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A Foreign Policy Without War or Corporate Power

To make progress in America, the left needs a coherent international agenda.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

The left is thinking about foreign policy, sort of. Last October, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech at Johns Hopkins, calling for a new progressive internationalism. Trumpism, he said, is as borderless a problem as rising CO2, and Donald Trump but a node on a corrupt global “network” of “authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy.” “Our job,” Sanders said, “is to rally the entire planet.” Recently seated members of the House, especially representatives Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar, have also challenged previously consensus positions, especially support for Israel and Palestine.

This new attention to international relations is a welcome development, for, as nearly all of United States history shows, the political coalition that dominates foreign policy dominates domestic policy. Foreign policy is the realm where aspiring governing elites establish hegemony, not only over other countries but within this one, reconciling contradictory interests and ideas, and unifying domestic constituencies. Donald Trump’s Venezuela putsch, for example, reorders international relations, while deftly keeping Florida’s electoral votes and setting the terms of the 2020 presidential election: America will never be socialist. 

Sanders’s vision of a just world is ambitious and sweeping, and maybe it will help the left establish domestic legitimacy and advance domestic reform. But it also raises a question. The projection of global power has, over the years, strengthened militarism, justified interventionism, and reinforced corporate power—all the things the left is committed to fight against. Can progressives put forward an internationalism that isn’t linked to war and corporate power? 

The United States was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, mostly through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with removing Native Americans, stealing their land, and then stealing Mexican land, thefts that served as the foundation of white settler democracy. The Union Army defeat of the Confederacy didn’t just end slavery, but marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West. Millions more acres were distributed to veterans. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free, winning a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then defining that liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.

Go further down the line: There’s no moment of political reform, no widening of the promise of liberalism to oppressed groups within the nation, that didn’t entail a projection of power outside the nation. The interdependent relationship between domestic reform and foreign expansion is complicated. Sometimes the link was ideological: Breaking up the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean and the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson believed, would create a sense of national purpose that could be used to break up the trusts at home. Other times the link was nakedly transactional: Some suffragists would trade Woodrow Wilson their support for U.S. entry into World War I for his support for their campaign, as did some trade unionists for labor reform. The connection could be economic: In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt struck trade deals with Latin America that won him the support of pharmaceutical, chemical, airline, petroleum, and electronic companies, and in return they supported the New Deal’s gradual expansion of domestic liberalism. And the relationship was always political: Civil rights activists leveraged Cold War rivalry to press their claims for equal rights at home. Meanwhile, military service became a primary mechanism of social mobility, giving African Americans access to benefits such as education, housing, and health care, through all the twentieth century’s many wars. 

Later, the New Right used Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the Cold War and his drive back into the Third World to reorder domestic political culture, to vilify the welfare state, and once again elevate the Promethean capitalist man as the creator of private and public wealth. 

Democrats, for their part, had been turning inward since Vietnam. Holding tight to George McGovern’s old campaign slogan, “Come Home, America,” they invoked it more as prayer than policy, while their opposition to war atrophied to two main reflexes, either a call to “nation-build at home” (to spend money—which would be wasted on militarism—on hospitals, schools, and bridges), or a warning about blowback (that the effects of intervention will be worse than the benefits).

Those arguments didn’t prevent a bipartisan political elite from intervening in the Persian Gulf in 1991, launching a global war a decade later, building hundreds of military bases around the world, or unleashing the fossil fuel industry, and they didn’t stop that same elite from restructuring the world’s economy so that inequality, stockpiled wealth, corruption, volatility, and environmental destruction became features, not failures, of the system.

Today, with that system in tatters, the left wing of the Democratic Party seems to be gathering its energy, mobilized by young people who want action on climate change and who believe in the legitimacy of social rights, including the right to health care and education. In many ways, this aspiring governing coalition faces all the same challenges as past rising coalitions, including the New Deal and the New Right: It needs to unify diverse and unwieldy regional, economic, and ideological constituencies; and it needs to consolidate an economic base, some combination of influential industries that see their interests tied to a social-democratic policy agenda. 

What progressives don’t have, however, is the privilege of using the expectation of endless growth to organize domestic politics. After the wars of the 1990s, troops returned to communities, already hard hit by the farm crisis, that were being hollowed out by trade treaties that benefited corporations. Then came the catastrophic, morally bankrupting campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by punishing tax cuts, and the exhaustion of the free-trade growth model. 

Barack Obama inherited an empire in disarray, and managed, for a time, to stabilize its operations. Yet there was no aspect of foreign policy that he could have used to force a lasting realignment, to articulate a larger vision of the common good; no realm of international relations was available to him that he could use to overcome domestic polarization: not war, not humanitarian intervention, and not trade. 

In February, Bernie Sanders announced his run for the presidency with a robust domestic platform but very little talk about foreign policy, a notable silence considering his rousing call for a new internationalism at Johns Hopkins in October. Still, his reluctance to put forth specifics is understandable and even desirable, given the incoherent belligerence of many who oppose Trump. On the one hand, polls indicate that an increasing number of Democrats support tougher action on those countries deemed to be Trump’s allies, including Russia. On the other hand, Florida Democrats are saying that no candidate can win their party’s presidential nomination unless they support Trump’s effort to stage a coup in Venezuela. What have long been consensus positions, on, say, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and China and trade, seem today to be unraveling. 

Eventually, though, social democrats will have to develop a coherent agenda that reflects the new reality, a reality where progress at home can no longer ride on the back of national power abroad. They will have to dismantle the engines of expansion themselves. Cut the military budget; euthanize the fossil-fuel industry; fetter finance; close the bases, and bring the troops home.