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.

Daniel Bessner: Another reason for progressives’ increased attention to foreign policy is that there’s, finally, renewed energy on the left. And, in my opinion, it appears that for the first time in American history, a genuinely left-wing movement – which I would describe as socialist or social democratic, not liberal – might actually win power. This, I think, has led leftists to begin developing a foreign policy doctrine for a President Bernie Sanders, or even a President Elizabeth Warren. In the past, left-wing critics, knowing that they’d likely never have the opportunity to really affect power, confined themselves to critique. But now it seems like we might actually be able to implement a positive program for change. This, then, necessitates policies instead of just negative critique, no matter how right this critique was.

ES: Daniel, your current work has explored the origins and nature of the now-permanent American state of emergency, and how we’ve long identified a variety of threats as existential. How do you see this evolving into new forms, beyond the 9/11 state of emergency?

DB: I think that the US security state that was created in the late-1940s was the result of the security emergencies of the 1930s; most importantly, Nazi and Japanese imperialism. In my opinion, the institutions of the national security state – the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the CIA – were all established to manage emergencies, in the sense that they provided the executive with the capacity to act quickly and decisively in the case of, say, a nuclear war with a perceived existential enemy like the Soviet Union. In other words, the institutions of the national security state are necessarily defined by, and are necessarily nested within, an emergency logic – what I’ve termed a logic of crisis – that could be activated at any moment policymakers wanted to ratchet up tensions with foreign adversaries or attempt military adventures, as happened during the “Second Cold War” of the early 1980s and the post-9/11 period.

But we now have to confront several questions. First, how do we move beyond this emergency logic? Second, what logic—if any—replaces it? And third – and this is what my and Udi’s piece was about – how do we ensure that we don’t just reframe Cold War era, Manichean logics in a progressive-socialist guise?

UG: In our scholarship, both Daniel and I have explored how progressive thinkers—ones committed to social democracy—adopted this language of permanent danger and threat. And historically, this kind of paranoid thinking has unintentionally led to repression. Most substantially, it has undermined the ability of Americans to forge a sense of solidarity with other nations and groups. For that reason, we are worried about what seems to us like Sanders’ and Warrens’ recent resort to this language—their claim that the United States must lead a global “progressive front” against an international “axis of authoritarianism.” This rhetoric may help promote some progressive goals, but in the long run, we’re worried it could undermine them.

DB: I would also add that this is very complicated, because the left rightly wants to move beyond the bipartisan fixation with “compromise” that has engendered so much oppression at home and abroad. So the question is, is it possible to have a robust political program – and know who your enemies are – without falling into Manichean thinking?

ES: Speaking of compromise: The American relationship with Israel recently has been a subject of intense focus. In the article, you mention that “[the U.S.] government should withdraw all military and financial support from countries that engage in systematic oppression, from Saudi Arabia to Israel.” Do you think that the overall perception of the U.S. alliance with Israel is changing? And how can we as non-politicians effectively advocate for such support to be withdrawn?

UG: I do believe that the perception of the U.S.-Israel relationship is changing. This is due to demographic reasons and to the Trump effect – he has an amazing ability to turn everything he supports into a polarizing issue, which means that his aggressive embrace of the Israeli government has reduced its popularity among liberals.

The question the left is now facing is how to build upon this transformation. Personally, I think that American progressives have not taken the most effective approach with BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions], and it may be worth considering other ones. Until now, the campaign against American support for Israel has largely been focused on the intellectual and cultural spheres, especially academic and artistic boycotts. The logic was that to counter the rhetoric of “shared values” that permeates so much of American discourse about Israel, you needed to single Israel out as an especially oppressive country akin to apartheid South Africa. Regardless of the truth of this claim, this approach has largely failed: the BDS movement is mostly confined to a handful of academics, and has not registered meaningful institutional success.

For that reason, I think that the left should consider pursuing two novel paths. First, on the discursive level, it may be more effective to equate Israel with other actually-existing client states, like Saudi Arabia or Poland. Rather than trying to convince people that Israeli policies are exceptional, we could help them wonder why its government receives such monumental and unparalleled financial support. The ultimate goal would be similar: to end American funding for the Israeli government, which is directly responsible for denying Palestinian self-determination. But such an approach perhaps will allow us to avoid the automatic shutting down of discussion that comes with talk of BDS. It will also allow us to distinguish between the role of civil society and government support: we can accept that if certain public communities want to donate to Israeli hospitals or schools, that is their prerogative, but still insist that no U.S. government money funds the occupation.

DB: To briefly interject, I think Udi here hits on a very important point; namely, the need to think of Israel – and Saudi Arabia – not so much as independent nation-states, but as, basically, imperial outposts that rely primarily on US largess to continue to operate as they have. So, removing that money would I think be the most important thing a progressive president could almost immediately do. Once America removes its financial support from Israel, the occupation will probably be unable to continue—at least in the form that it has. Now, Israel might of course turn to another patron – Russia or China, most likely – but the withdrawal of U.S. money might also force Israelis to reconsider the occupation. And it goes without saying that throughout this process, socialist decision-makers must work with Palestinians themselves to determine how best we, as the most powerful nation in the world, could use our resources to help them achieve sovereignty and the ability to lead dignified lives.

UG: The second thing we on the left could do is move from the academic/cultural sphere to the more mundane but more effective sphere of politics. Progressives could start putting pressure on elected representatives who unquestioningly support Israel. For example, we should fund candidates to primary Democratic senators who voted to criminalize BDS, like Amy Klobuchar. Or we should call our representatives’ offices and pressure them to vote against US aid to the Israeli military.

ES: I think it can be difficult for us to imagine detangling such a relationship, but as you mention in your article, the impetus then is to think creatively.

UG: It will indeed be difficult, though not impossible. Twenty years ago, marriage equality or gun control seemed like projects supported only by small minorities, but then they’ve become proxy issues for the entire liberal and progressive camp. It would have been unimaginable to think that Israel might acquire the same status, but perhaps it’s heading there now.    

DB: As this suggests, I think one of the most important projects of left-wing foreign policy is to develop a new framework of international relations that takes U.S. empire and its workings as central analytical categories. This will require an enormous amount of creative thinking.

ES: Both of you have written on the role of German émigrés in the rise of the defense intellectual and American empire. Let’s talk about one of the most famous: Henry Kissinger. How do you see the realist foreign policy of Kissinger persisting today? Do you think the influence of that generation of realist thought has faded?

DB: First of all, we can always question to what degree Kissinger was truly a “realist,” a philosophy defined by an emphasis on great power politics and a skepticism of military adventurism. For example, after he assumed office Kissinger stayed the course in Vietnam, endorsing a variety of strategies, from “linkage” to the strategy of the “decent interval,” which most realists rejected—and which needlessly prolonged the war.

But to turn to your question: realism remains the dominant strand of thought in the American academy, though it is only one strand of thought—and not the most powerful—in the corridors of power. What complicates the situation, of course, is that one person’s realist is another person’s imperialist. While Barack Obama would probably describe himself as a “realist,” in my opinion he is best understood as an imperialist who used “clean” methods—drone strikes, Special Forces, targeted assassinations—to defend the prerogatives of American empire.

But realism in its original form—expressed best in the exile Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1948)—has a lot to teach left-wing foreign policymakers. Most importantly, we should be skeptical of interventionism and we should reject the idea that we have the power to remake the world.

However, we must also be aware that leftists are likely to disagree with contemporary realists on some issues, particularly U.S.-China relations. Many prominent realists—most notably, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt—insist that the US needs to retain regional hegemony in East Asia. To me, this is a profoundly unrealistic position, for a variety of reasons: China is simply too big and powerful, and will inevitably push the United States out of its backyard; Americans have no desire to fight a war over Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan; and the challenges of climate change and inequality necessitate U.S.-China cooperation, not antagonism.

In fact, Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s insistence that the United States and China are almost fated to conflict demonstrates that the influence of some German émigrés remains strong. In my opinion, Mearsheimer and Walt are unwittingly reaffirming the Manichean vision of international affairs that exiles like Morgenthau—who was understandably scarred by his confrontation with Nazism in the 1930s—helped introduce into American political discourse. And, as Udi and I argued in our piece, the same is true for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Indeed, I think it is vital for left-wing foreign policymakers to stop viewing geopolitics through the prism of the 1930s, which was perhaps the most extreme decade in the history of international relations. Most leaders aren’t Hitler, and most countries aren’t Nazi Germany. Simply put, the 1930s was a unique time, unlikely to reoccur, and there are only so many lessons policymakers can draw from it.

UG: I agree with all of this, and would add one small comment: because self-declared realists led the US into manifold disasters, realism itself got a very bad rep. But recently, several realist writers, like my colleagues Jennifer Lind and William Wohlforth, have argued that realist foreign policy should encourage restraint and reject democracy promotion. As this suggests, realists are potential allies of progressives who want to dramatically transform US foreign policy, even if most realists are concentrated in the academic and think tank worlds and even if realism doesn’t reflect the beliefs of a substantial electoral constituency.

DB: I agree with Udi; especially in the short-term, progressives would do well to ally with realists. However, I do think that in the longer term, there are significant policy differences that will need to be addressed.

ES: Let me end with a broader question about the existing US foreign policy establishment. Reading your article, I was reminded of how in foreign-policy and IR circles, other powers and actors are often referred to as “bad guys.” When we at Fellow Travelers did a mocking bingo scorecard of phrases particular to “the Blob,” our phrase was “bad guys killed in kinetic operations.” Do you run into this Manichean white-washing a lot? What’re your hated phrases?

DB: My most hated phrase is “the national interest.” In an unpublished paper I wrote with Stephen Wertheim, he and I criticized this phrase for occluding what should be the central question of U.S. foreign policymaking; namely, whose interests does a given policy serve? The term “national interest” instead makes it seem like there’s a coherent, macro-level interest that guides—or should guide—U.S. foreign policymaking. But everyone who makes policy knows that American society is composed of many different groups that often have divergent interests. The real question is what groups—racial, economic, gendered—benefit from which policy, and which suffer? In essence, the term “national interest” ends discussion before it can begin.

UG: If I had to pick one phrase that I intensely dislike, it would be the “liberal world order.” Like the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire), the liberal world order was not liberal (in terms of what its policies were); was not global (in terms of who actually participated in it); and, outside of Europe and Japan, did not promote much order. And to me, it’s strange that so much foreign policy discussion revolves around the axiom that we must return to the liberal world order; in mainstream venues, there is almost no discussion of its flaws, who benefited and who suffered from it, and why so many people around the world dislike it. Commentators also often assume that the principles and institutions of this order, whether NATO or the World Bank, were the main mechanisms that prevented chaos and catastrophes since World War II, which is a conviction that ignores the significant changes they went through and the discrete interests they served in different times and places. It’s fairly common to see pundits argue that, going forward, we must choose between two alternatives: the liberal world order or chaos. I very much agree with Daniel that the mission of the left is for once and for all to introduce an alternative vision to these unnecessarily limited choices.

ES: One last thing: what’s your favorite thing you’ve read lately?

DB: Ted Fertik’s new piece in n+1 on the US and China is fantastic.

UG: On US foreign relations, I think that the piece by Aziz Rana in n+1 last winter, Goodbye Cold War,” is brilliant.

DB: I guess we like n+1.

UG: It certainly has become one of the most interesting venues for thinking about international politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Daniel Bessner is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell, 2018).

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton, 2015).

Emma Steiner is a candidate in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service’s Master of Arts in Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies program.

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