By Caleb Weaver
For socialists, one of the most frustrating aspects of United States foreign policy is the ease with which think tanks influence the policy process despite their lack of popular support, grassroots presence, or even a particularly broad audience. Both the avowed right wing and the so-called center turn funding from capitalists into a steady stream of studies, reports, and white papers with conclusions that too often align with the material interests of their funders. As the need to develop and implement left-wing foreign policy becomes more apparent, a temptation has emerged to recreate this policy method by cultivating our own set of foreign policy think tanks to wage ideological battle against the “experts” and “fact-checkers.”
Zack Beauchamp’s 2017 piece in Vox (referring to progressives in general, rather than specifically the socialist left) encapsulates the argument that the lack of countervailing think tanks is to blame for the right wing’s domination of the foreign policy discourse. More recently, the thinking goes that “left wing foreign policy institutions” will improve foreign policy here and now by arming existing left-of-center politicians with actionable proposals while also incubating the foreign policy ideas that a future leftist movement will need to win support and wield power. The rush to establish institutions, however, overlooks the role that social forces must play in developing all aspects of a socialist program, foreign policy included. Formulating the left’s foreign policy at the elite level can only result (and has resulted before) in policies that are unacceptable for committed socialists. The need to root the left’s foreign policy in social movements stems from three observations.
First is the fundamental principle that foreign policy, like all political developments, must advance the liberation of oppressed people. The process of elites formulating policies on behalf of oppressed groups violates the pursuit of self-determination for the oppressed that is at the heart of the socialist project. As socialists, we must always seek to advance our cause by going to where the people are, trusting, as Eugene Debs wrote, that “the people are ready for their day.” Feminist organizations, racial justice groups, labor unions, tenants’ associations, indigenous resistance efforts, and the undocumented movement are where oppressed people are taking action to defend themselves from attacks and construct a new, just society here in the US. They must also be the site where the international ramifications of their struggle are decided.
Second, the right’s policy development model flows naturally from the right’s model of politics and is poorly suited for left-wing purposes. Merely imitating it will prevent us from amassing the power needed to implement socialist foreign policy. Isolating policy development in think tanks, away from the population, perpetuates a system in which capital, rather than organization and mobilization, is the motor of policymaking and political success. Attempting to beat the right at the think tank game is a strategic error that accepts capital as a prerequisite for power and neglects the left’s working-class base. Such a strategy is unlikely to produce a true socialist transformation of foreign policy.
Finally, and most importantly, the domestic political economy of the US is just one thread in the garment of the capitalist world system. Any set of demands that a movement poses at home implies accompanying foreign policies, whether or not the movement makes those policies explicit. One of the clearest examples of this dynamic can be found in the history of the US labor movement, which pursued a revanchist foreign policy throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. This was the era of business unionism, a tendency that sets aside class struggle in favor of a narrow focus on improving wages, hours, and conditions through collective bargaining. Labor elites who subscribed to business unionism assumed that if employers were stable and profitable, there would be more spoils for the taking at the bargaining table. Although business unionism is willing to use short-term strikes to combat capitalists, it ultimately argues for the necessity of maintaining firms as bargaining partners. It therefore manifests politically as a conservative pro-business force seeking to increase the competitiveness of firms.
Since business unionism is associated with support for high tariffs and other protections for domestic industry, one might be tempted to assume that it was a domestic-focused or isolationist ideology. On the contrary, business unionism required a great deal of activity outside American borders. Labor’s desire to strengthen US firms implied the need to facilitate expansion into new markets, to maintain the traditional primary goods export model in underdeveloped countries, and to quell union activity or political movements that would challenge these goals. The penetration of a Cold War mindset into the labor elite only worsened the situation, driving them to argue that business unionism not only delivered benefits to members, but was an essential aspect of the American anti-Communist ideal.
To fulfill these goals, the AFL and AFL-CIO took an active role in foreign policy, almost never for the better. From the Spanish-American War through the 1990s (and some claim beyond), labor used its lobbying power to advocate for invasion and occupation by US troops, alliances with oligarchies and dictatorships, and diplomatic support for abusive US firms overseas. The familiar list of US foreign policy crimes—from the occupation of Haiti through military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras—all took place with the implicit or explicit backing of the institutional labor movement. The AFL-CIO also went beyond lobbying efforts, establishing anti-communist “labor centers” in foreign countries that worked hand in hand with company unions, oppressive governments, and American intelligence services to keep the world safe for the US firms with which they bargained.
A call to root foreign policy in social movements does not mean that the foreign policy ideas which emerge from institutional social movement bodies should be taken as a given. Nor does it mean that socialists should abandon specific foreign policy thought in favor of general “movement work.” A socialist foreign policy will only be achieved by working within movements to promote internationalist, feminist, and anti-racist analysis among leaders; strengthen ties below the elite level with allies in other countries; and use political education to build a base of support. The AFL-CIO recently made a shift in this direction, embracing a more internationalist and progressive foreign policy as a result of leadership changes and pressures from the group’s base. In the second entry, I will discuss how the AFL-CIO transformed its approach to foreign policy, how other social movements can make similar progress, and how to harness this process for socialist goals.
Check back soon for part two of this series, on the future of labor’s foreign policy.
Caleb Weaver is a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy (Tufts University), with previous experience in labor-community partnerships and housing justice organizing.