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.

The world too easily throws progressive preferences into obvious conflict. Are you, for instance, willing to undo the strategic benefits of economic interdependence (such as the absence of great power wars) if it more fairly redistributes the benefits of the global economy? Facing ethnic cleansing campaigns or genocides, what will staunch a rising civilian body count except for the threat or use of military force? It’s not that other parts of the political spectrum have questions like these figured out and the left doesn’t. It’s just that the left hasn’t grappled with these questions from a position of power and constrained resources, and there’s a strand of pacifism on the left that would not actually acknowledge the utility of force, even in instances where it would spare the mass slaughter of the innocent. A positive foreign policy agenda requires a statement of positive action—not just what you oppose, but what you stand for and intend to do.

No Theory of Security
There’s a second problem with progressive foreign policy preferences to the extent we can draw them out: None of it amounts to a statement about the hard choices involved in national security affairs. Put another way, the most identifiable tropes of leftist foreign policy tell us little about the kinds of foreign policy decisions the United States needs to make in order to secure itself in a tumultuous world.

It’s easy to say that trillions of dollars spent on defense should be diverted to health care and education, or that we should avoid ending up in another Vietnam quagmire. But if given the congressional power of the purse or the policy levers of the executive, what will the left decide on national security, even in broad strokes? The list of issues is long, but there are a few clusters of decisions on defense and geopolitics that would reveal much about whether the trajectory of the left ultimately skews toward the radical or the pragmatic.

On national defense:
Militaries can’t be built on-demand to meet the threats of the day. They have to be built in expectation of future challenges. What should the size and shape of the U.S. military be? What roles and missions does it need to be prepared to handle? What geopolitical risks is the left willing to accept by shrinking the military? What are the criteria for shrinkage? And how, if at all, should U.S. forces be globally distributed? Even if an empowered left believes the use of force should only take place within multilateral coalitions officially sanctioned by the United Nations, that has implications for force structure. A defense budget still has to be submitted to reflect that kind of mission set.

On nuclear disarmament:
Nuclear abolition has been a longtime passion project of the left. But would they seek rapid and unilateral nuclear disarmament whatever the existential vulnerabilities it might pose to the United States? An empowered left would doubtless pursue an arms control agenda with other nuclear powers, but 1) that’s a more modest pursuit than the utopianism of full disarmament, and 2) with rivals like Russia and rogues like North Korea, mutual threat reduction measures will only take you so far. Obama’s position embodied progressive leaning pragmatism—promoting a vision of a world without nukes and seeking out arms control negotiations where possible, but in practice acknowledging that some level of nuclear weapons both maintain deterrence between nuclear rivals and helps prevent allies like South Korea and Japan from going nuclear themselves. Could the left get on board with that?

On international order:
Russia and China both seek spheres of influence that would override the formal sovereignty of their neighbors. If they had their way, and to some extent they currently do, they’d exercise exclusionary control over the foreign and economies policies of the smaller states along their geographic peripheries. This was the dominant mode of international diplomacy in the age of empires during the 19th century—great powers treating smaller powers like commodities to be swapped and hoarded. The current international system, built around institutions like the United Nations and an alphabet soup of treaties and regimes, formally recognizes the sovereign equality of states. In practice, of course, even the United States has frequently violated that principle of sovereign equality. But permitting Russia and China to do the same now would perpetuate one of the travesties of injustice that the left has railed against going back as far as Mark Twain—national self-determination for the powerful only.

So when assertive great powers erode the independence of smaller states—whether through predatory economics or hybrid warfare—will the left prioritize cooperation among the great powers for the sake of stability at the expense of smaller states’ preferences? Will the left enter defense cooperation arrangements that attempt to balance and inhibit assertions of influence by other great powers? Or will they staunchly defend the principle of sovereign equality among states, which at a certain point starts to resemble (ironically) neoconservatism? Senator Bernie Sanders used his only foreign policy speech in 2017 to simultaneously take issue with international financial institutions while still endorsing the liberal international order more broadly. Seeing the strategic bets of neoliberalism as something worth reforming rather than junking entirely, as Trump seems to have decided, implies not just pragmatism, but that Sanders sees some merit in the bets of the past.

On authoritarianism and democracy:
It’s one thing to say America won’t help overthrow democratically elected governments—as in did in Chile in 1973, for instance—or that it will no longer impose democracy on others through the barrel of a gun. But what kind of relationships will a progressive government cultivate with the growing number of dictatorships around the world? There are already laws in place preventing foreign military assistance to individuals known or suspected of human rights abuses, but what about foreign military sales to illiberal governments like Pakistan and Egypt? Or development assistance to countries at risk of being coopted by China, like the Philippines (still technically a U.S. ally) or the many vulnerable Pacific Island nations? For the sake of the China market, will the left make the same implicit deal as past presidential administrations—circumscribing a relationship with democratic Taiwan in various ways so that the United States can maintain a functional and profitable relationship with authoritarian China?

Perhaps most important in the digital age, how will the left choose to regulate Silicon Valley’s Big Tech collaborations with dictatorships abroad that would use the technology of American companies to systematically oppress their own populations? Right now China is courting Facebook and Google even as reports emerge that it runs an oppressive surveillance stateagainst its minority Uighur population and is developing a technology-based social credit system (yes, like the one in Black Mirror). The most prominent voices on the left speak out against large multinationals as a general proposition, but have said little about the specific issue of American technology going to work for neo-Orwellianism in China.

Progressive views on foreign policy don’t leave many hints about how the left would answer important questions on national security like those posed above. This is a shame because America’s longstanding consensus in favor of liberal internationalism has been fractured, and nothing has replaced it. What’s more, there’s much within a liberal internationalist agenda that the left would probably like to salvage if it invested the intellectual effort in construction as much as it has criticism.

There’s an opportunity to articulate a moral foreign policy that nevertheless rejects neoconservatism; that promotes a fidelity to international order without robbing developing-world economies; that takes international commitments seriously without being the world’s police; that probes for opportunities to collaborate with great power competitors without turning a blind eye to their aggression against smaller states; and that balances the harm it sees in the wanton use of American power abroad with a recognition of the positive role it plays.

The left is more than capable of a principled national security agenda that actually does make America safer. But it requires eschewing old antagonisms and taking national security seriously, reckoning the left’s moral convictions and the outcomes they seek with the world as it is.

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