Category: Left Internationalism

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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Corbyn as Obstacle to Left Internationalism

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.