Rachel Kleinfeld, president of the Truman National Security Project, is convinced that progressives in the United States have an opportunity to dominate the nation’s security debate for the next generation.
With a popular president leading their cause, the opposition party in disarray, and Americans hungering for a better understanding of the world, she believes that progressives are at the edge of the political and policy “Promised Land.”
“I see the next four years as a very exciting time,” Kleinfeld said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. “We want to run the ball down the field as far as we can during this time. There is a window of opportunity. If progressives do our work well, we can own national security issues for the next generation.”
But she cautioned that the progressive worldview has not yet prevailed in the U.S. national security debate. She urges progressives to continue to think hard about security issues, offer solutions that are rooted in the country’s values, articulate a clear and compelling security vision, and train a new generation of informed and passionate advocates to champion the cause.
In the meantime, Kleinfeld is optimistic. “We have a president who gets it and who is doing the right thing. We have a conservative apparatus that is on its back foot and hasn’t been able to get a new message out. And we have an American public that wants to hear a new story on national security. They want to hear some explanation on how to keep America safe in the 21st century,” she said.
Kleinfeld works to advance the progressive agenda as leader of the Truman National Security Project, a training institute for progressives that has developed a network of leaders running for office, advising presidential and congressional campaigns, drafting legislation in Congress, and taking leadership positions in the military.
Soft spoken and precise, Kleinfeld grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which she describes as a conservative community with a strong military tradition. At the age of 16, she started an Amnesty International chapter in her community, and she has been deeply interested in human rights issues since her teenage years.
Kleinfeld received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and was a Rhodes scholar. She studied international relations at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, earning both her master’s and doctorate there.
Over the last decade, she has worked on human rights and development issues in India, Israel and the Middle East, later expanding her interests to include security issues.
“One of the things I learned in my travels was the incredible importance of security and law and order to development and human rights,” she noted. “To me, this is a continuation of the same work.”
In addition to her work as president and chief executive officer of the Truman Project, Kleinfeld has done consulting projects for Booz Allen Hamilton, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Culture of Lawfulness Project, the Open Society Institute and the World Bank.
Interested in U.S. foreign policy, Kleinfeld was deeply disappointed by the 2004 presidential election in which President George W. Bush defeated his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. She believed that Bush’s security policies endangered the nation and destabilized the world — and she was particularly frustrated and angry that security issues actually helped Bush defeat Kerry in the election.
During the campaign, Kleinfeld met with a colleague, Matthew Spence, to discuss how the American public had come to distrust progressives on security issues. They drafted a white paper that outlined a program for rebuilding Democratic security policy in which they argued that Democrats needed to develop and communicate a “strong, smart, principled security stance” that set the terms of the foreign policy debate.
They outlined three difficult security challenges that Democrats faced: a hostile rhetorical landscape in which conservatives appropriated the language of strength and security; a serious division among Democrats between pragmatists and idealists; and the absence of a compelling Democratic security agenda based on strength and values.
Kleinfeld and Spence concluded that modern-day progressives should embrace and build on the legacy of former President Harry Truman, who demonstrated that Democrats could craft tough, visionary and creative security policies.
“President Truman presided over the last era in which we entirely remade our foreign policy apparatus. Every piece of our foreign policy apparatus was created under Truman and that was 60 years ago,” Kleinfeld said, recalling that Truman created the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. The former president also championed NATO, the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods institutions.
“Truman was not a cerebral thinker. He had a lot of common sense and a lot of progressive values,” Kleinfeld said. “He integrated American power into the world. He built strong alliances. He understood soft power as part of an American push for a more stable world.”
The ideas developed by Kleinfeld and Spence attracted considerable notice among progressives, and the two decided to create the Truman National Security Project in 2005. A national security leadership institute that recruits, trains and positions a new generation of progressive leaders, the Truman Project is based on the premise that competent and credible progressives working across the country can persuade the American people that their vision of security can protect the nation and secure its prosperity.
This vision is based on the idea of America working closely with its allies to advance peace and prosperity while isolating and confronting those trying to undermine the United States. The group also advocates robust military and intelligence capabilities, while also promoting democracy and development abroad, as well as free trade. Issues it addresses range from non-state threats such as terrorism to deadly diseases and climate change.
The Truman Project operates out of a suite of offices in downtown Washington. It is funded by private individuals, corporations and foundations and has a distinguished group of outside advisors, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Perry.
Kleinfeld said the Truman Project provides the skills, knowledge and network to build an influential cadre of leaders to advocate progressive national security policies. It offers 80 security fellowships each year for young leaders from the U.S. political, security and media worlds who participate in seminars on security policy and the techniques of political persuasion.
The Truman Project also organizes national security “boot camps,” daylong workshops held around the country for state and local political candidates and progressive organizations. It also has a special program for political consultants and advocacy organizations for training in military, homeland security and national security issues.
In addition, the Truman Project runs a special program for congressional staff, as well as a training program for people in their late 20s and early 30s who hold, or are likely to get, important junior administration posts in the executive branch.
Kleinfeld noted that Truman Project alumni actively participated in the 2008 presidential election, working on the campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. A number of alumni are currently working in the Obama administration.
Obama’s election, Kleinfeld says, is a hopeful development for the progressive movement. “I think Obama is fantastic. It would be hard to ask for anyone better. He understands the need for strength. He understands the need for warmth, for extending an open hand and showing an America that is strong enough to have an open hand to the Muslim world. He is doing a lot for America’s strength in the world. In terms of advocating a progressive agenda while he keeps a strong hand on the tiller, he is doing an amazing job.”
But Kleinfeld believes that progressives need to do more to articulate a clear security strategy.
“The basic progressive tradition on national security is to build a stable world through opportunity and development and give other people a stake in the system,” she explained. “We are trying to show Americans that in the 21st century, the kind of security policies we need are actually a lot like those pursued by President Truman that helped win World War II and the Cold War. It’s vital to build security abroad and give people a stake in the system and use our military to play clean up against the very bad apples. When we pursue that kind of strategy we get stronger, the world gets more stable, and America gets more prosperous.”
Kleinfeld admits that communicating this vision remains a challenge, requiring progressives to use plain language, vivid metaphors and clear stories to explain how they will keep the nation strong and secure.
“The key to messaging is to know your values. If you know what you believe and have thought hard about it, you should be able to explain it clearly and succinctly. I think it’s a cop-out to say that it is harder to explain a progressive security policy. The problem that progressives face is not that are policies are so complex, but that we need to step back from our policies and talk about values,” she argued.
“Progressives tend to approach things intellectually rather than emotionally and through stories,” she added. “They tend to think in terms of policy. Most Americans think in terms of morality, values and rules of thumb when they look at the world. It’s incredibly necessary to teach policy experts to explain things in ways that are values-based, that make sense to Americans who don’t spend all of their time reading about al-Qaeda’s latest strategy.”
Kleinfeld is involved in a wide range of activities at the Truman Project. In addition to managing a staff of 10, she is busy fundraising, speaking, overseeing training programs, and writing about international affairs. “I get to do a little bit of everything. I like the opportunity to be an entrepreneur in Washington. There are not a lot of places in the city where you can do that.”
Kleinfeld said Obama’s victory last November and Democratic control of Congress gives progressives an opportunity — but it must be seized.
“We’ve always said it was a 20-year project to change a generation of perceptions and to change a generation of progressives. We are five years into it. The next four years are our biggest window of opportunity,” she insisted.
“Progressives have an incredible opportunity. We need to capture it. We have an opportunity that comes once every 40 or 50 years. Americans realize that something fundamental has changed about the world and they are ready to hear someone explain how the world has changed. But they haven’t yet heard it from either party.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.