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Tuesday, January 17, 2017


I should like to initiate a discussion on this blog of a question that has for a long time puzzled and concerned me.  To put it as simply as I can: What should be the overall foreign and military policy of the United States?  In order to engage fruitfully with this question, we need to specify its underlying assumptions.  Let me state the three assumptions I shall make:

1.   I begin by taking the rest of the world as it is now, not as it would be had the foreign and military policy of the United States been markedly different in the last half century.

2.   I assume that America is a capitalist economy in an advanced stage of technological and financial development, not, for example, a socialist society.

3.  I assume that it would be possible, against all the evidence and everything I know, for an elected Administration to make fundamental changes in American foreign and military policy, even if those changes severely damage the economic interests of America’s great corporations.

The third assumption carries us into the realm of fantasy, I know, and afterward, it might be interesting to ask a quite different question, namely what the foreign and military policy of a socialist America ought to be [although that too takes us into the land of fantasy.]

I pose this question because most of the really useful thinking on the left concentrates on domestic policy, for a number of structural and historical reasons.   I recognize that many readers will disagree with this assertion, but I do not believe that most of what is considered left criticism of American foreign and military policy proceeds from a carefully thought out response to the question I am posing.

What are the possible answers to my question?  I can see at least five.

First, the default answer is that America should continue to pursue the basic outlines of the policy it has pursued, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, over the last seventy years.  That is to say, America should act as an imperial hegemon advancing the interests of world capitalism.

Second, America should continue to act as an imperial hegemon, but instead use its economic and military power to advance socially and economically progressive policies abroad, even when doing so damages the profitability of American corporations.

Third, America should seek to vest its military power, and that of its allies and enemies, in a world state or organization charged with maintaining the peace and pursuing whatever social and economic policies the world community of nations can agree on.

Four, America should withdraw its military forces from the more than one hundred nations in which they are now stationed, reduce its expenditure on military forces appropriately, and reshape its remaining military forces to serve purely defensive missions.  It should use the size and reach of its economy to serve and protect the interests of Americans, and leave the rest of the world to whichever imperial hegemons emerge to take America’s place.

And Five, America should adopt the “Fortress America” stance of the fourth option, but maintain sufficient military assets to project its force, on a case by case basis, whenever and wherever considerations of morality and progressive socio-economic principle suggest that intervention would be beneficial.

Given the assumptions within whose scope this question is posed, my initial inclination is to opt for the second or fifth answer, but I confess I am quite uncertain.  I am also uncertain that this is a useful theoretical exercise, but I cannot articulate a more useful one.

What do all of you think?


s. wallerstein said...

As far as I can see, the U.S. left often still suffers from the syndrome of American exceptualism and until it gets over that syndrome, your question cannot be answered.

Basically, the syndrome consists of not looking itself in the mirror (to use Chomsky's phrase), considering that "we" are special, that "we" act with generally good and noble motives (although we make mistakes), that "we" are somehow endowed with a "mission" (the left and the right have different versions of what that mission consists of), believing that "we" are somehow the center of the world.

Until those issues are thought over and analyzed with clear sight, the U.S. will keep blundering its way through history, often doing a lot of damage with its "good" intentions and acting very blindly.

It might be well to analyze how previous empires, notably the U.K. got over their
syndrome of seeing themselves as special (Rule Britannia, For He is an Englishman, England, Your England, etc.). People like Tony Blair never got over it, but lots of the British have.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, yes, but that was easy. We all know the tune. Now try answering the question.

levinebar said...

The United States would do well to live by its treaty obligations. These--since it was ratified by the Senate of the U.S. in '47--include the charter of the United Nations. By inclusion, that means the respect for self-determination of peoples. The U.S. doesn't have to impose this on the world. But neither should we be the military enforcer of lines drawn on the map by defunct empires. We acknowledged the artificiality of Yugoslavia which was invented in the carving up of the losing empires of WWI. Surely the Kurds have as good a claim to nationhood as e.g. the Kosovars? Other examples will occur to the reader
Barry H. Levine (levinebar)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But what does that mean? Are there any cases where we should intervene militarily even though not obligated by treaty? Should we intervene to stop a massacre? Should we fulfill all our treaty obligations, or only those we judge on independent grounds to be morally desirable? If the security council of the UN votes to do something which we think is wrong, should we exercise our veto or be bound by the majority, even if it means using our military forces?

Come on. Let's really think this through. I am genuinely uncertain about this, something that is I know unusual in social media.

s. wallerstein said...

It wasn't so easy. It's taken me 70 years to undo my childhood brainwashing.

If you insist, I waver between option 4 and 5.

As you know, I live in Chile. Chilean foreign policy, post Pinochet, is basically defensive. They do send troops on UN missions, but never would intervene anywhere on their own account. There is very little pretense that Chile's mission in the world is to impose human rights and democracy everywhere. They mind their own business, literally, since in a capitalist economy, business interests are hegemonic.

That seems fairly sensible. If option 4 includes sending troops on UN missions, then I vote for option 4. If not, for option 5. However, I don't think that the U.S. or any other country should intervene internationally based on considerations of morality (to use your phrase) if there is no UN backing: the problem is that there's too much space for abuse in the concept of morality (without UN backing) and not only abuse, but also the blindness of the good intentions of the so-called "best and the brightest". Yes, the UN can be wrong, but you have checks and balances of competing national interests there. Probably, the Security Council should be reformed so that there is no more great power veto and Security Council resolutions should be based on some kind of majority, maybe not a simple majority, but, say, 3/5, etc.

levinebar said...

In 2017, that would mean--if we believe ISIS/DAESH is a threat worth combatting--arming the Kurdish army, rather than the Iraqi army. Weapons given to the Iraqi army seem to end up in the hands of groups we're ostensibly opposing as often as not. And leasing airbases in Kurdistan, rather than pumping further money into Erdogan's repressive regime. The pretense that the regime in Baghdad was the sole legitimate ruler of the territory of Iraq is long dead. Petraeus acknowledged that (although it has never been official U.S. policy) when he armed and empowered sectarian Sunni and Kurdish militias in 2009.

Barry H. Levine

Anonymous said...

1. Achieve energy independence and increase energy diversity with the goal of reducing U.S. military presence in the Middle East. This would involve structuring tax and energy policy to target 100% of domestic energy needs with a mix of 40% clean energy & renewables (wind, solar, geo-thermal), 30% natural gas, and 30% nuclear by 2050.

2. Transition away from a foreign policy that is too dependent on unilateral military force to promote U.S. interests around the world to a foreign policy that seeks to cooperate with the rest of the world to promote technological leadership with the goal of halting global environmental degradation and increasing global health. The aim here is to lessen the impact of global warming and pandemics while maintaining the U.S. hegemony in science and technology.

3. Work with rising powers - China, India, and Brazil - to continue economic integration, investment, and inclusion in key international institutions.

4. Transition from a policy of increased military spending to one of maintaining the military at current levels. Divert savings to science and technology spending in line with point 2 above.

5. Contain the impact of terrorism on the homeland by opposing global terror groups through limited military action, sharing counter-intelligence with allies, freezing terrorists assets, and discrediting their violent methods and ideologies. The policy should be to work with partners to address the problems that drive recruitment by terror organizations.

6. Stop nation-building and trying to spread democracy by force.

Ed Barreras said...

My vote is for option three. Ideally we would have one world government presided over by the humanitarian pricniples of the UN Charter, and by Lincoln's maxim of malice towards none and charity towards all. This would entail a long, worldwide campaign of education/indoctrination in the principles of Enlightenment liberalism. The world's economies should be restructured, to the extent possible, on the Scandinavian social-democratic model. Media must be non-profit and guided by something like the fairness doctrine, since we have seen how Fox-News-style propaganda can bring a country like the United States to the brink of disintegration. That's what I think anyway.

levinebar said...

I think Woodrow Wilson meant the League of Nations to implements Kant's vision that we could know perpetual peace if nations were to cede the recourse to violence to a supra-national body, as individuals derive the benefits of society by ceding the recourse to violence to the State. The UN inherited that vision, but no one knows how to compel members to cede so much power. The 2nd Amendment to the US constitution rejects even ceding a monopoly on force to our own federal government.
Barry H. Levine

Tom Cathcart said...

I think your (RPW's) second option is the least worst. The first is inappropriate, because of its preference for capitalism. The third is a fantasy, unless you mean the UN, in which case it's dysfunctional. The fourth pretty much guarantees Russian hegemony. The fifth is analogous to our waiting until Trump does something truly dangerous before we oppose him. In this option, we wouldn't symbolically send a few thousand troops to Poland, e.g., to warn Putin that we're serious. Then, when Russia invades Poland, our options are all extreme.

Jerry Brown said...

It seems to me that yes your scenario 1 is actual policy, but 5 is closest to how policy makers describe what we do. So staying within your options maybe we should set a goal of 3, and tell everyone that's what we do, in the hope of moving towards 5. Going outside your options, I would be happy with any US policy that made clear that the military would not ever be used just to make the world safe for US capital investment. I think that would be better for most people in this country and for most people in other countries.

Jerry Brown said...

And following up on preventing policy aimed at benefitting only corporate interests- Perhaps an announced policy that in the event of any military intervention, or financing of such, that all US corporate assets in that country immediately became assets held by the US government in trust, to be turned over to the eventual civil authorities in that government.

LFC said...

From the post:
the default answer is that America should continue to pursue the basic outlines of the policy it has pursued, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, over the last seventy years. That is to say, America should act as an imperial hegemon advancing the interests of world capitalism.

This is, of course, a fairly widely held view on the Left about what the "basic outlines" of U.S. foreign policy since c.1947 have been. There's some truth to it, but I think it is a partial perspective. There have been a number of different motives underlying diff. aspects of US for. policy, and the pro-corporate, pro-capitalist motive has been an important one but not the only one.

In 2014 I participated in a roundtable at the US Intellectual History Blog on Perry Anderson's long article "American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers," which took up an entire issue of New Left Review (Sept/Oct 2013) [the Anderson article was subsequently published as a book]. One of the points I tried to make in my piece for that symposium was what I've said above about multiple motives.

As far as prescription goes, general questions about military intervention ("should we intervene to stop a massacre"? e.g.) are hard to answer because so much depends on the particular circumstances, which will vary from case to case.

In terms of general posture, I favor, among other things, a reduced global military footprint for the U.S., a position that some leftists support but which is not distinctively leftist, since some non-leftists (Barry Posen, for example) also support it. (See Posen's book Restraint or his preceding article(s) along the same lines.) Anonymous's pts, above, seem mostly reasonable to me.

A "restraint" option goes some way in the direction of Prof Wolff's option 4 but is not, as I envision it at least, so absolute or sweeping. Were it to be implemented, it shd be done carefully, incrementally, and in consultation w allies. The record of 'great powers' retrenching in this fashion is slim but there are, arguably, one or two historical precedents, notably Britain's ceding, to a considerable extent, its position to the U.S. in the late 19th / early 20th cent. -- on which see, e.g., A. Friedberg's The Weary Titan (Princeton U.P., 1988).

Btw, Trump's antics -- e.g. saying in an interview that NATO is obsolete and that he doesn't care about the EU -- are a perfect example of how not to proceed, regardless of what one's ultimate policy goals and preferences might be. Such comments do nothing but throw everyone into a tizzy, heighten uncertainty among allies, and thereby contribute to a general sense of instability, and in the current climate that's not good. Trump has been all over the place in some respects -- one day tweeting that the US shd expand its nuclear arsenal, the next day making noises about a new nuclear arms reduction agreement w Russia as part of some broader package -- and the result of this to-and-fro-ing is that no one knows for sure what he'll do. My own hope is that his admin's for. policy will be run out of Defense and State Depts and that Trump himself will be, for the most part, not really calling the shots. He'll continue to tweet etc, but that doesn't mean his tweets will nec. have much effect on policy -- or so one can hope.