As midterm elections loom, suddenly everyone is formulating a foreign policy for the Left. On August 9, Phyllis Bennis put forward “A Bold Foreign Policy Platform for the New Wave of Left Lawmakers,” for In These Times; on September 4, in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Nexon called for “a new progressive internationalism.” On September 13, Bernie Sanders wrote in the Guardian that we need an “international progressive movement” to combat a rapidly coalescing “new authoritarian axis.” His motion was seconded by Yanis Varoufakis.
And it didn’t end there. Soon joining the call for a new progressive foreign policy were Daniel Bessner in the New York Times, Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post and more. All these pieces addressed traditional foreign policy questions and what progressives should pressure the U.S. government to do.
This piece is about something different: not primarily what candidates or the state should do but what we in the socialist movement should do, with or without state power — and how we can update our approach for the 21st century. (I am using socialist as a catchall term for all the anarchists, labor organizers, municipalists, feminists, anti-racists, gender activists and other progressives who make up our still-amorphous movement.)
Four New Developments
Let’s begin with one of Phyllis Bennis’ formulations for candidates: “A progressive foreign policy must reject U.S. military and economic domination and instead be grounded in global cooperation, human rights, respect for international law and privileging diplomacy over war.”
I agree with everything in this sentence, but have a problem with a paradigm that is so timeless. Add another sentence on denuclearization, demilitarization and conversion to a peace economy, and we could be back in the peace movement of the seventies. But our lives in the 21st century will be shaped by at least four new developments — including, most urgently, climate change — and these must fundamentally affect our foreign policy.
1. Climate change has already put the survival of many species and low-lying regions at risk, and made the future of human civilization an open question. It has endangered people’s livelihoods all over the world — livelihoods which, in many cases, were already compromised by neoliberal globalization. At the same time, the physical security of some of these same communities is threatened by wars, authoritarian governments and fundamentalist movements. Facing so many dangers, many see no choice but flight. This means the coming period will be a time of unprecedented migrations. The walls being thrown up to exclude migrants have already produced the most severe human rights crisis since World War II.
For decades, U.S. foreign policy has been based in part on gaining and keeping access to fossil fuels. In order to keep things sweet with the Saudis, the United States has turned a blind eye to their funding al Qaeda, and educating extremists throughout the world. The United States sees them as allies against Iran, and continues to supply them with weapons and political support even as they devastate Yemen.
Socialists must insist that the U.S. end its dependence on fossil fuels, rather than making this dependence the basis of foreign policy. We must also insist that the U.S. hold to and strengthen agreements that will maximize the chances of saving life on this planet. We ourselves and civil society at large must develop our own domestic and cross-border instruments to police such agreements, as is already happening spontaneously with anti-extraction movements. The global movement against fracking has mobilized activists all around the world and mounted a still-ongoing transnational campaign against the Keystone Pipeline led by indigenous groups in the United States and Canada.
2. Globalism. We now live in a fully globalized world economy, characterized by the interpenetration of economic regions, the rule of finance capital and the concentration of wealth in a very few hands. Globalism weakens the ability of individual states to control their own economies; as living conditions in these states decline and the people become restive, their elites reach for authoritarian methods of social control, making possible new alliances between old-style feudal authoritarians and neofascist politicians. It’s reminiscent of Germany in 1933, when General von Hindenberg, President of the Weimar Republic, appointed Adolf Hitler his Chancellor, paving the way for his ascent.
We must directly confront not only the consequences of globalism but the ideology behind it, which Varoufakis describes as “the false promise that everyone can become better off as long as we submit to commodification.” It has long been a staple of U.S. foreign policy to make the world safe for business on the unspoken assumption that what’s good for business is good for everyone. In the period of globalism, this belief became dogma and an almost-religious belief in market fundamentalism was promoted by both Democrats and Republicans until Bernie came along; as socialists, we have to continue to expose this belief-system as a fraud that will never contribute to world peace, sustainability, or real economic development.
3. The rise of a neofascist international. The right-wing parties and racist popular movements of today are internationally connected. Steve Bannon attends meetings of the European right; Putin supports their parties; Russian disinformation channels publicize their views. And, as Bernie Sanders points out, they have common sources of funding: “The Mercer family, for example, supporters of the infamous Cambridge Analytica, have been key backers of Trump and of Breitbart News, which operates in Europe, the United States and Israel to advance the same anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson gives generously to rightwing causes in both the United States and Israel, promoting a shared agenda of intolerance and illiberalism in both countries.”
While these neofascist movements and parties are organizing at a time of economic uncertainty, their principal appeal is to cultural prejudices, framed as “us and them” and “order and disorder.” And their method is violence. All those people different from “us” must be pushed out, eliminated, killed, to make the world orderly again. A socialist foreign policy must strongly oppose racist and nativist politics and movements, and stand for the rights of political, economic and climate refugees; we must fight the idea that nations are meant to be homogenous, and strive for increasingly open borders rather than walls.
4. A new paradigm for social justice. After 1989, most leftists saw that neither 20th-century state socialism nor the era’s national liberation movements were leading in the right direction, for both had proven disastrous for human rights. But slogans like “another world is possible,” didn’t get us very far. Today, a new and as yet mostly uncoordinated movement — reaching from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, to municipalists in cities like Barcelona and Jackson, Miss., to the “democratic confederalists” of Rojava, the autonomous majority-Kurdish region of Syria — is working out in practice what 21st century socialism could look like.
Their paradigm begins with bottom-up local democracy and an aversion to statism. It fully integrates women into governance structures and makes their liberation central to its idea of revolution. Pluralistic and secular, it emphasizes ecology, sustainability and economic cooperation. A socialist foreign policy must make solidarity with these fragile and beleaguered movements central to its strategy.
Keeping these four 21th century conditions in mind — climate change, globalism, the rise of a neofascist international and a new paradigm for social justice — let us turn to the principles that inform a socialist foreign policy.
Socialist principles and foreign policy
A number of principles are basic to a socialist foreign policy. Relations between countries and peoples should be based on equality and fairness, not exploitation, racism or bullying. States and peoples should work out their differences through negotiations, not violence. Global problems should be addressed multilaterally.
It is a problem that the UN and other multilateral institutions are bureaucratic, weak and subject to blackmail by rich and powerful states. The solution is not to withdraw from these institutions but to insist on transparency and give them more money and more teeth. For starters, the United States should join the International Criminal Court rather than threaten to arrest its personnel.
In addition, since these institutions represent states, many of which are authoritarian, we socialists — independent of our own state — must develop relationships with democratic and oppositional movements in other states, rather than try to do everything through UN mechanisms. As we develop such autonomous networks, we will find ways to pressure the state-based system from below.
The defense of human rights is fundamental to our project, although people on the Left have not always recognized this and some still don’t. This skepticism goes back to the Cold War, when individual rights of free expression and assembly were invoked by the West against the Soviet bloc. The hard Left was often ready enough to dismiss the importance of these rights; I have heard more than one leftist (mis)quote Stalin to the effect that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Other leftists, more sensitive to democracy, remember how the language of human rights was used to justify the disastrous war in Iraq and military intervention in Libya, with no thought about what would come after and no ability to shape the chaos that emerged. As Aziz Rana points out, both Democrats and Republicans have long invoked human rights to argue for “the necessity of American international police power.”
But despite such misuse, the principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—including the right to education, housing, unionization, freedom of movement and expression, free choice of a spouse, and even national liberation — provide a foundation on which we can stand to reach for, in Marx’s words, “the free development of each.”
While these general principles are well and good, when we get down to the practical level and look at a real-life problem like the civil war in Syria, things get more complicated. On the one hand, we have a dictatorship and a civil war that has destroyed the country, piled corpses to the rafters, and created millions of refugees. It is reasonable to fear that US involvement might make things worse. On the other hand, we have Rojava, a pluralistic, feminist, ecologically minded bottom-up democracy trying to survive and grow under extremely hostile conditions. How does Rojava fit into a 21st century socialist foreign policy?
Bennis takes the position — a popular one on the Left— that no arms should be provided to Middle Eastern states and nonstate actors. This was Obama’s position in the early days of the Syrian civil war, when the civil opposition was begging for weapons and he feared they would, as some put it, “fall into the wrong hands.” Bennis makes no exception for the largely Kurdish region of Syria called Rojava, the one place in the region that mandates religious and ethnic pluralism, enforces equal rights for women, strives for environmental sustainability, and is building a cooperative economy. Rojava has needed U.S. military support to survive: It was attacked by ISIS in 2012 and by Turkey in 2018, and is now being threatened by Assad, Turkey, and Turkish-funded jihadis. To deny them arms and support is to say, essentially, tough luck.
I believe that a socialist foreign policy must be based on international solidarity. We cannot abandon progressive enclaves surrounded by jihadis and fascist states that want to destroy them. Not only do people in Rojava and those still active in the Syrian civil opposition share our values and work for the same goals we do, but they have been trying out grassroots democratic ways of organizing society that will provide us all with precious experiental data. From any foreign policy point of view, their idea that Syria should become a secular federalist state with a weak central government and considerable local autonomy is the best blueprint yet for many ethnically and religious mixed societies in the Middle East. For all these reasons, I believe the United States should continue to arm the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, give them air support against Turkey, Assad and jihadis, and insist that representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — the official name for Rojava — be at the table in peace negotiations.
As we rebuild the Left in the United States, we should be in close communication with people in Rojava, Chiapas, Barcelona and other places that are experimenting with new forms of direct democracy, not only in order to support them but also to learn what has worked and what has not in various contexts. Ways to show solidarity with Rojava, for instance, could include informing ourselves; going there to help, like people in the Internationalist Commune; giving money; supporting their tree-planting campaign to restore sustainability to devastated agricultural land; and doing advocacy for continued U.S. aid, like the Emergency Committee for Rojava (of which I am a member). Rojava is of critical importance because it is positioned at the intersection of many of the coming century’s themes: A war made worse by drought, a constellation of authoritarian far-right enemies, a radical experiment in building an egalitarian and ecologically sustainable society amid climate change.
Some progressives will disagree with the idea that U.S. progressives should support Rojava. They see the United States as the source of all evil, and believe the U.S. must be quarantined to avoid harming others. The extreme version of this viewpoint even supports Assad and Putin, foolishly believing that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” These socialists are, as Sri Lanken feminist and human rights campaigner Rohini Hensman says in Indefensible, her important new book, “unable to deal with complexity, including the possibility that there may be more than one oppressor in a particular situation; for them, ‘the West’ has to be the only oppressor in all situations.”
In fact, the days when the United States was the only world super-power are over and the U.S. simply does not have the money or troops to engage in massive or widespread military interventions, nor would such a policy have popular support. As Phyllis Bennis puts it, “U.S. global domination is actually shrinking,” and the United States is a “waning power,” though still a very dangerous one.
The outlook critiqued by Hensman can only be called imperial narcissism, a perceptual disorder found in those who cannot pull their eyes away from their own reflection in the mirror. What would happen if the United States abandoned the Kurds and withdrew from Syria? Would Syria then be at peace? Would its civilians be safer? Or would the region become even more of a killing field for Russia, Iran, Turkey, Assad and assorted jihadis? To imperial narcissists, these questions don’t matter; their only interest is self-purification. Calls for solidarity from progressives in other countries are not their concern. As Michael Walzer wrote in 2017, “comrades abroad who ask for help are a nuisance; they interfere with our self-absorption.”
Other progressives fear that support for any of the parties at war in Syria will put the United States on a slippery slope toward further escalation leading to a full-scale invasion. The war in Iraq was a terrible lesson in the human costs of such interventions, particularly to the people living in the country being “saved.” And some of our leaders continue to think the United States has a divine right to do whatever it wants anywhere in the world. For this reason, the U.S. military absolutely needs to be restrained and closely scrutinized by Congress.
But this restraint should not mean a complete retreat from international responsibilities, including the much derided and sometimes misused “responsibility to protect.” If there had been a recognized “responsibility to protect” during World War II, my mother’s family in Latvia might have survived. But a powerful isolationist movement in the late 1930s pushed for the United States to stay out of “the mess in Europe.” So the United States stood back as Germany invaded Poland; we also failed to do anything to save the European Jews.
Was that good foreign policy? I don’t think so. Entering the war against fascism was the right thing to do, just as it was right for the international Left in the late 1930s to mobilize material aid and send volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. And today’s political climate is too much like that of the 1930s for comfort.
There are no dogmatic one-size-fits-all anti-imperialist slogans that can help us thread our way through the complexities of the current international situation. We live in a time of economic crisis, increasing polarization, and the growth of right-wing movements. We have two adversaries: the globalists who have looted the world, and a growing axis of fascists and fundamentalists. Sometimes these adversaries collude and sometimes they collide. The international situation is complex, shifting, and not easily reduced to either left-wing or right-wing formulae. A socialist foreign policy must be based on close study of the particulars of each situation and a sense of what will bring us together against both our adversaries. And the solutions we find must also address climate change
Climate change as the catalyst
In their recent linked statements in the Guardian, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis called for a new international alliance to fight both globalism and the growing neofascist axis. U.S. socialists should go beyond this state-based vision to develop their own independent relationships with progressive movements and parties in other countries. It is critically important that these relationships be shaped by the central issue of climate change.
Our adversaries have one big thing in common: Both face the prospect of a destroyed planet with equanimity. On one side, neofascists and fundamentalists look forward to an Armageddon in which they will be raptured up to heaven, or a weakened West that can be conquered by a new Caliphate, or a string of survivalist enclaves sorted by race. Unlike them, the globalist rich are willing to address climate change, though not very fast or energetically. If that approach doesn’t work out, they plan to retreat into underground bunkers or set up gated communities in space with Elon Musk, leaving the rest of us on an unlivable planet.
Anyone who thinks a destroyed planet is acceptable is the enemy not only of progressives but of all humanity, and it is our job to point this out. Climate change is an issue we can use to unite people against fascists and neoliberals, and create multilateral, cross-border movements. It provides a framework in which socialists can bring together domestic and foreign policy, the ideological and the practical, the personal and the political, and engage in open debate with all those who don’t care. Naomi Klein lays out this vision in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate:
Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once — rules written into national laws and trade agreements, as well as powerful unwritten rules that tell us that no government can increase taxes and stay in power, or say no to major investments no matter how damaging, or plan to gradually contract those parts of our economies that endanger us all. And yet each of those rules emerged out of the same, coherent worldview. If that worldview is delegitimized, then all of the rules within it become much weaker and more vulnerable.
This is why climate change must be at the center of any socialist foreign policy and why ideological struggle is the order of the day. It is also why we must defend those few and fragile systems that are trying to find democratic, sustainable ways for people to live, like those of the Zapatistas and the people of Rojava. Their communities sit at the crossroads where socialist foreign policy and climate change meet.