The American left rarely looks beyond US borders

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

After all, foreign policy is an area where you can easily get your hands dirty – it is full of corrupt compromises that are far from the ideals to which the left aspires; it forces one to operate in a moral grey zone; there are sometimes nothing but ill-suited solutions on offer; and it often requires the use of force.

In the Congressional Auditorium, a 450-seat theatre filled almost to capacity, Bernie Sanders is centre-stage. To his left, trade unionists from the largest American corporations are seated. The empty chairs to his right are reserved for the presidents of Amazon, McDonald’s, American Airlines, Walmart and Disney, who have, however, declined the invitation to take part in the discussion.

Sanders asks workers about their experience. They talk about exploitation, holding several positions at the same time, having poor or no insurance, being overworked and having suicidal thoughts. In response, the senator from Vermont passionately argues for a $15 minimum wage and health insurance for all. He criticises the greed of billionaires from Wall Street and growing inequalities in “the richest country in the history”. He is in his element.

This was also the case during the election campaign. Bernie Sanders, his hair always dishevelled, enchanted thousands of people, particularly the young, with a vision of a more just and socially inclusive America. However, it cannot be ignored that – for someone standing for election to the highest office in the greatest superpower on the globe – he was rather reticent on one key topic: foreign policy.

There is also no doubt as to how low this area is on the political agenda of Bernie Sanders when we realise how little effort he put into compiling a list of foreign policy advisors. During his first campaign, Barack Obama could count on the support of, among others, Zbigniew Brzeziński and Anthony Lake, national security advisors under Carter and Clinton, as well as experienced academics who later took important positions under his administration, with Michael McFaul, one of the architects of the concept of Russia reset, who was later appointed as US ambassador to Russia, as an example. In contrast, a short phone conversation a couple of months previously was enough to be listed among Sanders’ advisors. Moreover, some of the future advisors only learned of their status from the media.

The story of Bernie Sanders is no isolated case. “I’m not an expert on geopolitics,” explained Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American democratic socialists, with a smile on her face, when asked her position regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. She confessed honestly, “I come from the South Bronx, from a Puerto Rican neighbourhood. Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night.”

Other progressive candidates also rarely look beyond US borders. And if they do, this usually concerns areas that are “non-controversial” for the left. Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, Randy Bryce from Wisconsin, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota – in their election programmes all of them pledge to fight for a just immigration reform and to combat climate change. JD Scholten from Iowa and James Thompson from Kansas also mention support for veterans. This is little.

Of course, one should not expect that political novices will have an answer to all the problems in the world if a presidential candidate with almost 30 years’ experience in Congress has not been able to come up with one. But it should be noted that the American left has a problem with foreign policy. While social affairs are part of its natural environment, international policy has traditionally been neglected – or rather used to be, which we will discuss shortly.

The reasons are obvious. After all, foreign policy is an area where you can easily get your hands dirty – it is full of corrupt compromises that are far from the ideals to which the left aspires; it forces one to operate in a moral grey zone; there are sometimes nothing but ill-suited solutions on offer; and it often requires the use of force.

Things become even more complicated if foreign policy is viewed from the perspective of the greatest superpower in the world. “The United States are obliged to take a stance on any conflict in the world. No other countries have to do that due to their insufficient capabilities. However, the US has the economic, political and military means to apply pressure all over the globe. As a consequence, all conflicts are viewed in Washington through the prism of its own capabilities,” explains Michael Werz from the Center for American Progress, which advises Democrats.

We often take advantage of this privilege too. Sitting comfortably in front of a TV flashing up images of yet another crisis somewhere in the world, we can express indignation over the passivity of “the international community”, or rail against intervening militarists. This is only possible when you are far from power and the responsibility it entails, which has been exactly the position of American progressives for many years.

“We are not used to holding power, or even to imagining that we can seize it,” admits David Klion, a progressive journalist dealing with Russia. This is hardly surprising. Before Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries, the last time that the “American dreamers” could hope to take control of American foreign policy was in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern ran unsuccessfully for president. This cannot be a real point of reference for the generation of millennials, or even their older friends.

The response to political marginalisation has mostly been internal emigration and an approach based on the conviction that the best foreign policy is good domestic policy. In other words: only when the situation within the country is put right can we think about sorting out the world, provided that it doesn’t sort it out itself following the enlightened example of the biblical “town built on a hill”. According to Michael Walzer, former editor in chief of “Dissent” magazine and author of the book A foreign policy for the Left published this year, the left has withdrawn from the public debate, losing ground to other political forces and drifting towards isolationism.

 “Setting aside its moralism on foreign policy, or the antiwar rallies it will show up at, since the 1970s the left has lost the ability to advance a position that would begin to command national assent, form public opinion, and then be translated into policy,” Corey Robin says, echoing the words of Walzer in the “Jacobin Magazine”. Left-wing foreign policy has been inevitably reduced to being “against”: against war, against imperialism, against the interests of the military-industrial complex, against the politics of the two-party establishment, and often against anything that the US administration does.

Such an approach has had very practical consequences. If a cause represented by the US administration – whether led by a Republican or a Democrat – has not been worth supporting, there are no reasons to engage in it, for instance by pursuing a career in administration, a think-tank or the diplomatic corps. This, in turn, means that there are no left-wingers among those dealing with foreign and security policy in Washington. And this is not about radicals only. Ben Rhodes, one of the closest advisors of Barack Obama, complained that virtually the entire Washington “bubble” thinks the same.

Hence, the young generation of progressive politicians has to float in a vacuum – with no institutions, infrastructure and knowledge cumulated over the years to support it. “In the area of economy, there are great left-wing think-tanks such as the Roosevelt Institute; there are experts who have a plan of action ready. In foreign policy there is no such thing,” claims Keith Gessen, co-founder of n+1 magazine and author of a famous feature about US policy towards Russia. “Among the Washington experts dealing with foreign policy there is a small group of those who are frustrated with the status quo, but they often lack the language to articulate a more progressive vision of foreign policy. Left-wingers, in turn, still lack knowledge or simply show no interest in international affairs,” he adds.

Yet the number of people that want to fill the vacuum is increasing. One of them is Klion, who has already been referred to. “We are hungry for a more nuanced left-wing foreign policy. What else can we talk about besides war? We already know that we do not want to wage wars, but what next? What is our approach to trade, to human rights? What regimes do we intend to talk to, what alliances do we want?” he asks.

For decades, these questions have remained unanswered. This time, however, it can be different, and the debate on left-wing foreign policy might extend beyond discussion clubs and manifests or pamphlets in left-wing journals. It is to Sanders’ credit. Not because his campaign has revealed the shortcomings of progressive circles, but because it has proven that a democratic socialist moving in to the White House does not have to be a story from a meagre political fiction novel. Although Sanders himself lost to Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he has made the world believe the left can be successful. And the victory would mean the need to confront real challenges, including from outside the left’s comfort zone.

Sanders himself was among the first to react. At the beginning of 2017, he appointed Matt Duss as foreign policy advisor at his senator’s office. Duss, who specialises in the Middle East, is a former analyst for the Centre for American Progress and director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. In September, Sanders gave a speech he should have given during the campaign. At the Westminster College in Fulton – the very place where in 1946 Winston Churchill announced that Europe would be divided by an iron curtain – Sanders outlined his long-awaited vision of foreign policy.

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri - FOX 2 St. Louis

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“The goal is not for the USA to dominate the world. Nor is our goal to withdraw from the international community and shirk our responsibilities under the banner of ‘America First’. Our goal should be to have global engagement based on partnership rather than dominance,” he argued. He has not rejected American power, ultimately also military power, which the left often does, but presented a vision that allows this power to be channelled in the name of progressive ideals. This has worked before: both in the distant past, as in the case of the Marshall Plan, and fairly recently, as with the Iran nuclear deal or the new opening of relations with Cuba under the Obama administration.

Sanders also stressed that foreign policy is not separate from domestic and economic policies. “Inequalities, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inextricably intertwined,” he said, pointing both to the “drift towards oligarchy” in the USA and the kleptocratic regime of Vladimir Putin.

“The feeling of security and peace will not settle over the world as long as so few have so much and so many have so little,” he went on. As Ocasio-Cortez indicated in a recent interview for CNN, foreign policy needs to begin on our own doorstep. “Why is it that our pockets are only empty when it comes to education and healthcare for our kids and renewable energy that can save this planet? We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do. But when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires, when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent this money very easily,” she argued.

In his vision of progressive politics outlined in “The Nation”, Rober Klion also claims that international and domestic affairs overlap and cannot be viewed separately. For this reason, he does not understand the Russian interference in the US elections as an isolated incident but as a dramatic example of how American institutions have been made vulnerable to corruption and manipulation by agents of big business or foreign governments.

Is this a repeat of the approach criticised by Walzer? Not necessarily; after all, in his famous “long telegram”, which became – although not entirely in the way the author imagined – the foundation of US policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War, George Kennan himself argued that success in the competition with the Soviets would to a large extent depend on “health and vigor of our own society”.

And this is not the only similarity between the American left and the standard-bearer for realism, who died in 2005. According to him, the primary obligation of foreign policy is to the interests of the national society, not moral impulses. “We must ground our foreign policy on a more realistic view of the challenges we face,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor-in-chief of “The Nation”, writes in an editorial to a special edition of the magazine devoted to left-wing foreign policy. For his part, Klion argues that “in our moralism and conviction that we are always the good ones, we can no longer see how we are perceived by others. Let’s not pretend that our area of influence is ‘the free world’, and theirs – the empire.”

Are left-wingers therefore new realists? “From a progressive perspective, realism was discredited by Henry Kissinger,” Gessen claims. It is, however, clear that the American left draws inspiration from neo-realism, the reason being perhaps the fact that within the Washington bubble it is the representatives of this very movement that are most critical towards the achievements of US foreign policy in recent years. Vanden Heuvel, in turn, uses the expression “foreign policy of restraint and progressive realism”.

Yet Michael Werz warns against separating the practical and normative layer. “Once we lose sight of democratic values and emancipatory aspirations, we will leave the area of progressive politics,” he warns. The challenge is, therefore, to reconcile progressive values with a political practice so as to provide a reliable alternative to the pre-Trump status quo as well as left-wing isolationism and the politics of chaos that has reigned since Donald Trump moved in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. All the more so since it is the excesses of the president on the international front that offer room for action for the left.

Trump has questioned the old order that both conservative hawks from the Republican Party and liberal internationalists from the Democratic Party put so much effort into maintaining. Calling European allies enemies and questioning alliance commitments? Done. Publicly expressing doubts as to the ethical supremacy of the USA over Putin’s Russia? Not a problem. Believing Vladimir Putin more than your own intelligence services? Yes, of course. Breaking laboriously negotiated international deals? Check.

In response, Washington’s establishment has channelled most of its capacity into complaining about the president-destructor and considering how to save what can be saved from the good old world. At the same time, there has been little reflection on the challenges resulting from the changing nature of the international order in which emerging superpowers want not only to sit at the table but also to know what is going on backstage. This provides room for the left to present its vision and make it heard by public opinion.

All the more so as it has turned out that American voters are far less attached to the two-party consensus than the Washington “bubble”. The “establishment” has lost the ability to make it clear to the society why our alliances are vital and why NATO is important. As Duss explains, “this has been taken for granted”. His opinion is confirmed by opinion polls. According to a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans support the foreign policy of Donald Trump, with 43 percent opposing it.

“What we desperately need now is a full-fledged agenda of non-imperial US foreign policy that would challenge the Democratic Party establishment in the same way that Sanders’ claim of ‘Medicare for All’ did,” Aziz Rana argues.

Wouldn’t, however, “dismantling the empire” go hand in hand with the American left folding the military protective umbrella, which also covers Poland? After all, in his speech, Sanders made no single reference to NATO or the Russian aggression against Ukraine, instead mentioning a programme for youth exchange between Burlington, where he served as mayor in the 1980s, and Yaroslavl in Russia. Vanden Heuvel claims, in turn, that “the widespread campaign to portray Russia as a menacing global threat is wrongheaded”.

But before we start panicking let’s get back to George Kennan. He meant the containment of the Soviet Union to be done through political, economic and psychological means. As one of the main architects of the Marshall Plan, Kennan objected to the creation of NATO, and, in the 1990s, to its enlargement, in what turned out later to be the naive belief that Russia was embarking on the road towards democratisation. Nevertheless, it is Kennan’s approach that is naturally closer to the left than putting great emphasis on military aspects. “We need a change in the logic – let’s think about how to spend less on arms, not more,” argues Duss.

This is not to say that appeasement would be an answer to Russia’s foreign policy. Klion points out that alliance commitments under NATO should not be questioned in the least bit, and that Ukraine or Georgia should not be left at the mercy of events. But it has to be understood that every action triggers a reaction. This is why the US should rule out any further expansion of NATO to states bordering Russia.

Despite the left’s critical attitude towards NATO, a progressive president – contrary to Donald Trump – would not be likely to undermine alliance commitments. “If we do not want more wars, we should not expand NATO and increase our military presence in the world, but at the same time we should not tear NATO apart,” Klion argues. “It is too late to discuss dissolution of NATO,” vanden Heuvel claims in turn, “but it can be redefined so as to become an instrument for stability.”

But even such a revamp would require a substantial effort, and no one is under the illusion that a large part of the establishment and public opinion would support it. This has already been experienced by Barack Obama. Although his don’t do stupid shit doctrine brutally clashed with international reality, for many progressives it was undoubtedly an attractive offer. “Obama realised that for the establishment, military power is the measure of credibility. He rebelled against it, but he never was determined enough to really take the lead. He delegated many areas; for instance neoconservatives within his administration got to deal with Russia,” vanden Heuvel points out.

After a meeting at the RAND Corporation, a high-ranking former diplomat and currently an expert of this leading Washington think-tank asked me who else I was meeting that day. When I told him I was going to meet senator Sanders’ advisor on foreign affairs, he laughed and said, “Does Sanders really have a foreign policy?”

The American left still has a long way to go to formulate a coherent, progressive foreign policy agenda. Virtually every person I talked to said, “We are only in the early stages of the discussion.” There are still more questions than answers. Experience, knowledge and institutions are lacking. But at the same time there is a body of opinion that we can no longer sit back and do nothing. This regards both Bernie Sanders, who certainly had the 2020 presidential elections at the back of his mind when he employed Matt Duss, and grassroots initiatives such as the blog Fellow Travelers co-created by David Klion, which serves as a platform to discuss left-wing politics and engage young Bernicrats from universities specialising in international affairs, such as Georgetown, in the discussion.

It is also we on the Vistula River who should keep developments on the banks of the Potomak under close scrutiny. After all, the left in Poland also has an issue with foreign policy. In the wake of the 2015 elections, Paweł Pieniążek wrote in Krytyka Polityczna, “Neither the United Left nor the Together Party have a lot to offer their voters in terms of foreign policy. […] It is an interesting paradox that it is possible to constantly call for transnational solutions to global issues, and at the same time show little interest in what is going on beyond our own corners.” Perhaps we haven’t yet come to believe that we can win?

This text was created as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. Each year, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw sponsors a select number of journalists for an independent, transatlantic trip to research stories relevant to the foundation’s work on climate & energy policy, democracy & human rights and foreign & security policy. Fellowships are selected annually and are open to journalists in any medium. Adam Traczyk is one of the three fellows 2018 . 

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The text was also published in the original Polish version on the website of Krytyka Polityczna on August 23, 2018.