Against the Interventionist Trolley Problem

By Thucydides Frappe

There is no serious discussion about rethinking US foreign policy, left or otherwise, without addressing the use of force. Unfortunately for the left, critiques of its foreign policy are dominated by fundamentally unserious use of force debates, frequently in the form of a family of hypotheticals we can call the Interventionist Trolley Problem. The Interventionist Trolley Problem assumes a practically unlimited US military capability and broad international sanction for American intervention; leftists are judged on their willingness to pull the lever, using American force to intervene in one or another crisis. In various forms, the Trolley Problem appears any time a liberal supporter chastises a skeptic of humanitarian intervention about how they would meet “a problem from hell,” or a conservative interventionist bemoans the “cost of inaction” to dissuade advocates of US military retrenchment.

The critique provided by the Interventionist Trolley Problem is unserious because it relies on assumptions that a left government would have to destabilize, if not upend. A left government will not just be deciding whether or not to intervene in a hypothesized conflict, it will also be making decisions about how much of its resources will be devoted to domestically-focused policies, which of its internationally-focused resources will be defense-related, and a broader suite of domestic and international policy agenda items that will dramatically change the competing priorities all policymakers grapple with as they consider waging war. Because leftist government demands a radical redistribution of priorities and resources, no leftist foreign policy is possible without questioning the assumptions behind the Interventionist Trolley Problem.

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Policy from the People, Part 1

By Caleb Weaver

This is the first of a two-part series on foreign policy development in social movements. Part One lays out the case for social movements as the natural home for left foreign policymaking, and Part Two traces the history of foreign policy development in the American labor movement since the end of the Cold War.

For socialists, one of the most frustrating aspects of United States foreign policy is the ease with which think tanks influence the policy process despite their lack of popular support, grassroots presence, or even a particularly broad audience. Both the avowed right wing and the so-called center turn funding from capitalists into a steady stream of studies, reports, and white papers with conclusions that too often align with the material interests of their funders. As the need to develop and implement left-wing foreign policy becomes more apparent, a temptation has emerged to recreate this policy method by cultivating  our own set of foreign policy think tanks to wage ideological battle against the “experts” and “fact-checkers.”

Zack Beauchamp’s 2017 piece in Vox (referring to progressives in general, rather than specifically the socialist left) encapsulates the argument that the lack of countervailing think tanks is to blame for the right wing’s domination of the foreign policy discourse. More recently,  the thinking goes that “left wing foreign policy institutions” will improve foreign policy here and now by arming existing left-of-center politicians with actionable proposals while also incubating the foreign policy ideas that a future leftist movement will need to win support and wield power. The rush to establish institutions, however, overlooks the role that social forces must play in developing all aspects of a socialist program, foreign policy included. Formulating the left’s foreign policy at the elite level can only result (and has resulted before) in policies that are unacceptable for committed socialists. The need to root the left’s foreign policy in social movements stems from three observations.

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Ending the War on Weapon States

By Michael Youhana

In April, I moderated a public discussion at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on the Trump administration’s decision to bomb Syrian regime facilities in response to a chemical attack in the city of Douma. At one point during the event, someone broached a question I always hear when outcry erupts over the use of chemical weapons in Syria: What makes chemical weapons so special? The majority of deaths in the Syrian Civil War are attributable to so-called “conventional” weapons, so why do chemical weapons uniquely demand a military response?

Answers standard to modern arms control discussions followed: Chemical weapons are especially inhumane. They are also especially indiscriminate. Responding to chemical weapon attacks with force deters the future use of such weapons and ensure that the international legal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons will not erode. And the Trump administration had to respond simply because it said it would; American credibility was at stake.

I am sure that these humanitarian and legal concerns were advanced in good faith. But I also think that Syria’s chemical weapons elicit deeper anxieties about the United States’s power and purpose in the world. Accordingly, I see the April strikes as an eruption in a broader, open-ended war on what Charles Krauthammer once called “Weapon States.”

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From the ashes of order, what next?

By Tyler Lovell

Traditional American foreign policy is dead. The President of the United States is now fundamentally hostile to the institutional structure of traditional American diplomacy, from his own State Department and intelligence agencies to international organizations like NATO and the WTO that the US has traditionally championed. Republican elected officials  are broadly okay with this, believing it to be a worthwhile trade for its economic and social agenda. And the Republican base thinks it’s awesome, or, at minimum, an acceptable tradeoff for other priorities. So, now what?

The current liberal foreign policy agenda is primarily defensive, an attempt to preserve what is already lost. This is doomed to failure. The rest of the world knows there are going to be future Republican presidents. The GOP was only in exile for one presidential term after Watergate. George W. Bush started a war of aggression based on a lie and served two terms and the Democrats still only had a united government from 2008-2010. Iran-Contra, possibly the closest analogy to the nebulous Trump-Russia scandal, led to no negative electoral consequences for Reagan at all. And given where the GOP base is, they’re highly likely to nominate candidates in the Trumpian mold for the foreseeable future. Thus, unless drastic measures are taken, the next Republican president will take another chunk out of the “Rules-Based Liberal Order” and the next one yet another until there’s nothing to defend at all.

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Fights of Fancy

By Greg Mercer

Consider a novel in which a man must grapple with an advanced new technology to prevent cataclysm. Perhaps he (and it is typically a he) is a member of the military or an intelligence analyst fighting the next world war. He could be a scientist enlisted by the powers that be to help stop some new machine over which they’ve lost control. Or he could covertly wield that device against enemies of the United States foreign and domestic. Perhaps science has already run fully amok and he’s left to reckon with the consequences in a brave new world. This is the technothriller.

The technothriller—alongside true crime, pop history, exploitative detective fiction, and Christian-themed memoir—is a staple of the pallet of hardcover bestsellers at Costco Warehouses across the country, and is likely to remain so. Technothrillers are popular among general audiences, but they’re also notably popular in the world of politics and the military. Former troops and ex-spooks frequently write fiction informed by their careers and politicians like to illustrate the policymaking process with examples from popular culture. Jurassic Park is an easy touchstone for questions of genetic engineering; Tom Clancy is the common man’s military strategist. Recently, political scientists have stated to interrogate the technothriller’s ubiquity in the halls of power.

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Salting the Wound

By Emma Steiner

Last Thursday, Gina Haspel was confirmed as the director of the CIA after a nomination process fraught with questions about her complicity in destroying tapes of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Democratic senators hemmed and hawed, first displaying support, then retracting it as public opinion ebbed and flowed and questions began to pile up. When it came down to the vote, however, six Democrats broke ranks and voted to confirm, saying that while they did not approve of Haspel’s earlier actions, they were confident that she would no longer partake in such indecorous actions as torture and obstruction of justice. They trusted her to be a guiding hand for the CIA. Another senator cited the lack of accountability for torturers and their enablers, saying that her actions must be held to a “similar standard as previous nominees:” that is to say, none. Confronted with a staggering record of moral apathy, the Democrats and their colleagues choose the easiest option every time: why deal with the weight of the past when it is so crushing and so incriminating?

The Democrats who voted to enable this should feel ashamed. The fact that they do not, and that their statements only show hesitance with regards to public reaction, is as big an indictment as any. They are not capable of feeling the shame that they should when confronted with our country’s horrifying record of terror. Two of the Democrats who voted to confirm Haspel are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Sens. Manchin and Warner) so supposedly, they are more informed than their colleagues about the actions that the CIA perpetrates in our name. And yet, when brought face to face with the declassified, uncensored truth, they turn away. It hurts their eyes.

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Mend the Gap

By Yong Kwon

While progressive economists and free trade ideologues alike have criticized Trump’s threats of a trade war against China, they caveat and demur when it comes to discussing the White House’s belligerence around the enforcement of intellectual property rights abroad – partly because there is a pervasive sense that emerging economies are engaged in some kind of abusive behavior. But scrutiny around foreign “theft” of intellectual property must take into consideration the broader context of how the underlying system was constructed and what its architects intended. Accordingly, Center for Economic and Policy Research co-founder Dean Baker perceptively reframed the discussion: “The issue here is who set the rules and what is proper payment.”

The fact of the matter is that the neoliberal trade system today reflects power disparities between nations, providing unequal benefits while hobbling efforts to respond to global needs, including food security, climate change mitigation, and improved educational attainment. This is a salient issue for the left, which advocates for shared prosperity through equitable distribution of the means of production – not just within the borders of any one particular country, but also across the world. Here, given the sway of the United States over the World Trade Organization (WTO), the American left is best positioned among global peers to push for change – with advocacy opportunities arising during negotiations of trade agreements that require Congressional ratification and the presidential administration’s participation in multilateral ministerial meetings.

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