Radicals for a Sensible Foreign Policy

James Gillray - Promised Horrors of the French Invasion - Burke, French Revolution, caricature, Gillray

Authoritarianism is globally resurgent. Of that there can be no doubt. The demagoguery club welcomes its latest initiate in the person of Jair Bolsonaro, who promises a “cleansing never seen before in the history of Brazil” against left activists and the ‘communists’ of the Workers’ Party. On social media, a factoid circulates: over half the world’s population now lives under far-right or reactionary regimes.[1] The electoral pattern is by turns terrifying, stupefying, and paralysing. Observers link the new authoritarian populism to anxieties over open borders and open markets, commonly translating into a virulent hatred of migrants and minorities. The limits of socio-economic ‘legitimate concerns’ are discernible not only in the bloody trail of political assassination and domestic terrorism, but in the paranoid fantasies of fascism’s new fanbase: Lula is a certified paedophile, Hillary Clinton is a sex-trafficker, George Soros is a trans rights master-puppeteer, gender theory is Ebola dispatched by Brussels, that sort of thing. It becomes harder with each day to dismiss aficionados of Infowars and Stormfront as mere gadflies on the conservative rump. Are they not more like its ideological engine? Under such conditions, the melancholy science of Theodor Adorno and company retains a certain appeal.

It seems obvious that the new authoritarians are nativist, nationalist, and isolationist. Their ad hoc collaboration predicts the end of liberal global governance (the reputed ‘rules-based international order’), the better to return to 19th century categories. But as Quinn Slobodian has succinctly argued, the current coalitions of the right do not favour direct retreat so much as a new kind of segregated interdependence: territorialised identity politics married to an international division of labour:

“Like Hong Kong and Singapore, these zones would not be isolated but hyper-connected, nodes for the flow of finance and trade ruled not by democracy (which would cease to exist) but market power with disputes settled through private arbitration. No human rights would exist beyond the private rights codified in contract and policed through private security forces… The maxim would be: separate but global.”

To be sure, the alt-reich do not wholly share this ‘free trade’ agenda, but here too paradoxical forms of internationalism are at work. Even in the 1930s, fascists believed in exporting domestic policy, aiming at the establishment of an organicist world order – what the Italian corporatist philosopher Arnaldo Volpicelli called “an internationalist doctrine after so many assertions and celebrations of ultra-nationalism”. Today, identitarian movements coordinate across borders: Nigel Farage lectures to the Alternative for Germany; the professional troll Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (with the faux-everyman ‘Tommy Robinson’ as his alias) enjoys the largesse of America’s extreme conservatives; sieg-heiling half-wit Richard Spencer flounders in his own attempt at a grand European tour. The extent to which xenophobes and neo-fascists desire a new ordering principal for the world is a matter for debate. But the otherwise unstable and provisional national coalitions of the right are strikingly aligned on several fronts, from an indistinct and wildly ahistorical ‘western chauvinism’ to the preeminence afforded to the heterosexual family and its unreconstructed father figure to a penchant for anti-semitic conspiracy tropes. Reactionary international theory is back.

In response to this grim conjuncture, over the coming months The Disorder Of Things will host discussion of foreign policy that is left, progressive or radical (pick your terminological poison). Despite the success of such outsider candidates as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and with the partial exception of feminist ministers, parties of the left have been relatively quietist on foreign policy, even as they draw energy from a deep and widespread despair at the state of international politics. It is not necessary to agree with Daniel Bessner that the left has been “either silent or confused” on matters of state to recognise that more stereotypically ‘domestic’ concerns – from healthcare to income inequality – have been to the fore in both the US and the UK. And for good reason: foreign policy is a relatively low priority for most voters, is famously impervious to change, and offers hostile sections of the media many opportunities to cast even the mildest of diplomatic adjustments as cowardice or treason.

At least since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and arguably since the adoption of triangulation as political tactic by Clinton and Blair, the organised left’s attitude to international politics has been one of negativity. Mobilisations are aimed at stopping the latest bout of military adventurism or austerity, necessary rearguard actions but essentially reactive nonetheless. For students of International Relations, one of the more notable features of the last decades has indeed been the alignment of left-wing and political realist arguments, whether against the Iraq war, the bombing of Libya, military intervention in Syria, hegemonic over-reach in Ukraine, or the relentless expansion of The Forever War.

Despite the generalised fretting over ideological polarisation and nostalgia for ‘moderate’ political discourse, contemporary left proposals are in truth remarkable for their meekness. When Bernie Sanders gave his showpiece speech on foreign policy in 2017, the plea was for military restraint, renewed multilateralism, the defence of democracy, and a return to the Paris accord on climate change; his touchstone figures were Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt; and the chosen example of an “extremely radical foreign policy initiative” was the Marshall Plan. For Corbyn, regularly assailed as a clandestine Hamas (or is it Soviet?) operative, the stated goals are a little more ambitious, but still within the bounds of liberal reformism, as David Wearing has documented at some length.

That opposition to military intervention, support of the UN system, and abolition of tax havens can be represented as a hard-left mania tells us more about the bankruptcy of elite thinking than it does about the state of contemporary radicalism. Indeed, Corbyn’s centrist opponents are curiously dismissive of what they might otherwise praise as cooperative internationalism. This is not to suggest that he or Sanders represents only a reheated version of the ‘ethical dimension’ in foreign policy (and of course, not everyone reads Sanders and Corbyn as natural allies). There are sharply dividing views within the liberal-left spectrum over the relationship between armed force and political power, and they have profound consequences given the outsized influence of the UK and US as permanent members of the Security Council, military great powers and major arms exporters. Yet, the revival of fortunes for a more explicitly socialist and internationalist current in Anglo-American politics has generated little real tension in the houses of government. Even when ascendent in political parties, the left faces significant practical limits: offered the chance to meaningfully implement humanitarian norms a few years ago, Labour MPs were instead content to extend the licence for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

To the extent that a dialogue about progressive approaches to foreign policy has begun, it is mired in the question of humanitarian intervention, a kind of permanently looping 1990s.[2] At the same moment that an opening for progressive internationalism seems at hand, many activists are cautious of reducing politics to electoral parties and investing their energies in this or that figurehead. There are other obstacles to a left reckoning with reason of state, not least among them a deep scepticism toward parcelling out domestic and foreign policy into distinct realms. A generation of critical scholarship has problematised the state not just as a legitimate site of power that might be seized, but also as a pre-given conceptual map. The inside/outside boundary consecrates a distinction that contemporary students of flow, assemblage and discourse are liable to find passé. What reconstructions of radical theory are possible in such a moment? What histories inform the ‘left’ designation when applied to foreign policy? What may be included, and what excluded, in the effort to reinvigorate internationalism and solidarity across borders? Replies to such questions, as partial and provisional as they must surely be, at least promise conceptual material for a collective mobilisation against the abyss.


[1] The claim appears to mix together the case of democratically-elected strongmen, like Narendra Modi, with deeply-embedded dictatorships, as in the case of China under the rule of Xi Jinping.

[2] For a somewhat broader selection, compare and contrast recent takes by US Democrat Senators, IR Professor and Sanders adviser Dan Nexon, and arms control liberal Jeffrey Lewis.

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