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Some Principles for Progressive Foreign Policy: A Guest Post by Yakov Feygin and Alex Hazanov

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[Editors note: over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp has a piece on the state of liberal, center-left, and progressive thinking about foreign policy. I’m one of the people that he interviewed; if time permits, I’ll have more to say about it during the week. You should read it, but I need to warn you: it reads, at times, like an article about Democratic and left-wing foreign-policy in toto. However, some of us were speaking to a more specific issue: the gap between liberal (and center-left) thinking and paleo-left foreign-policy ideas. That is, it feels like we have to choose between, in crude terms, Clintonism and Corbynism.

In my view, the problem is most extreme in the context of thinking about progressive international political economy. That is, how do we move from a domestic “equality agenda” to its international components… as well as the other way around. After some discussions on Twitter, I asked Yakov Feygin and Alex Hazanov to do a quick guest post. Feygin is a Postdoctoral Fellow in History and Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Hazanov is an adjunct lecturer at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania. He comments here under the handle “humanoid.panda.”

They address more than international political economy—after all, it cannot be completely divorced from international security issues—but I hope that their comments push the debate along. You might also look at some notes that I posted months ago on progressive foreign policy.  Please be aware that I have lightly edited this post. –dnexon]

Zack Beauchamp, over at Vox, puts his finger on an issue that a few left-of-center wonk types agonize about: why does foreign-policy debate on the left generally stink? The aftermath of the 2016 election opened up an opportunity to question what were once policy dogmas, yet the paradigms of the foreign-policy debate haven’t shifted at all. For example, during the primary, Bernie Sanders’ campaign failed to offer any substantial ideas beyond a critique of the Iraq and Libya interventions, coupled with vague notions of “fair trade.” As posts at LGM have documented in lavish detail, having a foreign policy defined by nothing much beyond opposition to the follies of American elites is not a good place to stand—and can lead to some problematic stances, not deciding that anyone who opposes the United States is necessarily good, because American imperialism.

Zack, correctly we think, puts his finger on a major cause for the weakness of left-wing debate on foreign policy: the failure of progressive think tanks to develop robust agendas for aspiring candidates. However, we think that this is more a symptom of a larger problem: the failure of American foreign-policy thinking to engage questions of economic fairness and social justice. That is, to grapple with the vary issues that animate the resurgent left. Both activists on the left and scholars of international relations tend to keep these concerns separate. Think tanks may worry about alienating their corporate funders. But we believe that a hard-headed progressive foreign policy that depends on more than reflexive criticisms of American empire is possible, especially if we start by accepting that international political economy forms the playing field on which states execute their decisions. In other words, the fight for economic and social justice must be carried out through, and with, the tools of economic order.

Think about it this way: it would not have been possible for millions of Americans and others to lose their livelihoods in 2008 without an international system of banking agreements—or the lack thereof—which allowed for the recycling of credit through the European banking system. As we are coming increasingly to realize, a good amount of the money that was parked in this banking system derived from ill-gotten gains by cronies of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. Indeed, we can safely bet that Mueller’s investigation will reveal that this money actively abets the corruption of politics in the United States.And consider Erik’s sustained attention to the offshoring of environmental and labor externalities through US trade policy. We can’t address the trends that hit the middle class in the advanced industrialized democracies—from real estate inflation to the falling share of labor in the national income—without understanding how international institutions abet corruption and capital flight. On the other hand, we can’t hope to reverse these trends without thinking about how to use these institutions—and the might of the American state—as tools on a global stage.

So how might progressives start to connect social justice and international political economy? First, couple of words on where we come from, ideologically. We both are historians whose work centers on Russia and the USSR during the Cold War. This perspective makes us a tad more friendly towards US power and its potential to do good in the world than the average left-of-center academic. Second, we believe that between Iraq, Libya, losing control over international money flows, and allowing the banking and real estate business to hide hundreds of billions of stolen wealth obtained by authoritarian elites, the last generation of American and European decision-makers have eroded the international order their predecessors established. We also believe, in consequence, that this international order—kinks and all—is worth fighting for. Finally, we think that the following two things are both true: globalization, as practices in the last three decades, both alleviated global poverty and moved to distribute international power in a more equitable away and it also helped erode Western middle classes and the democratic order.

With that being said, here are our thoughts about what a hard headed social democratic foreign policy should look like:

  • An effective left-wing foreign policy should focus on how unregulated international financial markets abet global chaos. It should jettison the notion that extremism and authoritarianism—often right wing in nature—are somehow a backlash to financial liberalization but instead see them as possibly necessary to its success.
  • It should think about how the US could use the power of the dollar, and technological networks, to clamp down on money laundering, offshoring, tax evasion and other charming practices.
  • It should acknowledge that ISIS, Putin, Erdogan, Trump, are all beneficiaries of uncontrolled globalization and also have benefit greatly from the political backlashes that it generates.
  • Therefore, we ought to think about how to regulate globalization, as well as about how to use American soft and hard power—when it returns to liberal hands—in order to push back on nationalist and fundamentalist forces.
  • A progressive foreign policy needs to convince Americans and Europeans—but especially Americans—that helping other to adapt to the effects of climate change is very much in their own interests.
  • It will look ahead to the inevitable refugee crisis climate change, as well as unrelated political instability, will bring. It will conceive solutions that take into account both our own moral culpability in these crises, and also the political reality that migration crises prove excellent propaganda opportunities for anti-democratic and illiberal forces. This reflects, more broadly, what some call non-militarized responsibility-to-protect.
  • It will recognize that liberal interventionists are right about one thing: American power—channeled through alliances and international institutions—remains one of the few tools to address the plethora of issues that we face. Letting other powers address them without American involvement is likely to lead to worse, not better, outcomes.
  • But it will reject regime change for regime change’s sake, focusing instead on using international aid, clampdown on money shelters, and support for left wing movements where they exist to help foster good governance.
  • It will recognize that America is indeed exceptional—not in the way Paul Ryan thinks about it, but in that its role as, for example, an issuer of reserve currency gives it enormous power. The US is not able to conduct an industrial policy that relies on lowering wages, and thus workers’ consumption, to power a trade surplus without causing economic and political peril. Yet this same power gives it the fiscal ‘room to maneuver’: to invest at home into the kinds of long-term projects that create middle-class jobs and global leadership. For instance, it can print and spend money to make coastal areas secure, whether in the US or in Bangladesh. This power can also be used to fight tax shelters that deprive so much of the world’s poor economies of their wealth while encouraging rent-seeking in rich economies

Thoughts? What would be on your list?

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