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What Should a Left Foreign Policy Look Like?

The American Democratic politician, Senator George McGovern, during his campaign to secure the Democratic Party nomination for the presidential elections. He is backed by many followers of the late Senator Robert Kennedy. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

It is a few weeks old now, but I just discovered this review of a recent George McGovern biography and it gets at what I think of as a really critical issue–the abdication of any meaningful foreign policy stance on the left since Vietnam. After all, no intervention is a fine moral stance on the surface, but is pretty meaningless because foreign policy goes so much deeper than bombing or the CIA supporting dictators. It also includes foreign trade regimes, the expansion of corporations across the world, and the spread of American ideas and influence globally. Kids in Indonesia wearing Disney branded clothing because it got there from an American clothing donation drive is in fact a foreign policy issue. What do we think America’s role in the world should be, not only in terms of the military, but in every other phase our interactions with other nations?

Evidently, this book spends quite a bit of time on McGovern’s own foreign policy as a way to try and get us to start thinking about this.

The tendency of Democrats to want to show they’re tougher than Republicans when it comes to foreign policy and the use of force has been crippling the party ever since McGovern’s dissent against the Vietnam War back in the mid- to late 1960s. Even in the wake of the Cold War, liberal internationalism has almost always involved various forms of military intervention, as opposed to the diplomatic and humanitarian policies that McGovern advanced as an alternative. After 9/11, this hawkishness merely mutated into a militarism that was directed toward defeating Islamist terrorism in the Middle East.

But there is a critical difference between the current moment and the Cold War. McGovern ultimately failed to convince his party because, in the Cold War era, a hawkish liberalism was at least intuitively plausible. The Soviet Union really was a credible threat: a repressive and powerful police state with thousands of nuclear weapons and spies all across the globe. Today, by contrast, neither the Assad regime nor Islamist terrorism is even in the same time zone as the Soviet Union was in terms of power, and the interventionism of Hillary Clinton, Bill Nelson, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, among others, becomes more obviously a fig leaf for the desire to expand American dominance over the rest of the world.

As demonstrated by the Sanders campaign, the left wing of the Democratic Party and the left more generally have struggled to create an alternative. Clinton’s biggest weakness was foreign policy, but Sanders barely pressed her on it. This was due, in part, to a left that is much better at opposing disastrous wars of aggression than at formulating an alternative perspective that can win over ideologically sympathetic politicians.

Some leftists simply end up concluding that the United States is fundamentally and unchangeably imperialist. Given the seemingly endless wars over the past 15 years, one can understand why they might reach that conclusion. But the terrible harm done to American interests by the Iraq War—which has cost trillions of dollars, killed nearly 4,500 American soldiers, and maimed tens of thousands more, for no strategic benefit whatsoever—demonstrates that the war was stupid as well as evil. And in any case, American politicians can’t be expected to govern the nation on an “America is bad” basis. If the left can’t propose an argument that is critical of excessive military force but also serves the national interest, it ends up ceding political ground to the interventionists.

In this context, McGovern’s vision of a humane internationalism that serves American interests is of particular value. In these troubled times, the world hardly needs more American guns and bombs; but what the left still lacks is a persuasive alternative vision of internationalism that can counter the hawkishness of both Beltway parties. If we are to exercise leadership in the world, let it be by setting an example and relieving humanitarian crises where we can—taking in refugees, treating the sick, feeding the starving. And while the specifically agricultural mechanism of McGovern’s humanitarian vision isn’t quite as plausible as it was in 1962, the fact is that, right now, there are famine or near-famine conditions prevailing in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, even as gigantic agricultural surpluses pile up in the United States for lack of a buyer. That might not be the most efficient way to relieve hunger, and it’s certainly not the only way to frame an internationalist politics that can also be justified by the way it serves our national interests. But it certainly merits a look—and, just as important, it offers the left, both within and outside of the Democratic Party, a basic template for a different kind of foreign-policy program that it can pursue. If nothing else, such policies will at least do a thousand times better in promoting our interests than burning through trillions of dollars to create yet another sucking chest wound in the Middle East’s political order.

What was perhaps most remarkable about the Sanders campaign to me is that for all his attacks on Hillary, he completely avoided the one issue where she was most vulnerable–her hawkish foreign policy. And that’s because he simply didn’t have a foreign policy at the time. Ceding the field to the center and the right with nothing more than moral intonations against intervention is a disastrous policy that indirectly causes people to lose their lives because there’s not a well-articulated alternative to bad policy decisions. I’m not an expert on this like Rob and Dan are, and their careers are part of trying to reframe these debates. I’ve tried to contribute to these issues by getting serious about articulating a left trade policy that is more sophisticated and meaningful than “no trade” or “I’m going to buy my clothes at the thrift store so that I am not morally complicit in sweatshops even though my action does absolutely nothing except make me feel good about myself.” Obviously in my dreams, I’d like policy makers to engage in my ideas, but more importantly, I’d like to see more people articulate a left-leaning foreign policy that takes the issues of the world seriously and tries to make them better. Much like George McGovern did a half-century ago.

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