Not since the early years of the Iraq War has foreign policy dominated American headlines as it does in the age of Trump. The United States in the ’90s enjoyed the narcissism of the “New World Order,” and journalistic glances abroad mainly flattered this self-conception. After Bush, Obama campaigned as an antiwar candidate, only to get the country embroiled in at least five additional conflicts, all more or less waged sotto voce, so as to minimize the tarnish imperial police actions could inflict on his Nobel. Trump is less trusted and manifestly less given to doing things quietly than Obama. With every gesture he makes to the outside world, whether through actual diplomatic summits, rhetorical saber-rattling, or simple racist bluster (“shithole countries”), the news is filled with a stream of developments centering on actors elsewhere in the world: trade war with China; withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal; the Syrian civil war; imprecations of “fire and fury” for North Korea; moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and the IDF’s carnage in Gaza. Trump’s son-in-law’s romance with Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman, meanwhile, has masked the most lethal policy currently being enacted on the face of the earth, the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen, which has been actively aided by the United States; the unmasking of this policy following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has only moved foreign policy further into the foreground. Behind all of this chatter, November 8, 2016, remains on endless loop in part because Russian meddling has been deemed a Pearl Harbor–grade event.
But while the national security establishment has mobilized these conflicts in hopes of salvaging their preferred militarist approach to globalism, a left increasingly vocal about domestic policy—Medicare for All, jobs guarantee, Green New Deal—has only recently begun to search for its voice on foreign policy. After decades of quiescence, that voice is unpracticed. When Bernie Sanders, the most successful socialist politician in American history, gave a major address in 2017 laying out his international vision, it was full of refreshing candor and sound ideas. A foreign policy whose objective was “dominance,” he declared, had led to coups and military invasions, from Guatemala in 1953 to Iraq in 2003. Instead, Sanders called for a policy of “partnerships”—with governments and peoples—in service of democracy, human rights, social welfare, and environmental sustainability.
Just as he sought to make “democratic socialism” part of the mainstream by connecting it to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” Sanders alighted on the Truman Administration’s European Recovery Program, more commonly known as the Marshall Plan, as a precedent for his foreign policy vision. Rather than “punish and humiliate the losers . . . we helped rebuild their economies. . . . We also provided them support to reconstruct democratic societies.” For Sanders, and for most liberals and progressives, the Marshall Plan is a foreign policy object with almost talismanic properties. It proves that the United States in the international arena is capable of substituting generosity for retribution, cooperation for enmity, and economics for military force, all in the pursuit of an enlightened self-interest.
The trouble is that this view is a myth. It licenses the belief that there was a good cold war and a bad cold war, that liberalism was forced to become militaristic against its will, and that an exercise in geopolitics was about something other than geopolitics—that is, a “liberal international order.” To deconstruct this myth requires understanding what exactly the Marshall Plan was intended to do, where it led, and what it meant for democratic aspirations at home and abroad. At the heart of this ideological complex may lie the reason why the left has so far failed to articulate a foreign policy for our age.
If the 2016 election marked the end of the cold war consensus in American politics—with the open return of socialism and white supremacy to the national stage, the traducing of the national security establishment, and the embrace of Russia by the eventual winner—then President Trump’s inauguration of a trade war with China is one of the more overt signs that we have entered a new era in international politics, the return of great power competition.1 Navigating this new global configuration of power, in which an ascendant China is the key coordinate, will require engaging with modes of thought that are currently uncongenial, while abjuring sweeping ideological gestures redolent of the thinking, typified by the Marshall Plan, that undergirded the last cold war. To the extent that Sanders speaks of China, his rhetoric shares unsettling affinities with this latter approach. If the left is serious about contending for power, then the statements of its leading figures on such bedrock questions of policy and strategy merit friendly but careful scrutiny.
Before World War II, the United States had interests in the western hemisphere and in the Pacific. In the former, it was effectively hegemonic: no foreign power dared engage in diplomatic or military actions against American wishes. American interests in the Pacific surged when the filibustering of American sugar planters in Hawaii and victory in war against Spain gave the US a territorial presence in the Western Pacific, celebrated as the springboard for a commercial assault on the vaunted “China market.” Recognizing the far greater commercial and military interests of Britain, Russia, and Japan, American strategy in Asia was limited to preventing anyone else from establishing hegemonic control.2
These foreign policy interests were large, and the United States frequently used military force in defense of them. But in comparison to what came after 1941, they appear trifling. Before then, American leaders had been unwilling to wield power to protect interests beyond these two spheres. Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I on the side of Britain, France, Italy, and Russia was seen in the 1920s and ’30s as an aberration. Though the term soon became one of abuse in the hands of advocates of globalism, many participants in the “America First” movement of 1940–1941 were merely giving voice to this longstanding precept of American foreign policy.
After Pearl Harbor, US presidents easily convinced the public that conditions beyond American borders had implications for national security, and that it was better to deal with potential threats where they arose. And yet the path from Pearl Harbor to a sprawling national security state and a globe-spanning military commitment was not direct. The US cut military expenditures four-fold in 1946. In Roosevelt’s original postwar plans, cooperation with the Soviet Union to prevent future wars was a first-order priority. Europe was to be a vast neutral zone between the USSR and the US, with Great Britain resuming its historical role of “offshore balancer” to prevent any one power from dominating the continent. Japan similarly was to be a neutral state, ensuring that there would be no hegemon in East Asia. In Roosevelt’s view, only a restrained posture of this sort would spare the US from massive and permanent military expenditures, widely feared as the road to a “garrison state.”
By 1948 at least, the basis for the Rooseveltian framework collapsed and the two superpowers stood on the precipice of war. The Marshall Plan was not just one of several stages on the path from cooperation to cold war, it was the decisive break: American policymakers decided that the agreements reached between Roosevelt and Stalin over Europe no longer served; a new European framework had to be established, and the Marshall Plan was the assault on the status quo that would deliver the desired result. A policy that advertised itself as one of peace was in fact a policy of war.
The central fact undergirding this interpretation of the origins of the cold war, exhaustively demonstrated through recent work in Soviet and American archives, was that in the immediate postwar period Joseph Stalin’s postwar posture was essentially defensive. Despite the overwhelming military preponderance of the Soviet Union in Europe, Stalin never once contemplated provoking a war with the United States by pushing the Red Army further west. His fundamental security considerations were that the countries of eastern Europe have governments friendly to the Soviet Union, and that Germany never be allowed to threaten the Soviet Union militarily.3
It is true that Stalin probed American resolve in Turkey and Iran. In response, the US dispatched economic and military aid. Following Senatorial advice to “scare the hell out of [the American people],” Harry Truman announced a new policy (the Truman Doctrine), which proclaimed an American policy of “containment.” In George Kennan’s words, the “free institutions of the western world” would be defended “by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points . . .” But despite its landmark status, from Stalin’s point of view the Truman Doctrine was merely a restatement of the American position. He backed down in Western Asia, out of an absolute unwillingness to sabotage great power cooperation. Truman’s speech, meanwhile, was attacked in the United States for being inflammatory and militaristic.
Containment proclaimed a global policy, but in fact the conflict of interest between the US and the USSR centered on one place: Germany. Over the course of 1946 and 1947, economic conditions in Western Europe appeared to be worsening, auguring political disaster. Kennan, the Marshall Plan’s true author, recognized that the war had produced exhaustion and demoralization among the masses and the leaders of Western Europe, a situation that Communist parties—whose prestige, thanks to their wartime resistance to fascism, was at its peak—were exploiting. Rather than combat Communism directly, Kennan proposed attacking the conditions that made societies vulnerable to it. To save bourgeois political systems in Western Europe, it was above all necessary to revive their economies. Kennan therefore proposed a program of large-scale economic aid, whose fundamental purpose was to transform the outlook of European workers, capitalists, and politicians. With America standing behind them, Kennan hoped they would see it was worth the effort to strengthen European economies, and this would inoculate their political systems against communist subversion. Through the extension of economic aid, Kennan also believed the US would gain geostrategic advantage, without having to take the politically unpopular step of making a military commitment to Western European security.
If Belgium, France, and Italy could have been shored up on their own, events might have unfolded differently. But the Americans concluded that there could be no economic recovery for the rest of Western Europe unless the German economy was revived, too. The German Rhineland was the industrial heart of Europe. Without its factories turning out steel and machines, without its mines yielding ton after ton of coal, recovery, American planners concluded, would stall everywhere else.
The trouble was that economic recovery for Germany ran smack into good faith agreements made between Roosevelt and Stalin only a few years earlier. From Stalin’s point of view, to revive Germany, and German heavy industry no less, was to risk a third German invasion of the east in five decades. The American plan amounted to a repudiation of the twenty million Soviet war dead. There was no conceivable way he could consent to it.
The true genius of Kennan’s scheme was not that it offered a helping hand to a continent worn down by years of war—it was that the plan took an act American leaders knew Stalin could only interpret as one of profound hostility and made it look like a gesture of generosity and peace. After a generation-marking speech at Harvard in June 1947, the scheme became forever associated with Secretary of State George Marshall. As American planners expected, the Soviet Union interpreted the offer of aid as an act of war.
In response, Stalin pushed French and Italian Communists to launch strikes to paralyze their economies. He cracked down on Central European governments that wanted to participate in the program. Eventually he launched the blockade of Berlin. When the western Allies pushed ahead with the establishment of a West German state, Stalin was led to conclude, not incorrectly, that the west was determined to “encircle” the Soviet Union with a hostile bloc of capitalist states closely tied to the US, now also likely to include Japan. As the key capitalist states of Western Europe and East Asia respectively, Germany and Japan were menacing enough on their own. But as independent centers of power, they would at least have been in rivalry with the United States. Subordinated to the US in a global capitalist bloc, they represented an existential threat.
Once the intensity of Soviet opposition to the Marshall Plan became clear, Western European governments began to argue that economic aid was not sufficient to repel the Communist threat. Kennan’s hope that an economic commitment could substitute for a military one proved badly mistaken: by ratcheting up US–Soviet tensions in Europe, American planners produced the conditions that made a permanent military alliance with European states seem like common sense. The Marshall Plan recast an act of aggression as one of munificence. By causing Stalin to fear the formation of a cinching, asphyxiating capitalist bloc, provoking him to fully “Sovietize” most of eastern Europe, the Marshall Plan made a propagandistic analogy—capitalism is to freedom as Communism is to totalitarianism—appear substantially closer to the truth. The costs to anticapitalist strivings everywhere in the west would be incalculable.
The Marshall Plan was one of the crucial pillars of an unprecedented configuration of power—a new form of non-imperialist Empire—that today enjoys the euphemistic name, the “liberal international order.” From 1952 on all of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced countries were in formal alliances with the single most powerful actor in the whole system. If all world orders involve some combination of coercion and consent, the integration of Western Europe and Japan into a US-led order allowed the US to project power everywhere, and to do so with a historically unprecedented degree of consent, at remarkably low cost. By and large these countries quickly returned to self-sufficiency, requiring essentially no US aid to keep their economies and political systems in robust working order after Marshall aid wound down in 1952. Until very recently, the conviction that this order served US interests was one of the few remaining points of transpartisan consensus in American politics.
Geopolitics is the discourse of the balance of power between leading states on a global scale. Under modern conditions, the sphere of geopolitics is practically unlimited: military bases, foreign investments, communications networks, and the ideological leanings of particular peoples all can affect whether one power or another is ascendant in any given part of the world. The Marshall Plan was a fundamentally geopolitical act—it was about ensuring American ascendancy in the economically and militarily vital region of Western Europe. It was one of the opening salvos in the unfolding project of containment, itself a totalizing principle of postwar American strategy. But the plan’s economic basis provided a cover for its geopolitical origins, and this erasure of geopolitics, which might be called the specific character of “Marshall Plan–thinking,” made possible the peculiar way in which American leaders played dumb, insisting on their own innocence as they turned a regional military and political rivalry into an all-encompassing, globe-spanning cold war.
A few years later, it was Marshall Plan–thinking that transformed the American involvement in Indochina from neocolonial meddling into a full-scale military intervention that led to the slaughter and maiming of millions in the Vietnam War. Ironically, early US justifications for interfering in Vietnam did not hide their rationale: Eisenhower’s domino theory was a forthrightly geopolitical statement, however questionable its assumptions. By 1965, when Lyndon Johnson committed US ground forces to the defense of a non-Communist South Vietnam, that theory, especially the postulate that the health of Japanese capitalism rose or fell with South Vietnam’s membership in the “free world,” no longer held water. Whereas the Marshall Planners had given an ideological gloss to a conflict they understood in fundamentally geopolitical terms, later American policymakers remembered only the gloss. Even though the Soviet Union had no interest in escalating conflict with the US over Vietnam, Johnson and his staff sincerely believed what for their predecessors had been mere rhetoric, that Communism anywhere was a threat to freedom everywhere. Just as US economic support had been necessary to put some spine into anticommunist forces in Western Europe in 1948, US military support in South Vietnam was now held to be necessary to persuade anticommunists everywhere that the US would defend its allies at all costs.
The ideological hypostatization of the conflict ruled out any measured assessment of its chances of success. Those chances were abysmal. In Western Europe, the US provided support to social and political forces that commanded, if not necessarily majorities, then certainly large swaths of public opinion. In South Vietnam, the US was backing a detested regime against forces most Vietnamese considered not foreign puppets but liberation fighters. For the sake of credibility, the US prosecuted an unwinnable war at unspeakable human cost. Throughout it all, many US policymakers convinced themselves that no amount of their barbarism could ever be worse than Communist totalitarianism, an outlook that also does much to explain the Reagan administration’s later sangfroid over CIA-sponsored Central American atrocities.
However, doubling down on Marshall Plan–thinking—this at first creative and later self-delusional erasure of geopolitics—was not the only available path for American foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II. Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s second vice president and the most important administration left-winger to maintain influence well into the war years, articulated an alternative. The New Deal left’s essential conviction was that the long-term success of their programs depended on deepening the political transformation that the rise of the CIO unions presaged and that Roosevelt promised in his famous 1936 attack on “economic royalists.” For them the New Deal meant not merely technocratic reforms but open-ended class struggle. During the war, Wallace ran the agency that controlled US imports and exports, and he concluded that access to important raw materials was hamstrung by the poverty of overseas producers. Accordingly, Wallace proposed foreign aid to promote industrialization and increase living standards abroad. This precipitated a showdown with the business wing of Roosevelt’s coalition, which prevailed and eventually forced Wallace’s replacement as vice president by Harry Truman in 1945. Wallace’s deposition was metonym for the fortunes of the New Deal left.
After the war, Wallace emerged as the most prominent political figure opposing the Truman administration’s drift toward confrontation with the Soviet Union. Testifying before Congress in February 1948, he denounced the Marshall Plan. His central claim was that beneath the rhetoric of peace and cooperation was actually a “new crusading war, ostensibly against Russia, but actually against the march of people everywhere to a new life free of ancient reaction.” The peoples of Europe who had resisted fascist domination, “Catholic, Labor, Socialist, [or] Communist,” voted after the war for radical reforms to the social, economic, and political orders of their countries: “a new deal, a square deal that would end the misrule and privation of the old deal in Europe.” With the Marshall Plan, however, the US sought “to revive Germany as the great industrial center of a European military bloc,” and to “restore the power of the European monopolists and landowners over the people of Europe.” In Wallace’s view, it was the monopolists, the bankers, and the militarists who were dictating US policy towards Europe—and trimming the sails of the New Deal at home. The Marshall Plan and the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act were part and parcel of the same counterrevolutionary program, which sustained itself on the anticommunist fervor kicked up by both.
In place of the Marshall Plan, Wallace advanced a proposal for genuine international cooperation. Instead of the US government dictating terms for aid, money would go to the newly created United Nations, which would administer a far larger amount of aid on the basis of economic need, not geopolitics. The industrial center of Germany would be internationalized. During World War II, as the historian Stephen Wertheim has shown, advocates of the forward use of American military power to remake world order rebranded their militant interventionism as “internationalism” and rendered it the conceptual opposite of “isolationism,” now a term of obloquy. Wallace’s internationalism required no such semantic sleight-of-hand. In place of Henry Luce’s “American Century,” Wallace offered a “Century of the Common Man” founded on international solidarity between the democratic masses of the world.
Wallace likely knew that his proposals were doomed. Only if the forces of social transformation in the US itself were ascendant would such a foreign policy find political favor. That same year, Wallace scored only 2.4 percent of the vote in his Progressive Party candidacy for US President. But among that 2.4 percent was another source for a foreign policy based on a worldview distinct from that of the Marshall Plan: the country’s black radicals, foremost among them W.E.B. Du Bois. These writers placed the US’s history of racial slavery and segregation and European imperial rule in the same conceptual and historical universe. The close links between imperial rule and capitalist expansion helped make Du Bois and others into socialists and Communists. They detected sooner than anyone that the growing centrality of anticommunism in US foreign policy was being accompanied by a pronounced turn away from anticolonialism. Du Bois had been an active supporter of efforts to create the United Nations at the end of World War II, working closely with liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt. But as liberals moved right, Du Bois refused to go with them.
In the stifling political climate of the mid-century United States, Du Bois was isolated, so much so that he was effectively forced into exile in 1961 at the age of 93. But as American involvement in Vietnam escalated, attacks on US foreign policy in Du Bois’s spirit exploded. The antiwar movement of the 1960s unleashed a torrent of criticism of American imperialism, particularly for its racism, brutality, denial of self-determination, and complicity with colonialism. Eisenhower’s enigmatic 1961 warning of a growing “military industrial complex” furnished a summary term for condemning the fusion of capitalism, bureaucracy, and the means of violence in modern American society. Anticommunism even briefly lost its ability to shut down debate.
Within the antiwar movement, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Oakland in 1966, represented the vanguard. Anti-imperialism was absolutely central to the BPP’s political ideology and practice. Declaring the US to be an imperial power executing a program of “internal colonialism” of black ghettos in parallel to the external colonialism of its interventions in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, the Panthers called for domestic and international solidarity in service of a revolutionary overthrow of a racist and imperialist American state in favor of an egalitarian and socialist one.
The Panthers’ program did not merely condemn US foreign policy. The year before Nixon met Mao Zedong in China in 1972, Huey Newton went there and met Zhou Enlai. Panther solidarity with Communist governments was reciprocated: the North Vietnamese Army sent letters from American POWs home through the offices of the BPP. The Panthers openly embraced victory for the US’s enemies abroad as a means to win a struggle back home, and vice versa. Though they did not speak in the same language as Wallace, they, like him, were clear that only social transformation could lead to a redefinition of US interests, which in turn could give rise to an anti-imperialist US foreign policy. This was the last time that the US left articulated a foreign policy that dealt squarely with power in the international system.
After 1989 and the “end of history,” surviving Marshall Plan authors like George Kennan and Paul Nitze (his more hawkish successor at the State Department) thought that the demise of the USSR would allow the US to savor the fruits of a world in which everyone wanted to be America’s friend. But the most feverish Cold Warriors––the so-called “neoconservatives”––wondered why they should settle for offering carrots when the joy was in brandishing sticks. They quickly put forward a new doctrine, known as “primacy.” Primacists believe that the US should have such a preponderance of power that it could not only have its way in all questions of international politics, but could prevent any country from taking steps that might turn it into a challenger in the future.
Primacy reached its apogee of insanity in the neocon plans for the Iraq War, whose guiding idea was that the US could reconfigure an entire regional political order to suit its purposes, without fear of serious consequences. That policy’s catastrophic failure lowered American prestige, drained the US Treasury, and hugely diminished popular support for overseas adventurism. The biggest shock, however, was the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2009 and the extraordinary paralysis of the American state after the Tea Party wave of 2010, which together revealed the US to be a country fundamentally unfit for global economic and financial leadership. Since the financial crisis, observers have been fitfully waking up to the fact that the US is no longer the only power in the international system that matters. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the presence and relative autonomy of regional powers, whether Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, or India and Pakistan in South Asia. Russia has been reasserting itself as an autonomous force in world affairs at least since the conflict with Georgia in 2008. The biggest factor, though, is China.
China’s ascent to great power status mirror’s the US’s in many ways. Like the US in the Gilded Age, the basis for China’s entrance into the first rank of global powers is its staggering economic growth. Averaging just shy of 10 percent of GDP growth annually for forty years, in a country of 1.4 billion people, it is the most spectacular economic feat in the history of capitalism. And like the US in the Gilded Age, China has benefited from a favorable international environment. In the late 19th century the British empire smiled upon the consanguine rising power, enabling the US to attract enormous amounts of foreign capital to its project of continental capitalist development. In the case of China, the US’s strategy of “convergence” has meant openly supporting and facilitating the country’s integration into the circuits of international capitalism, especially through endorsing China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 1999. Finally, the US’s willingness to import hundreds of billions of dollars a year of Chinese goods while exporting only a fraction of that to China, and to permit US firms to enter into joint ventures with potential Chinese competitors, have contributed hugely to China’s economic growth.
Proponents of “convergence” were convinced that as China liberalized economically, political reforms would inevitably follow. As these political reforms took root, China would come to share the US’s view on things, and would happily assume a position as a major power within an overall international order in which the US remained paramount. This was a risible belief, perhaps the most delusional expression of End of History liberal millenarianism. And yet “convergence” was the consensus position within the American foreign policy establishment for at least two decades. There are still many so-called “liberal internationalists” trying desperately to find ways to hold on to this vision. But it is now obvious that whatever “convergence” took place was a function of the US’s status as the sole superpower. Now that some countries are powerful enough to compete, at least regionally, they want to shape the international order to suit their own interests, which they quite understandably do not believe are coterminous with those of the United States.
Sensing that the US is strategically overextended, economically battered, and politically divided, China’s leaders have begun to do what any state in control of so vast an economic organism would: they have increased military expenditures and gradually sought to assert their prerogatives in East Asia. China has also begun fashioning a more global footprint, very much in the spirit that motivated countries like the US and Imperial Germany before World War I. Though to date China’s presence in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe is mainly economic, there is little doubt that China’s leaders see the country’s economic importance to so many other nations as a source of diplomatic strength. There is no reason to expect Chinese military bases on the Pacific Coast of South America anytime soon. But President Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, which involves nearly seventy countries and through which Chinese firms and Chinese capital will be employed on foreign infrastructure projects, is shot through with strategic considerations, just as the Baghdad Railway was for Germany, or the Panama Canal for the United States.
The foremost strategic challenge for the United States is that China seeks a hegemonic position in East Asia, where in effect China would have veto power over the foreign policies of all other countries in the region. For the US, as the realist international relations theorist John Mearsheimer has explained, this is certain to be an unacceptable outcome, since hegemony in one’s home region is the surest footing from which to launch a bid for global supremacy, as the US itself did between 1890 and 1945. Also troubling will be China’s efforts to displace US-led international organizations in favor of Chinese-led ones, the first intimations of which can be seen in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development fund intended to compete with the US-led World Bank. China furthermore harbors ambitions to achieve a greater international role for its currency. The economic benefits that accrue to the US on account of the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency are debated but surely immense. It will be many decades and a further financial crisis or two before the dollar is in danger of being bumped down to second place in the global currency league tables, but US administrations will take measures to delay this eventuality as long as possible.
Looking out a few decades from now, China’s rise presents the greatest threat to US global ascendancy since its beginnings in the 1890s, far greater than the Soviet Union posed after World War II, when the US alone accounted for 50 percent of the world’s total industrial production and essentially all of its advanced technologies. If there is a rational kernel to Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, it is surely that China represents the greatest long-term strategic challenge for the United States, and that US policy therefore must be reoriented around managing Chinese ambitions. Critically, the Trump administration is doing what several generations of US administrations have largely disavowed, which is to formulate foreign economic policy with an eye towards geopolitics. Though Trump’s invocation of national security concerns as a justification for imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum is vaguely ridiculous, there are perfectly sensible arguments for taking measures to prevent China from using its enormous leverage over US corporations to get hold of technologies that have military implications.
While the rational wing of the foreign policy establishment increasingly focuses on China, recognizing that the generational war in the Greater Middle East is draining reserves of US power, the left is practically mute on the question. At different times, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho’s Vietnam, and Fidel’s Cuba appeared to western leftists as instantiations of historical progress, worthy of solidarity. American leftists could conceive of their responsibility as advocating for a US foreign policy that would enable these societies to develop free of imperialist pressure. Though there is certainly a measure of historical justice in China’s latter-day rise, it is only by way of a particularly strained sort of “campism” that one can declare that the position of the US left should be solidarity with the China of Xi Jinping. Not that Xi’s regime is especially bad by global standards. But contemporary China’s embrace of capitalism suggests that a world in which China is hegemonic is not likely to be all that different from a world in which the US is hegemonic, at least measured in terms of the possibilities for transcending capitalist social relations and military conflict.
Though the arrogance of the George W. Bush Administration gave rise to a new, global antiwar movement, that movement never successfully articulated a tight link between the structure of power in American society and US national interests, except for the feeble cry of “no blood for oil.” The left remains adroit at criticizing US foreign policy for its deeply racialized exceptionalism and providentialism, for its hypocrisy, for its interventionism. None of this, however, is of any use in thinking through the questions thrown up by contemporary China, a country that has achieved a degree of power in international politics that makes it immune to almost all forms of US intervention, short of direct military conflict between two nuclear powers. Racism might well affect US attitudes toward China, but whatever racial animosity Americans harbor towards Chinese people can have no impact on American policy towards China, except to make it stupider and more self-defeating. China quite simply does not have to take any shit from the United States. What then could an adequate left foreign policy that went beyond familiar critiques of US imperialism look like, one that could address the problem of China?
Among the available intellectual resources three strands stand out. The first is realism, especially as espoused by the University of Chicago theorist John Mearsheimer and his Harvard University colleague Stephen Walt. Mearsheimer and Walt are advocates of a doctrine known as “offshore balancing,” arguing that the US should “forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: preserving US dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf.” In practice, this would mean: doubling down on US alliances with Western European countries to prevent Russia from achieving preponderance in Europe, while at the same time refraining from provoking Russia by meddling in its “near abroad”; opportunistically supporting whichever of the Saudis or the Iranians appear weaker at any moment; and maintaining a powerful military presence in East Asia to deter China from taking any measures to upset the existing regional balance.
If the focus were only on the Middle East and eastern Europe, many on the left would find much to agree with in Mearsheimer and Walt’s writings. The trouble is that both straightforwardly believe that the security of the United States in the last analysis requires preserving US primacy. Their view is that it was a mistake to admit China to the WTO—not because this decision led to the outsourcing of US manufacturing jobs, but because entry into the WTO allowed China to become an economic and therefore a military rival to the US. It is not surprising that Mearsheimer and Walt consider the Marshall Plan one of the greatest acts in the annals of realist diplomacy. For them the only alternative to US primacy is US insecurity.
A second potential resource for a new foreign policy is republicanism. The most articulate and admirable of the republicans is the retired U.S. Army colonel and Boston University emeritus professor Andrew Bacevich. A gifted historian and a bracing critic of American militarism, Bacevich calls for a redefinition of American national interests around sustaining the planet, preventing great power war, and nuclear disarmament. He would eschew “humanitarian” military intervention by limiting the commitment of military forces to circumstances where “genuinely vital US interests are immediately at risk.” He would limit the President’s ability to plunge the nation into wars by restoring “some semblance of constitutional balance.” Unafraid to confront Trumpism on its terms, he supports a more rigorous means-ends test for US overseas commitments. One could certainly do worse than this.
Honorable and sensible as this approach is, Bacevich is hindered by his moralistic focus. A follower of William Appleman Williams, he extends the Wisconsin School historian’s argument that empire is a “way of life” for Americans by interpreting it through the lens of consumerism, in particular the overconsumption of oil, which Bacevich believes is responsible for much of contemporary American militarism, especially in the Middle East. In response to this argument, some mainstream thinkers have maligned Bacevich as an isolationist. The real problem, though, is that while he has savaged American involvement in the Middle East, he has also remained a committed cold warrior. And if the cold war was worthy, but the interventionist reflex in American foreign policy is bad, Bacevich is essentially forced to argue that what drove the disagreeable parts of US policy in the postwar decades was not actually great power rivalry, but instead something specific to American culture, which, following Appleman Williams, he calls “acquisitive individualism.” In calling for an anti-exceptionalist foreign policy, republican moralists like Bacevich ironically end up reinforcing exceptionalist narratives of American power. Furthermore their republican moralism inevitably leads them to issue bathetic pleas for an armistice in the culture wars in service of national unity.
A third potential source for a contemporary left foreign policy might be represented by Michael Lind, a co-founder of the New America foundation. Combining a certain sort of republicanism with realism to forge a kind of socialistic nationalism, Lind’s basic idea is that great power rivalry makes “class warfare constitutions”—borrowing here a concept from constitutional scholar (and Elizabeth Warren’s policy director) Ganesh Sitaraman—more likely. That is, under conditions of zero-sum security-cum-economic competition, the separate ruling classes of nation-states have strong incentives to shore up domestic support by offering deals to their national subaltern classes. These include limitations on what Lind calls “labor arbitrage,” whether through offshoring or immigration. Less labor arbitrage means tighter labor markets, empowering workers to demand higher wages, which pushes firms to increase productivity through the invention of labor-saving technologies. Higher productivity makes possible more generous welfare states, and helps national industries compete to supply the world with high-tech products. If technological leadership and a prosperous, patriotic citizenry are the surest guarantees of military preponderance, such an economic policy represents the best military strategy in an era of great power competition. Lind thinks this is basically what the US, Western Europe, and Japan did during the cold war. Not coincidentally, it was both “the golden age of capitalism,” and of US grand strategy. The consequence is that Lind believes the US, in order to confront China, needs to return to a “bloc” approach to foreign policy, pursuing deep relations with those countries that fall within its orbit, while actively working to reduce intercourse with rival blocs, meaning in particular a marked decrease in trade with China. As part of this shift, the US would offer concessions to the American working class, including immigration restrictions. American workers would be better off, shoring up the popular bases of US foreign policy to prepare for the difficult task of another era of great power rivalry.
The problem with this formulation is obvious: its socialism is a consequence of its nationalism, not the other way around. Lind’s brand of class compromise does not assume social transformation, only a slightly better deal for the working class. US workers, on this logic, should eat better so that they can more effectively confront Chinese workers in a generational struggle.
But Lind’s socialistic nationalism offers an important window onto what the contemporary American CEO class must be thinking. Having championed neoliberal globalization during the era of US unipolarity, American capitalists are now confronting the rise of an aggressively mercantilist China. The managers of key Western firms are extremely exercised that the Chinese have used their immense bargaining power to force western companies to give over proprietary technologies to Chinese firms (many of them state-owned) as a condition for access to China’s domestic market, especially for high-value capital goods. They fear a world-historic return of the repressed, in which Chinese firms, benefiting from low wages and backed by the Chinese state, underbid western competitors in the most lucrative, high value-added product and construction markets of the globe—hence their ambivalence about Trump’s trade war. Lind is also almost certainly right that the more powerful China becomes, the more vigilant the US government is going to be about denying Chinese companies access to technologies that may have national security implications. The recent arrest in Canada of the daughter of the founder of Huawei, the Chinese giant in the field of cellular infrastructure, on charges of circumventing US sanctions against Iran, is a striking instance of what may well become a general trend. If it continues, the result will almost certainly be a bloc-ification of the world economy, as security considerations increasingly insinuate themselves into international economic relations. However unappealing, Lind’s vision thus gives a glimpse of what a corporate-backed “left” foreign policy might look like if the American ruling class decides its best option is to exploit the rise of domestic socialism to shore up their own global economic and military hegemony.
Neither realism, republicanism, nor socialistic nationalism offers a blueprint for a left-wing foreign policy in our times. Realism assumes no change to the definition of national interests, and therefore argues unapologetically for a policy of avoiding great power war by courting it. Republicanism would fix American foreign policy by returning to ancient truths, a program which has nothing to say about how America should relate to a country whose ambitions in no way hinge on how the US governs itself, and little to say about the fact that those ancient truths were constructed on a foundation of racial slavery and genocidal expansion. Socialistic nationalism would bolster America’s ability to engage in great power rivalry by offering local concessions to American labor, but otherwise assumes and favors capitalism’s forward march.
In different ways, both Henry Wallace and the Black Panther Party understood that postwar US foreign policy, which the Marshall Plan exemplified, was designed to ensure global capitalism’s survival, an essential condition for the bedrock national interest of preserving American capitalism. Changing US foreign policy, then, required transforming American national interests. This could only be done by recomposing the American state on the basis of genuine popular power. The alternatives they proposed sought to frame the global conditions that would allow socialism to flourish, both abroad and at home. The continuing vitality of the political revolution that Occupy and Black Lives Matter launched and that Bernie Sanders injected into mainstream politics represents the most hopeful sign that a political order based on that kind of real democracy could yet be achieved in the heartland of global capitalism.
Sanders’s recent statements on foreign policy suggest that he intuitively grasps this central truth. In a 2018 essay in The Nation, Sanders pins the worldwide rise of the authoritarian right—what his intellectual comrade-in-arms Yanis Varoufakis calls the “nationalist international”—on kleptocratic oligarchs who exploit people’s legitimate grievances against their political establishments to consolidate political and economic power. To fight authoritarian nationalists, Sanders calls for a “global coalition of progressive democrats” that will “promote unity, inclusion, and . . . economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”
Yet in listing the oligarchic authoritarians oppressing the peoples of the world, Sanders includes “President Xi Jinping” who “has steadily consolidated power . . . as his government clamps down on political freedom and aggressively promotes China’s version of authoritarian capitalism abroad.” This is a grave misjudgment. If there is a “nationalist international,” its great power patron is Russia, not China. Russia is indeed a kleptocratic state with an economy built on little more than natural resource extraction. Confronting some aspects of Russian foreign policy by using the US’s power over the international financial and monetary systems to interrupt the financial machinery that keeps oligarchy grinding might be a reasonable proposition. But the Chinese party-state is not a kleptocracy. As for exporting its brand of capitalism, it is scarcely imaginable that whatever China is exporting could be worse than what the IMF, World Bank, and US Treasury did over three decades under the auspices of “structural adjustment” or in the rearguard of military invasions. Furthermore, China wields far more carrots than sticks in its foreign economic policy. And while China is not above bullying its neighbors, it has not intervened in their internal affairs to anything like the extent that Russia, much less the United States, has done even in recent years. Aside from pushing Russia and China closer to one another at the US’s expense, Sanders’s proposed strategy repeats the error of Marshall Plan–thinking, erasing a regionally specific geopolitical conflict by framing it as an all-encompassing ideological struggle.
Sanders’s comfort with framing the US–China conflict in ideological terms—even if that ideology is different from recent versions—leads in the wrong direction. The problem with China from the point of view of US interests is not the country’s authoritarianism, however unfortunate that may be; the problem is that Chinese and American interests in East Asia directly conflict, so much so that they threaten a dramatic ratcheting up of great power rivalry. What Sanders could have learned from the history of defeats for the US left after World War II is that great power rivalry is a threat to socialism, not a prod to it. It strengthens the hands of militarists, and enables capitalists to cloak every demand for governmental favor in the garb of national security. It fosters chauvinism and offers nationalism’s poisoned psychic rewards as an alternative to emancipation. Declaring ideological war against China is not a substitute for a real war: it only makes real war that much more likely.
The first principle of a left foreign policy must be reducing the scope for the kind of rivalry that bolsters militarism in the US and among the other great powers by expanding the space for constructive international cooperation. Possibilities include establishing a genuine global commons for natural resources, with formulas for sharing that ensure benefits flow to the countries that produce them. The US could also use its international power, in particular the power of the US dollar, to reduce the avenues—like tax havens and various forms of money laundering—through which oligarchs hold states hostage and vice versa. The US could work to bolster the security and independence of smaller countries in order to lessen the extent to which third countries’ need for economic concessions make them sites for geoeconomic competition between the great powers. This would be a welcome alternative to the US’s patronizing attitude up until this point, which has been to insist that countries attracted to China’s offers of aid and investment, especially heavily-indebted African countries, must be getting a raw deal—and putting their sovereignty at risk.
The surest way to reduce the scope for conflict is to center foreign relations on those areas in which there are genuinely common interests. Along with working to achieve a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula through nuclear disarmament and economic cooperation, the US and China most urgently need to cooperate over climate change. If protecting the planet from catastrophic climate change became the hinge of US strategy, American as well as Chinese leaders might begin to conclude that cooperation is more in their respective national interests than rivalry.
Both countries might also have an interest in putting checks on the freewheeling and destructive nature of contemporary financial capitalism. China’s real estate and stock markets are gyrating out of control and could precipitate a global financial collapse. Some forms of capital controls in the interests of national and international economic stability could be pursued by China and the US working together. Likewise, inequality is a growing social problem in both countries, jeopardizing social stability. A 21st century Bretton Woods to create an international environment that refrains from punishing states for pursuing welfarist domestic policies might be in the interests of both countries. Crises like those befalling the European Union and the United States, as austerity helped lay the ground for a nativist upsurge, work against international stability and cooperation. China and the US would both benefit from a program of cooperation in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America that helped stabilize political and economic conditions in those places such that the flow of desperate migrants slows.
Even with all that, China will still likely decide that it is not willing to tolerate a system of US alliances in East Asia that constrains China’s freedom of maneuver in the region. At a minimum, this is a situation that will require careful diplomacy with other countries in East Asia to avoid the creation of hostile blocs poised for war. The United States, whatever its political complexion, will have to choose carefully when to contest Chinese actions, as in the secret construction of naval bases on dredged-up islands in territorial waters claimed by other countries that have not consented to them, and when to treat them as essentially legitimate under conditions of free international economic intercourse and national sovereignty, as with much Chinese overseas lending.
Nor may it be possible to hold off forever the day when the Chinese currency rivals the dollar in global markets. The last time such a change happened—when the British Navy and the pound sterling lost ground to the US Navy and the dollar before, during, and after World War II—the British tried in vain to persuade the Americans to forgo a dollar-denominated world economy in favor of a new, international currency. A contemptuous United States government gave the British the brush-off, and in fact used its leverage over a weakened Britain to hasten that country’s postwar decline. A more socialist America might wish to consider what measures of monetary internationalization would be in the US’s long-term interests, and which our current position of strength would enable us to implement today.
None of these suggestions are guarantees against great power rivalry. Much depends on the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party—now increasingly a one-man show—and their own desire for “a place in the sun,” as the German advocates of Weltpolitik once called it. One must also hope that the Chinese people, in particular China’s 200 million industrial workers, come to recognize that rivalry is very much serving the purposes of China’s own rulers and plutocrats, just as the vanguard of the European and American workers movements saw in the years before World War I. But a US foreign policy that treats China as an ideological foe plays directly into President Xi’s skillful deployment of the trope of Chinese humiliation at the hands of western imperialists. Meanwhile, the great risk of China’s rise to the ambitions of the US left is that fear of US relative decline will bolster our own militarists and monopolists.
The relative decline of US power vis-à-vis China is well underway, and is probably irreversible. The historical record provides no clear indication as to whether imperial decline is good or bad for socialist prospects. But logically and historically, the relative decline of one state means the relative rise of another. There are good reasons to welcome the end of US global hegemony, and to guard against the return of Marshall Plan–thinking in the guise of global ideological war against China, or perhaps a putative Russo-Chinese axis of authoritarian capitalism. But there are equally good reasons to hope that the US protects those strategic assets which give it autonomy in international affairs. Should genuine social transformation within the United States ever appear imminent, we certainly do not want it truncated by a hostile capitalist power on the other side of the world.
Michael J. Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. ↩
The following paragraphs draw heavily on Benn Steil’s exceptional new history, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018). Steil, a conservative historian based at the Council on Foreign Relations, fully accepts this historiographical consensus, and even radicalizes it. ↩