Socialist Foreign Policy Must Center Climate Change

A new progressive internationalism must be tailored to meet this century’s challenges.

Meredith Tax October 10, 2018

A Kurdish commander from the Syrian Democratic Forces watches his soldiers carry water to the next base in Rojava, Syria. (Chris Huby/LePictorium/Barcroft / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

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.

As we rebuild the U.S. Left, we should be in close communication with people in Rojava, Chiapas, Barcelona and other places that are experimenting with new forms of direct democracy.

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.

Mered­ith Tax has been a fem­i­nist writer and orga­niz­er since the late Six­ties. Her most recent book is A Road Unfore­seen: Women Fight the Islam­ic State (2016). She is a mem­ber of the steer­ing com­mit­tee of the Emer­gency Com­mit­tee for Rojava.
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