Imagining a Reparative Internationalism

By Michael Youhana

There is a lively discussion underway on the American left over foreign policy. A burgeoning socialist movement is imagining positive alternatives to the Obama administration’s Scowcroftian Realism. The most high profile intervention in this dialogue to date comes from Bernie Sanders, who wrote an essay on the need for a new progressive internationalism in The Guardian last month.

Sanders’s piece is thought-provoking and reminiscent of some of David Klion’s writing on Russiagate. There’s an emphasis on a world order marred by massive inequality and a call to close tax havens and rein in oligarchs. But his essay is also marked by a sort of nostalgia that one would sooner expect from an inveterate Cold Warrior, like David Frum, than from a twenty-first century leftist. The former presidential candidate rallies progressives to combat the rise of “a new authoritarian axis” comprised of Xi Jingping’s People’s Republic of China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and assortment of other despotic governments. Sanders writes:

“While these regimes may differ in some respects, they share key attributes… We must understand that these authoritarians are part of a common front… committed to tearing down a post-second world war global order that they see as limiting their access to power and wealth.”

This Manichean portrait of the world might arouse a new internationalism, but there’s a danger that it will be a fighting-internationalism that’s a poor match for our era. Of course, the American left should not condone the misdeeds of authoritarian governments. But neither should it dismiss the need to cooperate with great powers, like China and Russia, to address transnational challenges. You cannot stop climate change with an International Brigade.


Writing separately in n+1 and the New York Times, Aziz Rana and Daniel Bessner propose a set of principles to undergird a better foreign policy. They supplement a standard American leftist commitment to “do no harm” with a number of more detailed imperatives. The American left should work to reform or supplant neoliberal international organizations, like the IMF, and military alliances, e.g. NATO. Revitalized and “inclusive multilateral regional and international institutions” should underwrite social democracy around the world and facilitate cooperation on climate change and disarmament. On the home front, Rana argues that the American left should work to dismantle inhumane and wasteful national security agencies, most notably ICE. Bessner recommends expanding Congress’s role in foreign policymaking and oversight. Finally, both authors recognize the need for legal accountability for Americans, like Gina Haspel, who commit human rights abuses abroad and/or otherwise violate international law.

To this mix, I would add an additional positive principle to guide a left-wing foreign policy. The American left should embrace a reparative internationalism –  we should take responsibility for the United States’s wrongdoing across the globe and endeavor to make amends. A reparative internationalism would reject isolationism by prompting Americans to express concern for individuals beyond our shores. But unlike the variants of liberal internationalism that have dominated foreign policy thinking since the start of the Cold War, this new internationalism would reject militarism and imperialism. It would seek to recompense victims of empire and acknowledge the wreckage caused by an excess of American wealth, power, and hubris.


What would a reparative American foreign policy look like? For starters it would turn the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism on its head. To wit, R2P’s  open-ended responsibility to protect through military action would transform into a particularized responsibility to alleviate human suffering caused by American actions abroad. In May, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gestured towards a reparative foreign policy by asking whether Americans were “prepared to deal with the people who will seek refuge in the US due to our actions.”

Any governing left should be prepared to do just that – to resettle and otherwise aid individuals whose lives have been upended as a result of the invasion of Iraq, the Global War on Terror, and our decades-long confrontation with Iran. A governing left should also be prepared to furnish this aid on a far larger scale than any administration in recent memory. We owe those refugees our contrition, for they have borne the brunt of decades of destructive and sometimes criminal American policies.

But any future left administration must not limit a reparative foreign policy’s focus to the Middle East. America’s most notorious imperial excursions in the twentieth Century continue to produce immeasurable sorrow, as evidenced by the victims of gang violence in Central America, death squads in the Philippines, and unexploded ordnance in Southeast Asia can attest. Instead of firing dozens of Tomahawk missiles at empty air bases in Syria, leftist politicians could start off by spending $2 million (the price of a single missile) to treat Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

A reparative ethic might also help solve the great global crises of our time. It is  generally acknowledged that developed Western countries are responsible for the largest portion of historical greenhouse gas emissions. In the coming decades, poorer nations will pay a steep price for our past fossil fuel consumption—facing disproportionate pressures to transition away from carbon-intensive development paths and to adapt to the impacts of a volatile climate.

Those committed to keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels cannot afford to ignore these inequities. As Sonja Klinsky argues:

“A key risk within the forward-oriented Paris Agreement is that failing to acknowledge injustices, particularly those stemming from uneven historical emissions and uneven climate impacts, could erode the regime’s long-term legitimacy and undermine its ability to nurture sufficient collective action at exactly the point at which cooperation and ambitious climate action from more actors than ever is most needed.”

Unfortunately, the United States has displayed little interest in taking its historic responsibility seriously. American diplomats lobbied intensely against the inclusion of “a basis for any liability or compensation” in the portion of Paris Agreement “addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.”  A notorious statement by the Obama Administration’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, summarized the predominant attitude of our country’s liberal policymakers: “We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that.”


With politics like ours is a reparative internationalism possible? Loramy Gerstbauer explores our lack of remorse in U.S. Foreign Policy and the Politics of Apology, an examination of stateside debates about interventions in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Iraq. Through her case studies Gerstbauer demonstrates that there is no domestic constituency for contrition in American foreign policy. Needless to say, Nicaraguans and Iraqis who cope with the consequences of war over many decades do not get a vote in our elections.

Although our interventions in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Middle East have provoked clamorous dissent, “in each case, the domestic voices of protest waned considerably as soon as the central conflict was over.” By contrast, proponents of nationalist myths are persistent, campaigning and governing in defense of a sanitized version of American history. Gerstbauer, sadly, concludes “in this climate, why would a national leader pursue contrition?… Absent broad demand, it might be political death.”

But U.S. Foreign Policy and the Politics of Apology is not just a lachrymose analysis of the unparalleled power of American nationalists. Gerstbauer sees some reason for hope, and acknowledges that national myths are malleable. But only a movement committed to promoting a revolution in American values on streets, on picket lines, and at the ballot box can make a reparative internationalism a reality.

Interstate contrition not compelled by military force is exceedingly rare, but it’s not unheard of. In 1999, Bill Clinton acknowledged American wrongdoing in Guatemala during the Cold War after a UN-sponsored truth commission implicated the United States in mass atrocities. For the past three years, Germany has been locked in contentious negotiations over how it might atone for the Herero genocide with the government of Namibia. And under legal pressure in 2013, the United Kingdom actually paid modest reparations to 5,000 elderly Kenyan survivors of torture carried out by colonial administrators during the Mau Mau uprising. Genuinely reparative internationalists would need ensure that apologies are much less rare, and that reparations are far more generous. A truly reparative internationalism would be unprecedented—a revolution in American and international values.


Yet in the midst of the slow degradation of democracy and continued immiseration of most Americans, many may wonder: so what? Why have a conversation about internationalism at all?   From the apartheid of the carceral state to the pain caused by lack of healthcare and workplace protections – all at home in the US – one may wonder if it is fair to ask leftist organizers to pay attention to injustices perpetrated by American policymakers in far flung places like Cambodia and Yemen?

There are two arguments in favor adopting an expansive internationalism. First, a non-internationalist left would cede a rallying cry to its political opponents. Expressions of solidarity with communities outside of the formal boundaries of the nation-state are a commonplace facet of contemporary politics. New technologies compress space and time, and thereby enlarge our imagined communities. Donald Trump’s paranoid oratory about threats to Western Civilization and his recent conspiracy mongering about the travails of white South African farmers demonstrate that, today, even reactionaries tap into a ubiquitous internationalist impulse.

Second, a non-internationalist American left would hardly be a left at all. It could degenerate into chauvinism,  willing to pillage communities abroad in the name of prosperity and security for working people in the United States. The chief argument for a robust left internationalism is a moral one. It’s an argument that the struggles of Cambodians and Yemenis are our own. As Michael Walzer writes in the titular essay of A Foreign Policy for the Left:

“Good leftists can’t avoid internationalism. We can’t escape what Václav Havel in 1993 called ‘the feeling of co-responsibility for the world’… Our deepest commitment is solidarity with people in trouble… So we are going to be engaged again and again in arguments about what we can do to help.”

Walzer, fixated as he is on just and unjust wars, espouses in his book an internationalism that often devolves into a worn-out humanitarian interventionism. Thankfully a more humane, alternative internationalism is conceivable. Walzer nods to it in passing. When the Princeton academic shifts his gaze away from the battlefield in an essay titled “Achieving Global and Local Justice,” he acknowledges the wide array of salutary policies that might flow from a distinctly reparative internationalism:

“You must help repair the injuries to other people that you have helped to cause… there are many obligations of this sort: to oppose governmental assistance… to predatory regimes; to support political and economic reconstruction in countries devastated by civil wars that we instigated or in which we intervened; to change trade policies that discriminate against poor countries; to require transnational corporations based in our country to pay minimum wages, protect the environment, observe safety laws, and recognize independent unions when they operate in other peoples’ countries.”


Apologies do not have to be demoralizing. When Americans atone they lay the foundations for a just world order – one worth heading to the polls for. A reparative internationalism is redistributive by definition. It inches towards an egalitarian internationalism, which is a left internationalism in the purest sense.

Michael Youhana is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Youhana.

3 thoughts on “Imagining a Reparative Internationalism

  1. Pingback: World update: October 11 2018 – and that's the way it was

  2. Pingback: Enacting a Reparative Internationalism – Fellow Travelers

  3. Pingback: Ninovus | Enacting a Reparative Internationalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s