No Universal Prescription for the Universal Condition

By Caleb Weaver

For many viewers, a photograph of Venezuelan protesters preparing to hand out flowers during the February confrontation on the Tienditas Bridge likely evoked the iconic photographs taken during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. For students of social movements, it also provided unmistakable confirmation of the scholarly literature and political playbook from which the Venezuelan opposition is drawing. The eternal return of the flower gesture speaks to the influence that Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth, and other political scientists studying civil resistance have gained in the human rights, democracy-promotion, and foreign policy fields. Drawing upon a seemingly bottomless reserve of case studies on Serbia’s Otpor movement, civil resistance literature emphasizes activist strategies and civil society organizations rather than armed struggle or class dynamics as the driver of political change.

Backed by an impressive dataset, Chenoweth and Maria Stephan find that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent ones to achieve independence, regime change, or an end to occupation. The core argument of their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works is that nonviolent resistance efforts present lower barriers to entry than do armed struggles and can therefore generate much higher levels of mass participation. This mass mobilization offers protestors a variety of levers with which to force capitulation. Civil resistance scholars argue that whatever benefits movements derive from violence tend to be outweighed by the repression and public disapproval that it invites. They push back, therefore, against studies such as This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and We Will Shoot Back which argue the presence of an armed wing or violent flank can increase a movement’s chance of success

While leftists energized by the examples of the Russian Revolution, the Black Panther Party, or the Zapatista uprising may bristle at its rejection of ‘violent flanks,’ civil resistance scholarship often overlaps with leftist analysis. To give one example, Sharp, Chenoweth, and others correct the hagiographies that credit mass movements with appealing to their opponents’ conscience or forging moral consensus. Participation is valuable, they argue, for the coercive power that it lends protestors. This conclusion should resonate with leftist observers of the labor movement, who know from the tradition of dockworker militancy that a small group exercising control over a chokepoint in production has a clearer path to success than a universalist effort to convert class antagonists into friends.

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A Dream of Spring

Yanis Varoufakis and the DiEM25 movement are making headlines with their call for a more democratic and just European Union. Varoufakis brings his experience dealing with the EU as the former finance minister of Greece to the table for the European Spring, a European Parliament electoral slate that includes an ambitious and audacious vision for Europe. Their recently-released manifesto can be found here. I spoke with DiEM25’s policy director, David Adler, over email.

Emma Steiner: Tell us a little more about the European Spring.

David Adler: The premise of European Spring is that Europe is ripe for a grassroots transnational movement. The financial crisis of 2008 not only revealed the interconnections between European economies — bound together by a Single Market and, in the case of the Eurozone, a single currency — but also between European democracies. These political dynamics were not pretty, pitting core against periphery, and most memorably, Germans against Greeks. But in the process, they illustrated the extent to which every European country is, for better or worse, bound to every other. In other words, this crisis had the effect of giving birth to a European demos: a single public that — despite differences in class or country — is beginning to understand the role that institutions at the European level play in shaping life at the local level.

All of this to say: our movement has grown out of Europe not because of some sense of European exceptionalism, but because the conditions for transnational politics were most favorable, and most urgent.

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Can the Next President Dismantle an Inherited Drone War?

By David Sterman

Since he took office, President Donald Trump has overseen unprecedented escalations in America’s counterterrorism and drone wars in Yemen and Somalia while simultaneously ramping up secrecy around the drone strike program. In some ways the escalations are no surprise, as Trump campaigned in part on extreme violence as a counterterrorism strategy, including arguing for killing terrorists’ families – an act which would be a war crime. Some reports have suggested this attitude found expression within the policy process.

Yet careful tracking of the America’s counterterrorism wars by New America shows that the violent rhetoric is hardly a prerequisite for widespread use of drone strikes by presidents of either party. The Trump administration’s counterterrorism strategy has substantial commonalities with the Obama administration’s approach, and the Obama strategy took many of its cues from the Bush administration. Different administrations have talked about drones and airstrikes in different ways, but such strikes have become a key part of a bipartisan counterterrorism consensus. As a new crop of presidential candidates pledge progressive approaches to foreign policy problems, voters are owed answers about whether and how candidates will meaningfully change American counterterrorism policy.   

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“Interior” by Design

The US Department of the Interior is one of the federal government’s neatest rhetorical tricks. Built largely to manage land in the American West that had become “interior” to the United States only recently, through the colonial logic of Manifest Destiny, the department’s name serves to legitimize US territorial expansion. Interior’s role in expanding, managing, and obscuring American empire, however, does not stop at the California coast. Megan Black, an assistant professor of history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has a new history of the Interior Department out that traces the department’s leading role in America’s pursuit of mineral resources around the world. Her book, The Global Interior, is a crucial contribution to our understanding of the the hidden ways American power functions around the world. I spoke with Dr. Black over email about her book and the role Interior has played in the construction of American foreign policy.

Sam Ratner: What brought you to the international history of the Interior Department as a topic for close study? Is there something about Interior in particular that speaks to your broader project as an historian?

Megan Black: I came to study the Interior Department’s global mineral pursuits in a circuitous way. In graduate school at George Washington University, I was interested in connections between US policies toward indigenous peoples and US policies toward Third World nations. Minerals became one prism through which those connections were visible. For example, I encountered the dynamic and controversial activism of an organization that claimed histories of mineral exploitation linked American Indian nations and Third World nations: the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which self-labeled as the “Indian OPEC.” I filed this history in the back of my mind while searching for evidence of interwoven mineral histories.

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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.

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Empire of Ignorance, Ignorance of Empire

A review of Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

By Kelsey D. Atherton

It is impossible to unmake an empire without describing its borders. The United States of America is a hodgepodge of imperial legacies and relationships that shape the entire structure of world politics today, but the history of the United States is largely learned as a subject bounded by the “logo map”–the common map of American territory featuring the lower 48 states and inserts for Alaska and Hawaii. It is entirely possible for white Americans to grow up in the mainland and come away with the impression that empire is something only other countries did, and that no one currently does. Textbooks keep the contradictions and obligations of westward expansion, Pacific and Caribbean interventions and occupations, and the forcible subjugation and exclusion of indigenous peoples all firmly locked away in a past that, the textbooks say, produced the self-contained republic the logo map depicts. As anyone who grew up outside the map can say, however, self-contained American republic is a myth.

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Correlation Does Not Equal Compellence: The Weak Evidence for Sanctions

Last November, Nicholas Mulder sparked a debate about the place of sanctions in the toolbox for progressive foreign policy, writing in The Nation that progressives must “move beyond the dominant consensus on how to deal with foreign policy problems as framed by the establishment, in which there are only two flavors: the mild option of sanctions and the radical option of war, neither of which works particularly well.” The piece drew responses, notably from Neil Bhatiya on this blog and from Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, both of whom made the case for sanctions as a flavor of policy worth preserving. The conversation continues here, with Mulder taking on the question of how we think about success in sanctions policy.

By Nicholas Mulder

If progressivism aims to create a better world, it should start by abandoning the tools of collective punishment. As I argued in The Nation, a whole suite of tools exist for directly going after specific individuals and companies who break or evade domestic and international laws. It is in this domain–by imposing sanctions on tax evaders, for example–that progressive foreign policy can regain some of the legitimacy that has been weakened by decades of excessive US interventionism and the Trump Administration’s antics.

Earlier this month Neil Bhatiya made a counter-case for economic sanctions as a tool of progressive foreign policy, arguing that “any measure that widens the distance between peace and war should be in the foreign policy toolbox.” If sanctions can effectively accomplish the same goals as military force, then they could be seen as a tool that forestalls war. Bhatiya and Drezner both argue that sanctions, if properly applied, can do just that: deter some state actions and compel others. Recent sanctions successes, they claim, justify keeping broad-based sanctions in the progressive foreign policy toolbox. The historical record, however, is not nearly that clear.

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