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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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.

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Teamsters, Turtles, and Theorists: The Alter-Globalization Movement

By Michael Galant

Twenty-five years ago, a small band of mostly indigenous rural peasants declared uprising against the Mexican state on the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Five years later, over 40,000 protesters – union members, environmental activists, consumer advocates, and anarchists – filled the streets of Seattle, demonstrating against and even briefly shutting down the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Zapatista uprising and the Battle in Seattle were watershed moments in the emergence of a global network of resistance to neoliberal globalization known variously as the Global Justice Movement, the Alter-Globalization Movement, and, typically derisively, the Anti-Globalization Movement. The Alter-Globalization Movement (AGM) was (and though weaker now, still is)  a loose global network of progressive NGOs, unions, activists, and think tanks, united in opposition to neoliberal globalization and in the struggle for alternatives. As the American left works to articulate its foreign policy and strengthen its internationalist organizing, the anniversaries of these events should act as reminder and opportunity: to reflect on, learn from, and find inspiration in, the often-overlooked AGM.

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