US progressives need a foreign policy

Most of these candidates have missed the opportunity to really critique their country’s costly failures on the world stage.

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Image Credit: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (Licensed) Remix by Jason Reed

If one great weakness has been exposed on the American left since the 2016 presidential election, it’s that the necessary focus on the domestic side of things to win over potential voters has left the growing progressive movement without a consistent foreign policy. This fact was obvious in mid-July, when Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was grilled on PBS’ Firing Line for comments she had made about the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the one sided violence unfolding weekly in Gaza.

This presumed ‘gotcha’ moment shouldn’t have caused so much mainstream hand wringing, as the occupation is illegal under international law, but in the American political context, it’s a minefield that AOC, as some have taken to calling her, was likely coached to avoid. That she did so in-artfully shouldn’t disappoint her supporters too much; while she’s obviously a natural, she’s been thrown onto the national stage so quickly that one imagines the 28 year old is still catching her breath.

And besides, even Bernie Sanders, a politician for most of his adult life with a much better voting record on foreign policy than most of his Senate peers, hasn’t really articulated a consistent stance on his country’s role in the world or the American government’s expensive militarism. While he did at times rightly criticize Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness, he didn’t offer much to show how a Sanders Administration would pursue a different foreign policy.

Having said this, by staying on message, progressive candidates like these have, in a very short time, created a conversation around ideas like single payer healthcare and tuition free college, things that would have been dismissed as too radical even 5 years ago. Also important has been the pledge by a host of progressive candidates to not take corporate money, a winning issue as even Trump realized, selling his campaign as ‘self funded’ (one of his more effective lies).

Nonetheless, most of these candidates have missed the opportunity to really critique their country’s costly failures on the world stage, even on obvious economic grounds that could be tied into to their domestic policy platforms.

A recent editorial in The New York Times written by Danial Bessner, an assistant professor of American foreign policy at Washington University, offered some good suggestions towards creating a broad platform that the American (and international) left can use to convince voters, whether on the local or the national level. His proposal, in the editorial titled, “What does Alexandria Ocasio Cortez think about the South China Sea?”, is broken down into five basic categories: democracy, accountability, anti-militarism, threat deflation and internationalism.

While these planks are pretty self explanatory, the idea that should send a shudder through the foreign policy elite is accountability, a concept that’s unknown in conventional foreign policy circles, where a revolving door culture has left the American citizenry hostage to dubious ‘experts’ who have often lied and objectively failed at their jobs without facing any consequences.

‘Humanitarian interventionists’ like Samantha Power are followed in office by neocon hawks like John Bolton and vice-versa. Because bellicosity has become the norm for both major political parties in the country, calls for war are usually cheered by both and American foreign policy is left in a war-like rut with all the costs, human and economic, that this implies.

A promise of real accountability for those currently in government or employed by it would already distinguish a progressive foreign policy from the others on offer, but a commitment to seeking justice for those who are accused of breaking international law as Bessner suggests, would be revolutionary.

George W. Bush and many of his subordinates committed the supreme international crime in these terms: a war of aggression. There is no statute of limitations for this and a progressive foreign policy should be committed to assuring the international community by reiterating that they should face justice, ideally before the International Criminal Court. It must be understood that the lies that stoked the Iraq War and the impunity with which this crime was prosecuted created a slippery slope leading to further tragedies in Yemen, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, empowering other countries besides the US and its NATO allies to see force as the first, rather than the last, option in dealing with their neighbors.

In a different context, we have seen a masterful example of another of Bessner’s principles, threat deflation, by President Moon of South Korea, who was willing to risk most of his political capital to enter into talks with North Korea. The help offered by neighboring countries shows that multi-lateral diplomacy is one of the keys to security and should be central to any progressive foreign policy platform.

Being humble enough to let someone like Donald Trump take credit for the work of President Moon and others is almost unheard of in Washington and other western capitals, but for the left, the results must be what matters, not who gets the accolades.

This is why internationalism based on solidarity rather than exceptionalism should be the general rule in terms of a hypothetical progressive foreign policy.

One aspect of a potential foreign policy platform that Bessner doesn’t address are economic sanctions, which are increasingly being used to cause pain to ordinary citizens of affected countries like Iran and Venezuela. Just as regime change through military force must be abandoned, so must this kind of economic warfare that is designed to cause so much discontent that it usually ends in a military coup or other violence.

US soldiers also need to be brought home, the web of bases that dot the world rarely enhance American security and, at the very least, leave the impression of an empire rather than the republic that so many Americans take pride in. The added bonus is that the money saved could be spent at home.

In an essay in Foreign Policy that came a short time after Bessner’s piece, Stephen M. Walt sets out a case for an alliance between the progressive left, libertarians and foreign policy realists to take on the current foreign policy order. While I think it’s too early to begin looking for allies, especially those who don’t share most progressive principles, his essay does make clear some of the problems that face the left regardless:

“For starters, the hypothetical coalition I am depicting doesn’t have a deep bench of knowledgeable and experienced foreign-policy experts. Its ranks are not entirely empty, of course, but it takes a lot of people to run the U.S. government and a reform-minded president would be hard-pressed to find enough experts to staff the National Security Council with restrainers, let alone all the other positions he or she would need to fill. (It’s worth noting that both former President Barack Obama and Trump faced a similar problem and ended up having to appoint a lot of people who were much more inclined to interventionism than either president was.)”

While I agree with Walt that the left is almost entirely unrepresented in the cash driven world of think tanks where many of those who serve in government are drawn from, progressives do have a great deal of experience and knowledge available at the grass roots level. Groups like Code Pink, Veterans for Peace and the Movement for Black Lives can provide much of what is needed in terms of offering alternative voices to the usual neoconservative or liberal interventionist ones. The key is unity of messaging.

The total overthrow of the foreign policy establishment as it now stands is a winning issue for the left in the United States (and most of the west) because the center and the right are both loud in their support of garrisoning the world and enriching arms manufacturers against the interests of their own citizens. It should not be so quickly forgotten that when President Trump offered up the largest military budget in history, most Democrats voted to increase it by $82 billion.

There are so many issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to multiple migrant crises that require global cooperation to tackle. Only a progressive U.S. foreign policy, not beholden to corporate interests or childish patriotism, can begin to work with the community of nations to address them.

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