Feb 8th 2018

US Foreign Policy and the Missing Left

by Michael Walzer

Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is A Foreign Policy for the Left.

PRINCETON – Consider the disaster of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump. While the president spent his first year in office trading insults with the dictator of North Korea, that country has moved steadily forward with its nuclear program, and the United States has moved steadily closer to a war that no one wants.

In Syria last April, US forces attacked government installations with a one-time bombing raid that, with no political or diplomatic follow-through, achieved nothing. Similarly, after arming Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) on its behalf, the US has stood by and watched Turkey attack those same men and women.

As a result of the Trump administration’s abandonment of Obama-era restraints on the use of airpower, a US-led coalition “victory” in Mosul, Iraq, caused thousands of civilian casualties and left a pile of rubble. As in Vietnam, America had to destroy the city in order to save it.

Meanwhile, the administration has deployed thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, but without bothering to devise a political strategy to break the stalemate there.

Under Trump, the US has also become a staunch supporter of authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines. And in Europe, far-right leaders in Poland and Hungary walk eagerly in Trump’s footsteps – if not a step or two ahead of him.

In Israel, the US has effectively allied itself with the settler movement and the far-right government, thus rejecting the old Zionist dream of “little Israel.” In fact, on his recent trip to Israel, Vice President Mike Pence refused even to talk to the leader of the opposition Labor Party.

All told, the US has alienated some of its closest allies, weakened the NATO alliance, and become a bigoted and xenophobic presence on the world stage. How should liberals and leftists respond?

We on the left oppose just about everything Trump has said and done. Yet none of us has offered a plausible or coherent alternative. We either have not talked about foreign policy at all, or we have simply objected to any use of force abroad, while drifting toward our own version of isolationism.

But isolationism is just another way to have no foreign policy. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned strongly and effectively in 2016 when addressing domestic policy. But, even though he was running to be president of the global hegemon, he had virtually nothing to say about international politics.

First and foremost, the left needs to think seriously about the use of force, which is the central issue in foreign-policy debates. It is right to use force in self-defense or in defense of others. It is wrong when we are fighting for regime change, in support of authoritarian governments, or against national movements that have already won the battle for “hearts and minds.”

Another fundamental question concerns how force should be used. But that one is easy: it should be used with restraints designed to minimize civilian casualties. These aren’t hard questions, but when we take them seriously, they can lead to complex policy positions.

For example, the US was wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, but it was right to join the fight against ISIS, and to rescue the Yazidis from a massacre. It was right to attack the occupied city of Mosul, but it was wrong to reduce the city to dust.

It was also wrong to call for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, because the forces opposed to Assad lacked the necessary popular support, and the US was not prepared to help them win that support. On the other hand, helping the Syrian Kurds was a good idea, because they were effective fighters with strong support from their own people; and they probably would not have survived under an ISIS caliphate.

Elsewhere, it is right to strengthen South Korean and Japanese defenses, but obviously wrong to threaten a nuclear war. Nuclear weapons can serve no conceivable human purpose. But that is not true of all weapons, and the left needs to come to terms with that. We cannot be pacifists when people around the world live in fear of mass murder because they belong to a particular ethnic or religious minority, believe in the “wrong” ideology, or live in vulnerable countries alongside revanchist powers.

At the height of the Cold War, many leftists opposed NATO. And in recent years, politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, before he became leader of the UK Labour Party, have supported withdrawing their countries from the alliance, precisely because it is committed to using force as a means of mutual defense.

This commitment was originally directed against the Soviet Union, and is now directed at Vladimir Putin’s Russia. American leftists should approach this situation by putting the question to leftists in Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine, where the stakes are high. I would guess that many Eastern European leftists are NATO supporters, and would want America to be a supporter, too. We don’t always have to do what our friends want us to do, but we should always listen to them.

An old tenet of leftist ideology holds that hegemonic capitalist countries like the US can never act well in the world. But that is wrong. After all, the US played a leading role in the defeat of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, two of the most brutal regimes in world history.

In fact, the US can do good things in the world, and sometimes does. American leftists must demand that their country act well, and we must object when it fails to do so. But we can’t successfully demand or oppose anything until we have shaped a coherent view of international politics.


Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is A Foreign Policy for the Left.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”