The newly empowered U.S. Left needs a foreign policy. But what should it be?
In a 2018 article in In These Times, I laid out the main points to consider: (1) climate change; (2) the emergence of a post–cold war socialist paradigm; (3) a response to this late stage of capitalism, in which the world is governed by a globalist system of economic rule that has superseded the national state; and (4) the corresponding growth of a new fascist international, sometimes operating as a populist movement and sometimes capturing the state.
Since then, the situation has gotten slightly more hopeful and definitely more dire.
Let’s begin with climate change. Global warming has already put the survival of many species and low-lying regions at risk and made the future of human civilization an open question. It has endangered people’s livelihoods all over the world while their physical security is also being threatened by wars, authoritarian governments, and fundamentalist movements. Facing so many dangers, many see no choice but flight. This means we have entered a time of unprecedented migration. The walls being thrown up to exclude migrants have already produced the most severe human rights crisis since the Second World War.
Climate change is an issue around which people can unite across borders in opposition to both fascists and neoliberals. It provides a framework in which socialists can bring together domestic and foreign policy, the ideological and the practical, the personal and the political, and loudly challenge all those who don’t care. The Green New Deal is the policy expression of this framework, the most holistic approach to public policy to hit Washington in decades.
But Washington is not the only or even the best laboratory in which to develop a holistic approach to social change. Smaller, less highly visible spaces are better for experimentation, and it is no accident that a new socialist paradigm is most advanced in fragile, war-torn but autonomous spaces such as Chiapas and Rojava (the majority Kurdish region of Northern Syria), as well as municipal enclaves such as Jackson, Mississippi, and Barcelona, Spain, where people are working out in practice what twenty-first-century socialism could look like. Their paradigm begins with bottom-up local democracy and an aversion to statism. It fully integrates women into governance structures and makes their liberation central to its idea of revolution. Pluralistic and secular, it emphasizes ecology, sustainability, and economic cooperation.
Because these communities are at the crossroads of socialist foreign policy and climate change, we must support and defend them. Rebuilding the U.S. Left should entail close communication with people in Rojava, Chiapas, Barcelona, and other places experimenting with new forms of direct democracy, so that we can see what works for them and what doesn’t, and how the new paradigm combines democratic renewal with work against climate change.
In Rojava, for instance, the Internationalist Commune has initiated a tree-planting campaign to restore sustainability to long-neglected agricultural land that has been devastated by war. Their work is outlined in a book prepared by the Commune called Make Rojava Green Again. In Mexico, newly elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to bring high-speed trains into the Mayan areas to encourage tourism and industrial development. Mexican environmentalists say this will be an ecological disaster, and the Zapatistas, whose bottom-up democracy, feminism, and emphasis on autonomy have much in common with Rojava, are going to fight this plan with everything they’ve got.
We need to act in solidarity with them and with other indigenous communities fighting climate change and deforestation, such as the Ecuadorian tribes who recently filed a lawsuit against a government plan to permit oil exploration on protected lands; the native tribes under intensified attack in Brazil since the election of Jair Bolsonaro; the First Nations women’s movement in Canada, Idle No More; and the activists from our own Dakota Access Pipeline protests, who continue to be persecuted and to fight back. Solidarity with these communities will enable us to bridge issues of democracy, minority rights, and climate change and link our foreign and domestic policies.
Though support for most of these struggles is barely a blip in the consciousness of the U.S. Left, support for Rojava involves U.S. troops and has therefore become contested. In December 2018, after a call from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. president Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. This sudden declaration freaked out both the Pentagon and Congress to the point that many came out more strongly than before in support of the Kurds as our only reliable ally against ISIS (Islamic State). This support was certainly not because of Rojava’s socialist ideas.
In response to Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from one of the very few places on earth where they are on the right side—acting as a buffer to keep Turkey from a genocidal invasion of Rojava—the U.S. Left predictably split: Some in the peace movement cheered Trump while others were appalled. The disagreement was such that the DSA International Committee could not reach agreement and issued two different positions, while others, such as John Nichols in a December article in The Nation, simply ignored Turkey’s threats and focused on the fact that Congress had never authorized U.S. troops in Syria.
Some on the Left regard U.S. imperialism as uniquely evil and dangerous, and any U.S. action as incomparably more threatening to world peace and human rights than anything that could be done by lesser powers. Rather than seeing international politics as a complex arena with a number of powerful players and their proxies, they see it as a battle of good against evil, with the United States as the bad guy and anybody who opposes it, from Putin to the ayatollahs, as good guys. Their grandiose view of U.S. capacity is the mirror image of the imperial narcissism of the far Right. One leads to isolationism, the other to militarism.
Yes, the U.S. military must be restrained and closely scrutinized by Congress. But we cannot simply withdraw from the world. In the lead-up to the Second World War, the United States, controlled by isolationist conservatives, did what many on the Left advocate today—nothing. Were they right? I don’t think so. Entering the war against fascism was the right thing for the United States to do, just as it was right for the international Left to send volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Isolationism is also a big problem in facing the climate crisis. When the end of life on earth is a real possibility, the United States cannot afford to stay home and play dumb.
We face a devastating planetary crisis at a time of political polarization and concentration of wealth and power in a few hands. We have two adversaries, who sometimes collude and sometimes collide: the globalists who have looted the world, and a growing axis of fascists and fundamentalists. To survive, we will need breakthroughs in both science and politics. Such wisdom is most likely to come from new places, from the unnoticed and unheard, from movements of minority peoples and women, from radical experiments in building egalitarian and ecologically sustainable societies. A socialist foreign policy must be based on supporting these sites of new knowledge and uniting everyone who can be united against the financiers, corporate hacks, fundamentalists, and fascists who are willing to let the planet die as long as they can preserve their own power and their illusion of invulnerability.