The State of Leftist Foreign Policy



by Paul Dewar et al.

Open Canada
June 8, 2016

Leftist views are most often clear when it comes to the domestic agenda — advocating for social programs, including the protection of workers, basic healthcare and education, and against all forms of inequality. But when it comes to some of today's most urgent foreign policy issues — from the justified uses of militaries to the appropriate levels of foreign aid to what constitutes a global human rights regime — the Left is not only divided but in many cases removed from positions of power and influence. 

Is there space for alternative, progressive foreign policies to not only be promoted but implemented? If so, can the left-of-centre — Liberals and liberals, Democrats old and new, socialists, independents, you name it — see eye to eye on the best way forward?

By examining the current positioning of political groups on both sides of the spectrum in North America, Europe and beyond, this series identifies the challenges in defining those alternatives and imagines the actions that might make a stronger Left possible.

Specifically, we asked eight dynamic, political voices to share their insights: whether a leftist foreign policy does or should exist and what the future holds for progressives globally. Tellingly, their views are sometimes conflicting (on intervention and war), sometimes united (on women’s rights and environmental concerns), and their prescriptions vary completely. One common theme stands loud and clear, however: on global affairs, the voice of the Left is lacking.

Nearly powerless but not defeated, the Left must stand stronger against intervention / Vijay Prashad

Decades of structural adjustment and austerity as well as the stranglehold of the global commodity chain have cut back the reservoirs of the Left. An exhausted public and a weak trade union regime have been the outcomes of these policies. The ramparts of the Left were breached less by political violence and more by the structural changes in the world economy.

Conditions are bad now, but economic crisis and political repression do not themselves create a Left. What they produce is disgruntlement, whose beneficiary can be right-wing populism or general demoralization. Occasional signs of Leftist emergence – whether in South America or southern Europe – are heartening, but can they last and could they develop an alternative to the neo-liberal pattern of government?

So far these new formations have not been permitted or have not developed the courage to do so. Coups, as the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said, come not by tanks now, but by banks. Systematic, invisible domination smothers the possibility of a new Left pathway.

Could there be a foreign policy of the Left when the Left is weak and struggles to articulate a broad alternative to both right-wing populism and extreme centrism? Such a question is far too idealistic – it requires us to avoid considerations of power, where the Left simply does not have the authority to move an agenda on its core principles.

But a lack of power does not mean defeat, for as the Lebanese Marxist Mahdi Amel wrote, “You are not defeated as long as you are resisting.” This raises an important question – is the Left, in this period, merely to provide resistance to the juggernaut of right-wing populism and extreme centrism? Criticism and resistance are essential elements toward the creation of an alternative agenda. There is a tendency on the Left to pretend we are near power and to therefore articulate “balanced” and “credible” public policy proposals – believing, erroneously, that a full-throated denunciation of the order of things makes us appear irrelevant. To eschew principled and full-criticism would, however, forestall the possibility of creating an alternative agenda. Being relevant means to adopt the terms of the present. A Left has to break the consensus of the present and offer – through criticism – glimmers of a new kind of foreign policy.

For instance, on the question of humanitarian intervention, there is hesitancy across the Left to excavate its history of “redecorated colonialism” (as Miguel d’Escoto said when he was president of the UN General Assembly). The Left does not need to produce a new calculus for intervention. It needs to find a convincing way to show that not only do interventions fail, but that they do not address the root causes of violence — illiteracy, illness, poverty, joblessness and social toxicity. These are the authors of crisis. Bombs cannot defeat them. Neither right-wing populism nor extreme centrism would like to go to the root. That is the task of the Left.

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (2013) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (2016).

From Syria to Iraq, their fight is our fight, too / Terry Glavin

“What we want for ourselves we demand for all."

If that maxim can be taken to encapsulate the internationalist aspirations of the 20th century Euro-American Left, then any consideration of “progressive” foreign policy since September 11, 2001, cannot but take into account a dramatic abandonment of the Left’s historic mission. The 21st century’s actually existing Left demands nothing of the kind.

Mobilizations for solidarity with movements engaged in revolutionary, democratic struggle have been almost totally supplanted by Stop The War rallies, Gaza Flotilla spectacles and other such highly ritualized performances that amount to little more than exhibitions of radical-chic narcissism. This has occurred either in spite of or because of the overwhelmingly “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” claims the contemporary Left makes for itself.

Ever since 9-11, it’s always all about “us.” 

This was the case throughout the 21st century’s first decade, from Afghanistan to Iraq and from Sudan to Palestine and Iran. Throughout the tumults and upheavals from Tunisia to Bahrain ignited by the Arab Spring in 2010, the cynical high-fashion abstentionism of the “Left” in the NATO capitals persisted, metastasized, and now serves quite effectively to uphold the non-intervention consensus of the Western elites. 

In Afghanistan, for instance, across the broad spectrum of mainline Afghan democrats, feminists, intellectuals, reformists and civil-society leaders and in the explicit wishes of Afghanistan's elected assemblies, the position was consistent: Troops In. But the Euro-American Left presumed to know better, and in spite of successive UN Security Council resolutions authorizing what grew to a 52-member International Security Assistance Force military defence of the country's embryonic democracy, the position was similarly consistent: Troops Out.

When desperate pleadings for trade union support and for democratic-development resources went out from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—the Socialist International’s affiliate in Iraq—the appeals went unheeded. With vanishingly few exceptions, such as Britain’s Labour Friends of Iraq, all Iraq’s democratic socialists got for their trouble was the same useless slogan: Troops Out.

The consequences of the Left’s avant-garde abdications are now being suffered most horrifically by the people of Syria. One of that country’s leading socialist intellectuals, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, laments the implications this way: “I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. . . Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. . . I think this high-politics, Western-centred worldview is better suited for the right and the ultra-right fascists.”

Indeed, the foreign-policy postures of the so-called “anti-war” Left, having evolved from the expenditure of so much activist energy in collaborations with the Islamist far-right, are now in many cases functionally indistinguishable from those of Europe’s far-right fringe. One is as likely to encounter excuse-making for Vladimir Putin and sneering dismissals of Ukrainian democrats among celebrity Chavismo enthusiasts as among the leading figures of Eastern Europe’s recrudescent rightist parties.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has become riven with an “anti-Zionism” that is routinely expressed in ways that are indistinguishable from anti-semitism.

Code Pink has happily congratulated Donald Trump for his histrionic pronouncements about the George W. Bush administration. Even the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders has expressed a sort of melancholy for the “stability” once offered by Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

“This is not our war” is the way Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party explains his aversion to any effort to oust Syrian mass-murderer Bashar Assad. In Canada, the New Democratic Party’s Thomas Muclair puts it only slightly differently: “This is not our fight.”

It was not that long ago that whenever masses of working people rose up against police-state tyranny, the response of the Euro-American Left was instinctive: this is our fight too. Those instincts are gone. Not merely counter-revolutionary, the existing Euro-American Left is as often as not determinedly and unashamedly anti-revolutionary.

It’s all about “us” now. What we want for ourselves we no longer demand for all.

Terry Glavin is an author and columnist with the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen.

A feminist foreign policy in the spirit of solidarity / Kaavya Asoka & Sarah Leonard

This U.S. election cycle, we’ve often seen socialism and feminism pitted against one another: Sanders versus Clinton, the Bernie Bros versus the Hillarybots, gender versus class. How might a left foreign policy synthesize the two?
In asking which candidate better serves women, we have asked: which women and how?

Where Bernie has been poor at articulating just why policies such as paid family leave and even a $15 minimum wage are “feminist,” we have argued that they are feminist because they address women’s economic inequality, without which it is hard to knock down other barriers. Try attending the myriad after-work meetings it takes to organize a union when you don’t have childcare. Or lobbying your congressman when you can’t get a day off work. A redistributive feminism not only helps the majority of women, who head more households in poverty and make less than men on average, but ensures that the majority of women have the resources to take politics into their own hands.

When it comes to who determines and who is served by American foreign policy, we must again ask: which women and how? Hillary’s dual legacy of both hawkishness and international women’s rights advocacy should compel us to consider what motivates the liberal (and when convenient, rightwing) impulse to “save” foreign women, and to what extent, if any, it does so.

Take a recent example: the war in Afghanistan. While the war was sold to liberals on the basis of women’s rights, women are worse off than ever under conditions of perpetual war. The well-being of the average woman seems to rank dead last among the pressing concerns of all sides. Once in a while, we hear women’s presence in Parliament touted as a sign that the U.S. succeeded in liberating Afghan women. But women’s advocates are, as journalist Ann Jones writes, regularly assassinated while “the Afghan government and the Bush or Obama administrations uttered scarcely a word of protest or condolence, and Afghan police failed to arrest a single assassin.” Recent history has shown us that few wars setting out (at least rhetorically) to liberate women in fact, do, and rather, that the emancipation of women is the easiest way to sell a war.

In the United States, we can’t figure out how to liberate our own women—some ascend to the tops of corporate hierarchies while others suffer in deep poverty. But the women with the loudest voices continue to define “what women want” in the popular press, often against the economic interest of their supposed sisters. If it’s risky to let women at the top define what’s good for women at the bottom at home, why should we stand for women—or men—in wealthier nations deciding what is in women’s interests in poorer or less powerful countries abroad?

The first step in a feminist leftist foreign policy would involve acknowledging this reality, and relinquishing the false moral clarity of liberating women elsewhere.

The “how” of a foreign policy that is both leftist and feminist is, of course, trickier. We must first acknowledge that the left is not, in fact, in charge of foreign policy in the U.S. and not likely to be for a long time. Much of our work lies in creating relationships of solidarity with other rising leftwing movements abroad, ranging from nongovernmental groups bearing the brunt of refugee support in semi-collapsed states like Greece to women fighting for reproductive rights against newly right-wing states like Poland.

These relationships should, ultimately, guide the left’s approach to foreign policy, a policy of solidarity instead of hegemony. A feminist foreign policy cannot mean invading to “rescue” other women in other places, but rather, supporting, with resources and at the grassroots, what women say they want—whether it is reproductive healthcare, education, economic equality, or representation—to meaningfully participate in their own political arenas.

Sarah Leonard is senior editor at The Nation and co-editor of The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century.
Kaavya Asoka
is an associate editor at Dissent.

Leftist policies should not simply critique, they must propose solutions / Paul Dewar

We need a new left-wing narrative in global affairs.

Growing inequality, climate change and wars pose an existential threat to our collective existence. Our state structures and neoliberal strategies have proven inadequate in addressing these crises. Without an alternative, we are ceding ground to the tribalism practiced by the likes of Donald Trump or numerous other extremist political forces whose electoral success in the North Atlantic world has become a dangerous norm.

This hyper-globalized period has also seen the emergence of important and unlikely voices fighting for social change from the left. The work of Malala Youssefzai is one such example of what a global politics of solidarity can achieve in an interconnected world – a mirror image to Trump’s isolationist, reactionary politics.

What does a left-wing foreign policy alternative look like? What is its ultimate goal?

And since any policy needs a firm foundation of values and ideas, what values should be employed?

Above all, a left-wing global policy has to be active and engaged, with human solidarity as its core value and globalizing social justice as its goal.

That which we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. That is the perfect description of universality. A left-wing foreign policy must believe that there are certain values that are universal – gender and sexual equality foremost among them. Whatever the context, these universal values must remain non-negotiable.

This premise of universality is essential to durable, inclusive, global development. We have to look to each other for solutions and solidarity. The neoliberal establishment can never be expected to deliver anything better than addressing symptoms of inequality, because this system is itself a cause of the inequality it occasionally seeks to remedy. The fundamental changes required to tackle the causes of inequality can only be brought about by engaging with, mobilizing and listening to ordinary people as agents of change. Meanwhile, we mustn’t forget that the promise of neoliberals to “lift all boats” through market liberalization lifted a lot of yachts first and foremost along the way, widening inequality and concentrating power amongst a select few oligarchs.

The challenges of the modern world demand a relentless optimism to pursue a foreign policy rooted in common human solidarity. This is a risky, audacious, and above all hopeful project. But nothing can ever change until good people have the faith to press on and do the hard daily work of advancing an agenda of global social justice. Too often, the world connects briefly with the plight of those fleeing chaos and hell on earth, only to return to business as usual. The fleeting solidarity in response to the image of Alan Kurdi’s dead body washed up on a Turkish beach is just one example.

Crucially, left-wing foreign policy cannot be all about negation and critique of what’s wrong with the powers that be. It must create. It must propose. It must always seek to bend the arc of history toward justice – and that can only occur through deep and lasting engagement with ordinary people.

We must never give up until we have secured tangible results to make the lives of ordinary people better – recognizing that we all become extraordinary when we work together. And then we must redouble our efforts to build on those successes.

Malala’s example and the work of a new generation of leaders such as Shannen Koostachin in Canada and Tahmina Akhter Sadia in Bangladesh offer a path forward as we forge a left-wing alternative to the current neoliberal narrative that dominates our global political affairs.

For the world needs a lot more Malala and a lot less Trump.

Paul Dewar is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a former Member of Parliament in Canada and foreign affairs critic for the New Democratic Party.

Time to get focused. Let's act on climate change and women’s rights / Eric Alterman

The most daunting aspect of conceiving of a leftist foreign policy is to find a way to combine idealism and pragmatism in a way that keeps both eyes on both goals simultaneously.

A subset of this problem is prioritization: the world sucks for the poor and dispossessed—and increasingly for the middle classes—in so many ways simultaneously, I could fill up the space with just a list problems in desperate need of new, globalist approaches.

And given the fact that where you stand often depends on where you sit, it can be a dispiriting affair to settle these matters merely in terms of categorization:  Should we focus on global economic inequality? On global environmental threats? On global health threats? On political repression? On combating violent religious extremism? On global hunger? On the worldwide destruction of the middle class? On the plight of refugees? On corporate-friendly trade agreements? On racism? On corruption? On superpower and regional power (U.S., Chinese, Russian, etc.) imperialism? On democracy and freedom of expression? On the prevention of war? On the eradication of nuclear weapons? On proliferation? On gender bias? On sexism? On global pandemics? Sadly I am only getting started.

My view is that a sensible and successful leftist foreign policy should focus on goals that can actually be accomplished and can actually improve people’s lives; ideally the largest number possible in the most significant manner measurable.  I have two primary candidates for the focus of action: man-made global warming and the world-wide oppression of women. I prioritize these crises both because of their respective urgency and because each has potential to act as a trigger to address any number of the other crises we face as well.

Obviously, the effects of global warming are already harming the vulnerable populations with violent weather patterns and the destruction of ancient habitats, causing conflict over scarce resources and the potential for mass starvation and creating millions of refugees. With 40 percent of the world’s population living in just two nations, China and India, both of which are going through their own versions of an industrial revolution, we are at perhaps the final moment when we might be able to protect our planet from literally unimaginable human, environmental and economic costs. What’s more, aside from the members of U.S. Republican Party, almost no one needs to be convinced of the need for action. It’s a matter of political organization overcoming the power of money and entrenched power. No easy task, to be sure, but a worthy and sensible goal.

Similarly, a focus on the education and advancement of women throughout the developing world would not only improve their lives and those of their families, it would immediately reduce unsustainable birth rates and reduce stress both on financial and environmental resources. What’s more, the accomplishments of well-educated women could save us in ways we cannot yet imagine, via scientific research and improved cooperation between nations.  It has the potential to be a global game-changer in ways that few other leftist goals do, and as such, should be at the top of our to-do list.

Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, a columnist for The Nation and a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress.

The left is stronger than it looks—but there is work to be done / Saskia Sassen

Before stronger domestic or international policies can be defined, let alone considered, the left should realize it could, in principle, count on far larger constituencies than the usual political surveys suggest. There are many reasons for this misalignment, and I will focus on one particular mix that could activate growing support.

One indicator of weakness of the current political classes and political discourse is the surprisingly sharp rise of both Sanders and Trump in the 2016 U.S. elections. Sander’s democratic socialism is clearly a mobilizing force on the left.

A key lesson from these developments is that the established political classes and commentators in the U.S. failed to see that a new history was in the making. No backtracking by the established politicians is going to change that fact. A truth has emerged, and to a considerable extent it is in favour of a move to the left; but even Trump’s unexpected success signals that the existing political party system is not part of these emergent histories.

Besides the failure of the establishment’s current political understanding and language, there is a second obstacle to standard politics, and one where the left could find much support—but it will take hard work.

It is a structural condition that has not received enough attention. It has the effect of rendering invisible a growing share of the electorate, which in turn can lead to unexpected outcomes — mainly, political alienation — as we have seen in the U.S.

One synthetic way of capturing what I am after here is that the capitalism that emerged in the 1980s and was fully developed by the 2000s is marked by a logic of extraction in leading sectors, from mining to finance (see my Expulsions, Harvard University Press 2014). This is a radically different logic from that which marked the earlier mass consumption driven capitalism. A corporate economy in good part driven by mass consumption benefits from whatever maximizes the incomes of consumers. No matter how greedy the corporate bosses might have been, government initiatives to support households directly and indirectly made sense.

This changed radically in the 1980s when a new dominant logic emerges and begins to push governments in a very different direction. Mass consumption continues to be a factor. But finance became a dominant logic, which meant a strategic shift to the development of complex instruments aimed at financializing everything, from iron to real estate to student loans. This is a system that does not see its benefits fed by governments supporting the working and middle classes. It is extractive, and once it has extracted what it wants or needs, it moves on. Nor is it interested in making loans, as did the traditional banks, to enterprises or households. The earnings from interest payments on loans are nothing compared to the returns on financialization. And once it has extracted, it moves on to the next site for extraction, just like mining. Google also has some of this: it made its wealth by gathering existing information from and on people, firms, governments.

The world over, we need to return to economies of making rather than extraction. And to do that, we need large numbers of workers. All those who have been expelled from reasonable lives can be brought back in—not via the old tired political language, but by a new project-oriented language.

Mobilizing people who have either suffered the ravages of this system, or who are doing fine but are angered by the extreme injustices, becomes a critical step and a real possibility as we have seen in the Sanders campaign.

We need to stop thinking in terms of a support base—that is far too easy and too inbred. We need to enter new terrain, armed with questions and proposals that address a much wider spectrum than the base, and we need to listen to what those who have suffered so many losses—they have knowledge we need. Our listening will be a bridge towards trust.

Sociologist Saskia Sassen is a professor at Columbia University and chairs its Committee on Global Thought.

Opposing injustice requires that we frame foreign policy differently / Owen Jones

The Left has a very clear function: to build a world free of exploitation, oppression, prejudice and violence. It is this purpose that guides the Left, whether on domestic or foreign policy. We are not moral relativists: we believe democracy, human rights and social justice are universal principles that are applicable in every culture. We don't believe that such principles should, as a general rule, be delivered via cruise missiles, tanks or bullets. “No-one likes missionaries with bayonets,” or so the French revolutionary Robespierre was supposed to have said.

The Left's anti-war posture is often portrayed as kneejerk, or even rooted in hatred of the West in general and the United States in particular. But it actually arises from three key beliefs. Firstly, that our societies are rigged in favour of a tiny self-interested elite. We look at domestic policies through this prism: because society is organized to favour the interests of wealthy, powerful interests, the political process reflects this. This logic is extended to the foreign arena, too. Foreign policies will be deeply influenced by the strategic interests of the most powerful elements in Western societies rather than, say, altruism or noble beliefs in democracy and human rights.

Secondly, precedent. Throughout the Cold War, Western countries subverted democracies for strategic gain. Iran's democratically elected President Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 with the support of MI6 and the CIA. We still suffer the consequences today. In 1973, Chile's elected socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup (I write as the son of parents who took in traumatised Chilean refugees in the 1970s). The anti-war movement mobilized against the Iraq war in 2003, arguing that the consequences would be disastrous. We were wrong: they were even worse than we anticipated. The case for the bombing of Libya was presented as overwhelming, but – again – the opponents ended up vindicated (not that they can take any solace in that, given the humanitarian calamity that has followed).

Thirdly: inconsistency, which is often presented as 'whataboutery,' but really focuses on underlining the motives of Western foreign policy. How can the West claim its foreign policy is based on democracy and human rights, when it arms and supports the Saudi dictatorship, one of the most brutal on earth, a regime which decapitates gays and opponents, treats women despicably, and exports extremism the world over? Why does the West invade or bomb certain countries, but not others – such as the Democratic Republic of Congo – where far worse atrocities take place?

The Left needs to frame its approach to foreign policy differently. Support for dictatorships – like Saudi Arabia – should be presented as a threat to national security. Saudi-sanctioned extremism has been critical in the rise of movements from the Taliban to al-Qaeda. When it comes to the arms industry, we need a coherent plan to provide new skilled jobs for employees. Putting pressure on the Israeli government to agree to a lasting just peace that dismantles illegal settlements is for the good of Israeli citizens, Palestinians and the wider security of the world. Supporting economic justice globally reduces tensions that lead to conflict. Climate change is a threat to national security, and dealing with it now minimizes the risk of wars later on over scarce resources. Both the issues of climate change and tax justice can only be achieved by co-operation across borders.

We should be consistent in opposing injustice wherever it appears: not just when our own governments are involved, but including, say, the authoritarianism of Putin's Russia. We are, after all, universalists, committed to building a world free of the injustices that currently not only scar it, but define it.

Owen Jones is a columnist for The Guardian and the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment – And How They Get Away With It.

Image:The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

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