The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in the popularity of leftist political thought in the United States – though it is clear that leftist ideas still have a very long road to travel before reaching full, mainstream acceptance. I’ve recently seen myself take my own personal journey of “coming out of the closet” when it came to accepting my actual inner political compass – one that started in earnest around 2015/2016 and finally came to a head during the 2020 Democratic primaries.
For years I saw myself as a fairly typical, center-left, liberal foreign policy and national security “wonk” (a term I used to think was funny and now makes me cringe so hard it feels like my face might turn inside out), coming from a fairly typical white, male, middle-class background. Now I’m still getting over the whiplash of the last year, which has seen me fumbling my way through trying to identify where exactly I stand within the seemingly massive and maze-like world of leftism and its various sub-ideologies as I’ve drastically changed my political outlook. I’m still travelling on that journey and slowly trying to figure out what I think, but along the way I’ve been introduced to a number of helpful people and have been educated on a number of subjects, challenging my past beliefs and assertions and pushing me to grow.
But as someone who is relatively new to boarding the leftist train, I’ve noticed there are some areas that – to me – it seems that leftist thought in the United States either hardly touches or doesn’t address at all. None among these has been as obvious to me as the subjects I was educated in and have come to work: foreign policy and national security.
It’s understandable to me why most leftists tend not to speak about these topics. After all, most average Americans, regardless of ideology, for one reason or another, lack a general awareness or understanding about national security and foreign policy – even if they understand that it is important (it could be argued how much of this is by design, but that’s a topic for another essay). In addition to this general fact, most leftists likely see other issues like systemic racism, police brutality, lack of social services, the rampant abuses and excesses of unchecked capitalism, and so on as more immediately pressing concerns – and for good reason.
However, the result here is that it feels like what little conversation that takes place within leftist circles about war and international relations is typically dominated by groups and individuals who do not provide helpful or constructive alternative solutions. Rather, they more often than not put forward solutions that – if not unworkable or infeasible – could be outright damaging and potentially inflict just as much death and destruction on people around the globe as current policies do if adopted, rather than achieving a more peaceful and just world. While I am still new to this, these perspectives feel like they are clearly contrary to the underlying principles of international leftist solidarity.
The current thought leaders (and why they’re not great)
One such group advocating these ideas consists of individuals that come from a diverse array of different sections of leftist thought that – while maybe conflicting in other areas – generally argue that the United States should engage in little or no military actions overseas and withdraw from most if not all of its overseas bases. Some go further, asserting that the armed forces should be disbanded entirely. While I disagree with these suggestions strongly for reasons I will elaborate on further, I completely understand why people would advocate for these actions and I empathize with their proponents in why they argue for it so strongly. They are exercising sympathy with disadvantaged peoples who have suffered at U.S. expense. When you see the huge amounts of pain and suffering that U.S. military operations and foreign policy actions in the last few decades have caused to multiple innocent populations overseas, a response of wanting to take the most extreme way possible to prevent that from happening is completely understandable.
However, while the intent behind this idea is pure, it is also naïve and potentially dangerous. If the United States elected a hypothetical “President Leftist” tomorrow, it is true that a great deal would change both here at home and abroad. But what is not true is that suddenly that the United States would no longer have enemies – depending on where the cards fall globally, it might even earn the United States more enemies.
While I am challenging many of my old views from before diving headfirst into leftism and have modified or outright replaced many, one that I continue to believe is that war is a condition that humankind will likely never be rid of. War has been and will continue to be a constant for the world. Obviously, war should be avoided wherever possible and should only be a last resort for defending yourself or your friends and allies from aggression. But despite this, war will still continue to occur and it will be something that a leftist government will still have to prepare for. Will we have to spend near as much on defense as we do now? I certainly don’t think so (and that is yet another topic for another time), but it is something that resources will still need to be put into under President Leftist. War will still be a worry.
This is where the naivety – as well as a bit of ethnocentrism or even another brand of American exceptionalism – is on display in the disarmament viewpoint. If the United States destroyed all its weapons and discharged all its troops under day one of President Leftist’s administration, it is extremely improbable that every other nation in the world would decide to follow suit even under the rosiest visions of internationalism. The United States having a leftist government almost certainly wouldn’t stop China from wanting to invade Taiwan, Russia from wanting to dominate its near-abroad, or a number of other scenarios across the world. If anything, these regimes would be cautiously optimistic about such a government arising in the United States, hoping it would give them more room to maneuver and achieve their long-term objectives. They would likely be ecstatic if the U.S. suddenly disbanded all of its armed forces, as it would give them free reign to pursue a laundry list of goals they had previously been constrained in reaching – and would cause harm to many others in the process.
This brings us to two other groups that dominate the discussion of international relations and war in the leftist sphere, but I tend to think of as one overall type: “Campists” and “Tankies.” Campists, in a simplified sense, are those who think that if a country opposes the policies and practices of the United States, that country must therefore be good and is inherently an ally against U.S. imperialism and aggression to be applauded. Tankies – the colloquial term for everyone’s favorite Soviet apologists and fans of authoritarian socialists – take a similar tack, though the subjects of their affection are almost always only countries with socialist systems, while Campists may boost countries that are not exclusively socialist.
While different, both these groups broadly the same thing: that we should just let certain countries do whatever they want because the U.S. government is bad and these other states are good. The average campist’s main reason for this is that because the country is not the United States or a U.S. ally, it must be good and should be supported in its efforts – an outlook that in many ways could simply be considered in the vein of Edward Said’s orientalism, fetishizing other countries and cultures to create an imagined ideal that they may not be able to live up to. For the tankie, the logic is that since the country is socialist in any shape or form, it must be good and therefore should be supported in its efforts. Both these groups tend to turn a willful blind eye to any transgressions the states of their affection have committed against their own citizens or other states – while of course relentlessly criticizing all U.S. actions worldwide.
This leads us to a critical point, which I attach with an important disclaimer: I am not saying that the United States can do no wrong. If I did that, I’d basically be doing the same thing as a tankie or a campist in reverse. I wouldn’t be writing this multi-page rant in my free time if I didn’t think the United States was doing an incredible amount of harm through its international actions. But this still leads us to an important point:
Just because the United States is doing bad things, doesn’t mean no one else is.
Multiple things can be bad at the same time.
Multiple countries can be bad (and not just ones that are U.S. allies and partners).
This seems to be a fact that many leftists struggle with – not just the full-blown Tankies and Campists. Just because the United States and its proxies have committed inexcusable acts at home and worldwide does not mean China or Russia or Iran or North Korea have not (and they all absolutely have; fight me). This doesn’t mean we should only focus on the acts of those countries and turn a blind eye to those of the United States, but the opposite isn’t true either. It certainly doesn’t mean that we should be supporting these regimes and rooting for them in their quests to brutalize their own citizens or infringe upon the rights of people in other countries, or any number of other horrible things their regimes wish. Instead of trying to find an imagined ideal role model country, we need to accept that there is no perfect model free of transgressions for us to emulate. Leftists will need to accept that there are good things – or at least neutral things – that the United States should continue doing, while also taking inspiration from other countries both past and present in order to make right all that is wrong in our own country.
Why we need to do better
That final point reinforces why leftists need to get smarter on these issues and build up our own bench of experts in international relations and the study of war. One day – in the hopefully not-so-distant future – when President Leftist takes office, they are going to face many of the same issues that presidents past have faced, as well as a whole host of new ones we may not even be able to comprehend right now. Even after the United States ceases engaging in aggressive, imperialist actions of its own, other states will continue to do so and new contenders may come to the fore to seize their own opportunity to stake out an empire. The simple truth is that under President Leftist, the great power competition that has characterized international relations in modern times will almost certainly remain, even after the United States commits to a necessary retreat from empire. Ideally, this great power competition and its impact will be lessened over time. But my cynicism is again on display in that I don’t believe we’ll ever fully be rid of it – at least not in any near-future timeline that I can foresee.
With all this in mind, if President Leftist chose to disband the military as disarmament proponents assert, or simply let certain nations do as they pleased as Tankies and Campists would prefer, they would not only be forsaking one of the fundamental tenants of leftism – that is, internationalism, they would also be showing a fundamental lack of empathy for the fate of others. As Francis Horton and Nate Bethea of one of my favorite podcasts – What a Hell of a Way to Die – have taught me: you simply can’t be a leftist if you don’t exercise empathy. That empathy doesn’t stop at borders. If we chose to forsake other oppressed populations the world over under our own leftist government, we wouldn’t be worthy of the title. Isolationist leftism is simply an oxymoron.
Another issue that many leftists don’t consider or don’t wish to address is the way the United States has become essential to global stability (another thing I can only briefly address here, but hope to address more in a future essay). The United States ceasing its pursuit of neo-colonial empire and abandoning said empire and further imperialist activities are admittedly essential if we are to build a more stable, free, and just world for everyone who lives in it. But if the United States were to immediately withdraw all overseas military forces under day one of President Leftist’s administration and cease any and all military operations, it would likely be extremely damaging and harmful to many people across the world. Serious discussions can and should be had about how big the U.S. military should be, what it should do, how it should do it, what is better saved for diplomacy and foreign aid, and so on. But these are not the discussions that leftists are having now. The discussions are dominated by those with the ideas that could potentially do the most harm to the most vulnerable people.
This is why I decided to write this essay (with some encouragement from friends), and why I hope to be writing more like it and undertaking other efforts to distribute my thoughts. I want to explore more of what foreign policy and national security policy would look like under our hypothetical President Leftist. I think it is an area – among others – that we as leftists are fundamentally unprepared for. If we ever hope to govern and enact real, fundamental, society-altering change in this country, we’ll need to have seriously thought about what exactly that would be and how exactly we would carry it out. As someone who has spent most of their academic career learning about these subjects and has now become a practitioner of them, I feel this is a way I could give back – with the help of those that I’ve met along the way – to the community I’ve found my way into as I continue to discover myself and find a place in it.
No doubt people will disagree with me (certainly, many among the groups I’ve singled out as the target of my ire). Some people will argue against what I’m saying in bad faith (say hello to being ignored). Others will be opposed because they may have a hard time challenging their own long held views – which is understandable, as I still struggle with many of my own. But it is my hope that the thoughts I’ll be putting out here will encourage greater discussion and deliberation among leftists on these issues, and lead to a wider variety of voices becoming involved and helping to develop policies and solutions that can lead to a better world.
A better world is possible, but a perfect world is not.