Is the Left Ready to Handle National Security?
The phrases “progressive politics” and “national security” rarely appear together. When “national security” shows up in the pages of leftist political publications at all, it’s usually as an object of criticism. Yet, were the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party to take over Washington – Elizabeth Warren, for one, seems to be burnishing her foreign policy credentials – the burden of national security would be on their shoulders. Which is why it’s important to acknowledge that ideological friction between progressivism and national security is not inevitable and these phrases need not be contradictions in terms. In recent months, even voices on the left have started to decry the absence of “the left wing’s foreign policy agenda,” and acknowledge that progressives are historically far more comfortable advocating for social and economic justice at home than they are litigating what that should mean for U.S. conduct abroad.
But the argument that the left is totally silent on foreign policy simply isn’t true. Georgetown University’s Daniel Nexon recently proposed that “corporate power, concentrated wealth, environmental dangers, corruption” are threats that should galvanize a leftist foreign policy today. And as Princeton University scholar and longtime co-editor of the leftist Dissent magazine Michael Walzer has observed, the left’s common pursuit of social justice, economic equality and cultural pluralism at home extends to the global stage, in principle.
People on the left routinely oppose unilateral wars of choice, like Iraq in 2003, Syria in 2013, and the North Korean near-miss in 2017. A principled humanitarian argument for military intervention could’ve been made in the Syria case, and yet it was the left that most vocally agitated against any kind of involvement there because they saw it as an elective war. They advocate multilateral solutions to transnational problems like climate change and anti-corruption. Indeed, they believe environmental degradation and international corruption are major foreign policy concerns, a mild contrast with mainstream Democrats and a wild contrast with the Trump administration. And they support protecting human rights in countries with long-disenfranchised or oppressed populations. As the Bush and Clinton administrations chose to make China an economic partner in the 1990s, it was the left that marched in the street, supported sanctions on China and passed around “Free Tibet” stickers. Theirs is a moralistic, values-oriented foreign policy whether at home or abroad.
The problem, then, isn’t that the left lacks any foreign policy positions. Rather, it’s that those positions are sometimes in tension with one another and tell us little about progressive thinking when it comes to a security agenda even when they aren’t in tension.
Different from Neoliberalism How?
One of the problems with the left’s principled foreign policy positions is that they resemble something the left has spent a lifetime rallying against: neoliberalism. For the left, the term “neoliberalism” has often had a pejorative association with capitalist empire; a ruling class controlling the global means of production while the rest of us take out loans for our avocado toast. Yet neoliberal foreign policy—especially as understood in the field of international relations—reflects a commitment to democracy promotion, human rights, economic interdependence, multilateralism over unilateralism, the primacy of upholding international commitments and the legitimacy of international institutions like the United Nations. In other words, a neoliberal foreign policy looks strikingly similar to what the left repeatedly advocates. It should thus be unsurprising that some neoliberals are of the political left.
There is one major difference: neoliberals and the left have usually parted ways when it comes to prioritizing what I would characterize as process versus outcomes in foreign policy. Neoliberalism’s logic is one of process in the sense that certain types of conduct abroad over time produce a certain type of world. The earliest conviction of neoliberalism was the necessity of ensuring the free flow of commodities and capital across borders. That first principle eventually necessitated both the acknowledgement of some degree of protections for individual rights (ironically, human beings are capital too) and the legitimacy of international law—specifically the need to respect and enforce international contracts. Credible contracting, in turn, has meant sustaining the principle of international commitments. Some contracts, such as treaties promising to protect select U.S. allies, require the possibility of using force abroad in the name of enforcing American promises. The belief is that such commitments, when credible, actually prevent the aggression that might force the United States to make good on them. Thus, the sales pitch for neoliberal foreign policy is that its mutually reinforcing package of ideas—free markets, interdependence, democracy, human rights and institutions—encourages international cooperation, discourages conflict and promotes a shared sense of justice among nations, especially in the form of a rising economic tide that lifts all boats (global aggregate economic development). This was the logic behind postwar institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and, eventually, the World Trade Organization.
For certain segments of the left, however, transborder capitalism—which is only one part of the neoliberal bargain but the part on which the left has transfixed for decades—has produced unacceptable social and political outcomes in the form of stunted economic development, eroded sovereign control over national economies, displaced low-skilled workers and even spawned political corruption. These undesirable occurrences derive from the neoliberal tendency to treat an interconnected world economy as sacrosanct and the uneven distribution of wealth across the world as trivial or a necessary evil. The left likes that interdependence potentially inhibits conflict, that human rights have gone legitimately mainstream and that democracy has spread—all outcomes that have occurred thanks in part to (not despite) neoliberalism’s 20th century prominence. But at least some leftists loathe the idea that capitalism might have played a necessary role in producing these outcomes.
The left isn’t wrong to see a certain unfairness in the Reagan-Thatcher economic vision as applied to the Global South, or in the way the World Bank and IMF forced developing nations to relinquish economic sovereignty. There is both a logic and a moral imperative to treating extreme global inequality as a problem to be addressed through foreign policy. But emphasizing outcomes has led the left to adopt positions that don’t emanate from a clear theory of how means and ends are supposed to relate. How do you get to the just outcomes you prize? A focus on the content of ends leaves unanswered the question of means. This is where a coherent international agenda would be invaluable.