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.

No nation above the law

Criminal justice has been a centerpiece of congressional rhetoric, especially as elected officials try to use the rule of law to curtail the abuses of the Trump administration. One way candidates could extend that focus abroad would be to create a robust humanitarian agenda for Central America and South America that clearly addresses the American crimes of the past, like those Rep. Ilhan Omar called out in during her questioning of Reagan-era genocide-abetter Elliott Abrams. Break with the dirty wars of the past with proposals for direct development, fair trade, and support for democracy. Given the past record of the United States, upholding justice means putting international law on an equal footing with domestic law, as called for in the Constitution. To achieve this, candidates should offer a full-throated push to ratify the Rome Statute, putting Americans under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Finally, a commitment to international law means a willingness to see all war criminals tried for their crimes, including those who may have served in previous administrations.

Holding the United States to the standard of international law also means no longer providing military aid to countries with a clear history of harm. Demand military aid to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey be made contingent on their actions toward those they have victimized. Offer substantial migration policies to the victims of conflicts waged by countries using arms bought from the United States to ensure the most vulnerable are welcomed in new homes, here and around the world.

The reality is that the US has become the biggest arms dealer in the world as a result of government policies favoring weapons manufacturers. These arms often go to causes most Americans oppose, such as fueling the Yemen war, propping up Egypt’s military rule, or spurring conflict in South Sudan and Libya. They also find their way into ISIS and Al-Qaeda hands in Syria and Yemen. A push to eliminate arms exports could be a strong first step toward a major re-examination of defense spending overall, allowing for major redistribution of resources toward social programs.

Breaking oligarchs, expanding the Green New Deal, and building power

Protecting the American middle class is a futile effort if your plan to do so does not attack oligarchy around the world. The ultra-wealthy from every country dodge taxes and oversight by putting their money in havens like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean at a world-destabilizing rate. Prioritize building the international structures that can pursue oligarchs around the world as they hide, steal, and hoard what should rightfully be public money. International oligarchy has taken root because of the form of capitalism that we have promoted around the world. By acting to clean up tax shelters, we can take concrete steps toward building economic systems that work for everyone.

Going after the wealth of oligarchs themselves is a necessary but insufficient approach to confronting the effects of oligarchic capitalism. Oligarchs set in motion the warming of the planet, and the window to meet that challenge with any hope of significant success is rapidly narrowing.  Candidates should make the Green New Deal their domestic and their foreign policy. Pledge to eliminate oil imports and destroy any special relationships with corrupt governments that rely on cheap oil and gas to survive. Propose concentrating direct investment on green development in any country open to receiving that aid, and be willing to offer help in the battle against desertification. Campaigns should propose bending the American state toward a worldwide, multilateral effort to prevent an apocalyptic climate crisis.

Building out the Progressive International would create a new coalition that can help lead the world into a new post-neoliberal era. As the neoliberal era was defined by privatization and marketization of collective goods, a left foreign policy should move toward reversing that trend and returning prosperity to the masses. By extending a vision of collective fight for the 99 percent internationally, you can create a truly global coalition to take on problems of exploitation, corruption, environmental destruction, oppression, and war. This realignment of ideas and values can reform institutions, create new ones, and eventually lead to a Global New Deal to tackle climate change and inequality.

The idea that someone’s political vision should apply only to domestic policy is pernicious. This election is a chance for progressives to build out a progressive foreign policy that can be a break from the norm, inspire, and truly attempt to solve big problems.  

Tyler Bellstrom is a Project Manager for the Progressive Talent Pipeline; a pilot project by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus Policy Center, the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and Demand Progress to help progressive talent become staffers on Capitol Hill. He has a MA in International Affairs from the New School. All views expressed here are his own.

2 thoughts on “Left Politics Should Never Stop at the Water’s Edge

  1. Pingback: Europe/Americas update: February 23-24 2019 – and that's the way it was

  2. Greg Sanders

    Thanks for the piece,

    I think a comparative politics look undercuts this point:
    “A push to eliminate arms exports could be a strong first step toward a major re-examination of defense spending overall, allowing for major redistribution of resources toward social programs.”

    Generally speaking even countries with stronger social democratic bona fides than the U.S. tend to turn *more* to exports, not less, when spending on military equipment/R&D falls. That doesn’t mean that progressive must choose one or the other, the argument against the war on Yemen and enabling arm sales is central to the current progressive Congressional agenda.

    I’d argue instead that reducing missions or objectives is a more natural pairing with reducing the defense budget, as they naturally go together. Likewise, I think exports can be better paired with looking at closer cross defense industrial cross cooperation with democratic allies with good human rights records and the a massive green energy R&D push compatible with the Green New Deal argument.


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