Conversations about foreign policy tend to bring out some of our worst habits. When the stakes are real but distant from our daily lives, rhetorical preening turns into a substitute for meaningful action. Would-be grand strategists devise plans for global transformation like overgrown nerds playing Risk in their basements, while Wikipedia experts hold forth on [insert country here] with the same confidence they just brought to [insert whatever people were yelling about online last week].
That’s a particular challenge for the American left, a marginalized faction in a country that wields extraordinary influence on the global stage. Justified moral outrage all too often serves the interests of a foreign policy establishment that is quick to assume the answer to every problem begins with funneling billions of dollars to defense contractors (or, in its less lucrative progressive variant, an interchangeable network of NGOs). But sweeping dismissals of American power have their own dangers, including nihilistic despair over the possibility of doing anything at all.
It’s easy, then, to give up. Which is what our political system is designed to encourage. According to the bleak rule of thumb that guides American politics, the least democratic parts of our government have the easiest time acting with speed and consequence. The Supreme Court can toss Roe v. Wade into the woodchipper and leave the rest of us to clean up the mess. The Federal Reserve can tip the economy into a recession if it thinks inflation is rearing its head. And a legislature that has stalemated on everything from pandemic relief to police reform can push through $53 billion in spending for Ukraine with decisive majorities.
Yet there’s no hiding—for the left, or for anyone else—from the rest of the planet. A century ago, the first major European socialist parties split over the First World War. Fifty years later, Vietnam fractured the New Deal order. Today, refusing to outline a coherent vision of the U.S. role in the world is a tacit way of saying the left shouldn’t be trusted with power.
So, with this issue, Dissent is taking stock of a global landscape that is shifting before our eyes. The questions are difficult, as the important ones usually are. And the arguments in the years ahead will be insufferable, at least some of the time. But there is still a world to win.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.