The Left’s Missing Foreign Policy

Today, on right and left, that past cold war consensus has cracked. While Trump doubts whether there is much of an ethical distinction between the US and Russia, activists on the left have no trouble rejecting both capitalism and empire. What is desperately needed now is a fully developed non-imperial articulation of American foreign policy—one that could challenge the Democratic Party establishment in the same way that Sanders’s call for “Medicare for All” has done.

On the pressing need, fifteen years after the Iraq invasion, for a non-imperial vision of the US and the world.

Then-President George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, May 1, 2003.

At the outset of the 2003 Iraq War, I caught up after some years with a friend and professor of mine, who had close links with the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. He was dismayed by the turn of events, and not only because of the collective insanity that seemed to grip the Bush White House. Despite the massive global protests, a surprisingly large number of people within Washington and the Democratic Party’s think tanks and policy circles backed the invasion, sometimes tacitly, often explicitly. He described the run-up to the war as being like finding yourself in an Ionesco play, watching your friends turn into rhinoceroses.

Thinking about the fifteenth anniversary of “shock and awe” and reading left-liberal reflections on the war’s beginning, I couldn’t help but recall that old conversation. While retrospectives have pushed back against efforts to resuscitate Bush and sought to remind readers of the war’s human cost, few have paid attention to just why so many Democrats were swept along by the drift to war.

Figuring this out is all the more pressing because the same figures who supported the war continue to direct the foreign policy framework of the Democratic Party. In 2008 Obama distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton as an antiwar candidate, but once in office his administration and foreign policy team were staffed by pro-war faces and their protégés, from Clinton herself to Joe Biden and Samantha Power, along with many of the exact people my professor lamented all the way back in 2003. And, as has been noted, Obama’s staffing decisions led to policies shaped by the same faulty logic that produced Iraq—the most obvious example being the American-led regime change in Libya, on supposedly humanitarian grounds, that left tens of thousands dead, with lingering devastation that continues to drive an enormous exodus of refugees.

Trump’s links to Russia have reenergized such national security voices. James Clapper, who lied to Congress about the warrantless surveillance programs he oversaw under Obama, now rails against Trump, calling him a “Russian asset.” He has gone from Snowden-era villain to liberal darling, enjoying a seemingly nightly perch on cable news as a purveyor of “reasonable” foreign policy and “true” patriotism.

For the first time in decades, recent leftist movements like Black Lives Matter or the  Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have pushed a critique of American imperialism out of the shadows and into the mainstream of political debate. But when it comes to the Beltway and to who, even now, would likely staff any future Democratic administration, there has never been a reckoning with this past.

This is partly due to the easy amnesia of the complicit: if everyone in the same milieu made the same mistake, your own error cannot be that objectionable. And for Biden and the war’s most vigorous Democratic defenders, the blame can always be laid at Bush’s feet—the war failed because of his incompetence rather than its inherent flaws. But the more surprising reason for a lack of reckoning may be that the new social democratic wing of the Democrats has yet to offer a comprehensive alternative on foreign policy. If a centrist candidate now opposes “Medicare for All,” there is clear blowback because of the way social democratic forces within the party have made economic populism a litmus test. But no equivalent exists when it comes to foreign policy—not even the general anti-intervention sentiments that defined the 2008 election. After eight years of Obama’s wars, the only policy positions in the Democratic Party continue to be those presented by the same national security establishment that acquiesced to the Iraq invasion.


Fifteen years later, the lessons of the Iraq War have still not been learned because the war was no accident, no random deviation from principle—it was the fulfillment of the worldview that has undergirded the Democratic Party’s foreign policy for decades. This is the bipartisan cold war ideology that has shaped American elite thinking since the 1940s, organized around the idea that the US rightly enjoys military and economic primacy because its interests are the world’s interests.1 On this view, the US has a right to intervene wherever and whenever anyone threatens to undermine the American-led liberal and capitalist global order. Moreover, precisely because American power is exceptional, the US—unlike other states—can legitimately move in and out of international legal constraints in the name of securing this overarching order.

In 2003, this shared ideology had a profound effect on the terms of internal Democratic Party debate. Even for those opposed to the war, the disagreement was limited to pragmatics. Both the Bush Administration and Democrats in general took as given the inherent goodness of American imperial power. For Biden as much as for Paul Wolfowitz, the security state’s violent means were legitimate ways to pursue universal human rights imperatives. This perspective was evident in Bill Clinton’s unilateral strikes in Sudan and Kosovo, his talk of the need for isolating and issuing sanctions against “rogue states,” his selective enforcement of or withdrawal from international agreements—all defended by the Democratic foreign policy establishment on the grounds that the US had a special role to play in maintaining the global order.

Bush-era neoconservatives simply appropriated the bipartisan playbook of their predecessors: whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein had to be toppled for the preservation of pax Americana. At the time, the Democratic response was a fractured one. Some officials and experts like Wesley Clark (the “doves”) questioned whether the US would indeed be greeted as “liberators” and doubted that the war would spur a liberalizing domino effect in the region. They would eventually repeat Colin Powell’s well-worn phrase “you break it, you own it.” Others, from human rights idealists to grizzled security “hawks,” concluded that though Bush and company might be odious removing a rogue actor was an inherently worthy American enterprise. Along with Clinton, Biden, and Power, this list was long, including everyone from Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman on the op-ed pages (especially in the New York Times, which for all its present-day status as Trump antagonist was practically the official organ of the war effort), to George Packer and Peter Beinart in the liberal magazines (may the records of the New Yorker and the New Republic on Iraq forever live in infamy) to Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid in Congress. What no one in the Democratic establishment questioned was the legitimacy of the larger vision that made such a folly seem reasonable—the necessity of American international police power.

Today, on right and left, that past cold war consensus has cracked. While Trump doubts whether there is much of an ethical distinction between the US and Russia, activists on the left have no trouble rejecting both capitalism and empire. What is desperately needed now is a fully developed non-imperial articulation of American foreign policy—one that could challenge the Democratic Party establishment in the same way that Sanders’s call for “Medicare for All” has done.

What would such an approach look like?  It would oppose American international police power—the presumptive right of intervention—and refuse to treat any community as an instrument in the service of state security ends. What follows are a non-exhaustive and initial set of principles.

The first is a global commitment to social democracy rather than free market capitalism (as embodied in austerity, neoliberal privatization, and trade agreements built on entrenching corporate property rights). When Trump attacks Merkel or questions the financial utility of NATO, the response among most democratic elites has been to wax poetic about the wisdom of the postwar order, no matter how much violence maintaining that order actually wrought throughout the world. Essentially, the options available seem to be Trump’s bellicose and dangerous ethno-nationalism or an old and failed cold war imperialism, backed by market dictates. But one might rightly question the austerity German leadership has imposed on Europe, or look to post-Soviet NATO expansion as over time promoting a tense and militarized relationship with Russia, one that has actually strengthened the hand of ethno-nationalist autocrats like Putin.

A necessary corollary of global social democracy is demilitarization. For Havel and Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were outdated Cold War holdovers. The hope was to create new and inclusive multilateral regional and international institutions, premised on mutual disarmament and shared decision-making. But given their commitment to American hegemony, this was not the path that Republican and Democratic officials pursued. And as the US instead promoted privatization and the starving of state institutions in Europe and elsewhere, policies like NATO expansion funneled money yet again back into defense. Any left foreign policy would have to conceive of how to invert these trends—investing in social welfare and pushing back against military intensification. The ultimate goal should be some version of Havel’s and Gorbachev’s old ambition—a demilitarized and multilateral order—but getting from here to there will be much harder than it would have been in the early 1990s.

“Do no harm” would be another key principle. The impulse of the Democratic establishment is to see force (from boots on the ground to drone strikes to sanctions) as the go-to method of responding to perceived threats or humanitarian instability. Just as with Iraq, doing “something” often means using force, and the only choice is either confrontation or appeasement. Not only does this involve a systematic devaluing of diplomacy—something that despite the success of the Iran nuclear negotiations has been receding in both parties for decades—but it also ignores the extent to which the story of American international police power has been to generate even more violence and disorder. A non-imperial approach would instead begin with caution and skepticism. Its question would not be “What red lines will lead to US military intervention?” but “What are the likely effects of using coercive power—from sanctions to actual troops—and to what extent would such force add to the human cost?” Crucially, this principle would need to be be applied not only to direct US behavior but to those of presumptive allies, like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

Such an approach would inevitably buttress a commitment to local self-determination and to legal self-constraint. With respect to the former, it would put into question the existing regional orderings that the US has for so long maintained with treasure and force of arms—including the current terms of the US–Israel relationship, whose rippling effects cannot simply be ignored. And with respect to the latter, it is impossible to take seriously a principle of “do no harm” when government actors enjoy absolute impunity for their own violence and are never held legally responsible—criminally or otherwise. In fact, the condition for the return of individuals like Trump’s new CIA director Gina Haspel, who oversaw torture, to the heights of power, is the longstanding and bipartisan tendency to treat domestic and international legal limits on national security as non-binding—to be avoided when necessary.

Finally, neither global social democracy nor an emphasis on “do no harm” are possible without a systematic transformation of the national security apparatus. The security state has fed American interventionism, criminalized dissent, and placed immigrant and Muslim communities under constant suspicion through institutions ranging from ICE to the FBI to the National Security Agency—a tendency that has grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and that Trump’s white nationalism has only further weaponized. The new social-democratic wing of the Democratic Party has been best at challenging this element of American policy, but more needs to be done. What should a left Administration do with the NSA? If the Department of Homeland Security is eliminated, how will immigration and security policy be implemented? And what will the ends of such policy be? These are the questions such principles seek to address—and they are only a start.


So far the first attempts to begin this conversation have been filtered through debates about Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. The Russia investigation is important—Americans should know if and how a foreign country sought to shape public opinion, and Trump and his cronies should be held accountable for whatever crimes (especially financial) they have committed. But the investigation has also amounted to a public rehabilitation tour for the national security establishment, from Clapper to Republican leaders of the FBI like Robert Mueller and James Comey to hawkish defenders of the war on terror in places like Lawfare. (Reading the New Yorker or watching MSNBC, one would be hard pressed to recall that Mueller—presented as the dashing and upright face of law and order—is the same man that ran the FBI after 9/11, the period when the bureau rounded up thousands of Muslims without cause. Mueller was a named defendant when many of those same wrongly detained individuals sued the government over their prison beatings and abuse.)

On television and in the press, these figures have been digging deep into the well of cold war rhetoric and belligerency as a way of reasserting an old and broken status quo, in no small part because it is all they ultimately have to offer. This is not 1948 or 1989, and such nostalgia cannot put the now fractured ideology of the cold war back together. Simply claiming that Russia embodies the external threat and ideological antagonist of the old Soviet Union does not make it so. And the great danger of this tendency is that nostalgia will produce yet more failed foreign policy whenever the Democrats next gain power.

To avoid this outcome, elected Democrats of the emerging social-democratic wing of the party must be forced to work out an authentically new foreign policy. The failure to do so had been one of the profound, systematic weaknesses of social democratic politics in the US since the early days of the cold war—and the next few years may prove to be a rare opportunity to make a different approach a serious contender in American politics.

The root of the problem has been the false belief that a hard separation exists between the foreign and the domestic. In the 1950s, American labor leaders accepted a cold war compromise that preserved their own hard-won victories while leaving to the state the right to direct foreign policy as it saw fit. But that foreign policy, built around pro-business market goals and continuous military intervention, intruded into the domestic sphere, whether through catastrophic events like the Vietnam War or by expanding corporate rights in ways that undermined the global position of labor. Taken together, these polices propelled precisely the cycle of conservative retrenchment and privatization that ate away at labor successes in the US. As everyone from Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis have known, you cannot sustain freedom at home in a global context shaped by militarism, racialized conflict, and corporate power. A non-imperial orientation to the world is essential because it is the water within which domestic social democracy swims. One can see Sanders’s failure in 2016 to link his economic agenda together with a complementary foreign policy as part of why it has been so hard for many Trump-hating voters to resist the rehabilitation of Trump’s personal antagonists like Mueller or Bush-era warmongers such as David Frum—men whose primary sins do not concern Wall Street, but instead their complicity in the violence of the security state.

It is essential that the left develop an actual institutional infrastructure, whether in think tanks or universities, unions or churches, to work out a new coherent foreign policy. But, even before that, what is required in the immediate term is for activists to demand answers from social democratic politicians in the party. There are an array of issues that the security establishment has an approach to and the left, therefore, needs its own countervailing response: Can NATO in some revised form be repurposed to serve Havel’s and Gorbachev’s old hope, or does the US need new multilateral and regional arrangements?  How should the US oppose EU austerity and in what ways can the US align with social democratic forces in Europe? If the US should not be the enforcer of Saudi and Israeli led dictates in the Middle East, what are alternative regional orderings? And how should China’s emergence as a dominant economic and political force be conceived? More pointedly, what would demobilizing significant elements of the national security state (alongside the demobilization of the carceral state) look like? If post-9/11 institutions like Homeland Security must go, what about their more established cold war predecessors like the CIA? As new centers of power develop within the party, whether Our Revolution or Reverend Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, the resurgent DSA or the many offshoots of BLM, they must make clear that they cannot back national politicians without non-imperial and genuinely left answers to these kinds of questions. Otherwise, we will inevitably replay one of the critical outcomes of the Iraq War, where the antiwar Democratic candidate simply turned foreign policy over to the very people his victory was meant to repudiate.

  1. I wrote about the rise and fall of this framework in “Goodbye, Cold War,” issue 30. 

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