What Democrats Can Learn From the Left

And what the left needs to learn from Democrats.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a campaign rally at the Stone Cliff Winery on March 1, 2019 in Dubuque, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a campaign rally at the Stone Cliff Winery on March 1, 2019 in Dubuque, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What if the liberal consensus really is finished? What if, that is, Americans no longer want their country to serve as the “benevolent hegemon,” to use a favorite term of liberal scholarship, or if the United States’ declining place in the world no longer supports that ambition? If that is true, those of us who occupy that disintegrating center must get past our nostalgia and look to some new body of ideas in order to counter the xenophobia, isolationism, bellicosity, and sheer ignorance that masquerade as policy in the time of President Donald Trump. We must, that is, look left.

I have spent much of the last week reading the blogs and policy journals of the left that actually pay attention to foreign affairs. The pickings, it is true, are slim. In A Foreign Policy for the Left, the political philosopher Michael Walzer observes that for the past several generations “the default position” of the left has held that “the only good foreign policy is a good domestic policy”—justice abroad automatically follows from justice at home. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders didn’t even have a foreign-policy platform in 2016.

But Bernie Sanders does have a foreign policy this time around. So does Elizabeth Warren, who even broadcast hers in Foreign Affairs. Journals of the left such as n+1, Jacobin, and the Nation as well as blogs such as Fellow Travelers offer a platform to left-leaning academics and activists. While the “no enemies on the left” crowd continues to pledge its loyalty to the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela, and an unhealthy obsession with Israel’s (all too real) abuse of the Palestinians still dominates much thinking on the left, the people I’m thinking of do not live inside a world defined by the default position. Not altogether, anyway.

Thinkers on the left have always been attentive to the economic underpinnings of the political order. This has prompted all sorts of reductive explanations for America’s wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But today the left bids us re-examine the neoliberal faith in free trade and free markets that has served as the Democratic response to globalization since the presidency of Bill Clinton. In her Foreign Affairs article, Warren makes a strong and serious case for an anti-neoliberal policy. Free trade, she observes, has not helped the American middle class and has not opened up autocratic societies like Russia and China, and indeed it has helped make them dangerous competitors.

This is a case where the habit of projecting domestic policy questions into the sphere of foreign policy sheds needed light. Warren argues for policies abroad and at home that would restrain the power of giant corporations and increase investment in the “social, political, and economic foundations on which democracies rest.” Like Sanders, who railed against “oligarchic authoritarianism” in a speech at Johns Hopkins University, Warren warns, “This marriage of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism is a direct threat to the United States, because it undermines the very concept of democracy.” This constitutes a kind of economic corollary to former President George W. Bush’s argument that the United States ultimately harms its own interest by supporting autocratic regimes abroad. (Of course, we know how that turned out.)

The anti-neoliberal argument unites the left; questions about the use of force, on the other hand, vex and divide it. On the near-left—the office-holding left—Sens. Sanders and Warren, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, but also Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently signed a letter circulated by Common Defense, a veterans’ group, calling for an end to the “forever war” waged since 9/11. This constitutes a soft anti-militarism that calls attention to the futility of U.S. efforts to use force to remake the Middle East without necessarily questioning the value of military deterrence against great-power rivals. Many liberals, and probably the great majority of Americans, share this frustration with going on 18 years of intervention. Of course, the forever wars have now dwindled into very limited campaigns involving training and counterterrorism. Do Sanders, Warren, et al. also oppose such a “light footprint” in countries menaced by jihadism? How extensive, one wonders, is their anti-militarism?

The traditional anti-militarism of the left is less a matter of pacifism than of anti-Americanism: It is the United States that does not have the right to use force. In the further precincts of the left it is a bedrock faith that the United States is an imperial power that wears the mask of benevolence to deceive the unwary—and perhaps itself. In the Fellow Travelers blog, another scholar, Patrick Iber, writes that until the United States commits itself to an explicitly “anti-imperial” policy designed to “accept responsibility for the harm it has caused” there can be no point in considering the possibility of a “just” U.S. intervention. The logic of this malevolent hegemon view is penitential and passive: Since all actions bear the taint of an unspeakable history, inaction, even in the face of terrible injustice or harm to national interest, is the most just course.

The near-left accepts that the United States might become the kind of moral actor one wishes it to be. The further left hears in that claim the echo of American exceptionalism: the belief, born with the American Revolution, that the United States has a special destiny to spread its republican—later democratic and liberal—values abroad. In an article in the Nation titled “Foreign Policy Beyond Good and Evil,” two leading scholars on the left, Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg, chide Sanders and Warren for adopting “the Manichaean vision of the Cold War,” in which the so-called free world squared off against Soviet totalitarianism. That language presupposes real moral differences between the United States and totalitarian or anti-democratic states. The further-left sees all U.S. acts through the imperialist prism. Asked in an interview to name the phrase he most hates, Greenberg chose “the liberal world order,” which was, he asserts, neither liberal nor global nor orderly.

Those who believe, as John Ikenberry argues in Liberal Leviathan, that in establishing a world order that restrained its own unrivaled power the United States behaved far more like a benevolent hegemon than an imperial power will not sit still for much instruction from the anti-American left. But that postwar moment may have finally run its course. In a provocative essay in n+1, Aziz Rana, a Cornell University scholar, argues that in 2016, the establishment presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, “found that the value of their political inheritance had collapsed.” They were supplanted by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who represented older traditions, far more skeptical of an expansive U.S. role in the world, that had been suppressed during the Cold War. The “old-time religion” of American exceptionalism, Rana writes, “can no longer be revived.”

There’s a test here worth applying. I don’t think Warren would celebrate the demise of American exceptionalism. Sanders very well might. President Trump certainly would. After all, this is the president who defended Russian President Vladimir Putin by asking, “You think our country’s so innocent?” The United States and Russia do whatever it takes to win; so does everyone else. Here, strangely, Trump joins up with the anti-American left. He is a cynic rather than a realist, but his cynicism has the merit, for the left, of stripping away the veneer of American moralism and placing the United States on the same plane as its rivals. “In the short term,” Bessner says, “progressives would do well to ally with realists.”

Would they really? Does the left so deeply repudiate liberal idealism that it feels a deeper sense of kinship with unsentimental realism? It depends which left you’re talking about. Walzer has consistently championed humanitarian intervention and does not accept that the United States must be disqualified from such action by its past misdeeds. He is unapologetically idealistic. “Faced with the scale of human misery in the world,” he writes, “left internationalism is first of all a politics of rescue and relief.” It is also, he adds, a politics of solidarity with the oppressed, of democratic agitation, of helping people so that they can help themselves. Leftism is idealism, for a figure of Walzer’s generation. (He is 84.) It is not, however, utopian naivete, nor reflexive anti-Americanism. That is the left tradition that we need.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.