them in place in perpetuity, achieving nothing? More than anything, they tend to benefit some of the most corrupt, and the most hardline, elements of these regimes.
Iber: And they often make people more dependent on the government.
Duss: That’s right. And at the same time, domestic political costs for removing sanctions are raised. Look at Iran or Cuba: it’s become a real red line to argue we should shift this policy. There are political costs that a president or any other leader might not want to pay because they want to do other things that they consider more important.
Iber: Ben Rhodes, who is generally considered to be President Obama’s most progressive advisor on foreign policy, used the phrase “the blob” to describe the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. Is that a description that makes sense to you?
Duss: It’s a valuable concept. It’s helpful as a shorthand for the groupthink of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which obviously exists. You can see this in any kind of policy realm or any industry. There’s conventional wisdom that often goes unchallenged. That’s not to say there isn’t critical thinking going on in Washington foreign policy; I think there is. But there are serious career disincentives to challenging the preconceptions about American exceptionalism. Understanding what those limits are, and why and how they are enforced, is necessary if we want to break them.
What is American exceptionalism? One way of understanding it is as an affirmation of faith by the priestly class of American foreign policy. It’s faith in the idea that America is always on the side of good, that while America may make mistakes, we always have good intentions. Even though sometimes it doesn’t work out, and hundreds of thousands of people are killed and millions of people are displaced, we mean well. American exceptionalism is a way of not really having to look at policies and the outcomes they produce to ask if they’re working. There were very few upsides to Trump’s presidency, but I would say that one was revealing that huge numbers of Americans have serious and legitimate questions about this expansive view of American power and how it is helping them.
The priestly class often responds to such heretical questions with cries of “isolationism,” which is obviously silly but is itself an admission of how shaky they are in their own faith. In this moment we have the opportunity to have more of an honest and frank debate about what American foreign policy is really for. Even though our relative share of power is declining, our country is still enormously powerful. We have a set of alliances and partnerships and relationships around the world that no other country can match. What are we actually trying to do with that power? What kind of global order are we trying to build? How do we promote our own security and prosperity while promoting, or at least not hindering, the security, prosperity, and dignity of others around the world?
Iber: What kind of institutions would somebody who wants to move U.S. foreign policy in a more progressive direction need? Because you’re going to have to cut through some of the inherent resistance that will come from existing groups.
Duss: Over the past fifteen or so years, I think we have seen the creation of a really energetic and effective progressive foreign policy coalition made up of advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, and scholars. But we still lack a traditional think tank or set of think tanks that can articulate what a progressive foreign policy is and can coordinate with others around the world who are doing the same, particularly those in countries and communities most negatively impacted by U.S. militarism. There’s a huge list of right-wing, interventionist, militarist think tanks, many of them funded by the defense industry. We can’t turn to defense contractors—nor should we—to promote progressive ideas. I think that tends to distort the debate, because there’s not a lot of money for what progressives are proposing. It’s another aspect of D.C. corruption: the ideas that get promoted, the policy papers that get written, the fellowships that get funded, and the junkets you get to take are determined, in large part, by whose monetary interests are being served.
Iber: Is there anything that the left should avoid doing in order to not put itself in a difficult position?
Duss: Part of the challenge is working within the current foreign policy structure to respond to crises of the moment, which we need to do, while also building toward a new and better one. We need to build left institutions that can facilitate a more active and engaged discussion about what a progressive vision of American foreign policy is and why it would ultimately be better for Americans, and the world, to put those ideas into practice. And we need to work with colleagues around the world who are trying to do the same.
Matt Duss is the foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders. The views expressed here are his own.
Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.