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“Social Democracy at Home Requires Anti-Imperialism Abroad”

Aziz Rana

An internationalist, anti-imperialist vision has been all but abandoned by the Left. We need to rebuild that vision.

Plane taking off from the American aircraft carrier 'Constellation' in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam, November, 1968. Terry Fincher / Getty

Interview by
Doug Henwood

The Left has made huge gains in discussing domestic policies like Medicare for All in recent years, but we haven’t figured out how to make a strong internationalist, anti-imperialist foreign policy just as central to the new leftist political agenda. Aziz Rana, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Law, has been wrestling with this quandary in recent years — why leftists are afraid to talk about foreign policy, and why they shouldn’t be.

Rana spoke with Doug Henwood on this question for his podcast Behind the News. You can listen to Behind the News on Jacobin Radio by subscribing here.


DH

We’ve seen a surprising incursion of social-democratic politics into the US discourse, but we haven’t seen that much progress on thinking about the rest of the world. What do you think is the problem? Why is there so little in the way of a left internationalism?

AR

There’s a few different things that are going on. The first is that the Democratic Party for decades has accepted a bipartisan consensus about how to think about the US in the world, which is a variant of Cold War nationalism. This is the idea that US interests are the world’s interests because the US is committed to freedom and equality from the founding, and for this reason, it has a special responsibility on the global stage as the first nation among equals.

This justifies a continuous exercise of international police power as well as the idea that for the US, international legal constraints aren’t binding. The US can move in and out of what the law might require because ultimately it is an exceptional country, engaged in the exceptional work of backstopping the post-war order. That’s a view that from Obama to Bush was shared.

The second big issue is that following World War II in the early days of the Cold War, the Left and the labor movement accepted a cleaving of domestic and foreign politics. In this cleavage, foreign policy is left to this bipartisan consensus and domestic policy concerns what would be viewed as bread-and-butter issues about the material improvement of citizens.

That’s had a significant effect on the life of the country; on how foreign policy is not understood as something that’s about the everyday material experience and needs of working people.

DH

Barack Obama was an interesting case because he campaigned and came into office as something of an antiwar candidate. He did not leave office in the same way. How do you read what happened to him?

AR

It’s a remarkable indication of the limited effect of even massive political organizing in actually redirecting foreign policy and the orientation of the state. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the reason why Obama was elected was not just because of the financial crisis and the particularity of his own charismatic personality, but because he was the antiwar candidate.

That’s the thing that differentiated him from Clinton, and it’s certainly true that he planned at the beginning of his first term to close Guantanamo, which was a massive eyesore for the country. But it’s also the case that what he did almost immediately was to turn over foreign policy to the hawks. You’d think that if you beat Clinton because you’re the antiwar candidate, Clinton wouldn’t then become Secretary of State, and you wouldn’t give a senior position to Joe Biden, who was one of the most vociferous defenders of the war and of truly terrible policies like carving up Iraq into mini sectarian states.

Or have somebody like Samantha Power as such a central foreign policy decision-maker. That’s an indication of the extent to which Obama, at the end of the day, accepted the baseline principles of Cold War American imperialism and primacy. It’s not a surprise then that many of the practical policies looked quite similar to those of the Bush years, like with the use of drone strikes.

The way I read Obama’s critique [of American foreign policy during his 2008 campaign] is really as debate internal to the American foreign policy establishment. You can see this internal debate in books like Ronan Farrow’s calling for a greater focus on diplomacy. There’s clearly a debate that exists within the foreign policy establishment about what you might think of as soft versus hard power. It’s about the extent to which there should be more investment in the State Department and diplomatic efforts, less of a focus on the hard edge of the defense establishment.

But that disagreement — where I think Obama was coming from — is a disagreement that is not about the ends. It’s not about the ends of the state; such as whether or not the US should have a basic right to intervene in internal politics of foreign states, whether it should have this international police power. The disagreement is about means and whether or not those ends are best served by slightly different means. Chase Madar’s review of Farrow’s book makes this point beautifully.

My own view is that, yes, we should absolutely invest in diplomacy. We should be suspicious of some of the hawkishness and aggressiveness that the Obama administration faced. But if you’re just giving more money to diplomats, yet they’re trained within the same overarching vision of what US power does, you’re not going to see ultimate shifts in the underlying policies. Over time, you’ll still end up generating condition that reproduce the same cycles of interventionism.

DH

What about labor’s support for — or at least their unwillingness to criticize — US foreign policy?

AR

There was a lot of complicated stuff that was going on in the ‘40s and early ‘50s that set the stage for the decline of left internationalism. In the early part of the twentieth century, the labor movement and especially its vocal radical edges like the IWW which were associated with the Socialist Party, very consciously said that we are not nationalists. They said our allegiance is to the working class and the working class everywhere, and that means that the foreign policy of labor has to be independent.

Labor needs an independent foreign policy because the state is embedded in a set of business alliances that means what it promotes abroad is the interest of capital and not the interest of workers. That was a standard position. It was the basis for opposition to World War I. Then there were a series of red-baiting crackdowns after World War I and after World War II. Those really undercut those [internationalist] arguments, just given the violence of the state.

There’s also a pragmatic decision that was made. Labor leadership basically agreed to a tripartite division of decision-making between business, the state, and labor in which the state and the foreign policy establishment would get to direct the terms for foreign policy. That would not be an issue for labor, which would instead focus on the material questions of bargaining over the terms of work.

By the time we get to the late ‘40s, people like Walter Reuther were committed anticommunist cold warriors and they genuinely believed that the war economy during World War II had actually benefited labor. Empire and social democracy in a sense had gone hand in hand.

Secondly, they took very seriously that America’s threats in that period were existential threats to the world and to working people; Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union. And it should be appreciated that this was not an implausible position at the time. All of this ended up connecting labor unions to the Cold War frame. But, of course, this also had massively corrosive effects.

It had morally corrosive effects on labor. When unions and working people were being attacked abroad, because of the idea that those unions weren’t American-supported or they might have socialist or communist elements, you had silence from the traditional labor movement. There was also profound silence when it came to Vietnam; as well as a willingness to essentially accede to the prerogatives of the state because of the alliance between the labor leadership and the Democratic Party.

DH

We shouldn’t forget there was a lot of state repression involved too.

AR

The lesson that many in labor learned from the IWW experience is that that the internationalist posture that’s critical of patriotism, that takes a much more aggressive stance toward the state’s foreign policy objectives, is a path to being tarred as un-American, to being arrested as seditious, and to finding yourself either killed or in jail. You see a steady accommodation of the language of patriotism just as a matter of political survival. Then, over time — especially in the context of World War II and the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union— this actually becomes internalized as an ethical position.

DH

Let’s look at Donald Trump. He’s an appalling figure, but every now and then, he makes moves that look like he’s pulling back from the national security state; from all the alliances that have created the post-World War II order. He makes noises about pulling out of Syria or undermining NATO, and then, the entire liberal establishment comes to the defense of that postwar order. What are we to make of what Trump is doing to our sets of international politics?

AR

I thought that Trump’s approach to the potential pullout in Syria was deeply problematic. This is especially because of the refusal to provide any kind of humanitarian assistance given the US’s complicity in generating the crisis. After helping to escalate the conflict in a very destructive way, the approach was to then say, “We have no responsibilities at all for the folks that face the cost of our own policies.”

We won’t even let Syrian refugees into our country despite the ways in which we’ve behaved. I have a lot of disagreements with the way the policy was going to be implemented; and its ties to a demonizing and racist politics. But, at the same time, very clearly these wars have been destructive and the presumption of military intervention as the primarily tool of international involvement, especially in the Middle East, must end. In my view the US should not participating in regional proxy wars in places like Syria.

It’s noteworthy too that the response to the proposed pullout by Trump was a kind of general bipartisan hand-wringing about how this is inconsistent with what the national security elites and the experts and the military say we should be doing. The failures of that bipartisan agreement is part of what has generated these crises and what has opened space for Trump’s racial demagoguery.

DH

Recently, Bernie Sanders has been making somewhat equivocal comments about Venezuela. People on the far left are saying he’s too friendly to intervention, and people on the Right and the center say he’s committing a sin by not condemning Maduro as a dictator. How do you read what Bernie has been saying recently and how that fits in with your vision for a more internationalist left?

AR

The first thing that’s worth saying is just the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a significant political figure in the life of the country has real foreign policy and not just domestic meaning. Even if we look at his 2016 campaign and think of it exclusively as about the question of economic distribution, Sanders calling himself a democratic socialist was itself a rejection of Cold War era and even pre-Cold War red-baiting.

Perhaps the most stirring moment for me during the [2016] campaign is when he said that Henry Kissinger is no friend of mine. That’s a remarkable statement in the context of American politics. He also had his own very long history of connections to left solidarity movements, including to Central and Latin America. He’s since gone out of his way to attempt to create links with left politics globally, particularly in Europe around issues of global social democracy, how to construct a coherent opposition to austerity, to neoliberal privatization, to the unlimited and unconstrained power that corporations and corporate property rights seem to enjoy.

At the same time, there’s been a real uncertainty about how to confront the national security state. He’s tended to equivocate, and I think the reason for that tendency is this issue about whether or not you can be taken seriously by a security establishment that continues to have a great deal of inside-the-beltway power.

Also, the equivocation is tied to the pervasive sentiment in American politics that says that if you’re not using force in some way, you’re essentially doing nothing. That whenever something bad happens around the world the US has a responsibility to act and the choices are essentially an on/off switch. You do nothing or you use military force and regime change and overthrow.

It’s not clear to me that he’s quite figured out how to respond to this criticism; that unless you’re in the business of regime change — either rhetorically or practically — that you’re capitulating, you’re appeasing tyrants. World War II and maybe more recently Rwanda, those two examples eat up a lot of the psychic space in thinking about force, so that’s worth exploring a little bit.

DH

The standard line among political pundits is that the masses don’t really care about foreign policy. That it’s an elite concern and they just want food in the table and foreclosure kept away. How might he or we craft an internationalist anti-interventionist message that has some mass appeal?

AR

This is the big issue: for too long the commentators and especially people in the Democratic Party have taken as axiomatic the kind of James Carville thought in 1992 that “It’s the economy, stupid.” Don’t talk about foreign policy. Don’t talk about the first Gulf War, just talk about bread-and-butter issues, and then, leave foreign policy to other folks.

I think the way to respond to that is to have one, a mass democratic movement politics that’s also about foreign policy and integrates the two. That’s the way that Medicare for All reached the table. It wasn’t through the reasonableness of the arguments or certain experts in D.C. making the point. It was because it became a rallying cry of mobilized masses. Two, we need to talk about material interests in international terms.

Take the security budget. If we’re interested in a Green New Deal or genuinely social-democratic policies like a guaranteed job and full employment and universal access to health care, housing, education, you need the money to do it, and that money is not just going to come from taxing the rich. Where is the money? There’s $800 billion annually that’s outlaid for defense, and reconceiving the defense budget as a freedom budget is a significant way of telling that story.

It’s important that these two things are connected because you can’t just say, “We need to cut the budget,” without thinking of how the defense budget is itself an example of governmental social provision. That budget is one of the ways in which old-style New Dealism and empire have been joined. It is government stimulus that often provides jobs and opportunities to really impoverished parts of the country, but unfortunately in ways what enhance corporate profits and serve the interests of the security state.

You need to cut that defense budget, but in conjunction with new social-democratic initiatives. Then, you have the debates about impunity; what the US does abroad, what it allows its allies to do. And also how financial elites behave, including through trade policy. Trump has opened up space to talk about trade in a way that links the foreign and the domestic, and the Left needs to have an alternative account. His version of trade is talking about bad trade deals.

That version of the argument is inconsistent with Republican free market orthodoxy. But it’s not in the interest of working people; it’s all about how working people abroad are stealing your jobs. It’s pitting the working class against itself and giving payoffs to corporations. We need to have instead, a conversation about trade that’s bound to domestic social democracy. Things like a guaranteed job, and a freedom budget. But the conversation also has to take to task the footloose nature of capital, that corporations need to be responsible for what happens in their supply chain today.

There has to be a commitment that US multinationals provide labor and environmental rights to folks; that there are actual constraints on corporate property rights and that corporations don’t enjoy tax haven status. The other real pillar of it has to be immigration politics.

Trump links domestic and foreign through immigration, to asserting in a racialized way the imperative of the border. I think the Left has to go to where that struggle is and to invert it, and to say, “Well, immigrants are working people and that they are located in a primary site of class struggle in this country.”

Decriminalizing immigration status, providing rights to immigrant workers, and having immigrant activists as a central part of how we think of domestic economic freedom is key. But above all, the big point is, it’s not going to be done just through think tanks or by having Sanders elected and maybe one or two different left policy experts in the room. The only way that that national security establishment is going to, in fact, be confronted is if there’s this transformation. Social democracy at home requires anti-imperialism abroad.