In Search of a Strategic Narrative

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)


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