Trump’s 2016 victory has generated a growing internal debate within left-leaning circles about the future direction of the Democratic Party. To date, this debate has overwhelmingly focused on domestic questions of the economy, with the Sanders wing transforming policies such as “Medicare for All” into a basic litmus test for party politicians with national ambitions. But it has not left foreign policy totally unscathed.
For a significant and vocal base of party activists, the Bush and Obama years speak to a general and systematic failure of the mainstream national security establishment. Rather than promoting peace and democratic values, that establishment’s focus on market interests and on continuous interventionism deepened global problems of inequality, conflict, and human rights abuse. At the same time, it set the stage for Trump — who implicitly invoked those failures — to distinguish and promote his own bellicose and ethno-nationalist vision of “America First.”
In this context, more and more commentators, myself included have called for the party’s social-democratic faction to offer a meaningful alternative to the bipartisan and long-standing Beltway consensus. To refuse to do so is to leave the country prey to two deeply flawed options, the national security elite’s old and discredited Cold War imperialism or Trump’s dangerous account of an America circled by racial enemies.
Yet the problem facing the Left is more than a matter simply of developing and articulating distinct policy prescriptions. The Left also faces a second, perhaps equally critical issue: Why, up to now, has it been so difficult for a genuinely anti-imperial alternative to emerge at all?
For decades, certainly going back to Vietnam and its aftermath, there have been calls for a reorientation of the American state and of its global commitments. And yet these calls have repeatedly been ignored, even by ostensibly reformist candidates like President Obama, whose very election was in large measure tied to antiwar sentiment. Today, given the real possibility that social-democratic politicians may well hold the reins of national power, figuring out why this has been the case and how to respond is more urgent than ever.
The Unmentionable Over There
One of the most striking features of the Obama years was how he entered and ended his time in office. Obama distinguished himself from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain by being the antiwar candidate. He began his presidency by calling for the closure of the prison in Guantánamo Bay, a potent international symbol of American disregard for basic human rights during the Bush era. And yet, his foreign policy team ended up being staffed by many of the very same war hawks — from Clinton to Joseph Biden and Samantha Power — whom his victory was meant to repudiate. As he left office, not only did Guantánamo remain open, but his presidency had also become synonymous with drone strikes, interventions in Libya and elsewhere, and the continuance of a perpetual war footing from Afghanistan to Iraq.
One clear reason for this drift has to do with the extent to which even less hawkish voices within the Democratic foreign policy establishment, including Obama himself, have taken for granted a particular account of the United States in the world. This is the bipartisan Cold War ideology that has shaped American elite thinking since the 1940s, organized around the idea that the United States rightly enjoys military and economic primacy because its interests are the world’s interests.
Obama, for instance, used the occasion of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to defend not simply the idea of just war but the justness of American conduct in the Cold War and the nation’s post–Cold War dominance. “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms,” he declared. These dozens of military interventions and proxy wars were a necessary “burden,” according to Obama, the product of a national mission and an exceptional embrace of global freedom and democracy, rather than any desire “to impose our will.”Given these background assumptions, perhaps it should not be surprising that his administration, when challenged, tended to fall back on Bush era counterterrorism practices and foreign policy logic.
But there is a second, equally significant reason for the difficulty in developing a real foreign policy alternative, one that connects directly with the first. For decades, Americans have overwhelmingly approached international affairs through a false belief that there exists a hard separation between the foreign and domestic realms. The end of the draft, while a crucial victory for the antiwar movement during Vietnam — one worth defending today — reinforced this tendency.
In the context of continued militarization, the reduction of mass involvement in war-making opened the door to an increasingly privatized and self-selecting armed force, one that at the same time imposed disproportionate burdens on working-class and rural communities. Where antiwar activists hoped that defeating the draft would drastically reduce the country’s military footprint, instead the new model of American militarism left that footprint unchecked, but relieved politicians of the political risks involved.
As for the overall separation between domestic and foreign, left-leaning politicians most concretely internalize it through the ubiquitous conventional belief that what actually affects people’s daily lives are bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health care, and social provision — matters that are then depicted as essentially domestic. As James Carville famously told Bill Clinton staffers during the 1992 election, when it comes to what people care about, it is “the economy, stupid.” For Democrats, it is on these issues that publics organize and that politicians must be responsive to the material interests of their constituencies.
By contrast, when it comes to foreign policy, unless it is a matter of a massive ground invasion — like Vietnam or Iraq — where thousands of American lives will very clearly be implicated, the issues are best left to policy experts. This division is justifiable because, so the argument goes, the international is not really about the material interests of working people. It is a space for those truly knowledgeable to reach decisions, insulated from mass pressure, about the state’s proper geostrategic goals.
Indeed, to the extent that either Democrats or Republicans do attempt to link the foreign and the domestic, it is almost always through the same well-worn clichés. The idea is that whatever US foreign policy officials may be engaged in abroad — from protecting market access for American corporations to meddling in the internal political affairs of other countries — these opaque actions promote freedom there, and they do so in order for Americans to be safe and free at home.
Yet for earlier generations of labor activists, especially in the years before and during World War I, this cleavage was treated instead as a basic threat to the very real interests of those economically and politically marginalized. The problem was that bread-and-butter issues were not exclusively domestic. This was because the very nature of capitalism and of American imperial power fundamentally shaped the types of demands workers could make and the bargaining power that they enjoyed. What happened abroad had rippling effects at home that actually made working people less secure and more economically dependent.
This meant that to focus on what corporations and states were doing locally, while ignoring how they operated around the globe, amounted to fighting only half of the battle. It also suggested that any politics of real opposition had to treat the foreign and the domestic as integrated. In many ways, the constitutive problem the Left faces today when it comes to foreign policy is the degree to which the international has become so thoroughly disconnected from organized movement politics focused on “bread- and-butter” issues.
The Era of Anticapitalism and Anti-Imperialism
Again, this was not always the case. Elements of the early twentieth-century labor movement, especially those associated with the Socialist Party and that gravitated to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), were famous for their avowed anti-nationalism. A common slogan among such activists was that, “The working class has no country. The employing class has stolen them all.” This hostility to nationalism and to invocations of patriotic attachment were not just radical poses. They were grounded concretely in an account of the oppressive forces facing working people and the modes both of solidarity and of reform that would be needed to overcome them.
According to party and union members, the driving problem of the era was plutocracy — the overwhelming authority corporations and socioeconomic elites wielded over political life. Moreover, given the international rise of corporate capitalism, what defined this plutocracy was the extent to which corporate elites benefited from the mobility of capital and from their ties to the American state. As the United States became a growing world power, policymakers made replicating business-friendly market structures and state institutions their paramount objective. This entailed opening new markets for American domestic goods and intervening, in many cases violently, wherever foreign opposition threatened an American-defined stability.
US supervision and oversight, often justified in explicitly racial terms, became the essential gateway for the expansion of a new global economy and the entrenchment of pliable foreign elites. What all of this underscored for socialists and labor radicals was the degree to which plutocracy was global in nature and required a global response. As Christian socialist William Brown commented, “Plutocracy is not a national affair. It is international. It is rapidly becoming the government of the world …. The interests of wealth decide the final policies of all civilized nations.”
According to those in the IWW, for working people to contest these developments, they would need a new account of solidarity. Poor farmers and industrial workers had to recognize that a small group of fellow nationals, their employers, and those government officials closely aligned with them were the public’s principal opponents. They had to break free from class deference and develop a fully oppositional political culture that called out all class enemies in just those stark terms. This meant seeing how patriotic bromides often functioned to paper over fundamental conflicts of interest between employers and workers, in ways that perpetuated the fiction of a harmonious “we the people.”
Thus, crucial to such an oppositional culture was a vision of community, not based on race, gender, or nationality, but on treating workers or colonized peoples abroad — regardless of their ethnicity or citizenship — as engaged in the same freedom struggles over economic and political self-determination. IWW pamphleteers commonly maintained that their movement was “an international movement; not merely an American movement. We are ‘patriotic’ for our class, the working class.” One pamphleteer articulated a reason labor should oppose entrance into World War I, “As long as we quarrel among ourselves over differences of nationality we weaken our cause, we defeat our own purpose.”
Reform victories at home — winning the eight-hour day or the right to strike, for example — would also provide strength to workers abroad fighting the same corporate entities. Journals such as the International Socialist Review devoted extensive space to the fate of labor activism around the world — often following events in Mexico or Japan with the same intensity as those closer by. This was both to maintain feelings of shared community and to make clear that events elsewhere that reined in business elites also had material effects on the bargaining position of those same elites within the United States.
Such an emphasis was in part due to how central immigrant labor, during these years, became to revitalizing and radicalizing working-class politics. Such workers arrived with their own experiences of political struggle as well as ideas about institutional possibility. And they pushed existing labor groups to see the significance of cross-national class solidarity for any successful anticapitalist agenda.
All of this led to a very specific relationship to the American state. Rather than taking pride in its wars or its growing primacy, emerging labor activists, both native and foreign-born, pressed working people to view the state as a partisan opponent shaping the terms of labor struggle through its global choices. For this very reason, labor constituencies had to assert their own independent foreign policy and orientation to the world, an orientation that may well require taking on the state itself.
Labor Internationalism in Decline
Between World War I and the 1950s, labor internationalism faced a series of brutal crackdowns on dissent, marked in the early years by the effective criminalization of the IWW and the imprisonment of many of its members. During the 1920s, this crackdown went hand in hand with a government- and business-led project of patriotic education in schools and in the public square. Such campaigns presented labor activism — and especially the internationalism of groups such as the IWW — as a foreign threat and as fundamentally un-American.
Similar dynamics played out again a generation later in the context of US-Soviet rivalry and state-driven suppression of communist and socialist politics. The ultimate result was that by the 1950s, American labor leaders accepted a basic Cold War compromise. This compromise preserved their own hard-won New Deal–era achievements, while leaving to the state the right to direct foreign policy as it saw fit. Over time, more and more labor leaders came to view the compromise not just pragmatically but actually to identify with the state’s Cold War project — including its most violent and destructive elements. This was due to a genuine belief among some that the growing national security state in fact facilitated labor’s gains.
World War II — and the war economy — had indeed generated real economic growth. The living standards and social status of white unionized workers reached a high point in the 1950s. Moreover, the perceived threat from Nazi Germany and then from the Soviet Union made plausible to many Americans that what the state fought for abroad, in the face of potentially existential threats, protected people at home. Today, these claims sound like empty clichés, but in the early days of the Cold War, they spoke to real and deeply felt experiences of intertwined military victories and economic gains.
But even if the New Deal order convinced some labor leaders of the potential compatibility between empire and social democracy, over the long run, the results proved disastrous. To begin with, the alliance of organized labor with the state corroded the movement’s moral standing, as unions made common cause abroad with brutal business elites and US-friendly dictators. Especially through entities like the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), voices within organized labor not only defended catastrophic follies such as the Vietnam War but also participated in undermining foreign labor movements, when these movements contradicted the security state’s anticommunist agenda. The old IWW fears about the substantive alliances of that security state proved correct. Foreign policy decision-making was not driven by working people or their interests but by security experts and corporate elites. It was built around pro-business market goals and continuous military intervention in ways that intruded into the domestic sphere, whether through expensive and disastrous wars or by expanding corporate rights that undermined the global position of labor.
Taken together, these polices over time propelled precisely the cycle of conservative retrenchment and privatization that ate away at labor successes in the United States. Rather than preserving social democracy, as Cold War labor leaders had hoped, the state’s constitutive ties to business and the enormous growth of the security apparatus underscored the exceptional and precarious nature of past New Deal achievements.
Social Democracy Without Empire
Today, one can sketch out what a non-imperial vision of the United States in the world might look like. This vision, not unlike that of labor radicals a century ago, would oppose American international police power — the presumptive right of intervention — and refuse to treat any foreign people as an instrument in the service of state security ends. It would view social democracy rather than free market capitalism (as embodied in austerity, neoliberal privatization, and trade agreements built on entrenching corporate property rights) as the bedrock of global economic relations.
Thus, instead of assisting footloose capital in avoiding regulation or paying the taxes it owes, the state would work on the global stage to end tax havens that hide away the money of plutocrats, protect foreign labor from oppression at the hands of US multinationals, and develop collective strategies for controlling corporate power more generally.
Such an approach would also inevitably buttress a meaningful commitment to local self-determination — treating the United States and its officials as rightly limited by binding domestic and international sanctions. This would put into question the terms of current American alliances, alliances such as those in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel that the state has for so long maintained with treasure and force of arms. In the process, the United States would show far greater hesitancy to pursue militarized responses, or to turn a blind eye when its own regional proxies engage in lawlessness and brutal violence.
Thus, this vision would reject the absolute impunity, for both state abuse and financial crime, which government officials, corporate elites, and foreign allies have all enjoyed as a presumptive staple of American imperium. And finally, such a reorientation would require a systematic transformation of the national security state, particularly a significant demobilization of its military footprint abroad and its security infrastructure at home. This security apparatus has fed American interventionism and criminalized dissent, and placed immigrant and Muslim communities under constant suspicion.
But at present, any effort to develop progressive “white papers” on foreign policy, in keeping with this overarching vision, faces more than simply an uphill battle. It is not just that the Left does not have a policy-making infrastructure to give concrete substance to non-imperial politics. Crucially, if such an infrastructure were somehow to materialize and a future Democratic administration included competing voices — say on what to do in Afghanistan or how to reconstruct American trade deals — it is unclear how much would actually change. This is because even under those circumstances, foreign policy would still be treated as a separate realm of expert-driven decision-making, undergirded by a massive business and security-dominated bureaucracy. A social-democratic president may have one or two new voices in the room, but all the remaining advice, not to mention the terms of the debate, would still be set by the same old figures and perspectives.
Moreover, without any sustained external pressure, the policy that would emerge would inevitably be what appeared reasonable to those in the room. What made “Medicare for All” so persuasive to Democratic politicians was not that the merits of the idea somehow won over decision-makers. Similar calls had been circulating for decades with limited effect. It was that the call was now backed up by organized popular commitment. Similarly, when it comes to foreign policy issues, unless alternative goals have the power of mass democratic pressure, it is hard to imagine that new ideas on their own will miraculously win the day.
What past labor radicals understood was that unless an anti-imperial agenda was experienced by labor and other organized constituencies as bread-and-butter matters, and thus actively fought for, it would inevitably fail. Or even worse, elites would use jingoism and nationalist appeals, as has Trump and a virulent right, to protect their interests and to attack working-class solidarities.
Making Material Demands in Internationalist Terms
All of this underscores that for an actual alternative foreign policy to emerge and to be genuinely plausible, it is crucial that left constituencies begin articulating material demands in internationalist terms, not unlike how labor radicals once did. From the vision statement of the Movement for Black Lives to the AFL-CIO’s own recent 2017 convention resolution, titled “War Is Not the Answer,” such an effort has no doubt started to emerge. And indeed, part of the reason why is because, for all of the darkness entailed by the rise of Trump, this moment offers the rare possibility for a left internationalism to return to prominence.
In his own way, Trump’s focus on “America First” as a central way of discussing the economy, with its pro-business protectionism and suspicion of traditional European allies, has chipped away at the separation between the domestic and foreign. And in doing so, it has perhaps opened the door for the Left to offer a genuinely emancipatory account of how these two can be differently combined.
Moreover, if anti-imperial politics in the past faced harsh state crackdowns, part of the success of that state suppression was due to the reality of world war and of genuine global antagonists. Left forces today will still have to reckon with a militarized brand of hyper-nationalism, one willing to tar any opposition, from kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to questioning the utility of new weapons purchases, as unpatriotic. But the lack of real existential competitors — and the relative weakness of declared American enemies, whether al-Qaeda, Iran, or North Korea — undercuts the fear-mongering that in the past was so central to generating broad support for conservative reaction and crackdowns.
Given these partial openings, what is most needed now in reviving left internationalism is a focus on those locations where foreign and domestic connect dramatically and so resonate as matters of everyday material need. One key intersection is over the security budget. The United States accounts for nearly half of all global defense expenditures, with an annual defense outlay in 2017 of almost $800 billion. This is a fundamental misallocation of the public treasure, which sustains a continuous international police power that promotes instability abroad and feeds militaristic chauvinism at home.
Actually entrenching social democracy, through universal access to health care, education, housing, a guaranteed job, and other basic rights, requires the funds to pursue it — what antiwar and civil rights activists during the Vietnam era called a “freedom budget.” And the fundamental condition of possibility for such a budget is not only taxing corporations and the wealthy but also pursuing a dramatic decrease in military and intelligence spending.
But more than an issue of misallocated funds, the politics of the budget also speaks to why working people should care about the larger and destructive geostrategic alliances that the US government has maintained. The security budget, which amounts to a massive giveaway to corporations, facilitates both a militarized relationship to the world and, through arms sales and financial assistance, bankrolls the extreme violence of specific regional allies. It underscores the extent to which the security state operates hand in glove with corporate interests and to the direct detriment of local peoples. Thus, so long as left constituencies refuse to have the fight over the budget, the possibility of an actual shift in geostrategy — including in places such as the Middle East — and thus in meaningful foreign policy is essentially off the table.
A second key intersection is over the politics of impunity. When oligarchs like Trump are unaccountable for their financial crimes — from tax fraud to money laundering — and for their labor violations, they enjoy the same freedom from legal sanction that officials who commit torture or human rights abuses do. Both are illustrations of a corrosive political order that works on behalf of plutocracy. Thus, any necessary response entails organizing mass pressure around measures that would address both state violence and financial crime.
It also means exposing the shallowness of Trumpian protectionism. Just because this protectionism flies in the face of Republican trade orthodoxy, and is opposed by some business elites, does not mean that it actually serves working-class interests or is remotely committed to challenging corporate dominance. Indeed, Trumpian tariffs and trade talk not only remain a grab bag of corporate payoffs. They also break class solidarities by repeating the lie that workers are primarily threatened by foreign labor rather by than by the realities of American capitalism and its domestic abettors.
A social-democratic alternative must be based, at a minimum, on a vision of global trade that imposes real constraints on the transnational property rights of corporations. It must see full employment and a guaranteed jobs program at home as going hand in hand with the final end of business impunity abroad — by enforcing environmental and labor standards, by holding corporations responsible for what happens in their supply chain, and by prosecuting those that violate the law.
A final intersection concerns immigrant labor and immigrant rights, which in today’s America is essential to class-based political struggle. The overwhelming tendency — and not just on the Right — is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place. The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied not only to a colonial past stitching together the Global North and the Global South but also to business-led and state-backed policies.
These policies, along with being complicit in local violence, promote corporate control and worker insecurity abroad. Indeed, the main drivers of mass dispossession and hence mass immigration in the Global South are the fundamental and structuring relations of economic exploitation and political domination between the West and the rest of the world.
Any effort to strengthen the hand of labor — along with linking the domestic and the foreign —requires a sustained effort to confront this fact, beginning with the provision of real economic and political rights to migrants here in the United States. To the extent that harsh border practices are today a continuous source of legally sanctioned terror, sowing fear and reducing immigrant workers to silence, these practices too have to be fundamentally uprooted. If Trump has linked the foreign and domestic through racial demonization and a focus on the imperative of the border, the challenge for the Left is precisely to invert and repudiate his framing.
The goal must be to reject absolutely that imperative, and to present the full protection of immigrant status as a paramount objective of labor struggle itself — a necessary element of improving the power of the working class. And moreover, this politics must take its lead from immigrant workers themselves. Just as a century ago, these workers come with their own grounding in political struggle. They have been essential to infusing labor agendas with new energy and moral commitment as well as, given their experiences, to highlighting the constitutive ties between anti-imperialism and economic freedom.
A left foreign policy cannot emerge in a vacuum. It will require an intellectual infrastructure premised on non-imperial values and armed with actual substantive knowledge about how to transition to a more equitable and democratic global condition. But above all, it will also require an organized and assertive politics within the United States that sees the domestic in international terms — something that for decades has been missing.
In a sense, if the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party has reshaped the domestic reform debate over what is possible, for these goals to succeed and to stick, a second transformation will likely have to take place. Such a transformation must connect, in everyday politics, social democracy to anti-imperialism — seeing each as impossible without the support of the other.