I have a post up at The Disorder of Things discussing how great power concert is a grand strategy fully consistent with an internationalist disposition toward world politics. Check it out here.
Richard Seymour has a great piece reflecting on the UK’s looming Brexit catastrophe. He shows how the left must counter rightist demands for sovereignty with demands for democracy. What’s fascinating is that we see this rhetorical shift in both the United States and Europe, but not in the UK. Ultimately, this is a problem for an emerging left internationalist consensus.
The most prominent US advocate for left internationalism, or international cooperation based on solidarity among peoples, is Bernie Sanders. In his recent speeches, Sanders has called for a new partnership with nations around the world, including US adversaries, and a foreign policy willing to let go of US hegemony and military primacy (sounds like great power concert to me). More recently, he has called for a global democratic movement to challenge authoritarianism. His emerging narrative suggests that greater international cooperation is needed to reverse inequality and combat the power of oligarchs and far-right nationalists.
Yanis Varoufakis largely agrees. By launching his DiEM25 movement, he calls for the democratization of European Union institutions, making them more responsive to a European public through greater integration at the federal level. The economic aspects of the DiEM25 platform are most interesting. It calls for a “European New Deal” and macroeconomic management by European institutions, a kind of federal version of Keynesianism consistent with left internationalism.
The internationalism of Sanders and Corbyn largely converges around the rhetoric of democracy, which Seymour himself is championing. However, I couldn’t help but think that Seymour’s piece is one big sub-tweet of Jeremy Corbyn, who has never truly opposed Brexit and has yet unequivocally adopt the new “international democracy” narrative. Rising pressure in the Labour Party appears to be making Corbyn’s position more difficult to maintain, but it’s hard to know if he actually will shift his position on Brexit (it may already be too late). Overall, Corbyn has retained what Dan Nexon has called a “paleo-left” posture toward international institutions like the EU. These are assumed to be entirely neoliberal constructs beyond any reforms by leftists. Rather than restructuring these institutions to regulate regional economies or the entire world economy, they prefer to tear these institutions down and withdraw from them. This posture has echoes of Hardt and Negri’s understanding of a postmodern Empire, in which the only way to be free from neoliberal domination was simply to withdraw into some kind of autonomous, self-contained society.
It’s this version of leftism that plays on the same rhetorical terrain as the authoritarian far-right. By refusing to reject Brexit, Corbyn allows the “sovereigntist” rhetoric of UK conservatives go unchallenged. He leaves Sanders and Varoufakis without an international ally in the UK whom can be a partner in championing left internationalism and the social democratic reform of international economic institutions. This means that so long as Corbyn maintains his anti-internationalist position, and prevents a resurgent Labour Party from developing its own left internationalist position, then he is something of a liability for the broader Sanders-Varoufakis project.
However, these tensions will never be publicly acknowledged by any of these actors. Given the threats from the authoritarian right in the US, the UK, and Europe, open criticism by Sanders or Varoufakis against Corbyn could be fatal to the broader goal of reviving the left. Nonetheless, Corbyn will remain a drag because of his refusal to think about reforming the EU based on democratic and leftist principles. In the mean time, the UK might crash out of Europe and contribute to a broader global economic decline, if not an outright crisis.
The left’s inability to develop a comprehensive foreign policy is once again attracting attention. Some of this is driven by Ocasio-Cortez’s pending entrance into Congress and her less-than-clear position on Israel and Palestine. But it also builds upon the staleness of existing US foreign policy ideas. Like Rapp-Hooper and Lissner, Paul Staniland argues that opposing Trump’s foreign policy shouldn’t mean that we accept the claims of mainstream foreign policy intellectuals. They glorify the liberal order as justification for reverting to liberal hegemony. What we need is an alternative, yet none is apparent.
Much of the writing about left foreign policy has focused on the absence of organizational infrastructure, like think tanks and big donors, which can churn out policy papers on various issues for decisionmakers like AOC. But the problem is actually deeper than that. We don’t know how to translate vague left-wing sentiments into actual policy. For example, US progressives routinely support a more diplomatic approach toward foreign affairs rather than a militarized one. These perspectives are strongest among Millennials, who have likely been disillusioned by the Iraq War and have abandoned liberal exceptionalism as a national identity. But what does that mean in practice? How would a Democratic politician operationalize that feeling into actual policy proposals which could be advanced in Congress or perhaps by a left-wing president? No one really knows, and that’s not a problem that can be easily solved with a think tank.
What’s missing is a leftist strategic narrative (or what Freedman calls a strategic script). According to Laura Roselle and her co-authors, a strategic narrative is a representation of US identity, including its role in world politics and the kind of world order that it wants to build. When policymakers articulate such narratives, they can rationalize policy approaches that deal with various issue areas. Take the standard narrative articulated by advocates of liberal hegemony, the establishment grand strategy supported by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. They define the United States in terms of a liberal exceptionalist identity and a historical mission to spread liberal democracy across the world. This narrative requires that the United States dominate the globe to ensure the stability of the liberal world order, even if that means violating the order’s rules. It’s an extremely familiar story to us because it has dominated our understanding of US national identity and world order for decades, arguably going back to Woodrow Wilson. When politicians like Hillary Clinton adopt this narrative, it justifies the use of US military power to expand the liberal order (think of the Libya intervention) and the pursuit of trade agreements like TPP which prioritize private ownership of property and market competitiveness (the economic values consistent with the liberal narrative). That same story provides a script for think tanks when making foreign policy recommendations. It suggests which actions by the United States will enable it to realize its interests while simultaneously precluding others. The narrative is really more important than the institutions – the former gives the latter their reason for existing and tells them what kinds of ideas politicians who adopt the narrative will likely support.
This is what the left is lacking – a strategic narrative around which it can build a coherent foreign policy. We see this absence of a story about self when we consider how leftists are contesting control for the Democratic Party. As Max Berger demonstrates, the left lacks a “political identity that fuses the various strands of the left’s coalition into a coherent narrative.” Since we have yet to define the national identity of the United States or desired for world order, the social movements which comprise the resurgent political left can’t figure out what they want in terms of foreign affairs. Walzer and others suggest why this is the case.* In general, the left can’t get beyond it’s anti-American identity, one which leads us to form exclusive cliques and reject anyone who doesn’t share a commitment for world revolution and pure communism.
It’s impossible to build a foreign policy based on that story. Hence, we don’t have one, and we ignore all the good left-wing foreign policy material which is already lying around. Amitav Acharya claims that we live in a multiplex, or pluralist world order, one that requires a great power concert for global stability. Patrick Porter makes a similar argument that emphasizes a balance of power. States would resolve their disputes through consensus, respect each other’s security interests, and acknowledge their cultural differences. Right here is a grand strategy (concert) and a vision for world order (multiplex pluralism) that can maintain an internationalist US foreign policy posture without hegemonic dominance. We’re only missing one complementary element of a left strategic narrative, namely a national identity.
I think that’s pluralism, or a political philosophy in which peoples of different cultural backgrounds coexist with each other in a democratic society and respect each other’s rights and political claims. My understanding of pluralism is informed by Chantal Mouffe’s theory of radical democracy. I think it best defines the “ideal” United States for leftists. A person of any race, religion, or gender orientation would have their rights respected on the basis of their particular identity. No one’s freedom would be dependent on assimilating into a white liberal society defined by individualism and heteronormative gender assumptions. Pluralism also means that we don’t have to define ourselves as little capitalists whose lives revolve on the accumulation of wealth. We could live without being dominated by the market in any way we please, so long as we don’t impose our will upon others. In other words, pluralism allows us to define the United States in terms of both liberty and equality rather than just one or the other.
If scaled up to the global level, pluralism allows us to recognize other nations and peoples as different yet equal partners in maintaining world order, a commitment to diplomacy consistent with a concert strategy and a multiplex system. Specific policy proposals which seek to resolve conflict through diplomacy could be entertained within this narrative. For example, Michael O’Hanlon argues that the US can deescalate tensions with Russia by treating non-NATO Eastern European states as neutral. This effective moratorium on NATO expansion would be the policy extension of a concert strategy. The United States would limit its influence in Russia’s near-abroad and agree to resolve disputes in the region through negotiation rather than unilateral action. Many leftists would likely support this idea because it involves treating Russia as an equal rather than a subordinate by accepting a more restrained US foreign policy. But no one talks about it currently because it doesn’t fit into anyone’s story about what the United States should do regarding Russia. If a pluralist narrative existed, O’Hanlon’s proposal would be more prominent in discussions about US-Russia relations.
One might question, however, whether or not this strategic narrative and subsequent policies will be supported by the public. As Guido Girgenti asked, would this proposal just strand a leftist politician between centrists who support liberal hegemony and hard leftists who want revolution? My feeling is no. An “internationalism without hegemony” foreign policy would likely be supported by most Democrats, especially after the failures of the Iraq War. Their tolerance of Democrats who embrace liberal hegemony is more habit than a conscious choice. Give them an alternative and they’ll take it. It would also attract Millennials who themselves are the most diverse generation of Americans. They want an internationalist alternative to Trump’s nationalism but without the insistence on US military domination over others and a die-hard commitment to liberal capitalism. I think it would also attract lots of hard leftists, particularly those who accept the need for major institutional reform now. The only leftists we lose are those who demand ideological purity and have no real interest in building power. They would never support a coherent left foreign policy anyway (the resistance by some leftists to a DSA endorsement of Cynthia Nixon is a clear example).
My argument above is not meant to imply that think tanks are irrelevant. They are not and we do need them. But we still need to clearly develop a story about foreign policy which can connect policy to politicians and left constituencies. That strategic narrative is probably a pluralist one. Once leftists start talking about the United States and world order in this way, we can establish the rhetorical story around which think tanks can offer policy. And maybe in the process, we could even think about economic regulation at the global level that limits the assimilating and exploitative tendencies of capitalism.
*(I actually think Walzer’s proposal for a left foreign policy is wrong, see here)
I’m presenting a manuscript today at ISA-FLACSO in Quito, Ecuador. It’s entitled “Pluralist Strategic Narratives and US Foreign Policy.” In this paper, I attempt to flesh out many of the ideas about US grand strategy and world order I’ve developed over the past couple years. Overall, it argues that a pluralist strategic narrative can enable the United States to realize a great power concert and create international institutions that regulate the world economy. If you’re interested in reading it, you can download it here. This paper is a work in progress so comments are welcome, but please do not cite it without permission.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory demonstrated the growing strength of leftists in the Democratic Party. Big ideas like socialism (however ill-defined) are no longer taboo and more specific policy goals like the abolition of ICE must be taken seriously. The Democratic base is moving left, and this poses a problem for moderate Democrats who have traditionally defined the party’s identity. How should moderates relate to the rising left, and also vice versa?
Both factions have uncompromising positions. Moderate Democrats like Nancy Pelosi say that Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are valid only for NY14 and should otherwise be ignored. Hard leftists demand that all Democrats must toe their line or risk a primary challenge. If both factions hold to these positions, we’ll be unable to form a winning coalition across Congressional districts composed of various constituencies and win Congress. This is the worst of all outcomes because it guarantees that the Trump administration will have no institutional check on its authoritarian abuses of power for the next two years.
To avoid this, left-progressives who live in swing districts in which a hard left candidate would lose may have to accommodate moderates to win a single congressional seat, even though their policy positions might not perfectly line up. In my mind, that’s worth it to get actual socialists from safe progressive districts like Ocasio-Cortez into a Congressional majority. If the party can be a big tent, moderates and left-progressives can both get what they want. But they have to agree to coexist.
Consider what this means for leftist demands to abolish ICE. Even if moderate Democrats disagree with this policy position, perhaps because they represent a district like NY19, they cannot bluntly say they are against abolishing ICE. If a moderate answers yes, they make progressives vulnerable to attack from the hard left and force them to question their commitment to the Democratic coalition, ultimately weakening it and potentially breaking it apart. And since weak coalitions usually don’t win elections, moderates can’t afford to do this.
As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post demonstrates, the entire question about ICE itself as a rhetorical trap created by Republicans that attempts to force a debate among Democrats that divides them. Moderate Democrats shouldn’t take the bait. They have to approach ICE in such a way that enables them to maintain a moderate-progressive coalition despite their contradictory policy positions. Here, rhetoric and framing is extremely important. Moderate Democrats have to engage in multivocal signaling, otherwise known as speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth. They must speak to multiple audiences at the same time and gain their support, despite the fact that those audiences understand their rhetorical statement in different ways that resonate with their different identities.
Now, some people might say that’s bullshit – politicians should mean what they say. That’s cute, but building a majority coalition always involves some degree of speaking to multiple audiences. Moderates have to say something like “ICE represents a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. It must end deportations immediately and be completely reorganized to ensure it no longer violates the human rights and due process of undocumented immigrants,” as opposed to “I don’t believe in abolishing ICE.” Something like this statement can appeal to progressives because it resonates with their defense of immigrants, although it doesn’t perfectly line up with their policy preferences. Let the media read between the lines and discern the policy meaning. Most people won’t catch the nuance. If moderate Democrats do this, they can broker a coalition that wins elections. It they don’t – perhaps because they stubbornly want to spite the left to recreate some mythical political center – then they will produce a fractured political coalition that will likely lose, much like Hillary Clinton in 2016.
We work in a coalition or not at all, rhetoric included.
There’s a growing sense that the old consensus on American foreign policy is a habit held by policymakers that is no longer functional. As the United States slips into oligarchy and authoritarianism, other ideas for engaging the world ought to be considered. One interesting concept is left internationalism, or workers acting in solidarity with each other around the world. As the superrich become exorbitantly wealthy and use their concentrated economic power to undermine democracy, the idea of cooperating across borders with other victims of exploitation seems promising.
With that interest in mind, I picked up Michael Walzer’s newly published compilation of essays entitled A Foreign Policy for the Left. Any student of political theory knows of Walzer, especially his work on just war theory and the communitarian critique of liberalism. There’s lots of interesting ideas here, some of which I’ve seen before, but what I’m most interested in are Walzer’s discussion of global social democracy and his implications for US grand strategy. I admit, however, to be somewhat disappointed. In expressing what a left foreign policy might be, Walzer gets caught up in a series of contradictions that undermine his entire project. Nonetheless, left internationalism can be still be salvaged once we abandon some aspects of liberalism.
Left internationalism is the core concept of this book. Walzer reviews its historical evolution from the expression of international worker solidarity across national boundaries to solidarity with all oppressed peoples around the world. It’s a noble idea, but Walzer argues that it has become hijacked by an all-encompassing anti-Americanism. Today’s left completely rejects all elements of American foreign policy as imperial domination and instead embraces US adversaries who rule through authoritarian means (think of the leftists who defend Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela).
Walzer is right to criticize this position as hypocritical and offers his own articulation of left internationalism, one grounded in sympathy and empathy for those suffering oppression. On this basis, his left internationalism upholds both democracy and socialism, the twin values consistent with the social democratic center-left. “An internationalism of agency: that is what the commitment to freedom, democracy, and equality means in practice” (62). By making these commitments, Walzer positions himself in a distinct political space when compared to neoliberal centrists who are unconcerned by economic exploitation as well as the authoritarian far-right and far-left who pursue raw power to achieve their political objectives.
These principles should inform the structure of our political institutions and American foreign policy. He overtly rejects “citizen of the world” cosmopolitanism, the erasure of all borders, and a single world market composed of individuals free of any local attachments. This shouldn’t be a surprise given his communitarianism. Whereas liberalism assumes that all human beings exist prior to their entry in any political community, Walzer assumes that community comes first. We can only know who we are on the basis of socialization in a pre-existing collective. Communitarianism serves as the basis for Walzer’s support for the nation-state, the only kind of political community which can legitimately claim to uphold the rights of citizens who share a common identity and enable them to determine the terms of their freedom on the basis of their national culture. On this basis, Walzer writes in favor of “the completion of the states system” (133) and the spread of sovereign governing institutions around the world as the best guarantee of human rights.
But his prescriptions for the international system are most interesting. Walzer’s left internationalism calls for scaling up democratic governance to the entire world. He argues for foreign policy that seeks to create global social democracy by repurposing existing international institutions for the regulation of worldwide capitalism, and he offers a series of necessary reforms to achieve this objective. Although Walzer doesn’t use the term, he describing something like a loose global federation discussed by Todd Tucker at the end of his call for the democratization of global trade governance.
All of these ideas are entirely right, but Walzer’s framing of the US role in creating this system as well as his description of the historical path by which these initially institutions emerged leaves much to be desired.
First,cConsider Walzer’s claim that the United States is a hegemon and not an empire. His argument is juxtaposed against Hardt and Negri’s work, which applies the e-word on the basis of the universal logic of free trade and the expansive influence it provides the United States over other countries. Walzer brushes these claims aside by referring to the inability of the United States to compel other governments to do its bidding in the United Nations or participate in interventions like the Iraq War. He further describes the United States as simply lacking the character for empire. We remain unwilling to pay the high costs of imperial rule over subordinates and tend to create democratic governments abroad which are incompatible with overseas domination, not to mention the backlash from other states in the international system if we did impose ourselves upon the world.
But the presence of autonomous states in world politics doesn’t mean that the United States abstains from imperial practices. According to Michael Doyle, imperialism is when one state establishes control of another’s domestic politics. A cursory glance at recent US state building interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq all meet this definition regardless of US recognition of their sovereignty and the temporary or semi-permanent nature of military occupation. The United States reorganized the domestic political and economic institutions of all four countries with the express aim of creating procedural democracies and free markets. Given these objectives, state building interventions are entirely consistent with Hardt and Negri as well as Doyle’s strict definition of empire. Each occupation seeks the assimilation of a target state into a universal liberal order whose basic principles are established by the United States. No alternatives to American designs were ever permitted. Walzer truly rejects liberal cosmopolitanism, then he must acknowledge the domineering aspects of American interventions that are congruent with that kind of world system.
Yet more puzzling is Walzer’s advocacy for state building as a means of humanitarian intervention and upholding human rights (133-134). How can we be sure that future attempts at state building won’t be like those which came before, simply extensions of an American logic of governance over other peoples? Further, state building can exacerbate political competition between the United States and other rival powers. Interventions in the same four countries discussed above dramatically increased regional tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Those adversaries sought to destabilize new American clients as a means of preventing the expansion of American influence at their expense. The result was increased violent conflict within those countries, a context which certainly harmed the human rights of the victims of insurgency or civil war. Given this history of state building, its potential to generate strife among major powers, and inability to generate true peace, it hard to accept that “[t]he creation of new states and decent states is genuinely leftist work” (134).
This leads to a second but related problem. If the United States is not an empire, then it must be a benevolent hegemon that exercises its international power through rules, persuasion, and legitimacy. “Self-limited hegemony” (105) serves as Walzer’s template for how the United States can create global-social democracy and restore an “equilibrium” with other actors in world politics on the basis of compromise. Ideally, a united European Union would serve as a partner to the United States and share the burden of maintaining order while China and Russia would co-exist with us and our allies in a balance of power within their respective regions.
But the problem with this formulation is that American hegemony has never operated on the basis of these self-limiting principles except in Europe. As Parmar demonstrates when critiquing Ikenberry, American hegemony has resulted in extreme forms of hierarchy in Latin America, Asia and Africa – among the peoples which are racially different from the United States and are not co-members in Western civilization. In reality, American hegemony has always been expansive and revisionist due to our liberal exceptionalist identity. Our self-anointed mission to remake the world in our image can only been seen by other great powers like Russia, China, and Iran as an intrinsic threat to their existence. To exist in a world of American hegemony means adapting to the liberal rules of world order created by the United States and adopt its favored liberal domestic institutions of governance. While those states (and others) can tinker around the margins of this system by participating in international institutions, its basic principles are informed by our liberal tradition.
These contradictions create a fundamental paradox in Walzer’s work. He defines left internationalism in opposition to liberal cosmopolitanism, yet he doesn’t account for how the United States has always pursued its objectives by seeking precisely that kind of international order. What Walzer hasn’t yet unraveled is how elements of American liberalism must be reformed to create left internationalism. Musgrave and Nexon are right when they describe liberalism as possessing an imperial temptation. The American desire to lead the world toward progress and enlarge the liberal international order can often lead it to engage in informal imperial interventions described above, not to mention the creation of relational configurations that enable imperial divide-and-rule strategies. The result of that temptation to spread liberalism is the very cosmopolitanism which Walzer decries, yet he unwittingly promotes it. It’s also hard to see how the United States can engage in a restrained kind of hegemony when this approach toward world politics overlaps with the habit of primacy and global military dominance.
Here’s another example of Walzer’s paradoxical liberalism. I fully agree with him when he describes how liberal Iranian human rights activists deserve our support because they are oppressed by the Islamic Republic. “Confronting tyrannical regimes, we left internationalists should also be good liberals.” (65)
But to what extent? Some might argue that a liberal commitment to individual freedom and gender equality compels us to understand a Muslim woman wearing a hijab as a form of oppression. This is precisely the claim made by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an atheist intellectual who strongly criticizes Islam as a religion that subordinates women in ways incompatible with liberal respect for individual freedom. While Walzer is right that Ali’s ideas should be evaluated based solely on the merits, he is wrong to suggest that she is a potential ally against Islamist zealotry (166-167). What if a woman chooses to wear the hijab as a symbol of her identity and religious devotion, without being forced to by a man on the basis of religious doctrine? Can we really say countries like France are defending gender equality by banning these forms of religious expression?
I don’t think so. Instead, to do so itself is a form of oppression that violates the right to religious freedom in the service of the right of gender equality. How we interpret these seemingly incommensurate claims cannot be determined by Walzer’s stealth cosmopolitanism. Here, a return to communitarianism is valid: so long as a Muslim woman wears the veil as a conscious act of identification with her religious community, we have no right to tell her she is wrong and impose our understanding of women’s rights upon her.
My discussion of state building, hegemony, and the tensions between religious expression and women’s rights illustrates how Walzer fails to recognize how aspects of American liberalism generate the very problems in American foreign policy that he proposes to correct. Perhaps this is a function of his desire to not fall into the trap of anti-Americanism. But it prevents him from offering a logically consistent set of principles that allow us to achieve the left foreign policy he wants.
We what we should keep from liberalism (and really, liberal internationalism) is the notion that states can cooperate together based on consensually-developed rules within binding institutions that maintain an open international order. We should commit to a rule-making process rather than specific principles regarding the kinds of rules which are produced in that process or define what kinds of individuals (or states) can participate in that process.
In other words, we should dilute liberalism with Chantal Mouffe’s agnostic pluralism: the idea that social actors respect each other’s existence and capacity for decision-making so long as they respect all others. Mouffe’s agonism serves as a better normative foundation for global social democracy than Walzer’s vague combination of socialist and liberal thought. In her work, she directly confronts the universalizing problems of liberalism and its false commitment to tolerance when establishing a political order of individuals. Just as individuals ought to commit to the ethico-political principle of citizenship – liberty and equality for all, even if we disagree on how to implement those values – states should make the same commitment. Doing so would avoid the liberal trap of excluding non-liberals or insisting on converting other societies to liberalism, and it would enable states to treat each other as free equals in a democratic process that establishes the rules for world order. Pluralism thus makes possible left internationalism. Regulation of the entire world economy by states with different identities enables them to limit capitalism’s tendency to homogenize all peoples into a single logic of economic and social relations.
Pluralism also allows us to move beyond hegemony and reduce competition in world politics, a necessary prerequisite for states to agree on global regulation of the world economy. We can’t expect states to engage in intensive economic cooperation without reconciling their security concerns and accept a plural multipolar system. Respect for mutual coexistence can be achieved through a great power concert, or the purposeful balancing of power among the strongest states in an international system. Concerts emerge when states agree to resolve disputes on the basis of mutual consensus, recognize each other’s security concerns, and refrain from accumulating power at the expense of others. It recognizes that any system of mutual coexistence will have to balance power among actors who accept limits to the pursuit of their own self-interest and treat all others as equals.
A concert strategy is a realist idea for the organization of world politics rather than the hegemony of a liberal United States. It serves as the logical complement to agnostic pluralism because it accepts other states as partners to be respected rather than enemies to be destroyed or assimilated into a universal human community. Walzer briefly opens the door to this foreign policy strategy when he discusses Russia and China, but he never follows that line of thought and drops it quickly (108).
He should, because when combined with left internationalism and global economic regulation, great power concert functions as the progressive realist alternative to liberal hegemony. It’s this diplomatic context that can also enable successful humanitarian interventions, including state building. If multilateral military action to protect human rights is mostly likely to end quickly because no one particular state can benefit at any other (83), then great power concert will enable the United States to intervene but only when necessary, on a limited basis, and without disrupting the balance of power.
Left internationalism is a worthwhile foreign policy approach. But Walzer’s attempt to combine it with American hegemony while glossing over the universalizing implications of liberalism ultimately fails. It’s still worth pursuing in terms of pluralism.
Patrick Porter has a couple of strong pieces out currently. The first discusses the US foreign policy establishment’s adherence to a grand strategy of primacy, or the idea that the United States must possess more power than any other state in world politics and use that power to impose its own liberal rules on the entire world. Primacy is the grand strategy that we associate with the United States when it acts as a “global policeman”. Porter says that primacy is a habit that the United States can’t seem to shake. It’s a path dependent “common sense” about US foreign policy that persists despite changing conditions in the international system. The second piece questions if the liberal world order created by the United States actually lived up to its own promises. It suggests the order was never a singularly liberal one and consisted of multiple sets of governing arrangements, including those which relied on extensive US coercion. Both are worth reading, as are others in this genre (see Ashford and Shifrinson here, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper here, Acharya here, and Meaney and Wertheim here).
All together, these new perspectives on American foreign policy suggest that the Trump administration isn’t that different from its predecessors, including the Bush, Clinton, and to a lesser extent, the Obama administration. They also reinforce the conviction that the United States desperately needs to develop a new kind of grand strategy that can better adapt to a multipolar international system and limit the decline of US hegemony.
This work is important because it helps us make sense of the foreign policy conversation in the Democratic party, which is bereft of new thinking on foreign policy. Democrats rely on a liberal international version of primacy that softens the use of force by laundering it through international institutions or making it covert enough for no one to notice. The habit of primacy is why Democrats rely on bland slogans without any meaning when they describe international affairs. For example, take Ronan Farrow’s new book and his big idea regarding “demilitarizing foreign policy.” What does this mean? As Chase Madar show, it’s an empty soundbite unless the United States abandons its strategy of primacy for something else. Thinking of primacy in terms of habit helps us understand why Farrow can’t flesh out his ideas.
Yet primacy remains consistent with President Trump’s foreign policy, especially his amoral realism and ethnonationalism. In fact, Democrats routinely echo the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Middle East allies and maximal demands on North Korea. If Trump were so bad (and he is), you would think Democrats would do everything they can to develop grand strategic alternatives, even if that meant discarding their old ideas for how to act in world politics which implicate themselves in the President’s excesses of power. But because of the habit of primacy, they can’t offer the American people a foreign policy alternative to Trump. If they did, they might actually win some elections.
While habit is one part of the reason why Democrats can’t develop grand strategic alternatives, great power identity is another. The liberal internationalist version of primacy espoused by Democrats is rooted in an exceptionalist understanding of the United States as a great power. Exceptionalism is the notion that the United States has a historic mission to remake the world in own image, spreading free-market capitalism and democracy along the way while defending allies and defeating threats to the liberal world order without making concessions to them. The habit of primacy is intimately linked to the liberal version exceptionalism espoused by Democrats: if you believe that the United States must exercise leadership to protect its favored set of international governing arrangements, then you’ll reinforce the habit of primacy.
And like habits, identities are also hard to change. Jennifer Mitzen’s work on ontological security tells us why. Like human beings, states pursue a coherent and stable sense of who they are that allows them to resolve anxieties how they should organize and comport themselves in the world. Achieving ontological security requires routinizing relationships with social orders – if we treat each other in a consistent way over time, we reinforce our beliefs about ourselves and stabilize our very existence. Over time, states become attached to relationships that provide ontological security, even if those relationships are hostile and drive actual physical insecurity. During the Cold War, superpower competition with the Soviet Union reaffirmed an American liberal exceptional identity because enabled the United States to define itself in opposition to its adversary – if the Soviets were totalitarian communists bent on restricting human freedom, then Americans were everything they weren’t. And if those relationships deteriorate (like the US-Soviet one which collapsed along with the Cold War), states might even seek out new relationships or reactivate old ones that confirm an existing identity (like US hostility with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, etc.) Much like habits of grand strategy, attachment to identities persists even at the expense of a state’s long-term objective interests.
If we think about habit and identity as complementary concepts, then we can draw out some implications for the Democratic Party based on Porter’s conclusion in his International Security article. He argues that habits can be broken only when 1) external conditions change rapidly enough to force a reappraisal and 2) when someone comes along who can incur the costs of challenging an existing habit. For the Democratic Party, that means a leader who can mobilize a domestic coalition that will support new ideas about foreign policy that diverge from the establishment’s habit of primacy. We generally think about coalition formation in terms of the aggregation of interests, but they are just as much about the definition of an identity that can link those various groups together as a united movement engaged in collective action.
We know that the dominant Democratic party identity is collapsing, partially because Democrats are losing faith in free-market capitalism (witness the rise of Bernie Sanders and the revival of socialism) and because even liberalism enables the persistence of domination on the basis of race and gender (liberals have been willing participants in mass incarceration, perpetuate patriarchy, and tend to privilege white women at the expense of women of color). As left Democrats develop a new political identity to displace the old neoliberal one, they have a strategic opportunity to redefine the United States’ role in world politics – its great power identity – and then develop some new set of grand strategic habits.
It’s through that path – of party politics and identity formation – that Democrats abandon primacy and embrace great power concert, the preferred strategy of Porter and Acharya given the multipolar/multiplex context of world politics. It’s also the strategy that most compatible with an emergent Democratic party identity. As the movement politics of Black Lives Matter and The Poor People’s Campaign shift into national electoral politics, left Democratic leaders will need to redefine not just the party but also America’s role in the world, including how it relates to other great powers. Because great power concert prioritizes the consensual resolution of disputes and recognition of other social actors as autonomous equals whose rights must respected, it’s consistent with movements for social and economic justice. Both are grounded in what Chantal Mouffe calls agnostic pluralism, the radical democratic commitment to treat other social actors as legitimate enemies, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality.” Although we can disagree with others about how to implement those principles, we commit to treating others with respect and dignity while recognizing the legitimacy of emancipatory struggles demanding the same.
Apply that habit of democracy to foreign affairs, and you get great power concert – the United States would treat its rivals as equals and joint partners in maintaining world order. A pluralist identity and strategic habits of concert-balancing would thus deescalate security competition in world politics and strengthen cooperation and peace in world politics. But it’s also consistent with a commitment to rules-based procedures and institutions as well as a relatively open international order governed at the global level. And in contrast with Trump’s authoritarian nationalism, a concert strategy will be more appealing to an increasingly polarized electorate no longer satisfied neoliberal primacy.
Bottom line: we should be optimistic about a strategic shift away from primacy because changes in the Democratic Party are making it possible.