In our summer issue, Patrick Iber, Adom Getachew, Stephen Wertheim, Aslı Bâli, Susie Linfield, Ramzi Kassem, and Darryl Li, responded to Aziz Rana’s essay “Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire.” You can read their responses—and Aziz Rana’s reply—below.
I am grateful to Aziz Rana for his thoughtful essay on left internationalism. I accept most of his arguments. I agree strongly that it is essential for those on the left to stand in opposition to both imperialism and authoritarianism, while also doing the work of thinking through how to produce conditions of greater global justice.
At the same time, it is important to consider the environments in which any change in policy would have to be sold. In that spirit, let me pose what I think are the most serious challenges with which the left should contend. (These observations are relevant to a left program for governing; considerations are somewhat different for activists and those building popular organizations.)
The first challenge is that, even as its flaws are increasingly evident, the United States is still an electoral democracy, at least insofar as the path to political power runs through the ballot. Though foreign policy is not generally a major drive of voter preferences, a left vision of foreign policy still needs to be something that a majority of the country’s voters can accept. There are constituencies (on the right and the left) for the message that the United States should abandon global primacy. But they are relatively small.
As Rana notes, the United States should be more open to refugees and migrants. Depending on the magnitude of the change imagined, this is not necessarily a popular policy. Separately, some immigrants coming from places where political institutions are in much worse shape than in the United States are not particularly receptive to left critiques of liberal democracy. These problems are not necessarily insurmountable, under the right circumstances. But it is important that voters be persuaded that a new role for the United States represents an extension of their values, and that their lives can be made better by whatever changes are envisioned.
Another constituency lies outside of U.S. borders: the global public, such as it is, including U.S. allies. Here, too, it is important to recognize the limitations of some traditional positions of the U.S. left. It has fallen to the left, for clear reasons, to puncture U.S. self-regard, to point out the violence and brutality that its geopolitical commitments have required. These are real, and too often denied. For that reason, it may feel like apologetics to admit that many people around the world prefer U.S. leadership to the alternatives. Many U.S. allies have experienced a measure of prosperity and peace under U.S. protection. Some, like Japan, remain quite concerned that the United States maintain a defensive nuclear arsenal. Polling from the last twenty years shows that many people around the globe want the U.S. president to take their well-being into consideration and are skeptical that the United States is a model to follow at this point. But its ostensible geopolitical rivals are trusted far less. U.S. leadership is popular enough, at least when Democrats are in power, since they are considered more likely to care about the welfare of those outside the United States.
These opinions are, of course, not universally held. There is resentment and rejection of the United States too, often for very good reasons. A message that U.S. power is based primarily on domination and must therefore be dismantled will be appreciated in some parts of the world. But others will find it out of sync with their lived experiences; what historian Victoria de Grazia called the U.S. “market empire” was in part defined by its relative attractiveness and peaceable treatment of its allies.
None of this suggests that the “anti-imperialist” goals of the left are out of reach. Many Americans and most non-Americans do not want an imperial United States. But I am less certain that a policy defined primarily around reducing U.S. power will be a viable one, either electorally or internationally. This does not mean that the United States should seek supremacy, threaten violence, or lash out as its relative power declines. On the contrary, changing circumstances make this a time for strengthening alliances and seeking cooperative solutions—when possible—to common problems. But if the left can imagine taking a share of power in the United States, it will have to imagine how it can use that power to develop conditions under which egalitarian democratic societies can flourish at home and abroad. I am not advocating for continuity with present practices, counterproductive meddling, or damaging interventions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a plan limited to dismantling U.S. power will struggle for acceptance. The left will have to have to change U.S. power for the better, and be able to convince people at home and abroad that they will be made safer and healthier as a result.
In outlining a viable foreign policy for the U.S. left, Aziz Rana urges an approach that opposes both imperialism and authoritarianism. Failing to do so, he argues, leads leftists to support local forms of authoritarianism or to obscure imperial formations that do not emanate directly from U.S. hegemony. Having developed a critique of U.S. primacy in the global order and internalized Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” U.S. leftists often operate form the myopic view that the United States is the only actor that matters in all times and places. Even the parts of the U.S. left, such as the Movement for Black Lives, that have cultivated an expansive internationalism tend to replay this trope. For example, at the height of the ongoing Ethiopian civil war, Black Alliance for Peace urged against a possible U.S. intervention but ignored the ways in which Eritrean involvement at the invitation of the Ethiopian state, and Ethiopia’s purchase of weapons from Gulf states and Turkey, had already internationalized the conflict. Last year, during protests in Cuba, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation released a statement critiquing the U.S. embargo but ignoring the political and economic demands of protesters. Such stances not only undermine the efforts of leftists on the ground but also provide ideological and rhetorical alibis for oppressive regimes and their allies.
What is needed in this context is a deeper and more nuanced anti-imperialism that recognizes the interactive dynamics linking international and domestic regimes of domination. This is an anti-imperialism that goes beyond nonintervention and sees as its horizon international equality and the universal realization of a right to self-government.
We can arrive at such a position by developing an account of imperialism as a systemic and structural feature of international politics—in other words, how unequal economic and political integration create a hierarchically organized state system. Two insights issue from this approach. First, we should situate specific acts of imperial aggression, whether the United States in the Middle East or Russian in Ukraine, within a wider set of political dynamics that, while still hierarchical, do not always emanate directly from Washington. Second, to say that the system of states is hierarchically organized does not mean that only those at the top of the pyramid are agents. Instead, we have to think about the interactions between international structures and domestic practices.
This largely ignored insight stems from the critique of neocolonialism developed by figures like Kwame Nkrumah. We tend to think of neocolonialism as the direct interventions and manipulations of postcolonial states, from the proxy wars of the Cold War to the present. For Nkrumah, however, what made neocolonialism new was how the international political and economic regime shaped popular sovereignty within postcolonial states. While the nation-state was supposed to derive its “authority to government from the will of the people,” the postcolonial ruling elite were frequently responding to external dictates. At its core, this critique of neocolonialism was concerned with illuminating how domestic failures ranging from unaccountable rule to outright authoritarianism were fueled and sustained by an international imperial context. While nationalist statesmen like Nkrumah fell short of their own account, the aim of anti-imperialism, on this view, is not so much to defend the integrity of the postcolonial state as it is to envision the international conditions of genuine democratic self-government. Opposition to imperialism and authoritarianism are not only parallel commitments but stem from the same moral and political principle of self-rule.
In our time, anti-imperialism cannot be reduced to a reflexive invocation of the principle of nonintervention. Nonintervention is an important principle, and one that should be defended in certain cases; it is an important reason for opposing the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it has its limits. With the Ethiopian civil war, it obscures dynamics of regional involvement in search of a phantom American intervention. Nonintervention also says little about the imperialism of the international trade and monetary regimes. When invoked, nonintervention has to be carefully marshalled to avoid providing cover for authoritarian politics, and always with an eye toward a more ambitious vision of self-rule and equality. This is an anti-imperialism that recognizes we live in a world of nation-states and responds to the exigencies of that order, without limiting its moral and political vision to current institutional configurations. It requires a flexible, experimental, and imaginative approach to both international and domestic institutions, while building the political power within and beyond the United States that could transform our imperial world.
In his characteristically penetrating essay, Aziz Rana illuminates the prospects not only for left-wing foreign policy but also for U.S. global power and international cooperation. Rana brilliantly diagnoses why American politics could swing virtually overnight from hand-wringing about two decades of “endless wars” to exhilaration at the prospect of subduing Russia. “With every new threat,” he writes, “history essentially starts afresh.” The ideology of American exceptionalism allows such a move, but for those on the left, it is sustained by a more material condition: the dissipation of left-wing social forces across the globe since the 1970s. Today’s American left has precious few allies and institutions with which to build a common project of internationalism.
To reverse the trend, Rana sketches an agenda centered on strengthening global labor, decriminalizing immigration, and shrinking the U.S. security budget. Still, in most of his essay Rana seems intent on searching for the conditions of possibility of any left foreign policy agenda. After all, as he rightly notes, the main global challengers to the U.S.-led order are authoritarianisms unworthy of solidarity. At home, working-class and minority groups are not close to developing a distinctive foreign policy, one that Rana thinks should be “grounded above all in the interests of all oppressed people.” Must the American left consign itself to a marginal and dissenting posture on foreign policy unless and until vast transformations take place?
I think not. But to play an important role in the determination of U.S. foreign policy, the American left must stake an unapologetic claim to advancing the interests of the American people. In other words, the left should embrace, and redefine, the “national interest.” That phrase does not appear in Rana’s essay. To some, interests can sound excessively nationalistic and antithetical to human values. Yet the left does not hesitate to support the “interests” of workers or minorities. The national interest is just as essential and need not be narrow-minded. It simply expresses the public good in an international context. It is necessarily the chief criterion for guiding the external conduct of the U.S. state. And it offers the American left much to say and do straight away, regardless of the fortunes of emancipatory movements elsewhere.
For example, it is emphatically in Americans’ interest to become no longer responsible for waging a large conventional or potentially nuclear war over, say, the Baltic states, especially given that wealthy European countries are capable of defending their continent against Russia. Reclaiming the national interest would allow the American left to issue a clear demand that its government move from a dominant to a supporting role in European defense. To make such a demand requires a forthright, interest-based approach; solidarity with the oppressed is not at issue, and the ideal of peace raises the question of how (and who) best to achieve it. By taking American interests seriously, the American left could engage with the vital strategic questions of the day, and on terms that speak to non-leftists as well.
Some discussions of left or progressive foreign policy—Rana’s not included—dance around issues of “hard” political-military power, on the premise that more profound human challenges pertain, say, to economics, race, or the environment. Even if the premise were true, the conclusion would not follow. By avoiding conventionally defined security questions, the left cedes this terrain to the establishment, which has made global military dominance into the foremost priority of U.S. foreign policy, overriding all other goals. In this context, Americans who support global dominance are not necessarily wrong to put a premium on security. They need to hear how a different approach will make them safer.
To end his essay, Rana asks whether it is possible to tame an empire from within. I would wager that it might be, if that empire finds that real strength and well-being for its people lies somewhere else.
Over a series of essays, including this contribution to Dissent, Aziz Rana has done the essential work of redefining foreign policy commitments for the American left. As he notes, democratic socialists have been largely excluded from the foreign policy establishment, affording little opportunity to challenge the bipartisan U.S. national security consensus in support of American primacy. By clearly articulating priorities to reshape U.S. foreign policy from the left, he fills the void created by these exclusions. At the end of his essay, he observes that left international formations have emerged principally from the global periphery in part because it is hard to sustain an “anti-imperial ethic from what amounts to the very heart of modern empire.” In this brief response, I ask what a left foreign policy shaped by the priorities and experiences of that periphery might entail.
From the perspective of the Global South, it is less clear whether the current moment represents an “interregnum” period or whether the Ukraine conflict is especially pivotal. The post–Second World War “rules-based order” has always included exceptions for great powers like the United States and Russia. Despite prohibitions in the UN Charter, elective uses of force by hegemonic actors, whether through direct military interventions or by fueling proxy wars, have been the norm rather than the exception. The United States is currently implicated in a range of conflicts that garner little of the attention devoted to Ukraine but remain highly visible in the Global South. Seen from places on the periphery, the U.S. military entanglement in Yemen is as concerning as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Still, the unipolarity of the post–Cold War has given way to a more multipolar order in which authoritarian adversaries of U.S. hegemony have grown stronger. In response, Rana calls for a left foreign policy able to embrace anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarianism. Global challenges are not always defined by the relationship between the United States and its antagonists, nor are anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarianism necessarily in tension. In many parts of the Global South, the issues that would top the agenda are tied to the ravages of two decades of various wars on terror and the socio-economic fallout of neoliberal globalization. On each of these fronts, the United States has largely been aligned with its adversaries. Both Russia and China have been adept at pursuing forms of violent counterterrorism while advancing their own market-driven agendas.
What, then, does left internationalist solidarity require? Decades of neoliberal deregulation have driven a transnational race to the bottom that undermined labor protections, dismantled public provision of social needs, and stripped states of the tools needed to address climate change and the current global food crisis. Reversing these policies and their consequences, especially for indebted countries of the Global South, would be an obvious place to start. The same goes for the outsized contribution of wealthy countries to environmental destruction. Small island nations currently lead global calls for climate justice, demanding reparative action from countries like the United States due to their disproportionate responsibility for the rising sea levels that threaten to engulf their lands. Recognizing our contribution to the climate crisis would help these demands resonate domestically.
Research has shown that the U.S. post-9/11 wars have resulted in mass population displacements, conservatively estimated as totaling 38 million people and possibly running as high as 49 to 60 million displaced. U.S. responsibility for generating the largest migration crisis since the Second World War is rarely mentioned in domestic discussions of global refugee flows. In addition to renouncing the habits of endless war, a left foreign policy would have to grapple with America’s debt to its all-but-invisible victims. The same goes with the conditions that produce pandemics. Globalization and urbanization have encroached on animal habitats in ways that increase the likelihood of pandemics, often in parts of the Global South where severe inequalities leave working communities more vulnerable to infection and less able to access treatment. Global solidarity requires transfers of resources to stem biodiversity destruction and measures that increase access to preventive medical treatments, against efforts to preserve the intellectual property rights of Western pharmaceutical companies.
Climate change, forced migration, and the pandemic all call for large-scale resource transfers commensurate with the outsized role of the United States in producing global crises. Rana acknowledges that a committed left foreign policy will require that Americans give up on “the symbolic and practical power of American primacy.” This is a formidable obstacle, but it pales in comparison to asking Americans to finance global reparations. It is easier to propose freezing Russian assets and redeploying them to fund Ukrainian reconstruction than to insist that U.S. resources go to countries devastated by its military interventions, immiserated by neoliberal policies, and endangered by environmental destruction.
Rana’s prescriptions demand more than eschewing American primacy. Prioritizing the transnational climate, migration, and inequality crises—and deploying the resources necessary to address them—would constitute a first step toward the reparative justice that a left foreign policy of global solidarity requires.
I commend Aziz Rana for his intelligent, sober, and humane essay. I do disagree, however, with particular elements of his piece. Even more, I am troubled by what he ignores: omissions that say much—too much—about the failures of today’s democratic left.
Thankfully, Rana mostly resists the Chomskyan temptation to view the United States as the all-powerful, albeit evil, god who controls foreign affairs. (After Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, does anyone believe that the United States controls the world?) But he falls into this trap in his history of the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s rise was not the consequence of U.S. policies; it emerged from internal Russian politics and history—forces that it would behoove us to understand. Russians are responsible for Putin, just as Americans are responsible for Trump. In the past two decades, Russia has waged five wars: Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas, and Ukraine (again). This ain’t about NATO.
I am surprised that Rana never mentions Iran (or its kapos, Hezbollah) in his discussion of malign imperial forces in the Middle East. On a moral and political level, it’s impossible to discuss “ongoing imperial violence” without including those two major forces of disruption and death.
Which brings me to Syria.
The Syrian Civil War is the greatest catastrophe, crime, and tragedy of the past decade. It is a crisis to which the U.S. (and Western) left—whether Marxist, anti-imperialist, or democratic—had no answers. Or only bad answers. Rana has previously written about the conflict. (I strongly disagree with his U.S.-centric analysis and his dangerously naïve belief that Bashar al-Assad would ever have countenanced “a peaceful and inclusive end” to the war—as do virtually all of the Syrian dissidents whom I’ve read.) In any case, he ignores the issue here. But it’s too soon to forget—especially since Putin’s playbook in Ukraine is a reprise of his Syrian assault.
Syria was an immensely tortuous conflict—and still is. It was not the Spanish Civil War, or Ukraine. My focus now is not on Obama’s paralysis (Rana and I disagree on that) when faced with systemic torture, urban sieges, attacks on schools and hospitals, barrel bombs, chemical warfare—in short, the death of a nation; instead, I address the response of the left.
Which was, in a word, shameful. On one hand, there were those who, bizarrely, mouthed Russian-Syrian propaganda or became apologists for the Assad regime—described by Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh as a “fascistic . . . dynasty of murderers” that transformed the country into “a hopeless slaughterhouse”; this rogue’s gallery included journalists Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and Seymour Hersh. But the democratic left, with a few exceptions, was little better. Perhaps traumatized by Iraq, perhaps embarrassed by U.S. power, didn’t they—we—look away? Didn’t our thunderous silence essentially say that the revolt against tyranny by a brutally subjugated people was none of our concern? But if that is so: what is? “To be honest . . . I do not know what leftists in the West do,” said al-Haj Saleh, an (anti-Soviet) communist who spent sixteen years in the dungeons of Hafez al-Assad. In the case of Syria, I don’t either. A left that lacks the courage to analyze its impotence and ethical betrayals—that has little sense of what “left internationalism” means in practice—has little hope of resuscitating itself, or of being taken seriously, either within our country or throughout the world. How to move into the future without understanding our past?
Finally, the domestic sphere. Two main demands that Rana cites are open borders (“decriminalizing” is a euphemism) and police and prison abolition. These do not constitute—and never will—a mass democratic program. I challenge Rana (or anyone else) to go to a working-class community, white or black, anywhere in this country, and try to organize around such demands. Recent elections in New York City, Minneapolis, and Newark suggest that they will be highly unsuccessful—and for good reason.
This doesn’t mean that the democratic left should take a solely populist stance and support only what “the people” (however defined) want. But a bit of humility—or even genuine curiosity—would be helpful. The democratic left urgently needs to begin listening to our fellow citizens rather than telling them what—in Rana’s confident words—they “should develop.” Listen to what they fear, listen to what they desire, listen to what they dream. Nobody owes us their trust. We have to earn it.
Aziz Rana offers valuable insight about the state of the left both at home and worldwide.
The systematic dismantlement of the international infrastructure of nonalignment poses a profound challenge to leftists everywhere. Political forces in the Global South whose vision for their future tracks neither the neoliberal, neo-imperial template nor the authoritarian Chinese or Russian alternatives have nowhere to turn. Compounding this problem is the fact that many of these forces are hounded by their own governments. Far from a new Bandung Conference for the twenty-first century, various African, Asian, and Latin American governments today offer only a performative neutrality—in reaction to global events such as the current Russian war in Ukraine—which stems not from a principled commitment to an emancipatory third way but simply from a rejection of Western agendas and a desire not to alienate Russia. Moreover, Rana correctly identifies security spending as a radical redistributive project, “a massive giveaway to corporations,” taking from the many to give to the few. The obstacles to reversing that process are numerous and deeply entrenched.
Fortunately, as Rana notes, there are glimmers of hope. He points to recent left victories in Chile. The U.S. labor movement could also once again offer a valuable example to the world, provided it is able to protect and replicate recent victories such as the successful union drive at an Amazon worksite. In that light, the tendency to dissociate the foreign from the domestic in U.S. left circles is “counterproductive” because it stands in the way of transnational cross-fertilization and movement building. Yet more can be said to dissect the problem and, perhaps, locate solutions.
Two factors help ensure the separation of the domestic concerns that typically animate the American left from foreign affairs.
First, the structural reality of empire is such that navel-gazing becomes virtually inevitable. Being at the heart of empire usually means being mostly unaffected in a material sense by events at the periphery. Riches and advantages typically flow toward the center, not away from it, so those there have less immediate incentive to pay attention to—let alone mobilize around—what occurs at the margins. This outcome is conditioned by U.S. hegemony, which was solidified in the 1950s, the same period that Rana pinpoints for the retreat of American labor leaders from the world stage.
Second, this separation is enforced through a deliberately constructed and well-policed border. Transnational networks of solidarity and action are at constant risk of being read as threats to the U.S. security state, which strives to establish a monopoly on the projection of power across borders. In the post-9/11 era, this has held truest for formations of transnational Islamic solidarity, whether humanitarian or military in nature, such as the Holy Land Foundation or the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has not been limited to them. Political forces that oppose both imperialism and authoritarianism, even when they are not necessarily transnational, have been met with American and Western resistance or, at best, ambivalence.
The wake of the Arab Spring provides a telling case study. The United States and major EU states today largely support the Sisi regime in Egypt, the counterrevolution led by Kais Saied in Tunisia, as well as the ongoing Saudi and Emirati war in Yemen, and these same Western powers failed to meaningfully intervene to end the Syrian war. They have favored material interests and notions of regional “stability” that complement continued Western control, even if they come at the cost of local authoritarianism. For people struggling to survive in those places, it is already the “time of monsters,” to complete the Gramsci quote that Rana uses to describe the unraveling of the post–Second World War international framework.
A reckoning may also be on the way in the United States. Rana focuses on the need to challenge the symbolism of American primacy in political discourse in order to build a truly emancipatory U.S. foreign policy. To the symbolic dimension, it is worth adding the material implications of reimagining and reforming U.S. foreign policy. Americans must be willing to give up some daily comforts that derive from U.S. global domination; the price of fuel and gas (in less inflationary times) is only one salient example of these benefits. A real commitment to transforming from within how the United States participates in the world requires willingness to sacrifice the material fruits of U.S. ascendancy.
The conundrum of solidarity is as old as the exhortation “Workers of the world, unite!”—a call that was global in scope yet left out the multitudes oppressed by capitalism who were not workers. Marked by fissures and erasures as much as by common purpose and mutuality, solidarity has always been messy.
To a newly confident left in a United States contemplating the demise of its own unchallenged global writ, Aziz Rana presents a vision for fighting empire from within. Key to this program is global solidarity: “working-class and minority groups at home should develop an independent foreign policy that emphasizes solidarities with workers abroad or historically colonized populations.” Rising to this task means identifying, managing, and navigating the difficulties at stake with a clear eye, in ways this left has thus far largely failed to do—especially for those whose nearest oppressors are geostrategic rivals of the United States.
Recall the genre of left commentary on the Syria crisis that denounced both liberal interventionism (calls for regime change, punitive air strikes, sanctions, no-fly zones) and apologia for the Assad regime (tarring the whole opposition as ISIS and al Qaeda). While ethically satisfactory for some, the “pox on both your houses” position only underscored the absence of a viable politics for the antiwar left in the United States beyond the baseline humanitarianism of supporting refugees. And while online leftists loudly tore each other to shreds, Washington and Damascus (backed by Moscow) quietly arrived at a modus vivendi whereby each side could bomb its enemies while they worked together to ensure their jets did not collide.
We can see similar dilemmas with the war in Ukraine. Rana’s valiant attempt to thread this needle concedes that some Western military support for Ukraine may be warranted, but only as part of a larger push for de-escalation and diplomacy. But what happens when meaningful solidarity with those facing armed aggression (and, let’s face it, their demand is for weapons above all) means further lining the pockets of the arms dealers and warmongers whose power must absolutely be broken if any hope for a better world is possible? The lack of good answers here is a symptom of our predicament; a solidarity politics must at the very least unflinchingly identify such questions, even if only to work to defuse them.
The stakes will only grow if tensions between China and the United States continue on their current path: workers pitted against each other by globalization today may slaughter each other on the battlefield tomorrow, while entire populations on both sides of the Pacific are reduced to pawns and hostages. One can find glimmers of hope in the work of groups like Justice Is Global, which encourage transnational worker solidarity to disrupt the false choice between the hammer of free trade and the anvil of racialized protectionism.
The common interests of oppressed people can never be presumed in the abstract. Nor should they be dismissed out of hand in a calculation of realpolitik. Rather, let us think of solidarity as a hypothesis, one whose verification is the task before us. As Jacques Rancière wrote in a very different context, “Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows. What is essential is the continuous vigilance, the attention that never subsides.” A solidarity politics worthy of the name entails identifying points of commonality and divergence and honestly reckoning with both.
Aziz Rana Replies
I would like to thank all the symposium participants for their incredibly rich reflections on everything from matters of global solidarity to electoral politics to priorities of left foreign policy. In these final thoughts, I will aim to grapple with two issues that emerged in the responses: How should leftists approach the hardest questions? And how should they relate to the idea of an American “national interest”?
Susie Linfield’s essay condemns not only the evils of Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, along with his external abettors in Russia and Iran, but also the silence of the U.S. left. The profound tragedy of the Syrian war underscores a key concern that motivated my initial essay. Building a credible left foreign policy requires having clear approaches to the most difficult political questions.
In many ways, the U.S. wars in Iraq or Vietnam were relatively easy cases in which one could straightforwardly embrace an anti-intervention position. Situations like Syria are far more complicated. On Syria, it has not been enough to remain silent—like many elected left-leaning Democrats—or to fall back on a simple pro-sovereignty anti-interventionism, given its troubling implications for local aspirations and humanitarian welfare. Those two approaches—silence or moral blindness—allow the national security establishment to present itself as the only serious voice.
For this reason, over a series of essays in recent years, Aslı Bâli and I attempted to develop a genuine alternative to the position of the U.S. security state. The American government’s approach was committed to arming factions in the hopes of regime overthrow. Our view was that the U.S. position—in keeping with a long pattern of behavior—filtered local conditions in Syria through larger geostrategic objectives aimed at weakening regional adversaries. Given the complexity of the conflict, the number of domestic and external interveners, and the sheer violence, these geostrategic ends worked at cross purposes with basic humanitarian ones and only led to militarization and worsening circumstances.
At the same time, we believed that the United States had an obligation to support Syrian civilians rising up against Assad’s authoritarian rule and opposed left calls for complete nonintervention. Among the variety of available options, we argued that the best way to preserve some degree of local control and to protect civilians was to create the political space for the various groups on the ground to negotiate a transition through an inclusive diplomatic process. Thus, at the war’s outset, we supported policies of embargoing international arms to the Assad regime; protecting open border crossings into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey (to provide channels for Syrians to flee the conflict); accepting a significant proportion of Syrian refugees for resettlement in the United States; and providing substantial humanitarian assistance.
But we most strongly contended that from the very beginning of the war, the United States should have focused on bringing all Syrian factions, as well as Russia and Iran, to the table to hammer out a political settlement. Such talks would have aimed to end the violence rather than to shift the regional status quo in favor of the United States and its allies. We admitted that such an approach may not have ultimately succeeded, but the failure to pursue it at critical moments—especially early in the conflict—played a clear role in escalating the destruction.
My support for defensive military assistance in Ukraine while backing an arms embargo in Syria (the latter in line with the position of UN mediators like Lakhdar Brahimi) results from attempting to tailor responses to specific dynamics. Rather than always opposing arms or assuming that the only way to “do something” is through force, each conflict requires a sustained analysis of how external actors can create space both for local control and resolution. Answering these questions is never easy, but unless left voices engage in the difficult work of developing actionable alternatives in the hardest cases, we will be stuck with whatever the security state presents as the array of choices, however faulty it has been time and again.
In his response, Stephen Wertheim argues that such alternatives should be part of a broader left “embrace” and “redefin[ition]” of the “‘national interest.’” Although I see much to commend in Wertheim’s position, and though his thinking and writing on American global overreach have been a major influence on my own, I am hesitant to sign on to this project.
In the immediate term, I believe that there is real common ground between the left internationalism I defend and a realist account of the American national interest. Both frameworks would press for a reduced global military footprint, greater wariness of armed intervention, and a break with the ambitions of American unipolar dominance. But I doubt that an approach geared around the national interest can ever be sufficiently anti-imperial. Realism is grounded in a welcome effort to impose constraints on how U.S. authority is exercised. Moreover, invoking the national interest may have a pragmatic value in persuading some non-leftists to back particular reforms. But as Greg Afinogenov recently argued in Socialist Forum, its most common variants tend not to press beyond a “world divided between great powers, each with its own sphere of influence.”
Indeed, Ramzi Kassem and Aslı Bâli both note that Americans have enjoyed not only symbolic benefits from empire but also concrete material largesse. As I described in my initial essay, the mid-twentieth-century domestic economic boom was connected to the spread of American power. The country’s economic and military dominance—whether through dollar hegemony or the actual force of arms—was the international foundation for white middle-class prosperity. In this way, social democracy and empire went hand in hand.
Although the language of national interest may promote pushback on security excess, it remains unclear how compatible it can be with a genuinely redistributive international economic system. In keeping with Bâli’s response, I too believe that dominant countries like the United States have real reparative obligations to poor and marginalized people living outside their national borders. It is also my view that an anti-imperialism that engages in such redistribution will ultimately aid working and oppressed groups in the United States by overcoming the chokehold of corporate and military elites. But there is no doubt that current arrangements—even if partially reframed around a more restrained national interest—facilitate extractive gains for constituents in powerful countries.
This is one reason building a popular domestic base in the United States in favor of a transformed international order is so challenging. In the end, I am not sure that one can move insiders to expand how they conceive of shared community without breaking from many of the allegiances shaped by co-nationality, especially the entrenched cultural and material investments in a common security state.
At a moment when U.S. officials are recommitting to Cold War logics, questions about the limits of realist self-constraint are hardly the most pressing. Still, they are worth engaging with in part because they suggest divergent reformist pathways. Beyond restraining the militarism of the U.S. state, we need a fundamentally new vision of a shared global commons. Such a vision—tied to a reimagined approach to collective security and welfare—can only flourish if organized movements, across borders, are able together to develop transnational accounts of meaning, interest, and identity. This belief was a central reason why so much of my initial essay focused on the need for left international institution building as well as the destructive consequences since the 1970s of the political containment of the left within the national borders.
One clear effect of this containment, not to mention the sharp divide between the domestic and the foreign, is how difficult it has been to imagine political formations and ideas of global solidarity not framed around parameters set by governing officials. These parameters take for granted a hierarchical and fundamentally unequal order structured by the drives of powerful nation-states. Any truly emancipatory alternative instead must begin from precisely the opposite position, a focus on what equal and effective freedom entails for those at the margins, at home and abroad.
My hope for left voices, inside and outside of the United States, is that we can articulate, even if only in political debate, clear responses to immediate crises. At the same time, we can push toward a world organized on truly different terms—with that horizon always shaping engagement in the here and now.
Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has served as a foreign policy adviser to multiple campaigns and institutions. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.
Adom Getachew is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.
Stephen Wertheim is Senior Fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a historian of U.S. foreign relations. He is the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
Aslı Bâli is a Professor of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law.
Susie Linfield teaches journalism at NYU. She is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence and The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.
Ramzi Kassem is a professor at CUNY School of Law.
Darryl Li is an anthropologist and attorney teaching at the University of Chicago and author of The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity.
Aziz Rana teaches at Cornell Law School and is a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom and is completing a book that explores the modern emergence in the United States of constitutional veneration in the twentieth century and how it has shaped popular politics.