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Can American Foreign Policy Be Greened?

Why we need a Marshall Plan to fight climate change

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In the 1977 novel Edith’s Diary, by the great crime writer Patricia Highsmith, Edith is the mother of a dipsomaniacal good-for-nothing who records in her diary not the truth about her son but, instead, the compensatory fantasy that he is a grad student in engineering, the husband of a charming wife, and father to a pair of delightful children. Such painstaking self-deception is worth noting here because Edith, editor of a small radical journal, is also a leftist with ideas about how the United States might rectify its conduct abroad. She proposes that the wealthy capitalist countries of the First World and the state-socialist ones of the Second might band together in “supervising all aid that went to Third World countries”—a pretty thought. The novel is set during the Vietnam War. 

Highsmith’s implication seems plain: The idea of a left or progressive U.S. foreign policy is another consoling lie, utterly at odds with actual events. Pankaj Mishra’s characterization of Wilsonian internationalism as “an especially aggressive form of hypocrisy” even more accurately covers U.S. behavior throughout the Cold War, when the world’s great champion of democracy helped overthrow democratically elected leaders wherever their policies were inconvenient to the imperial interests that U.S. politicians could neither acknowledge nor abandon.

Among postwar American presidents, reforming Democrats have been, thanks to their proclaimed virtues, even more hypocritical than more straightforwardly vicious Republicans. In the later 1970s, Carter advertised that he would place “human rights” (at the time, a fresh shibboleth of empire) at the center of foreign policy—and proceeded to support regimes that lustily trampled on such rights from Indonesia to Argentina to El Salvador. In our own century, Obama campaigned on an antiwar platform—only to become, in office, a war criminal himself, his administration’s campaign of extrajudicial assassination-by-drone wiping out hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, not to speak of the many other countries in American crosshairs. 

Standard American foreign-policy slogans such as self-determination, freedom, democracy, human rights, and humanitarian intervention have served for a century mainly to gaslight the historical record, on the one hand, and to euphemize future enormities, on the other; they have always excused, but never explained, U.S. actions abroad. In no area more than foreign policy has the special genius of the American character for sanctimonious homicide expressed itself.

It’s no surprise, then, that many American leftists conceive of the ideal foreign policy of a future progressive administration—that of President Sanders or, one day, Ocasio-Cortez—in essentially negative terms. Despairing of the United States ever sincerely and effectively advancing a program of international progress, they instead hope the country will simply refrain from current conduct (arming and underwriting Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen, Israel’s apartheid-style administration of its Palestinian subjects, General el-Sisi’s imprisonment and execution of dissidents in Egypt, etc.). Aziz Rana has advocated a foreign policy along the lines of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm” would be “a key principle” of such a “non-imperial approach.” More specifically, progressive writers have praised Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy in light of his successful sponsorship of a resolution in the Senate to end assistance to the Saudi war in Yemen—a genuine but fundamentally negative triumph, promoting a decent abstention from a foreign adventure over indecent participation in it. 

The bloody record of U.S. activity abroad amply justifies the preference among leftists for what might be called an abstinence-only foreign policy (with, perhaps, about as little realism to the program as abstinence-only sex ed). It ought to go without saying that no truly left foreign policy can emerge prior to the unforeseeable refoundation of the United States as a truly left polity—one, that is, committed to overcoming rather than reinforcing world capitalism. As Highsmith’s Edith says in another context, “The difference between dream and reality is the true hell.”

And yet . . . The ecological predicament of global—capitalist—civilization has become so dire and urgent that demanding the mere retreat of the United States from foreign entanglements is its own kind of irresponsibility. A domestic Green New Deal would need to be complemented by an international Green Marshall Plan (or whatever U.S. politicians choose to call it) promoting the greening of capitalist economies over the next dozen years or so, not only to keep global warming within tolerable bounds but to preserve capitalist civilization for its ultimate socialist or communist takeover. The adjective “green” is of course as susceptible to abusive and hypocritical invocation as any other high-sounding slogan, but some such—still capitalist, merely reformist, finally inadequate—U.S. foreign policy will likely be necessary in order for us to save the world, for its workers to win. 

What might a green internationalism consist of? The left economist Robert Pollin has argued that “a worldwide program to invest between 1.5 and 2 percent of global GDP every year to raise energy-efficiency standards and expand clean renewable-energy supplies” could sufficiently transform the capitalist world economy to stave off ruinous climate change. Another natural component of such a program would be the substitution of fossil-fueled vehicle fleets for trains, trucks, cars, and planes powered by renewable energy. 

The United States could promote such a transformation of the energetic basis of the world economy through a combination of preferential trade agreements with countries committing themselves to such renovation, sanctions against those refusing to get with the program, and direct economic aid to countries in need of assistance to accomplish the necessary change. This task would presumably be at once most important and trickiest when it came to U.S. allies—countries as distinct as Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria—whose economies are especially dependent on hydrocarbons. If U.S. manufacturers of windmills, electric vehicles, and solar panels enrich themselves in the process—locating many of their operations, perhaps, in Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, etc.—this seems an acceptable price to pay for the rescue of global civilization. Of course, if a nominally socialist U.S. president were to be so genuinely socialist as to sponsor worker-owned cooperatives to furnish the planet with wind farms, EVs, and solar arrays, so much the better.

The chances may be overwhelming that such a scheme will remain ecosocialist fan fic. Such long odds nevertheless seem worth taking where the only other option, in the face of galloping climate change, is giving up the game altogether.