An entry in the Fellow Travelers Blog colloquium on principles of left American foreign policy.
By Patrick Iber
Some theories of foreign policy have given a great deal of attention to when it is appropriate to use American military power abroad—when war might be ‘just.’ It is possible to imagine that this might be a relevant question some day, but in the present scenario this looks to have been a misguided focus. Whether the war in Afghanistan is just is a separate question from whether or not the United States could have even effectively pursued its stated objectives, given its capacities and history.
Rather than focusing on whether particular foreign interventions can be philosophically justified in the abstract, the US needs to recognize that it is a power—an empire—with a particular history. That limits both what it can do and how it should act in the future. It also has a legacy that includes a great deal of harm. The United States needs to accept responsibility for the harm it has caused, not only through its direct actions but by also backing and supporting repressive regimes. To navigate an era defined by revanchist authoritarianism, the United States should embody the world order necessary for its survival and think instead in terms of restorative justice.
This means working to reverse the damage done by US imperialism by committing the US to an anti-imperial role in the world. America doesn’t need an “apology tour” as much as it needs a commitment to new behavior. Among other things, an anti-imperial role means committing to supporting multilateral institutions and working through them rather than assuming the prerogative to act unilaterally. It means refraining from forms of covert action intended to alter democratic political outcomes that the US does not like—especially given that governments without popular support are more likely to rely on violence to maintain power. It means assisting other states in their efforts to hold accountable those who used political office to commit criminal acts—and it means holding American political leaders accountable when they do the same. It means welcoming migrants, especially from conflict zones and former conflict zones in which the United States was prominently involved.
Anti-imperialism requires a different form of leadership, which accepts that the limits of US power are not only practical but ethical, and that its past behavior shapes how it can act in the future.
At the moment, both Republican and Democratic presidents operate as if the main goal of US foreign policy should be to pursue US interests, defined primarily by its security goals and economic needs. No left government could (or should) abandon the defense of the safety of the United States. But US relations with other countries should be reshaped with an ethic of solidarity in mind.
Is US-supplied military hardware being used to enforce undemocratic rule, or for the oppression of minority groups or against activists on behalf of social justice? That is a situation in which the US has some leverage; and it should make clear that any continued relationship depends on ending abuses. In the present moment, for example, the US is the arms supplier to the destructive Saudi-led war in Yemen, and is therefore complicit in a massive humanitarian catastrophe. This is a situation in which a change in US policy could, at the very least, protect civilians.
Solidarity is not merely a matter of military policy: more often, it will be a matter of economic policy aimed at empowering ordinary people. Capital will try to minimize labor and commodity costs; even if one firm resists such pressure, another will step in to displace it. The result is that the safety and well-being of workers is sacrificed for consumer benefit. Trade deals must ensure a basic standard of worker safety, living wages, and environmental protection—goals that will also be part of the domestic agenda of a future left administration.
Bernie Sanders has recently called for the creation of a ‘progressive international’ to combat the growing power of the anti-democratic right. Such an organization is welcome but should never be reliant on the US government. The government, even under a left-wing administration, needs to walk a fine line between acting with respect for the sovereignty of others and the recognition that the scale of US power means that even small actions it takes affect the internal balance of power in other nations. Accordingly, the US should operate with an ethic of solidarity: to be aware of the consequences of its power and structure its involvement in ways that, without direct interference, nonetheless benefit and empower ordinary people, who can then advocate for political change in the ways that are most appropriate to their situation.
Many of the significant geopolitical conflicts of the upcoming century look to be related to a hotter and more volatile climate. Resource competition is already having destabilizing effects, leading to violence and displacement. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has made clear that catastrophic scenarios will arrive swiftly and immediate action is required to avert the most dire scenarios. This is plainly a problem at a planetary scale. Although future emission growth will come largely from other parts of the world, a significant part of accumulated emissions to this point come from the United States. As an early polluter, the United States must be a leader in the transition to a future of clean and renewable energy. This will not only be a domestic policy, but also an issue of foreign policy.
It would, of course, be a meaningful step for the United States to launch itself with sincere commitment to transforming its own energy infrastructure. But it must also help other countries, including poorer ones who need to increase energy use to improve living conditions for their populations, do so in a way that does not have catastrophic global consequences. The US must play a leading role in creating binding and verifiable international agreements to eliminate carbon emissions over a short timeframe, especially if warming is to be kept to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. As part of this, or beyond it, the US must understand that carbon-free technologies and their distribution cannot be left only to private interests, looking for a profit rather than the common good. The US will need to be willing to share and support the energy transition elsewhere. The US has been fiercely protective of intellectual property, but it needs to support the creation of a scientific commons in which knowledge and its use can be adapted freely and for the benefit of all. It should create a fund to support this commons, part of which can be used to purchase essential discoveries made in the private sector and move them into the public domain.
The United States has a culture that reveres warfare and violence. It is engaged in an ill-conceived, sprawling, murderous, and counterproductive “War on Terror,” ongoing since 2001. The US needs a new strategy that does not depend on US military dominance. The war in Afghanistan needs to end; the War on Terror as such needs to end so that it can be rethought—reducing both the kind of terror that the US opposes and the kind that it imposes on other societies.
As is frequently noted, the US government spends more on its military than the next several powers combined. This money needs to go elsewhere: to social spending and education at home, and to help fund the transition to a carbon-neutral energy system around the world. In order to win over a skeptical Congress and avoid economic disruption that would undermine a left administration’s ability to act (or even survive politically), the left should think about how to use military spending to advance energy policy goals. This could include directing military researchers to develop new energy technologies—which do, after all, serve the interests of peace. It might also mean training US military personnel to be ready to aid in sustainable reconstruction after humanitarian and natural disasters.
But a commitment to demilitarization does not mean a commitment only to demilitarization within the United States: it is a broader commitment guiding an approach to other conflicts. The goal of US diplomacy should be to produce diplomatic agreements that diminish the threat of violence, and to support the peaceful resolution of existing violent conflicts and their conversion into nonviolent political struggle.
Global financial reform to reduce inequality
In recent years, much attention has been focused on inequality, both within wealthy countries (where it has been increasing) and globally (where rapid growth, particularly in Asia, means that it has been decreasing). One of the goals of the left should be to reduce both in-country and global inequality. This is a matter in which US foreign policy might seem to have little role to play, but one important factor in both kinds of inequality is the ability of wealth to move—and to hide.
Quick inflows and outflows of funds can destabilize small countries and the global economy. A significant but uncountable percentage of global wealth is located in tax havens, facilitating tax avoidance by the ultra-wealthy and other illicit or criminal activities. The ability of politicians and oligarchs to hide money offshore also helps entrench undemocratic and kleptocratic regimes. The US should support international agreements that will regulate and track the movement of capital, minimizing this kind of illicit activity to the greatest extent possible. Decreasing tax avoidance will make funds available for social programs and the general welfare, reduce the power of dark money in politics, reduce inequality, and contribute to a more stable global economy. The US should support other ideas that will reduce inequality, such as a global wealth tax, and in general take steps to make sure that markets are working for people, rather than the other way around.
Patrick Iber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His first book is Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.