Policy from the People, Part 2

By Caleb Weaver

This is the second 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.

After decades of the AFL-CIO pursuing a corporation-friendly foreign policy of “business unionism,” John Sweeney’s election as federation president in 1995 marked a radical change in the way the US labor movement thought about its relationship to the outside world. Richard Trumka, Sweeney’s running mate, announced shortly after their election that “for too many years, ideology has been the chief export of the AFL-CIO…now the chief export and import will be a far more precious and relevant commodity, one called international solidarity.” The move toward international solidarity had a rocky start, but it eventually became the basis of a solidly progressive foreign policy at the AFL-CIO. The federation’s development of the infrastructure for international solidarity points the way for other social movements as they build their own foreign policy apparatuses.

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Hijacking the Pipeline

By Sam Ratner

In January 2017, I was one of four students who founded the Progressive Security Working Group (PSWG) at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. PSWG is a student group that serves as an institutional home for students interested in approaching international security policy from the left of the “Beltway consensus,” connecting them with each other, with professors, and with an external network of professionals who wish to see a new, progressive approach to security policy. Nearly two years on, PSWG is in the hands of a new cohort of students and is only getting stronger. This Wednesday PSWG will host its first conference, entitled “Towards a Progressive US Security Strategy”, bringing students together with leaders in the field like Matt Duss and Heather Hurlburt to discuss the future of left security thought in the wake of the midterm elections. PSWG’s success underlines the large, mostly untapped potential for left-wing organizing at the institutions that train most of America’s foreign policy practitioners: policy schools.

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Imagining a Reparative Internationalism

By Michael Youhana

There is a lively discussion underway on the American left over foreign policy. A burgeoning socialist movement is imagining positive alternatives to the Obama administration’s Scowcroftian Realism. The most high profile intervention in this dialogue to date comes from Bernie Sanders, who wrote an essay on the need for a new progressive internationalism in The Guardian last month.

Sanders’s piece is thought-provoking and reminiscent of some of David Klion’s writing on Russiagate. There’s an emphasis on a world order marred by massive inequality and a call to close tax havens and rein in oligarchs. But his essay is also marked by a sort of nostalgia that one would sooner expect from an inveterate Cold Warrior, like David Frum, than from a twenty-first century leftist. The former presidential candidate rallies progressives to combat the rise of “a new authoritarian axis” comprised of Xi Jingping’s People’s Republic of China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and assortment of other despotic governments. Sanders writes:

“While these regimes may differ in some respects, they share key attributes… We must understand that these authoritarians are part of a common front… committed to tearing down a post-second world war global order that they see as limiting their access to power and wealth.”

This Manichean portrait of the world might arouse a new internationalism, but there’s a danger that it will be a fighting-internationalism that’s a poor match for our era. Of course, the American left should not condone the misdeeds of authoritarian governments. But neither should it dismiss the need to cooperate with great powers, like China and Russia, to address transnational challenges. You cannot stop climate change with an International Brigade.

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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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