Should America Be This Powerful? (A Somewhat Review of Michael Walzer’s “A Foreign Policy for the Left”)

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Photo by Daniel Braaten

We are in a mini golden age of leftist foreign policy.  This mini golden age is sadly not in the implementation of left wing foreign policies but rather in the writing and thinking about what a left wing foreign policy should be.  The range of contributions are coming from Democratic candidates for President, to commentators across the entire left spectrum, to great new blogs like Fellow Travelers.  One important contributor to the debate is Michael Walzer.  Walzer is a famous political theorist (to the extent that any political theorist is famous) and commentator probably best known for his book Just and Unjust Wars and as the longtime editor of Dissent.  Walzer’s book, A Foreign Policy for the Left, was published in early 2018 and consists of several essays that were originally published in Dissent from 2002-2016.

Walzer’s main contribution is to argue against what he calls the “default position” of the left with regards to foreign policy.  The “default position” of the left according to Walzer is to “oppose any American action abroad, any exercise of American power.”(6)  In other words, the general position of the left (especially in the U.S.) is to “tend our own government”, to fight for equality and justice at home and as a default to oppose American actions abroad.  Walzer’s book can be read as a full-throated statement in support of Liberal Internationalism/Interventionism.  Although he does not use those terms to describe his commitments the foreign policy Walzer is advocating for is just that.  It’s not that Liberal Internationalism/Interventionism is illegitimate but rather to me it seems that on the “Left” (one annoying habit of Walzer in this book is to consistently refer to a monolithic left which he often sets up as a straw man opponent), the debate has moved beyond the virtues/vices of Liberal Internationalism/Interventionism to something both more paradoxically more radical and pragmatic.

The virtue of Walzer’s book is not so much in his arguments which are again just warmed over Liberal Internationalism/Interventionism but rather in the fact that he puts the question of American power front and center in U.S. foreign policy debates.  Walzer is an advocate for American hegemony, he views the use of American power as judicious and legitimate.  Walzer is not a neocon however, he is not for completely unrestrained American power and he rightly states that even advocates of American power such as himself are also obliged to criticize the use of American power when it violates core leftist principles which he admits it often does.  To me the question of American power is the most important question for left foreign policy debates.  In general, leftists are against concentrated power and for the distribution of power so the hegemonic power of the U.S. is per se anti-left.  However, leftists (except for anarchists perhaps) also acknowledge and advocate for the use of state power to rectify injustices.  Can U.S. hegemonic power be utilized to rectify international injustices?  Walzer would answer with a yes but many leftists would say no.  Walzer makes the claim that the left should exercise a “politics of distinction” in which it approaches issues such as humanitarian intervention with nuance and not to reflexively oppose them because they may require the U.S. of American military power.  Of course nuance is preferable to reflexive dogma but that does not get to the fundamental question as to whether the concentration of global power in the U.S. military is a overall positive factor for seeking global justice or any other values that leftists advocate for.

Overall, Walzer is I believe too sanguine about American power but his choice to put the question of American power at the center of his foreign policy is important and something that leftists of all stripes (socialists, progressives, liberals) will need to grapple with.  I myself am more inclined to be skeptical of the application of American power as a positive in the world (or for the U.S. for that matter) but I am not sure what follows from that.  Should leftists argue for multipolarity, thicker and deeper multilateralism, a world government?  Would a Presidential candidate who advocated for a dramatic reduction in American military power be laughed right out of the race? (probably)  Another question to consider is hegemony necessary for international stability?  And if America’s power is reduced for leftists reasons or for paranoid right-wing white nationalist reasons what is the effect on the international system?

A possible way forward for a leftist foreign policy, and one that many have argued for, is greater adherence to international law for the U.S.  This would serve in practice as a restraint on the most dangerous use of American power which is American power used unilaterally.  This does not answer the fundamental question of whether the concentrated power of American hegemony is fundamentally at odds with leftist principles but in practice it would have overall positive effects.  In a dialog with Samuel Moyn, Robert Wright stated that a basic premise of U.S. foreign policy (especially with regards to the use of military force) is is it in accord  with international law?  Although this principle is not perfect I do believe it would serves as a great cornerstone of any leftist foreign policy by binding the use of unilateral American power but still allowing the U.S. to use its power (hopefully for good) in accord only with international principles.

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