Why Progressive Movements Must Engage Foreign Policy

Daniel Solomon wrote a great essay about the growing public discussion around progressive US foreign policy and the constituencies that have a stake in it. It should be read in tandem with Stephen Wertheim’s typically excellent piece in the New York Times on the debate between advocates of liberal hegemony and supporters of foreign policy restraint. It’s worth connecting the dots here.

First, Solomon’s argues that three domestic social movements (anti-war, environmental justice, and marginalized and oppressed peoples) should be interested in the new progressive internationalism. I wonder if there is a fourth activist network that would find a left foreign policy of interest: advocates for economic justice, namely unions and worker justice centers. These groups have been rapidly gaining strength and notching wins in the form of successful strikes and anti-corporate campaigns (see: Amazon in Queens). These advocates will always face the problem of capital mobility, which enables investors to pit localities against each other in a global economic competition. A consortium of lawmakers in various state governments are now seeking to address this problem by banning tax breaks for major corporations and effectively refusing to compete with each other to attract investment. This is long overdue, but it still doesn’t address the global scale of economic activity. If economic justice movements and organizations are to succeed, they need to pressure sovereign states to make the same kinds of agreements. International cooperation to reduce economic competition on other issues is essential, especially regarding struggles for greater wages, fair working conditions, and reducing tax evasion. In other words, those groups and movements have to start contesting economic governance at the global level and connect those efforts to the broader progressive foreign policy agenda.

Second, I also wonder whether or not these movements *know* that they have a stake in foreign policy. Solomon makes the case that the anti-war, environmental, and freedom movements do (or, at least have known historically). But I’m not sure that economic justice advocates see this yet, and some of the most prominent “omni-issue” organizations don’t yet either. For example, I’m thinking of groups which I am directly affiliated, including the Working Families Party, Citizen Action of New York (an affiliate of People’s Action). There still seems to be a tendency on their part to focus on local, state, and federal institutions rather than conceptualize the broader transnational processes that reproduce those exploitive structures (activists like Tobita Chow are a notable exception). To be clear: those groups are right to work on those levels. Tangible gains can be won by engaging legislative cycles in state capitals, and it’s hard to conceptualize the transformation of the global economy when you’re busy lobbying individual elected officials or organizing a single town or neighborhood. But if we really want to transform the world in which we live, we have to ramp up to the global level or risk losing the hard-won gains we’ve accumulated.

Third, these various movements need to realize that they need each other: success in one issue area makes possible success in others. To achieve the successful regulation of the global economy, massive reductions in carbon emissions, and the defense of oppressed peoples’ rights will require an intense level of international cooperation. Sovereign states need to agree to do all this stuff, and international institutions must coordinate all that activity or directly administer it after being delegated responsibility. And this is where the Wertheim essay comes in: none of this will never be realized in a world of great power competition. Proponents of liberal hegemony take rivalries between the United States, Russia and China for granted, as if they are baked into international politics. But we know that competition is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the United States insists on remaining a hegemon (either liberal or illiberal) and focuses too much on state threats, it will needlessly reproduce competition among the great powers and dis-incentivize cooperation among them to resolve non-state threats. All movements have a stake in the broader debate about the future of American foreign policy and developing a left progressive version of foreign policy restraint.

A fourth reason why these movements must engage foreign policy – because libertarian advocates of restraint who have no real vision of international cooperation on economic, environmental, and identity-based issues will come to dominate the conversation. Groups like the CATO Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation fund lots of foreign policy fellowships and programs dedicated to building support for a less ambitious foreign policy, but they also promote free-market policies that undermine the objectives of the progressive left. While both libertarians and progressives can certainly be coalition partners in opposing US hegemony and a militarist foreign policy, we need to explain how restraint can be combined with strong international institutions and global economic regulation (two policy ideas which tend to be anathema to libertarians). Otherwise, progressives will cede the entire debate about the US role in the world to libertarians and never achieve their emancipatory objectives.

One final point: Solomon argued that building foreign policy from the ground up – based on the interests of these progressive movements – serves as an alternative to the more abstract process of making policy based on grand strategy. I think he’s right about this, but it doesn’t preclude the development of grand strategies, either. We should conceptualize which grand strategies are most conducive to the objectives of progressive movements and promote a more interactive conversations among strategists and movement actors (and all that being said, yes, I do believe that a great power concert strategy can enable all the above).

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