The Liberal Paradox of Walzer’s Left Foreign Policy

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.


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