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Left-Wing Foreign Policy: A Feasible Alternative
U.S. foreign policy (FP) has seldom been influenced by the Left, except through the medium of mass demonstrations. The thinking underlying such influence is usually rudimentary – peace is better than war, war is not healthy for children and other living things, etc. More erudite thinking about imperialism or sophisticated alternatives to the official line have usually been confined to the margins. One reason is that critics of U.S. foreign policy have been blocked from official positions, and it is not possible to build up a bench of credentialed experts (those with government experience). Acknowledged progressive authorities are few.
The current posture of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is more sloganeering and resurrection of old rhetoric than a politically useful and viable platform for the U.S. So it is with the rest of the left. Among liberals, the slogans are different, but the vapidity is similar.
I have in mind an alternative framework, or the beginnings of one, geared to how I see the priorities in the current international situation. It has four key points of focus.
Focus is usually hard to achieve on the left. The desire for broad consensus ends up indulging everyone’s causes. Twenty priorities really means there are no priorities. Worse, twenty priorities leaves it to potentially isolated leadership to decide, undemocratically, which “priorities” are the real priorities — the ones awarded with resources and person-power. This is one of the less-appreciated problems in DSA in particular. The “platform” is endless. Of course, that means there really is no platform.
The job is to distill a world of troubles into a short list of points for action.
1. The Ukraine war is clearly the top FP issue of the moment, since along with the ongoing carnage is the danger of a wider war, even a nuclear war. I’ve been rhetorically militant in defense of Ukraine, but it is time to ask whether U.S. policy is not getting over its skis, from a legitimate commitment to the defense of the sovereignty of Ukraine to a neocon desire to gain geopolitical advantage over Russia. You might ask what good is such advantage, what is it exactly, is it something we can eat, and I would quite agree, but that is what seems to motivate the Biden Administration.
The most important related issue is that of U.S./NATO sanctions on Russia, which are twin to the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports.
Disruption of exports (grain from both Ukraine and Russia, oil and gas from Russia) seems likely to harm the global south more than anyone else. Sanctions do not appear to have restrained the Russian invasion. The retrenchment of Russian forces to a more restricted area in the east appears to be the result of military reversals, not sanctions. At the same time, there is no indication of any further redeployment by Russia.
I read that the sanctions have set off a recession in Russia. Big deal. It might have long-term effects, but that is not the problem of the moment. We have recessions here and there is no chance of regime change on that account. Elections might be turned, but there are no such elections in Russia. It's an obvious outrage that the U.S. indulges energy exports from Russia so that we can have air conditioning, but not grain so that others can eat. There are also indications that the sanctions just don't work. Of course, nobody cares if some oligarchs are inconvenienced, or expropriated. But that is not the purpose of sanctions.
A hope for sanctions was to exert pressure on Putin. There is no indication this has worked. If a deal could result in fewer sanctions and the release of Ukraine’s grain, that would be helpful to the global south and neither hinder nor help either party’s war effort. (Higher energy prices also hurt the global south.) Diplomatically speaking, it is low-hanging fruit.
In a nutshell, U.S. efforts to exploit Ukraine for non-Ukrainian objectives, along with inflexible maintenance of sanctions, should be opposed.
2. Paralleling U.S. assertiveness regarding Russia is the clamor over purported threats to U.S. security from the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Here as with sanctions, tariffs originating in the Trump Administration have scant justification. It ought to be possible to uphold the self-determination of Taiwan without setting off or exacerbating a period of expensive military competition with the PRC in the Western Pacific.
U.S. cooperation with the PRC is essential for global action against climate change, as well as for the sake of peace and public health. Such priorities outweigh any misguided jockeying for geopolitical supremacy.
Underlying Russia sanctions and the hostility towards the PRC is the enduring U.S. dedication to global domination, personified by what even President Obama disdained as "the Blob" (the elite U.S. foreign policy establishment). With Joe Biden, the Blob is back in the driver’s seat.
3. One prevailing interest is the crippling effect of debt on global south nations. There is no doubt about the harmful impact. What is in question is its vulnerability to remedy by the U.S. Left. A narrower, more tractable focus would be the outstanding debt of Puerto Rico. This is directly vulnerable to U.S. policy, it affects crucial constituencies for DSA, and disposition of the issue is intimately bound up with the daily, material well-being of the working class in PR and those in the U.S. with connections to the island, particularly in the form of the health of the PR public sector. Success in this vein would set the table for a broader global initiative.
4. It’s hard to imagine a DSA FP platform that omits Palestine. The dilemma is that the current support for BDS (which I share) hives off a sizable portion of support within DSA, and renders any DSA-endorsed candidate for office a political non-starter. If BDS remains a litmus test, there is no change for unanimity within DSA on Palestine, nor any chance of electoral success for so-called “cadre candidates” (one who supports the full-blown, industrial-strength DSA platform).
In the interests of unity, it is best to focus on that which commands the broadest support, which means points 1-3, but unfortunately, not #4.