Whatever shape American foreign policy takes in the next four years, it will very probably be unlike anything we have ever seen. A contradictory melange of dime-store isolationism and saber-rattling fit to make a neocon blush—promises to reinvest at home laced with pledges to “bomb the shit out of” enemies abroad—the Trump Doctrine seems to boil down to a single phrase: America First. Little of use can be said about its real-world meaning without reference to its origins among a crowd of Americans in the early 1940s who thought the evils of fascism had been overblown. By all accounts, nationalism has returned. Ask not whether it ever really left.
While it would seem that progressives in the United States and, increasingly, around the world have little power to determine the shape of things to come, that may not actually be the case. Whether the left ratifies this new turn toward nationalism may determine whether the various upheavals since the Brexit referendum last June prove to be the inauguration of a brave new world or the dying gasps of a very old one. In this forum—an installment of our ongoing series, “That’s Debatable“—three writers consider the major foreign-policy questions facing the left today: whether to renew or reconsider its historic commitment to a politics of internationalism, and what a new and improved version of that commitment might look like.
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A Solidarity of Leftists
Let me begin by distinguishing internationalism from cosmopolitanism. Internationalism assumes the existence of nations and works to create alliances and solidarities across national borders. Cosmopolitanism aims to abolish those borders. The free movement of capital, commodities, and labor around the world is an example of cosmopolitanism, but not of internationalism—and certainly not left internationalism. Free movement makes for a capitalist paradise: global laissez-faire. But for a very large part of the world’s population, global laissez-faire is a capitalist hell. Left internationalism is a politics aimed, so to speak, at the abolition of hell.
Solidarity with comrades abroad is the oldest definition of left internationalism. We look for people who are fighting for equality, democracy, and freedom anywhere in the world, and we join their fight. Think of this as the foreign policy of the left. This is what all our organizations—parties, unions, NGOs, magazines—should be doing. Mostly, these fights go on within states, because right now the state is the most effective agent of human rights and economic justice. The regulation of laissez-faire capitalism was a social-democratic achievement, and it was achieved only in the state. That is where it must now be defended, by internationalists, against globalization. The European Union promised an expansion of the social-democratic achievement—a promise unfulfilled but one still worth fighting for. The fight takes place in one state after another, and it is in those states that we must find our comrades. Two simple examples: Our comrades in Greece are the people fighting against austerity, and our comrades in Germany are the people fighting against the bankers.