Beyond Good and Evil

Scholars Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg have recently published a piece in The Nation regarding the need for nuance in left foreign policy, and in particular how an over-reliance on moral frameworks may create weaknesses in Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy proposals. They argue that it is important to avoid falling back on harmful Cold War logics and that policymakers must instead focus on areas of cooperation. I asked them some questions about their piece and related topics over Facebook.

Emma Steiner: I’ve noticed a real trend of pieces about progressive foreign policy lately. What do you think precipitated the recent demands for a progressive and left foreign policy? It seems there has always been a real hunger on the left for an alternative to endless militarism, but that this is finally starting to be taken seriously.

Udi Greenberg: As we wrote in our piece, I think that the main instigation behind this is the election of Donald Trump. Trump is probably the first president to speak about foreign relations in terms that truly move beyond the Cold War – no platitudes about moral benevolence, no pretense to care about democracy promotion. Trump is also the first president in decades to run on a platform that was not committed to unmitigated free trade. So I think that the left has recognized breaking with orthodox American rhetoric on foreign relations may not be as electorally problematic as has long been assumed.

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Empire of Ignorance, Ignorance of Empire

A review of Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

By Kelsey D. Atherton

It is impossible to unmake an empire without describing its borders. The United States of America is a hodgepodge of imperial legacies and relationships that shape the entire structure of world politics today, but the history of the United States is largely learned as a subject bounded by the “logo map”–the common map of American territory featuring the lower 48 states and inserts for Alaska and Hawaii. It is entirely possible for white Americans to grow up in the mainland and come away with the impression that empire is something only other countries did, and that no one currently does. Textbooks keep the contradictions and obligations of westward expansion, Pacific and Caribbean interventions and occupations, and the forcible subjugation and exclusion of indigenous peoples all firmly locked away in a past that, the textbooks say, produced the self-contained republic the logo map depicts. As anyone who grew up outside the map can say, however, self-contained American republic is a myth.

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Correlation Does Not Equal Compellence: The Weak Evidence for Sanctions

Last November, Nicholas Mulder sparked a debate about the place of sanctions in the toolbox for progressive foreign policy, writing in The Nation that progressives must “move beyond the dominant consensus on how to deal with foreign policy problems as framed by the establishment, in which there are only two flavors: the mild option of sanctions and the radical option of war, neither of which works particularly well.” The piece drew responses, notably from Neil Bhatiya on this blog and from Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, both of whom made the case for sanctions as a flavor of policy worth preserving. The conversation continues here, with Mulder taking on the question of how we think about success in sanctions policy.

By Nicholas Mulder

If progressivism aims to create a better world, it should start by abandoning the tools of collective punishment. As I argued in The Nation, a whole suite of tools exist for directly going after specific individuals and companies who break or evade domestic and international laws. It is in this domain–by imposing sanctions on tax evaders, for example–that progressive foreign policy can regain some of the legitimacy that has been weakened by decades of excessive US interventionism and the Trump Administration’s antics.

Earlier this month Neil Bhatiya made a counter-case for economic sanctions as a tool of progressive foreign policy, arguing that “any measure that widens the distance between peace and war should be in the foreign policy toolbox.” If sanctions can effectively accomplish the same goals as military force, then they could be seen as a tool that forestalls war. Bhatiya and Drezner both argue that sanctions, if properly applied, can do just that: deter some state actions and compel others. Recent sanctions successes, they claim, justify keeping broad-based sanctions in the progressive foreign policy toolbox. The historical record, however, is not nearly that clear.

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Left Politics Should Never Stop at the Water’s Edge

By Tyler Bellstrom

When Bernie Sanders formally entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary this week, he did so with the most fleshed-out vision of a left foreign policy articulated by a primary candidate in at least a generation. The race is already teeming with candidates who have responded to the success of Sanders running from the left in the 2016 primary and the triumph of a left-leaning representatives in the 2018 midterms by offering domestic policies aimed at economic inequality and the distorting power of capital. Yet capital doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, and much as old Beltway policy hands would like to argue that it does, politics doesn’t stop there either.

The primary will be a debate about the meaning of progressivism as much as anything else, and that debate can’t be limited to domestic issues. For a candidate to be able to call themself a progressive in the 2020 presidential campaign, their politics must extend beyond the confines of borders and coasts. Their progressive values should shape their foreign policy as much as their domestic policy, and the connection between the two should be a centerpiece of their campaign.

Here are progressive foreign policy priorities that 2020 candidates can use that work in concert with the domestic policy messages they’ve built their campaigns on.

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Teamsters, Turtles, and Theorists: The Alter-Globalization Movement

By Michael Galant

Twenty-five years ago, a small band of mostly indigenous rural peasants declared uprising against the Mexican state on the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Five years later, over 40,000 protesters – union members, environmental activists, consumer advocates, and anarchists – filled the streets of Seattle, demonstrating against and even briefly shutting down the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Zapatista uprising and the Battle in Seattle were watershed moments in the emergence of a global network of resistance to neoliberal globalization known variously as the Global Justice Movement, the Alter-Globalization Movement, and, typically derisively, the Anti-Globalization Movement. The Alter-Globalization Movement (AGM) was (and though weaker now, still is)  a loose global network of progressive NGOs, unions, activists, and think tanks, united in opposition to neoliberal globalization and in the struggle for alternatives. As the American left works to articulate its foreign policy and strengthen its internationalist organizing, the anniversaries of these events should act as reminder and opportunity: to reflect on, learn from, and find inspiration in, the often-overlooked AGM.

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Every Tool Against Autocracy: A Progressive Case for Sanctions

By Neil Bhatiya

In November, Nicholas Mulder took to The Nation to make the case against economic sanctions as a tool of leftist foreign policy. Sanctions, he argued, have a far less effective record than US policymakers’ instinctive preference for them would suggest, and cause more damage to innocent parties than the foreign policy establishment should be comfortable with; in either case, Mulder is skeptical progressive should desire applying them to US adversaries.   

However, in calling for the rejection of sanctions, Mulder is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When it comes to the left foreign policy goals Mulder rightfully lauds–enforcing international norms on nonproliferation, human rights, and corruption, as well as busting oligarchs, ending tax evasion, and deterring other financial crimes–sanctions are a more realistic and more effective tool than any alternative at hand.

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Ending the Siege

By John Carl Baker

In 2018, the Korean reconciliation process resulted in summits at Panmunjom and Pyongyang, numerous sports and cultural exchanges, the reunion of separated families, a veritable non-aggression agreement between North and South, and yes, an unprecedented meeting between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. The left has long advocated for greater engagement with North Korea, but President Trump’s prominent role in this opening has many viewing a promising opportunity with dismissiveness and suspicion. Some see it as yet another example of our own aspiring dictator cozying up to established autocrats and other authoritarians abroad. Others regard the process as a substanceless sham to prop up Trump’s poll numbers or distract from the dizzying number of administration scandals at home. Over the past year, Congressional Democrats have often promoted these narratives while offering only tepid support for diplomacy.

These criticisms are not unfounded. Trump is a racist demagogue presiding over an administration of mustache-twirling plutocrats who have made their admiration for repressive regimes quite clear. Trump’s glowing descriptions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are in incredibly poor taste and can reasonably be cited as further evidence of his own contempt for human rights and democracy. And the administration undoubtedly exploits diplomacy with North Korea–a rare bright spot in a deeply unpopular and failing presidency–to make it seem like it’s actually accomplishing something.

Yet viewing this historic moment solely through the lens of Trump obscures the broader picture. Together the Koreas have forged an opportunity not only for peace but for addressing the North’s nuclear weapons program, a longstanding US goal. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s vision of a simultaneous dual-track process is now underway, with the US leading on nuclear negotiations and the Koreas handling peninsular concerns. Trump may be at the helm of the former by necessity, but he should not be allowed to take center stage in a drama in which he is at best a supporting character. Foregrounding Trump negates the agency of those on both sides of the demilitarized zone – and risks spurning left solidarity with the Moon administration in favor of scoring minor partisan points.

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