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Democrats Are Shifting on Foreign Policy – But Not Far Enough to End War

Though their rhetoric has shifted left, many Democrats do not wish to disrupt the tradition of U.S. global leadership.

U.S. soldiers prepare rounds during a live-fire exercise in Krivolak, North Macedonia, on June 11, 2019. Though their rhetoric has shifted left, many Democrats do not wish to disrupt the tradition of U.S. global leadership, including in military affairs.

After months of debate, the crowded Democratic primaries have begun to narrow. Major candidates have largely avoided foreign policy discussions, instead focusing on issues like health care, trade, immigration and gun control, which are seen as more important to the U.S. electorate. Although they have clear differences in vision, it is obvious that both progressives and traditionalists on the ticket see foreign policy as a secondary concern. This is standard for U.S. politics. Often, campaign staff will see few incentives to discuss foreign policy, regarding it as too abstract to be understood by a U.S. public that is largely inward-looking.

However, one of the most welcome developments of these primaries is that major candidates are explicitly framing their foreign policy platforms with reference to their domestic vision. On the traditionalist end, Joe Biden and Pete Buttegieg seek a return to Obama-era policies and norms. On the progressive end, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders slam wealth inequality and its role in fostering anti-immigrant and authoritarian politics all over the world (including in the U.S. itself). While both outlooks are leaning in a hopeful direction — they are rejecting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and collapsing distinctions between “foreign” and “domestic” — neither proposes a significant foreign policy alternative.

Progressives must challenge all the candidates to outline bold foreign policy proposals; otherwise, we are likely to see a populist rehash of the Obama years, a new form of “socially conscious” imperialism, or a fusion of both things.

The Traditionalists: Rebuilding Alliances

Democrat traditionalists believe U.S. foreign policy is broken and needs to be fixed, but also that existing approaches to meeting U.S. superpower responsibilities are sound. The most prominent candidates who take this approach are Biden and Buttigieg. Generally, candidates in this camp will condemn Trump for disrupting international norms with his “deal-maker” approach, by which he criticizes longtime allies in order to pressure them and rapidly switches between friendly overtures and threatening to go to war as a negotiating tactic. The traditionalists seek to restore old alliances, especially with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states in Europe, and take strong positions on climate change and international security in order to restore faith in U.S. global leadership.

There are important differences between the traditionalists, such as in the pace and scale of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they shouldn’t be overemphasized. Many are superficial or insignificant, and likely attempts to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, like Andrew Yang’s proposal for a “reverse bootcamp” aimed at helping returning soldiers adjust to civilian life. The traditionalist candidates all essentially back the status quo, with some cosmetic changes, particularly a broad rejection of what they call “endless war.” This shift reflects the U.S. voting public’s continued skepticism about protracted military engagements. Indeed, it is telling that even Biden has expressed regret over voting for the Iraq War in 2003, and even called for an end to the U.S.-Saudi war in Yemen. The positions parallel trends after the Vietnam War, when Americans reacted by becoming fatigued with state violence.

Yet it would be a mistake to see these changes as an opposition to war and exploitation in general. Buttegieg speaks for the majority when he says “[T]he lesson of the Iraq disaster is not that there is anything wrong with standing for American values, but rather that any action in the name of such values must be strategic, legitimate, and constrained by the premise that we only use force when left with no alternative.” This was Obama’s position: that force is a last resort, to be used when diplomacy fails, and must be legally sanctioned by international organizations like the UN Security Council. It’s what led Obama to expand a legal war in Afghanistan (which he called a “war of necessity”), at the same time as withdrawing significant numbers of troops from Iraq, which was invaded in spite of opposition from the rest of the world. It’s also what led Obama to expand drone strikes and plead the case of intervening in Libya and Syria in front of NATO and the United Nations, rather than simply attacking unilaterally.

Traditionalist candidates are offering more of the same. Indeed, Biden is speaking for the establishment when he says that “The world does not organize itself. American leadership, backed by clear goals and sound strategies, is necessary to effectively address the defining global challenges of our time.” Biden’s tone is a reaction to Trump’s erratic and aggressive diplomatic style, which has infuriated established political classes all over the world. Trump understands foreign policy through a crude prism of costs, benefits, and above all, profits, based on an assumption that U.S. foreign policy is solely meant to benefit American corporate and monetary interests. He negotiates with that in mind, threatening and insulting his opponents with “fire and fury” before entering private negotiations where he is far more personable and good-natured ahead of striking a deal. It is the same way he negotiates in the Trump Organization, and its fingerprints are now everywhere from Turkey (where he pressured both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kurdish-led groups to attempt to reach a ceasefire), to North Korea (where he called Kim Jong Un “rocket man” before acting chummy), to Iran (where he pretended to authorize punitive strikes before rolling them back at the last minute to pressure Tehran in secret negotiations).

Trump attracts the most criticism for turning this negotiating style against longtime allies, like when he slammed NATO member states in Europe as “ungrateful” for not contributing enough financially, and backing out of vital agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord because he doesn’t understand the concept that the U.S. should ever do something that might incur financial costs for the “greater good.”

On the other hand, the Democratic traditionalists recognize that, as a superpower under capitalism, the U.S. has a responsibility to use its immense resources to create and reinforce a global atmosphere in which liberal capitalism may thrive. For instance, the Navy commands a larger fleet than most other rich countries combined, partly in order to secure global sea trade.

When Biden says that “the world does not organize itself,” he is referring to the U.S. once again needing to balance its own chase for wealth and prosperity with the kinds of responsibilities that are often neither profitable nor expedient (including nation-building). His competitors largely agree, and they wish to restore alliances, push for core values and put climate change back on the agenda, in order to get things back to normal — to the status quo of U.S. hegemony.

The Progressives: Reforming Global Capitalism

Progressive Democrats also believe that U.S. foreign policy is broken, but see major reforms as necessary to disrupt the widespread inequality they see as fueling global conflict. Like traditionalists, they condemn Trump’s style, but see it as a reflection of accelerating inequality all over the world. They want to overhaul foreign policy to challenge authoritarian governments, as well as the political and economic power of the ultrarich. Importantly, they also believe this power needs to be challenged within the United States itself. Regardless, though their rhetoric is further to the left, many progressive Democrats do not wish to disrupt the tradition of U.S. global leadership. They also tend to maintain an uncritical faith in international governmental organizations.

The two main progressive candidates — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — wish to reform U.S. foreign policy to actively reshape global economic conditions, and in the New Deal legacy, attack corporatism both inside and outside the United States. They also both lay out a worldview in which embattled democracies face down kleptocratic tendencies in other countries as well as within themselves. Finally, they both collapse some arbitrary divisions between foreign and domestic policy, a position that started with Sanders and is now becoming mainstream.

That being said, Sanders and Warren are markedly different candidates. Indeed, Warren repeatedly says that she’s a capitalist, and the way she is proposing crackdowns on tax shelters and financial speculation wins her a great deal more support from Wall Street than her right-wing critics will openly admit. This is because Warren is not actually as hostile to banking and financial interests as she pretends to be; she simply wants rules and structure. Warren’s past positions on foreign policy also betray her underlying conservatism. In 2012, Warren came out in support of “smart power,” and despite her recent statements on Israel-Palestine, has strongly backed Israel in the past. As late as 2016, Warren was attending American Israel Public Affairs Committee functions, and even signed a letter urging the Obama White House to veto “one-sided resolutions” at the UN Security Council. In February, Warren also expressed support for sanctions in Venezuela, and in June, pushed for a more aggressive stance with North Korea.

Sanders, on the other hand, has spoken forcefully against Israel’s actions, even proposing to leverage military aid to change the country’s behavior, and in favor of Palestinian rights. He has been far more tame in his rhetoric on Venezuela and North Korea, and has been far more concrete in linking offshore finance, kleptocracy, militarism and a “new authoritarian axis.” However, Sanders is no unequivocal opponent of war. For instance, though he voted against the Iraq War in 2002, he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, which officially made the overthrow of Saddam Hussein U.S. policy. Sanders also supported NATO interventions in Kosovo in 1999 and Libya in 2011. While Sanders opposed Bill Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in December 1998, he explicitly said his main objection was a lack of congressional oversight and support from the United Nations. Sanders went on to say that “Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who should be overthrown.” This record is consistent with his current proposals, in which he (like Warren and the traditionalist candidates) comes out in favor of a rules-based international order in which multilateral institutions like the United Nations play a prominent role in controlling the legal framework by which U.S. military offensives can take place. War isn’t a “problem” as long as the rest of the world agrees with it.

Yet if Sanders and Warren are serious about overhauling foreign policy, they need to think beyond international law, and start to envision a new set of rules. Obama cited international law heavily in his own foreign policy, arguing that war was fine in cases where it protected global security, or stopped mass murder, rape, ethnic cleansing and other related atrocities. This defense of war was generated by crises in Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s, and received major intellectual justification via Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell in 2002. Power was later hired by the Obama administration, and helped push for humanitarian interventions that fell under the umbrella of Responsibility to Protect. Humanitarian intervention replaced the Bush era’s rhetoric about spreading democracy with a new moral rationale of defending human rights and preventing so-called bad actors from oppressing the vulnerable.

The ideology of humanitarian intervention ignores the West’s role in facilitating mass killing (Power’s book conveniently ignores the Indonesian and Bangladeshi cases, in which the U.S. and its European partners played major roles in supporting the violence and excusing perpetrators due to Cold War strategic considerations) and the actual historical role of international law. Indeed, agreements like the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 made clear that the emerging laws of war only applied to Europe, with weapons like expanding bullets (which were officially banned for causing undue suffering) still being legally used to put down unrest in major colonies like India and Congo. Agreements were said to apply to humanity in general, but the reality was that they were only applied when they overlapped with the objectives of imperial powers.

The double standard now takes different forms. International law tends to be used by the elites of former imperial powers when they’re trying to exploit bloodshed as a chance to build friendlier political and economic arrangements. The great powers themselves, as well as countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, can evade the law because they’re powerful enough that their elites’ ambitions overlap with those of countries like the U.S. As a result, despite the universalist framing of international law, the people who actually get punished tend to be from the least powerful countries. For example, African dictators tend to be disproportionately targeted by the International Criminal Court. If Warren and Sanders are serious about international law and human rights law, they need to be willing to collaborate with other countries in rethinking their infrastructure so that they’re not simply tools for maintaining hierarchies and furthering the interests of great powers.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how the Iran nuclear deal, which progressives see as a positive case of U.S.-led diplomatic strength, was arguably made possible by far more aggressive policies. Sanders contrasts the Iran deal with the Iraq War, saying that the latter was “a demonstration of the extent of American power,” while the former “advanced the security of the US and its partners, and it did this at a cost of no blood and zero treasure.” Yet Sanders fails to consider that the Iraq War was a major reason that Tehran felt intimidated into the negotiations in the first place, by demonstrating the price of not responding to diplomatic overtures. In other words, “soft” policies often rely on the specter of “hard” militaristic threats to work. Crafting a kinder and gentler foreign policy that is not paired with the threat of war would require a deeper rethinking of the U.S. role in global geopolitics and an acknowledgment that the insistence on maintaining U.S. global hegemony is at the root of the drive toward war. Progressives also need to be mindful about how these reforms that use U.S. state power to challenge global inequality may be self-defeating. They could empower corporations in the long run, and reinforce inequality even as they aim to combat it. It’s worth considering the Marshall Plan and the U.S. reconstruction of Japan as examples of this problem. Both initiatives built on the New Deal and internationalized its principles in a similar manner to what Sanders and Warren propose. Yet for leftists who supported them, they ended up being mixed blessings. The Marshall Plan was a free allocation of surplus that did benefit the European working class in material terms, but also jump-started capitalist economies in a way that neutralized revolutionary unrest and saved the European capitalist class in the long run. In Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur approved an antitrust push against massive zaibatsu conglomerates that were effectively corporate monopolies. While breaking them up did curb the country’s potential for imperialist policies, it also took out major competitors for U.S. companies and helped secure U.S. dominance in the Pacific Rim (the same can be said about Japan’s pacifist constitution).

U.S. Foreign Policy as Self-Identity

Since the end of World War II, both major parties have committed to using U.S. state power to underwrite and maintain the liberal international order. As a result, the U.S. has enjoyed the immense privilege of being the world’s capitalist superpower, promoting free trade and liberal democracy while also maintaining access to world markets and strategic alliances with which to pressure adversaries. Recently, the Trump presidency has disrupted international norms, which provides Democrats with an opportunity to rethink their foreign policy commitments. Nearly every candidate wants to close the divide between domestic and foreign policy, and Sanders and Warren have shown enthusiasm about the prospect of the U.S. actively remaking the global economic order in a more egalitarian direction. Their position has appeal, though like its traditionalist opposition, is too beholden to the problems of Obama-era diplomacy and warfare.

Part of the reason that these debates matter is because a government’s foreign policy tends to reflect how it feels about the United States itself. There is a direct line between how Americans regard their place in the world and the policies they tolerate at home. Under Bush, opposition to the Iraq War quickly bled into a more general opposition to the destruction being recklessly caused by overconfident conservative elites, many (though not all) of whom were rich and white. Under Obama, an approach that mixed open warfare and diplomacy with a renewed emphasis on international law and humanitarianism paralleled more inclusive neoliberal policies in the U.S. Finally, under Trump, anti-immigrant isolationism, the “Muslim ban” and a loosening of the rules of engagement has taken place at the same time as the U.S. ruling class is becoming openly ferocious, and modern trends of imperial Christianity are exploding into American public and private life in ways unseen since the late 19th century.

It’s likely that as global politics enters an extended period of bloody unrest and societal breakdown due to economic stagnation, financial crises, increasingly authoritarian politics and a changing climate, politicians will use the U.S.’s role in the world as a springboard for discussing the electorate’s past, present and future. Yet it may be more realistic to expect that everyday people will play a transformative role, as they did as volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s and International Solidarity Movement activists in the 2000s. None of the Democratic presidential candidates have offered transformative foreign policy proposals, but that isn’t reason to be cynical. Despite what Beltway insiders and establishment pundits have to say about it, concerns about foreign policy have deep impacts on the American consciousness.

Institutions are slow to change, but they tend to follow popular dissent, as they eventually did in the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Certainly, if one broadens the conversation to include American slavery, popular organizing such as the Underground Railroad, and John Brown’s insurrections during Bleeding Kansas and the raid on Harpers Ferry decisively challenged institutions and pushed Washington to act.

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