A Foreign Policy for the Left

A building destroyed by NATO bombing in Kosovo (Antonis Lamnatos/Flickr)

1. The Default Position

Is there such a thing as a leftist foreign policy? What are the characteristic views of the left about the world abroad? When have leftists, rightly or wrongly, defended the use of force? The arguments about what to do in Syria have led me to ask these questions, but I am after a more general answer, looking not only at the left as it is today but also at the historical left. The questions aren’t easy—first, because there have been, and there are, many lefts; and second, because left views about foreign policy change more often than left views about domestic society. Relative consistency is the mark of leftism at home, but that’s definitely not true abroad. Still, it’s possible to make out a kind of default position and then to describe the various alternative positions and the arguments for and against them. I want to join those arguments and suggest why they have gone well, sometimes, and very badly at other times.

The basic position appears early in recorded history. I first discovered it when reading the biblical prophets, who have often been an inspiration to Western leftists. The prophets argued that if the Israelites obeyed the divine commandments, stopped grinding the faces of the poor, and established a just society, they would live in their land forever, safe against Assyrian and Babylonian imperialism. Justice would bring security—and also serve a higher purpose: Israel would be “a light unto the nations.” All that was necessary was to sit still and shine.

This is what I will call the default position of the left: the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy. How many times have we argued against foreign adventures and unnecessary wars by insisting that our fellow citizens would do better to focus energy and resources on injustice at home?

The class war is often described as an international conflict, but the battles are almost always local, and the victories, when they occur, are celebrated at home and only then held up as examples to be imitated abroad—as Swedish social democracy often is. Sweden’s neutrality is a nice way of having a foreign policy that doesn’t require a foreign policy and leaves maximum room for domestic advance. The left is most successful in creating decent societies when it is most intensely engaged at home.

Here in the United States, the New Deal was an American effort to make America a better place; it had little global resonance, though some American liberals recommended it as an alternative to fascism and Stalinism. Immediately after 1945, there was something like a New Deal foreign policy, most visible in the political reconstruction of Japan, but this did not go along with an ambitious liberalism at home. Domestic ambition tends to expand in the (relative) absence of foreign commitments.

2. Revolutionary War

From the time of the Russian Revolution, however, this narrow domestic focus has been challenged by leftists who argued that there couldn’t be “socialism in one country.” No left victory would be secure unless it was followed by many more left victories. This hasn’t been an argument only about socialism. Democracy too is a political formation that won’t finally be “safe” until there are many more democracies. The effort to incite communist or socialist revolutions in neighboring countries or to promote democracy abroad—by force, but also in other ways—is probably the most frequent departure from the default position.

Consider the Red Army marching on Warsaw in 1919 to bring communism to Poland. This was Lenin’s war; according to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky sensibly opposed it, preferring political rather than military support for foreign revolutionaries, but since he led the army, he is commonly identified with the policy of forcibly exporting revolution. The American army marching on Baghdad to bring democracy to Iraq is another example of the same impulse. This was a war supported by ex-Trotskyist Iraqi exiles (like Kanan Makiya), by European ’68ers (like Adam Michnik and Bernard Kouchner), and by an odd mix of American leftists and neoconservative intellectuals. The neocons can plausibly be described as Trotsky’s political descendants, though they have forgotten entirely about socialism (and even democracy) at home. Most European and American leftists opposed the Iraq War, an indication that they were engaged in a different left politics.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there were significant American efforts to promote democracy abroad—which can be read as efforts to internationalize the New Deal. The democratization of Germany is one example, but Japan is a more interesting case, for there the writing of a democratic constitution was the work of American liberals and leftists (recruited, amazingly, by Douglas MacArthur), who literally made a revolution in Japanese politics and society. The new constitution even included a clause about gender equality, which was not yet a major issue at home.

Opposition to the use of force is only a common, not a consistent, left position.

The Marshall Plan is another example of democratic, though in this case anti-revolutionary, politics abroad. One of its purposes was to strengthen the democracies of Western Europe against the perceived threat of a communist takeover. The plan was adopted by a Republican Congress, but it had strong support on what we might think of as the near-left: the CIO (after a fierce internal fight) and the newly formed Americans for Democratic Action. Irving Howe writes in his autobiography that “only the most doctrinaire Marxists” could dismiss the Marshall Plan as an imperialist scheme. But Henry Wallace and a host of American “progressives” insisted that it was exactly that. In fact, as George Lichtheim argued in 1963 and Nicolaus Mills in 2010 (both of them regular contributors to Dissent), the Marshall Plan enhanced the independence of the countries it helped, even their independence from the United States.

Support for revolutions abroad has obviously not been a feature of American foreign policy since the Second World War. Some American leftists have argued that the United States should be quick to provide assistance, including military assistance, to men and women fighting against tyrannical governments—as required by the doctrine of revolutionary war. But the more standard left position is simply that the United States should not help the tyrants, as American administrations have done so often in Central and South America. As long ago as 1912, Victor Berger, one of the two Socialists elected to Congress, argued against an anti-revolutionary intervention in Mexico. There have been many such arguments since, and they provide at least passive support to leftist opponents of tyranny abroad—while also leaving them to win their own battles. Even after the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, I don’t think that any leftists joined the right-wing demand for a forceful “rollback” of the Soviet empire. Indeed, it took some people on the left a long time to recognize tyranny in Eastern Europe. But communist dissidents found good friends, and moral and material support, on the European and American near-left.

3. Anti-militarism

As the extent of left opposition to the Iraq War suggests, the readiness to use force abroad is only an intermittent version of left politics. A wholesale rejection of the use of force (and a reflexive refusal to vote for the military budget) is the more usual position. On the farther left, especially, there is a deep suspicion of anything that smacks of militarism, and almost all leftists are eager to support the peacemakers, whenever peace is a real possibility (and sometimes when it isn’t). Hence one standard argument, which is another version of the default position: it is only militarists and imperialists who go to war in other people’s countries; leftist men and women understand that it is better to keep the “boys” (as all soldiers once were) at home. William Appleman Williams, who greatly influenced New Left attitudes toward foreign policy, argued that “The truly essential need is to re-examine our conception of saving other people and societies.” The New Left, he wrote, should pursue instead a vision “based on self-containment and community. . . .”

Anti-militarism isn’t, or isn’t necessarily, an isolationist politics. It is consistent with strong support for foreign aid and for international organizations like the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the World Court. But it commonly goes along with one or another version of the default position. Consider Randolph Bourne’s fierce critique of pro-war intellectuals in 1917: “Never having felt responsible for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.” But the investment, Bourne thought, was a mistake. So long as “the promise of American life is not yet achieved. . . . there is nothing for us but stern and intensive cultivation of our garden.” This is an argument that has echoed over the years. Writing in the aftermath of the Iraq War (which he strongly opposed), Andrew Bacevich invoked Bourne’s line about “our garden” and argued that if we “live up to our professed ideals . . . we may yet become, in some small way, a model worthy of emulation”—which is Bacevich’s version of Isaiah’s “light unto the nations.”

This kind of leftism has produced many fine moments. One of my favorites is the appearance in 1898 of the Anti-Imperialist League, which campaigned against the American war in the Philippines. The league’s members included Jane Addams, Ambrose Bierce, John Dewey, Samuel Gompers, Henry and William James, Carl Schurz, and Mark Twain, all of them arguing that democracy at home could not endure alongside empire abroad—yet another example of the default position, though it’s probably not true; we held the Philippines for many years while maintaining something close to democracy at home. Anti-militarism also produced the campaign of British radicals against the Boer Wars, the arguments of Bourne and Eugene Debs against America’s entry into the First World War, and the early New Left opposition to the Vietnam War (later left support for the Viet Cong exemplified a different politics). All these were wars, so government officials told the world, to save other people or improve their societies, and in all these cases the wars’ opponents had good reasons to refuse the mission.

But anti-militarism also produced one of the worst moments in left history—the opposition of many, though not all, British and French leftists to rearmament against Nazi Germany in the 1930s. (For the American version of this politics, see Norman Thomas and Bertram Wolfe’s book, Keep America Out of War, published in 1939, calling for a “reduction of the size of the military-naval budget.”) The argument for appeasement was mostly a right-wing argument, but it was one that many people on the left supported because they were or thought they were anti-every-war. Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party, criticized the Munich Agreement in parliamentary debates; it was, he rightly said, the betrayal of an ally. But since Atlee’s party had opposed rearmament throughout the thirties, he could not argue in 1938 for a war on behalf of the Czechs—Britain was radically unprepared. On the Labour Party left, Sir Stafford Cripps opted for the pure default position, preferring a war against the British ruling class to a war against Nazi Germany. He thought that the best defense against the Nazis was a socialist revolution at home. A minority of Labourites were committed pacifists, but most party members would have supported a war of national defense—as they later did. But they refused on principle to anticipate such a war or prepare for it.

4. Just Wars

And yet opposition to the use of force is only a common, not a consistent, left position. Think of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Many leftists were ready to fight against fascism—until the Hitler-Stalin Pact forced a large number of them into militant unreadiness and a return to the default position. Thus an editorial in the fellow-travelling New Republic in April 1940: “It is not a mark of barren isolationism to believe with all one’s heart and soul that the best contribution Americans can make to the future of humanity is to fulfill democracy in the United States.” Soon enough, leftists recognized a more urgent contribution. The Second World War in Europe was, at the top, a right-wing war, led by men like Churchill and de Gaulle who had steadily opposed appeasement. Communists and popular front leftists were a major force in underground opposition to the Nazis, though only after Germany invaded Russia in 1941; socialists and social democrats were active anti-Nazis before that. The default position had (temporarily) lost its appeal.

The Second World War brought one critical issue to the fore: many leftists, especially those influenced by Marxist doctrine, thought that once military force was justified, there were no moral constraints on how it was used. But anarchists and pacifists, like Dwight Macdonald in his marvelous magazine Politics, sharply criticized the bombing of German cities and the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. Macdonald and his friends had opposed American participation in the war from the beginning, and they maintained their opposition even after they recognized that Nazism was not just one more imperialism. They got the war radically wrong, but they were right to condemn many incidents in the conduct of the war.

On the other hand, leftists who got the war right were short on condemnation; they had little to say about attacks on the civilian population of enemy nations. Moral arguments were to figure in a big way in leftist opposition to the Vietnam War, but they were rarely heard during the “good” war against Nazism and Japanese militarism—which invites the question: are these arguments relevant to warfare generally or are they merely useful in left-wing anti-war campaigns? Macdonald applied morality consistently in the Second World War and after, but many leftists did not.

There are other examples of leftist support for the use of force—even by capitalist countries like the United States. Some Marxist militants argue that any war fought by a capitalist country is, by definition, an imperialist war. But the war in Korea, which was fought by an alliance of capitalist countries, was supported by most people on the American and European democratic left. A war against aggression, approved by the UN, could plausibly be called a just war. Nonetheless, there was left opposition: Michael Harrington (as a Catholic Worker) and David Dellinger (with the War Resisters League) marched against the war; I. F. Stone called it unjust, bravely and (I think) wrongly. The future editors of Dissent (breaking with many of their fellow Shachtmanites) supported the war, no doubt critically, which was the right way to do it.

In his history of the American left, Michael Kazin writes that ever since Woodrow Wilson’s administration, “liberals had ardently promoted wars to preserve and advance democracy. The conflict over Vietnam put an end to that tradition for decades to come.” But by the 1990s, a more minimalist liberal and left defense of war had emerged—heralded by the Black Book on Bosnia produced by the editors of the New Republic in 1995 and given full intellectual legitimacy by Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell in 2002. The aim of what was called “humanitarian intervention” was not to promote democracy but to stop mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing.

Arguments about the use of force for humanitarian or liberationist purposes require close attention to local circumstance and particular histories.

NATO’s Kosovo war of 1999, driven in part by the Srebrenica massacre, was a near-left war: the Labour Party was in power in Britain, the Socialists in France, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens in Germany, and the Democratic Left in Italy. The Clinton administration was a weak version of this left politics, but it provided the leadership essential to the war effort. Military intervention in Kosovo was opposed by people on the farther left, who could not credit its humanitarian motive. I remember being told by a “reconstructed” communist at the Gramsci Institute in Turin, Italy in March 1999 that NATO “must be” aiming to seize control of the Black Sea from the Russians. There was no other explanation for the “imperialist” war.

The more persuasive far left critique came later: that left interventionism in Kosovo made the war in Iraq easier to plan and defend. But that can’t be an argument against the use of force for urgent humanitarian reasons. It is rather an argument for making distinctions, which is always necessary in politics. The Iraq War was not a humanitarian intervention; it was (according to one of its justifications) a war to overthrow a brutal dictator and promote democracy. There were left arguments and precedents for a war of that sort, as I’ve already suggested, but there was also a very strong left argument against it—an argument made, perhaps for the first time, by the Socialist Party in 1917: “Democracy can never be imposed upon any country by a foreign power by force of arms.”

The Labour Party’s David Miliband was right when he said in 2008 that during the previous decades “the neoconservative movement seemed more certain about spreading democracy around the world” than the left did. The left, he argued, was “conflicted between the desirability of the goal and its qualms about the use of military means.” The qualms are reasonable when it comes to democracy promotion, but not, I think, when it comes to stopping a massacre. The campaign for intervention in Darfur, not the invasion of Iraq, was the closest continuation of the near-left’s Kosovo war.

5. National Liberation

Left internationalists don’t only argue about whether “we” should use force, but also about whether other people should do so. With regard to imperial powers, the answer is generally negative, which is generally right. Wars of national liberation, by contrast, are almost always supported, which, again, is almost always right. It is hard to remember, but in the 1940s the Zionist struggle for a Jewish state in Palestine was enthusiastically supported by most American and even most European leftists. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, argued in 1944 for a post-imperial Middle East where the Jewish people would be able “to achieve its own national liberation in its own way and in line with its own culture and traditions.” Leftists also supported the partition of Palestine, when the UN voted for it in 1947—this was the first version of the “two-state solution.” For different reasons, British imperialists and Trotskyists everywhere were hostile to the idea.

But the best case with which to think about national liberation is the Algerian war for independence, where the struggle was led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), a secular left political movement whose militants had defeated other liberation movements, mostly by killing their members. The FLN’s war was just, but it was fought in murderous ways, which many French leftists defended—though these same people rightly condemned the murderous ways of the French oppressors. The oppressed, not for the first or last time, were awarded a right to be murderous. This is a typical leftist award, though I believe that it cannot be justified.

Consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s defense of FLN terrorism: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man.” As I argued in Just and Unjust Wars, the claim that it takes one dead European to produce one free Algerian is ominous. There weren’t enough Europeans in Algeria in the late 1950s; more would have had to be brought over if the Algerians were to liberate themselves by Sartrean means. Needless to say, Sartre himself did not volunteer to be the bird that gets killed so that the other can be reborn. Arguments of this sort suggest a manipulative view of morality, which is fairly common among right-wing “realists” but clearly has its left-wing version.

6. Shortcuts

Arguments about the use of force for humanitarian or liberationist purposes are complicated; they require close attention to local circumstance and particular histories. We have to think hard about the relation of means to ends. All this is difficult, and doing it right will produce judgments that seem, though they are not, radically inconsistent—like supporting Algerian independence but rejecting FLN terrorism. So ideological shortcuts have been worked out to make the judgments easier, shortcuts that are popular among many leftists and that require a left critique.

I have already alluded to one common shortcut, which is to support oppressed men and women, whatever they do. The difficulty is that the phrase “the oppressed” does not name an actual agent politically engaged in the world. The agents we encounter are organizations and movements that claim to be acting on behalf of the oppressed. Sometimes that claim is justified, but sometimes it isn’t; sometimes these groups are simply a new elite, the future oppressors of the oppressed. What is going on is a replacement at the top, not an uprising from below. Solidarity with oppressed men and women requires us to figure out what these people really want and need and then to look critically at the groups that claim to be acting in their name: Are they representative? Are they responsive? But there is no shortcut for doing that; it takes hard work and intellectual honesty.

The second shortcut, perhaps even more popular than the first, is to stand up always against “imperialism”—or, a shortcut inside the shortcut, always to oppose American policies abroad. Anti-Americanism is a common left politics, which, again, sometimes gets things right, and sometimes doesn’t. I believe that it got things right in Vietnam in 1967; it mostly got things right from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end in Central and South America; it got Iran right in 1953 (when leftists criticized the anti-Mossadegh coup), and Iraq in 2003; it gets NAFTA right, and the IMF, too. But that’s still not enough to make it a reliable shortcut. Remember that the defeat of Nazism and Stalinism, the two most brutal political regimes in world history, was in significant ways American work. This was work that many people on the left supported, as we should have.

In 1967 Dwight Macdonald wrote to Mary McCarthy that the American war in Vietnam proved “that despite all the good things about our internal political-social-cultural life, we have become an imperialist power, and one that, partly because of these domestic virtues, is a most inept one.” We have continued to be inept: in December 2005, with 100,000 American soldiers in Iraq, we organized an election—and our man came in third. This is a result, I think, without precedent in imperial history. Macdonald’s understanding of U.S. imperialism reflects a political intelligence and a moral balance that is mostly missing in contemporary anti-American writing.

The anti-American shortcut sometimes produces a short-circuited politics—as in the Syrian case where leftist writers predicted terrible consequences if the Americans intervened on the side of the anti-Assad forces. The predictions have come true even though the United States didn’t intervene, but once it was clear that the awfulness was not America’s fault, many leftists simply lost interest—except for an ongoing but not very effective engagement on behalf of the war’s victims.

Political intelligence and moral sensitivity work much better than ideology, and it is these two that should guide our choice of comrades and our decisions about when and how to act abroad.

Who was responsible for the ongoing war, for the killing, the terror, and the refugee crisis; what social forces were involved; what should we (on the left) make of them and how should we respond to them? This kind of analysis, standard in left critiques of imperialism, has mostly been missing. One reason for its absence is that it offers no opportunity to criticize America; a second reason is that it would require a close reading and sharp critique of Islamist politics.

Another much-used shortcut (though it doesn’t work in the Syrian case) is to oppose everything Israel does and to blame it for much that it hasn’t done, since it is the “lackey” of American imperialism or, alternatively, the dominant force in shaping American foreign policy. The policies of the current Israeli government require radical criticism—the occupation, the settlements, the refusal to suppress Jewish hooliganism on the West Bank. Nonetheless, the anti-Israel shortcut is an example, to paraphrase August Bebel, of the leftism of fools.

The last shortcut is simply to support every government that calls itself leftist or anti-imperialist and sets itself against American interests. This is different from the old Stalinist shortcut: support the Soviet Union whatever it does because it is the first proletarian dictatorship and the first workers’ paradise. That kind of politics is, I think, definitively finished, though it had a brief afterlife, focused on China and then, with very few believers, on Albania and North Korea. The more recent version celebrates Maximal Leaders like Nasser, Castro, or Hugo Chávez—along with occasional short-lived infatuations, as in the case of Michel Foucault and the future Ayatollah Khomeini. Leftist enthusiasm for populist dictatorships is one of our sad stories, which ends when resources run out, the failure to build the economy is suddenly apparent, and the military takes over. But often the Maximal Leader is a military man himself, and the repressive role of the army simply becomes more obvious over time. In Latin America today, the better left is represented by socialists and social democrats who reject demagogic populism and struggle to produce economic growth, greater equality, and a stronger welfare state—and who attract less enthusiasm from American leftists than they deserve.

7. The Politics of Pretending

Most leftists are idealists, and so we tend to idealize other people and to imagine that the world is more hospitable to our ideas than it actually is. At the same time, we know better; so I call this the politics of pretending. Consider the response of many leftists to the al Qaeda attack of 9/11. They argued that the United States should call the attack a crime and look to the UN and the International Criminal Court to deal with the criminals. That was the “Dial 911” response to 9/11 (it has been repeated again and again in response to later terrorist attacks), and it would have made sense if we lived in a world that was actually run by the UN and the ICC. But, as I argued in Dissent at the time, there was no one answering the phone at 911. Self-help isn’t, indeed, the only effective and justified response to criminal attacks; different forms of mutual assistance and collective security are possible, and the left should take a forward position in exploring them. But self-help has to be part of the story, given the world we live in, and it isn’t a good idea to pretend otherwise.

Another example: some leftists who opposed the Kosovo intervention argued that it didn’t have what every legal and justified use of force requires: UN authorization. Indeed, it didn’t. The UN Security Council is incapable, almost all the time, of acting in a timely way. Think of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to shut down the killing fields; or the Indian invasion of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to end the terror there; or the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda to overthrow the murderous regime of Idi Amin. None of these had or could have gotten UN approval. Many leftists opposed each of these interventions, pretending that the UN was already what leftists want it to be, an effective political agent. It isn’t that, and so the unilateral use of force is often, as Jürgen Habermas said of the Kosovo case, “illegal but morally necessary.”

The best and last example of leftist pretending is the insistence on the reasonableness of people who give no sign of being reasonable. Paul Berman writes of the large numbers of French socialists who supported the Munich Agreement that “they gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories [and] blood-curdling hatreds. . . .” In the same spirit, many leftists were eager to describe the Chinese communists as “agrarian reformers.” And many today have been quick to grant the legitimacy of Islamist opposition to American bases in Saudi Arabia, say, or to the existence of Israel—and to ignore the demand for a shari’a state and the radical subordination of women. I am fairly sure that most of the people involved in all these cases knew, deep down, that they were pretending.

8. Conclusion

There is a lot to be said for the default position. We should work in the place we know best to make things better. The improvement of humanity begins at home. This argument has special force for Americans, who live in an increasingly inegalitarian society that is also a near-hegemonic world power: we need to be wary of adventures abroad that make our work at home more difficult.

Still, good leftists can’t avoid internationalism. We can’t escape what Václav Havel in 1993 called “the feeling of co-responsibility for the world.” Our deepest commitment is solidarity with people in trouble, and some of the worst troubles—poverty, hunger, tyranny, and mass murder—are being experienced right now in other people’s countries. So we are going to be engaged again and again in arguments about what we can do to help. There is no magical way of getting these arguments right. But certain ideological positions, rigidly held, are almost certain to get them wrong: that the use of force is never justified; that “imperial” powers, like the United States, can never act well in the world; and that revolutionaries and fighters for liberation, populist leaders and political vanguards, must never be criticized. In all these cases, ideological commitment means that we will only get things right by accident.

Political intelligence and moral sensitivity work much better than ideology, and it is these two that should guide our choice of comrades and our decisions about when and how to act abroad. Dictators and terrorists are never our comrades, but only those men and women who really believe in, and who practice, democracy and equality. We should act abroad only with those who share our commitments, and we should act only in ways consistent with those commitments. Leftists have done that often in the past, but often also, we have not: we have mistaken or betrayed our comrades and acted in ways that did not serve either democracy or equality.

We need to learn from our history—and the first lesson is this: no more shortcuts, no more pretending.


Michael Walzer is the co-editor emeritus of Dissent.