On July 17, 2018, Donald Trump appeared on Tucker Carlson’s nightly white-power hour to gripe about, of all things, Montenegro. He decried the tiny Balkan nation as “very aggressive,” and, as if visibly cueing up the next bullet point on a two-sentence PowerPoint he took pains to memorize, darkly hinted that the country might start World War III.
Such a hypothetical scenario would go something like this: if Montenegrins’ legendary aggressiveness reared its unlovely head, the barely restrained colossus of destruction that is the Montenegrin army could invade a neighbor. Hostilities involving Montenegro, a NATO member, would trigger Article 5 of the NATO charter, obligating the involvement of other member nations like the United States. Isn’t it better, the president wondered aloud, if the United States reneged on its agreement rather than get into a war over insubstantial little Montenegro? It is an unsurprising argument from a man whose “business” career has been little more than a timeline of agreements reneged upon.
If you were confronted with an unlabeled, wall-sized world map and told that your life depended on accurately identifying Montenegro in one try, could you find it? Don’t feel bad; it would take a well-prepared Geography Bee finalist to do it. It’s nestled snugly between Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina—no help there—but most Americans probably are only vaguely aware, if at all, that Montenegro is a country.
This is significant because, of course, Donald Trump is a phenomenally stupid and intellectually uncurious person. He couldn’t find Louisiana, let alone Montenegro. There is plainly no way he knows where Montenegro is. Although the inside of the president’s head is a random idea generator, it can only generate ideas based on things he knows. And I am 100 percent confident that he does not know the minor countries of the former Yugoslavia. This was the geographic equivalent of Trump, apropos of nothing, interrupting a rant to do a proof of Euler’s Method during a press conference.
To explain this anomaly we must look to the day before—July 16—when Trump held his weird, not-at-all suspicious private meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, which he later described as “even better” than the NATO summit. Only one United States State Department interpreter was present. Just your ordinary tête-à-tête between the former KGB man with a mind like a bear trap and our big dumb goo-brained president whose interests span from fireworks to Egg McMuffins.
Incidentally, Russia appears to have helped finance and direct an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016. It is one of the many weak nations in the former Soviet orbit that the current Russian autocrat eyes fondly when he dreams of getting the old band back together.
It would require a lethal amount of credulity to believe that Putin did not feed Trump the Montenegro talking point during that meeting. There is no conspiracy theory necessary to draw that conclusion; it does not make Trump a “Russian asset” or any other nonsense. The simplest and most compelling explanation is that Donald Trump is vain, dumb, and easy to manipulate for someone as calculating as Putin.
With apologies to Russiagate grifters and their printouts of speed-addled Twitter threads, Trump’s attitude toward autocrats is as superficial as the man himself; he admires and envies their power, their freedom from accountability, their naked graft, and their ability to have big tank parades for themselves whenever they’re feeling a little blue. Add in the Trump empire’s extensive business interests in Russia (and the well-documented instances of Russian money bailing out and underpinning Trump’s real estate companies), and it’s not as if Putin needs to try very hard to get America’s Fox News Grandpa to do him a solid. The pee tape is the Balkan countries we learned along the way.
Another factoid Donald Trump has most certainly gleaned from his Very Excellent Pals in the Kremlin is that NATO is bad. This is not entirely out of nowhere for the American right, as recent decades have seen endless grumbling from Republicans about how the other NATO member-countries do not spend enough on defense. But conservatives have never outright floated the idea of abandoning it, given that pre-Trump conservatism feared and distrusted Russia as a factory default setting.
The American left doesn’t do foreign policy. At its worst, the left turns to Depression Era right-wing isolationism, reducing American foreign policy to an absence of involvement, period.
NATO is a vestige of the Cold War, an alliance from an earlier era that even its staunchest defenders struggle to justify and explain today. Why does it still exist in a post–Warsaw Pact world? What is its mission? Certainly there are many arguments of varying quality and persuasiveness about NATO and the United States’ role in it. And while there may in fact be a compelling reason for American abrogation of its treaty commitments to NATO, I am certain that, “Russia’s strongman is my friend, he likes me, he asked me not to cause a fuss if he overruns some small countries or whatever” is not it.
Is Trump right about NATO, though? Should we weakly concur that he wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? The American left, bluntly, doesn’t do foreign policy. This is not because leftists are incapable of formulating ideas about the role of the United States in the world but because domestic politics are so overwhelmingly central to how the left defines, unites, and motivates itself. This is not a criticism, but merely a recognition.
Go to a Democratic Socialists meeting or your local Bernard Brothers rally and ask strangers about the most important issue on their mental agenda. You’ll wade through a hundred Medicare for Alls, free colleges, debt forgivenesses, and taxings of the rich before you find someone who mentions the Nine-Dash Line and the rapid expansion of Chinese sovereignty into the South China Sea. Leftists can speak coherently on single foreign policy cases like the Israel-Palestine conflict or the wars in Yemen and Syria, but taking matters on a case-by-case basis contributes to a sum that lacks coherence. At its worst, left foreign policy devolves into Depression Era right-wing isolationism reducing American foreign policy to an absence of involvement, period.
The left, in short, knows that war with Iran is bad, that America’s relationship with the Israeli government needs to take into consideration the basic humanity of Palestinian people, and that the United States could spend about 90 percent less on the military and still have a juggernaut of an army. On each point it is absolutely correct. Yet the constant attention that organizers and activists must devote to getting domestic politics out of the Gilded Age means that an overarching foreign policy is forever an afterthought.
Liberals, conversely, are still haunted by thoughts of Dukakis in the tank and Jimmy Carter’s impotent Desert One debacle (in which the military failed to rescue American hostages in Iran in the most embarrassing Three Stooges fashion). They are still using the playbook developed by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council in the late 1980s: if Democrats are just as hawkish as Republicans, then Republicans cannot score endless political points by deriding Democrats as feckless wimps. Out-hawk the hawks. For thirty-some years Democrats have been difficult to distinguish from their putative opponents on foreign policy. Their position amounts to neoconservatism, but administered by urbane liberal elites instead of bloodless Cheney-Rumsfeld types.
And so it came to be that there is really no foreign policy alternative to the Republicans’ hawkish worldview. Liberal foreign policy is rarely much different, and leftists would rather talk about something else. They happily default to “America spends too much on defense and shouldn’t be involved.” This case-study approach, though, leaves the left with no articulated worldview. Should the United States remain in NATO? That kind of question is harder for the left to digest and answer, certainly compared to “Should we bomb Iran, just because?” which is an easy no.
NATO is not something the average left-leaning American cares about at all, so willful ignorance is the most popular stance. For those who care to venture opinions, the issue is one of many where a split between center-liberals and the left becomes apparent. Liberals default to defending NATO for two reasons. One, it is a vestige of the Golden Age of American liberalism between FDR and LBJ. It and other stragglers of that era, like the United Nations, continue to have a strong emotional hold on a Democratic Party with substantial nostalgia for the Kennedy years. Second, their post-Clinton impulse remains defensive, taking a hawkish stance to stay ahead of Republican attempts to paint them as militarily weak. Leftists, meanwhile, default to “get rid of it.” Military alliances are outdated and NATO in particular is a tool of American efforts to dominate global politics through its gargantuan armed forces.
What if—I can feel myself being canceled just thinking about it—neither of these are good responses? What if left foreign policy is a thing that is still waiting for someone brilliant to discover and explicate like leftists have done with so many other economic and social issues? What if something analogous to a Green New Deal of forward-thinking foreign policy is still inside some activist’s or scholar’s brain?
In the vacuum, there is a disturbing tendency to farm out leftist foreign policy to the same Assange Bros who spent 2016 claiming that Donald Trump was “the peace candidate, actually” and who now spend their days writing that Putin is cool, actually, and you’d realize it if you read some unbiased news like Russia Today? What if, instead of claiming that even a broken clock like Trump is right occasionally, we considered that one’s views aligning with the ascendant American far right is, you know, kind of a red flag?
It’s easy enough to point at Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton and declare that their foreign policy stances are shit, which they most certainly are. What I am suggesting, and what will be much more difficult, is reflecting honestly on the likes of Tulsi Gabbard’s “I met a bunch of authoritarian ethno-nationalists and they’re rad!” pitch and recognizing that it, too, is shit. There’s a reason Tucker Carlson invites intellectual Chernobyls like Michael Tracey and Glenn Greenwald on his show to repeat the propaganda they’ve internalized, and it’s not because Tucker Carlson was overcome with a desire for more ideological balance. It is because their views, not uncommon among today’s American left, are almost verbatim the foreign policy of the American far-right and strongman-worshiping white nationalists. It has some currency on parts of the left because there is a vacuum where a meaningful left foreign policy should be but isn’t, combined with the left tendency to assume that whatever mainstream liberals want (in this case, foreign interventionism) is the opposite of what is good.
NATO is not something the average left-leaning American cares about at all, so willful ignorance is the most popular stance.
Isolationism with respect to the American habit of involving itself in the affairs of other nations extensively, often militarily, is absolutely the right course. Yet isolationism is not in and of itself a policy, unless you were born yesterday and believe that a U.S. decision to keep to itself will lead other nations to treat it according to the Golden Rule. Deciding not to fuck with other countries is only half of a foreign policy. The other half is how the country should respond when fucked with because I, perhaps foolishly and as an unwitting tool of the military-industrial complex, do not believe that the cessation of American meddling will bring about global harmony. America very often is a bad actor; yet it requires spectacular naiveté to conclude that it is the only bad actor.
A Society of Unequals
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was born of three treaties that you never learned about in high school because, alas, Americans learn history chronologically and the school year always ended well before 1945.
While still cleaning up the rubble from World War II, France and the United Kingdom signed a treaty of mutual defense in 1947 (the Treaty of Dunkirk) amid fears of a Soviet or (East) German attack westward. The Treaty of Brussels in 1948 brought the Benelux nations aboard, and finally in 1949 the United States, Canada, and a smattering of smaller nations like Portugal signed the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO solidified, conceptually and in practice, with the onset of the Korean War in 1950.
The idea was straightforward, and from a European perspective uncomfortably reminiscent of the entangling web of alliances that precipitated the entire continent blundering its way into World War I. The member nations agreed in the crucial Article 5 that an attack on one would be treated as an attack upon all.
It took on added gravity, though, when (West) Germany joined in 1955. This prompted the Soviet Union to establish the Warsaw Pact for Eastern Europe, ostensibly to restore balance to the continent after years of “The West” amassing power. For the next thirty-six years, fears of general war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was never far from the surface. The alliances ensured that the whole continent would quickly become involved, which further ensured that escalation was all but inevitable. The dots from Soviet armor charging through the Fulda Gap to the launch of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles were not hard to connect.
It is important to disabuse one conservative talking point about NATO up-front: it was created to serve American interests and American foreign policy goals. Republicans, including Trump, decry other member nations’ failure to spend as much on defense as the United States thinks they should. This depicts NATO as something of a charity, with the United States shouldering the burden to defend Europe from the Red Menace.
That one narrative manages to be false in two ways. First, the actual threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe or the United States was orders of magnitude smaller in reality than it was in the eyes of Pentagon officials seeking to justify ever more military spending. In fact, the Soviets were deeply paranoid that NATO would invade, ignoring the fact that Hitler and Napoleon combined to prove to the entire world’s satisfaction that a land invasion of Russia is a suicide mission. A series of nonexistent gaps—the bomber gap, the submarine gap, the missile gap—fueled an arms race that needs no recounting here.
Second, NATO was hardly an organization of equals. While mutual defense was agreed upon, the United States used the organization as a means of advancing its own goals. It turned half of Europe into an American airbase and naval port not because Congress and a series of presidents generously decided to protect our friends, but because this is very much what American military planners wanted to do. Even if the whole exercise was born of a sincere desire to help allied nations, there is little doubt that the advancement of American interests was more than a secondary benefit. If Americans feel like they paid disproportionately for NATO, the country has also benefited disproportionately.
Nothing to Bomb
I remember the night the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989 because it was the first time my bedtime was unconditionally waived. I was ten. My dad, a proud Polack, denies saying this but his exact quote was, “This is more important than school tomorrow.”
Being born in 1978 makes me part of the very last cohort for whom the Cold War and its maze of acronyms, neuroses, and institutions registered. When the Eastern Bloc collapsed and the Soviet Union crumbled (in 1991), I was old enough to be cognizant of it, if just. It was obvious that a major change in global politics was taking place and we were living through it.
One of the effects of this change, as the following years would make clear, is that the world was left with a lot of institutions and experts that were instantly obsolete. A generation of scholars, bureaucrats, military people, and politicians who had mastered (or so they thought) the art of reading oblique signals from the Kremlin suddenly found that skill useless. And the future of NATO was immediately cast into doubt. If the former Soviet states were to become American allies, what was the point?
Rather than focusing their responses around a simple, coherent message like “Don’t start a war with Iran, you idiot,” Democrats offered their usual mélange of consultant-dictated, focus-grouped word salad.
Francis Fukuyama explored this in The End of History, one of many exemplars of the zeitgeist of the era. Imagine a highlight film of free market capitalism and liberal democracy executing tomahawk dunks over a cowering cipher of Red Communism, and that is a good approximation of what the media and American culture produced between 1990 and 2000. Even our brainless action movies were thrown for a loss; they had to find a new stock Bad Guy.
Of course, the declarations of a new world order unified by unfettered capitalism and globalization turned out to have shortcomings. When the specter of terrorism driven by non-state actors finally grabbed the attention of the political class in September of 2001, it became apparent that the institutions that were designed to meet the presumed threats of the Cold War—like NATO—were not at all suited to meet the new threat. Perhaps Soviet Russia could be deterred with the threat of bombs raining down from the heavens, but al Qaeda was not. The Pentagon learned the hard lesson that in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is nothing to bomb.
NATO and the UN attempted to adapt to the changing world; both were contributors to the peacekeeping efforts in the collapsing former Yugoslavia, a multiethnic nation that quickly collapsed into ethnic cleansing and retributions without the unifying power of a powerful central government. China was also proposed as a replacement character for the USSR, but throughout the 1990s it was rapidly embracing globalization and capitalism rather than making saber-rattling speeches at the United States from the steps of the Politburo.
The 9/11 attacks led to the first-ever invocation of NATO Article 5. It quickly became apparent, though, that the organization built around the concept of confronting Warsaw Pact tank armies on the Rhine was not especially helpful in fighting back against a poorly armed, unsophisticated band of very smart and ruthless people. It was the lesson of Vietnam, writ large: overwhelming technological superiority in the art of destruction does not win conflicts by itself.
But for the reasons already covered—Democrats’ desire to appear hawkish and vigilant, and Republicans’ residual belief that Russia continued to threaten what they considered American interests—NATO has persisted.
Then, Donald Trump.
In the process of writing this piece I was interrupted by the Iran drone incident on June 20. Donald Trump created a pretext for war, then claimed to take the nation to within ten minutes of launching retaliatory strikes on Iran, and finally claimed to change his mind. This fits neatly with his behavioral pattern and that of all narcissistic-abusers; start a fire, then demand adulation for extinguishing it. The obvious flaw with the strategy, of course, is that an incompetent person inevitably starts a fire that gets out of control.
It also exposed the utter haplessness of mainstream liberals. Rather than focusing their responses around a simple, coherent message like “Don’t start a war with Iran, you idiot,” Democrats offered their usual mélange of consultant-dictated, focus-grouped word salad. Something about indignation over Trump’s failure to request Congress’s permission first? Brilliant.
The “crises” created by the neoliberal flavored military-foreign policy establishment will not always be so easy to answer correctly. Imagine that a hypothetical perfect leftist finds his or her way into the White House. He or she will obviously be smart enough not to start stupid wars as stunts. But what happens if, for example, Vladimir Putin or his successors seek to bolster their domestic standing by invading the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—to reclaim them as former parts of the USSR? What if another country, say China or Russia, uses non-state actors as a proxy to launch a coordinated attack via the internet on critical U.S. infrastructure? “LOL aren’t you glad I’m not a warmongering neocon!” isn’t going to cut it as a response, despite being a true statement. And the weird idea of a far left-far right coalition—exemplified by Tulsi Gabbard, the “leftist” candidate every right-winger loves for not-at-all suspicious reasons—arguing that avoiding conflict with a country like Russia is best achieved by doing whatever Russia wants is, let us just say, not viable.
What is the appropriate response? Right now, it is impossible to say what the position of the American left would be in this situation, because its foreign policy is ambiguous and situational. The gut reaction of anti-interventionism has appeal. So too does the argument that if the United States should not be overrunning small and relatively defenseless countries, then neither should other military powers. There will be situations, no matter how much they would better be avoided, in which a hypothetical Congress or White House occupied by a true leftist would need to react to events beyond his or her control.
Alternatives to That
What would that look like? What, in short, is left foreign policy? Michael Walzer, in his commendable A Foreign Policy for the Left (2018), is among the few people who have seriously taken on that question in a practical (as opposed to strictly academic) context. He gets right the fundamental formulation: left foreign policy should and must flow naturally from the core values of the left.
In modern American politics, “defense” and “foreign policy” are sometimes treated as interchangeable concepts; that’s bad. A basic first principle for left foreign policy could be a return to the wider, traditional conception of foreign policy as a toolkit. Foreign aid, economic agreements, traditional diplomacy, combatting inequality and violent extremism (including domestically, of course), and cooperation with international organizations to address truly global issues would all combine to offer more potential than the current bipartisan stance that foreign policy is best reduced to “We will bomb the shit out of you or not. Pick one.”
A second core principle would be a real commitment to the thing American foreign policy has paid condescending lip service to for decades: the promotion of democratic institutions in other countries. This must obviously stop short of direct intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations, and will only be plausible once the United States deals with its own panoply of problems with voter suppression, felon disenfranchisement, and other anti-democratic practices.
For over a century the U.S. has been a global Bad Actor. But pretending that it alone is a Bad Actor, and the intentions of every other nation will become honorable as the U.S. renounces its sinful ways, is dumb.
A third and more nebulous step must be to define, in accordance with the left’s core values, the “national interest” of the United States. It is simple enough to say that America must protect “its interests” but much harder to articulate what those interests are beyond “anything Congress and the president feel like it is at a given moment.” If the promotion of economic, gender, LGBTQ+, and racial equality were made a political priority at home and abroad, the considerable economic power of the United States could be a game-changer. That will require, of course, a ground-up rethinking of unregulated free markets as the basis for all American values and practices. Fortunately the left is already pretty good at proposing alternatives to that.
Finally and perhaps most obviously, the nation must shift decisively away from relying so heavily on military hegemony to advance its interests. Any leftist worth his or her salt can tell you that reducing the bloated, economically crippling defense spending that is a cornerstone of Washington consensus politics is a first step. To implement such changes will require the same kind of thoroughness and attention to detail that the left has applied to domestic issues like Medicare for All. Exactly what will be cut? Why? How will whatever function that spending performed (if any) be replaced by a more effective form of foreign policy?
Articulating a well-developed foreign policy worldview will be aided by moving beyond today’s limited foreign policy conceptions—to shift the paradigms, to put it in the most annoying possible terms. Left ideas are usually shoehorned into easy-to-digest categories like “pacifism” or “isolationism.” As the right has proven repeatedly, coming up with better language with which to communicate ideas to voters will be essential.
Look, I don’t have all of the answers, and to be frank and crass, if I did I would not likely give them away to the world for The Baffler’s going rate for freelance contributions. I am certain, though, that the current state of left foreign policy is a void that needs to be filled with something other than the Wikileaks Bro politics, perhaps best exemplified by the phenomenon that is Tulsi Gabbard, of apologias for authoritarian nationalist leaders around the world. It is not enough to identify the obvious flaws in liberal foreign policy, with its convoluted hawkishness and rebranded military-centered consensus worldview, and simply conclude that the polar opposite must be the best course.
Criticizing Hillary Clinton’s (or now Joe Biden’s) campaign for its terrible foreign policy stances is the low-hanging fruit. Looking inward and reflecting on the core goals and values of left politics—rejecting the allure of Tucker Carlson-approved ideas like “Hey, isn’t being friends with Putin a good thing?”—will be the more challenging part. For over a century the United States has been a global Bad Actor, and it is imperative that it interact differently with the world. But pretending that it alone is a Bad Actor, and the intentions of every other nation will become honorable as the United States renounces its sinful ways, is dumb.
Foreign policy is not merely a set of choices; it also requires responding to events other actors initiate. This is where modern left views come up shortest. Non-interventionism is intellectually appealing not only because it fixes many of the current evils and ills of U.S. foreign policy—Hey, let’s stop starting wars!—but because it reduces everything to one simple answer. There is no need to learn about the Spratly Islands dispute among China and its neighbors, oppression of the Uyghurs, Donbas, Syria, the multi-sided civil war in Yemen, and other current points of tension. Like the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, confusing foreign conflicts that do not conform to the narrative of one good guy fighting one bad guy are difficult for our political system to process. The urge to oversimplify or ignore these conflicts, especially when they are distant and not perceived as directly relevant to Americans, is strong.
Vestigial organs of the Cold War world order like NATO could, with a better underlying set of values, be useful tools toward promoting left foreign policy goals. That is not to assert that it will, as America’s role in NATO is only as good as the domestic politics driving it. Collective agreements can be a useful alternative to, for example, multi-trillion-dollar domestic defense spending. America’s military alliances are not inherently bad; the choices our elected officials make are the problem. Growing its foothold in domestic politics will be easier when the left can advance a coherent foreign policy worldview that communicates what it intends to do rather than only what it will not do.