The How-To Question

A review of Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (Norton, 2018) and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House (Random House, 2018).

By Alex Thurston

Recently, there has been some compelling work done to articulate a left foreign policy vision, but there has been little corresponding work on left foreign policy implementation. If a democratic socialist won the White House, how would the left approach the nuts and bolts of foreign policy? Has anyone on the American left run a Deputies’ Committee meeting? Steered a nominee through confirmation hearings? Written talking points for a president?

After all, even a democratic socialist president elected with a large mandate might encounter suspicion and opposition not just from Congress, but also from the military and executive branch agencies – the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and even the State Department. Unlike the bipartisan foreign policy “blob,” moreover, the left’s bench of people with senior executive branch experience is thin. The left has little access to the networks that produce papers such as “Process Makes Perfect” – although the left would do well to study such reports. In short, the best foreign policy vision might falter when faced with the challenges of building effective governing coalitions within the executive branch itself.

One way to examine these problems is through the lens of new memoirs by Obama-era officials. Two books attracted my interest first – Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Continue reading “The How-To Question”

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.

Continue reading “Policy from the People, Part 1”

Upending the Orientalist Logic of “Honor Killings”

“Honor killings” figure prominently in portrayals of majority-Muslim countries as barbaric threats to Western culture. Islamophobic politiciansincluding President Trump in his Muslim ban executive orderpresent murders of women by male family members for perceived sexual indiscretions as a timeless characteristic of Muslim culture and law. Molly Bangs, a Senior Associate at The Century Foundation, has a new report out that flips the orientalist logic of the “honor killings” narrative on its head, demonstrating that laws protecting men who kill women whose sexual choices they disapprove of are widespread in the West and arrived in the Middle East through colonialism rather than the institution of religious law. I spoke with Molly over email to discuss her report and its implications for how we think about gender-based violence as a foreign policy issue.

Sam Ratner: I think the best place to start is with how you came to the topic and what the conventional wisdom is regarding so-called “honor killings.” What made you dig into gender-based killings in the US and Muslim-majority countries, and how would you describe the policymaking community’s current understanding of the problem?

Molly Bangs: When Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh came to The Century Foundation to discuss her work on gender-based killings in Kuwait and spoke of the legal codifications of such practices in the country’s penal code as remnants of colonialism, some of my coworkers and I got to talking about comparisons that could be drawn between Kuwait, other countries in the Middle East, and our own United States. The policymaking community, to my knowledge, has not previously focused on “honor killings” as being an issue in the US (except when the killer is a Muslim immigrant), instead separating such murders from the pervasive cases of intimate partner violence resulting in death at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. So recognizing the orientalist choices of labels for these murders on the basis of who the perpetrators are, I started to analyze the colonial roots of the Kuwaiti and American legal systems (and their sequential development), and found many similarities deriving from British Common Law and the French Penal Code in terms of men’s ownership of women and presenting the murder of women in cases of adultery as excusable and less than first-degree murder.

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Down with the demos! Long live democracy!

A review of Daniel Bessner’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018).

By Jasmine Chorley

In his December 1939 essay “The Jews and Europe,” German critical philosopher Max Horkheimer pilloried a certain group of his fellow refugee intellectuals:

“No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism … No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions … Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

Hans Speier  exemplified such an émigré-turned American patriot, playing foundational roles at the RAND Corporation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and the Ford Foundation’s Center for Behavioral Studies. Born in Berlin to conservative, middle-class, Lutheran parents, Speier forged an independent path, declining to accept his confirmation blessing, aligning himself with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and leaving Berlin in 1926 for Heidelberg to pursue doctoral studies. His years as a young sociologist in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) were formative, not only for Speier’s own intellectual development, but for the American defense intellectualism and foreign policy that he would go on to embed himself in: this relationship is the subject of historian Daniel Bessner’s book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

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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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