Michael Walzer on a Foreign Policy for the Left at Princeton

Michael Walzer at Labyrinth Books
Photo by Rebecca Ngu

Michael Walzer gave a talk on what a leftist foreign policy should look like, the topic of his newest book, last Thursday in Labyrinth bookstore. The esteemed political theorist and author of Just and Unjust Wars addressed an audience of around 30 people.

Walzer was inspired to write his book after Bernie Sanders was asked during his presidential campaign who his foreign policy advisors were. Walzer was one of the names Sanders listed, which shocked him, as his sole interaction with Sanders thus far had been one 20 minute phone conversation two years before. They had talked about Syria and agreed that they didn’t know what to do.  If he was one of Sanders’ advisors, Walzer realized, Sanders didn’t have any foreign policy advisors. He didn’t have a foreign policy at all.

Sanders illustrates a glaring weakness of the American left: it lacks a coherent foreign policy. With the exception of Israel-Palestine, the left in the past few decades has not settled on a consistent foreign policy, preferring to focus on domestic politics.

Walzer vehemently argued that the left must no longer content itself with opposing the actions of the current administration, but instead must take responsibility for developing their own foreign policy.

He directly addressed one of the main issues barring leftists from seriously engaging in such a project: a distrust of nation states and a commitment to a world without borders, which is antithetical to the idea of having a foreign policy in the first place.

While cosmopolitanism, which advocates for a borderless world without nation states, sounds appealing, in reality, it would only heighten the crisis of capitalism by enabling the free movement of capital, commodities, and labor around the world, Walzer asserted. Many leftists have critiqued interregional trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, for decreasing global barriers only for big businesses and their interests at the expense of workers and the environment.

Instead of cosmopolitanism, Walzer called on leftists to embrace internationalism, which assumes the existence of nation states as a basis to create alliances and solidarity across borders.

Walzer’s defense of borders is part of a larger vindication of nation-states as regulators of global capitalism.

“The state is the most effective agent of human rights and economic justice,” he said. “The regulation of laissez faire capitalism was a social democratic achievement, and it was only achieved in states.”

He asserted that the state regulation of capitalism has been the only victory of the left of the last century, curiously failing to mention any of the Marxist anti-colonial revolutionary movements of the 20th century.

A left internationalism, Walzer argued, begins with deciding who the left’s international comrades are — whom does it fight for?

Walzer claims that the left, when faced with international conundrums, either doesn’t have anything to say, opting for inaction, or throws its support behind the wrong people.

“We’ve led ourselves into a romance with revolutionary violence and terrorism, and into another romance with dictators who call themselves leftists,” Walzer said.

“Our comrades abroad are not apologists for dictators,” he continued, addressing leftists who support authoritarian regimes in the name of anti-imperialism. “They are not terrorists.”

Walzer listed the people who ought to be natural comrades of leftists: political dissidents, workers, feminists, banned authors, heretics and free thinkers.

“Where there are tyrants, we support the dissidents,” he said. “We support workers struggling to organize independent unions.”

Walzer emphasized that leftists should listen to their comrades and those comrades’ actual desires and concerns rather than act upon a presupposed ideology.

“It’s not enough to simply oppose the US government. We must positively morally affirm the people,” he said.

He cited the 2009 Green Uprising in Iran as an example of American leftist insularity and failure to listen to our comrades abroad. The American leftist consensus was that the United States shouldn’t intervene and stopped there; however, if leftists had listened to their Iranian comrades, they would have heard their cries for moral solidarity from the global community.

“There should have been pickets in front of every embassy,” he said. “There should have been mass demonstrations in support of the people in the streets of Iran. In the magazines, there should have been lists of arrested dissidents in the hope of saving their lives.”

Walzer cited the 2011 removal of American troops from Iraq as another example where leftists missed an opportunity to demonstrate genuine internationalism. While leftists generally celebrated the withdrawal of troops, Iraqi feminists expressed desire for the US military to stay until the threat of radical Islamic extremism was under control.

“No one on the American left was prepared to say that the US military should control Iraq, and yet that was the demand of Iraqi feminists in 2011,” Walzer said. “After all, their lives were at stake.”

Listening to comrades abroad is easier said than done, given that our intelligence gathering capacities are limited, to say the least. Walzer points to the organizations still alive in the left — political parties, NGO’s, unions, and even publications — as the agents who would facilitate this communication.

On humanitarian intervention in another country’s affairs, Walzer’s stance is essentially: “Anybody who can, should.” The intervention ideally would be carried out by neighboring countries, but not necessarily. He approvingly cited the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1975 that ended the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, albeit establishing a satellite government in the process.

“These are not cases of moral purity,” he conceded. “But moral purity is not what we should expect in the political world. It is enough that these countries acted to stop the killing.”

At the heart of Walzer’s foreign policy lies a fundamental belief that leftist ideals — ones of justice, equality, democracy — are not expressions of western cultural imperialism, but are universal values worth defending any place, any time.

“The left is borne in western Europe in the late 18th century. That does not make us western or European. That’s just where we started,” he said. “The ideas that we have defended are universal ideas, and they can be defended in multiple ways. My comrades are people who know that it is wrong to massacre, wrong to enslave, wrong to persecute…If you get it right, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.”

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