The Internationalist Disposition and US Grand Strategy

img_3010A guest post from Stephen Pampinella, continuing our occasional series on left/progressive foreign policy in the 21st century. Stephenis Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. His research interests include US state building interventions, hierarchy in international relations, race and postcolonialism, US grand strategy, and national security narratives. He is on leave from SUNY New Paltz during Spring 2019 and is conducting research on the practice of diplomacy in the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry in Quito, Ecuador.


Alex Colás’ “The Internationalist Disposition” provides an excellent framework for evaluating foreign policy debates in the Democratic Party. The failures of the War on Terror combined with the emergence of economic and environmental threats have led many to engage in a far-reaching reappraisal of US foreign relations based on left critiques. This new approach toward foreign affairs is called progressive internationalism. It attempts to resolve the tension between adopting greater military restraint and remaining engaged in global governance.

But in recent weeks, establishment voices have sought to reassert their control over foreign policy debates by arguing for the necessity of US hegemony and classic liberal internationalist forms of cooperation. Colás’ methodological internationalism illustrates why traditional US foreign policy approaches will fail to provide actual security for ordinary Americans. It also suggests (somewhat counterintuitively) what kinds of grand strategies could do so. A great power concert strategy, in which the United States pursues a balance of power among its rivals while committing to more democratic forms of international cooperation, can best resolve the non-state threats to US democracy generated by its own liberal order.

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The Internationalist Disposition

A guest post, the second in our occasional series on left and progressive foreign policy, from Alex Colás. Alex is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many pieces on empire and imperialism, social movements, global governance, and piracy. Most recently he is author, with Jason Edwards, Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida, of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press) and, with Liam Campling, of ‘Capitalism and the Sea: Sovereignty, Territory and Appropriation in the Global Ocean’, in Environment and Planning D.


Any credible political movement, the late Peter Gowan used to say, needs to have a programme, a strategy and a tactical arsenal. Progressive or leftist internationalism, in all its diverse expressions, is no exception. But it is precisely this rich variety that advises against associating emancipatory internationalism to a fixed programme or a single strategy, and instead talking of a more general disposition: a standpoint on how the world is, and an outlook on how it might be transformed. For radical internationalists – ranging from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon; Emma Goldman to Ho Chi Minh –  these include a rejection of transhistorical or naturalised claims to cultural or territorial identity; a focus on the universalising contradictions of modern capitalism; harnessing the democratic potential of the cosmopolitan admixture of peoples, languages, religions and customs, particularly though not exclusively in cities; an unwavering commitment to racial justice and minority rights; an insistence on the need to ‘think globally, and act locally’, and to always chase the avenues of solidarity opened up by the everyday, transnational experience of workers on the factory shop floor,  the ship’s lower decks, the contemporary call centre, the processing plant or fast-food restaurant kitchen.

An internationalist disposition is acquired through political education and mobilised collectively in very different contexts – often in unsatisfactory, weak or marginal ways. It is not an intrinsic quality of this or that class, ideological tendency, cultural community or political organisation; nor is the history of left internationalism everywhere bathed in glory. There are, however, some characteristics to the internationalist disposition, its present expressions and historical trajectory that make it an indispensable component of any democratic response to the global national-populist involution we are currently witnessing.

Reality Bites

Our world is still very much the product of the dual revolutions of the eighteenth-century which saw the advent of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of the national sovereign-territorial state. Internationalism today continues to adopt liberal, hegemonic and revolutionary forms first essayed during that period, and the aspirations to liberty, equality and solidarity still resonate (albeit plainly with different ideological, geographical and cultural inflections) among emancipatory struggles across the world. One of the distinguishing features of left internationalism is that it dreams with sober senses: its cosmopolitan projection is grounded in the practical routines of household, workplace, neighbourhood or community. It has been built on grassroots solidarity campaigns, secondary strike action, international volunteering, refugee support networks and mass boycotts coordinated by explicitly internationalist organisations. Liberal internationalism in contrast has mainly been the product of elite efforts at institutionalising multilateral cooperation; it has never had a broad social base (unless, at a push, one includes more recent and generally passive NGO membership). Hegemonic internationalism for its part has found expression in clearly hierarchical or paternalistic traditions of imperial patronage (like those which brought millions of colonial peoples into Europe’s world wars), or in transnational religious charity. Of course, there has been some overlap between these three forms of internationalism – hegemonic internationalism in particular has adopted both a revolutionary and liberal garb, and the defence of universal human rights for instance has sometimes bound the latter two. But the fact remains that the only genuinely democratic forms of internationalism have historically been of a leftist persuasion – feminist, anarchist, communist, socialist, anti-colonial.  

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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. Continue reading