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Left Unresolved: Part I

An examination of the broad spectrum of leftist foreign policy ideas.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

At the heart of foreign policy is a simple question: What actions in the world will make tomorrow safer than today? As framed, the question reads primarily about nations. After all, these are the traditional foreign policy agents and the unconstrained players in the anarchic world of realism. But the question could just as easily be about national leaders, transnational alliances between elites, or the interests and desires of everyday people. Likewise, what constitutes a safer tomorrow is likely to have very different answers for an internationally minded high school student and a Saudi oil baron. The world is, in a real sense, what we make of it.

In “Left of Liberal Internationalism: Grand Strategies within Progressive Foreign Policy Thought,” Van Jackson examines the broad spectrum of leftist foreign policy ideas and how they formulate what could be seen as grand strategies to understand the world.

In looking at the debates among the Left, Jackson finds primarily three camps, which share some language and approaches, but can differ greatly on means, ends, and underlying rationale.

“Because military-first politics are a blight on democracy, antimilitarism has always been a throughline for the American Left that informs its antiwar politics. But antimilitarism does not inherently rule out the use of force, which means it is not reducible to pacifism,” writes Jackson. Debates over the how, against who, and to what ends military force should be used is central to differentiating camps of progressive foreign policy.

In looking at the debates among the Left, Jackson finds primarily three camps, which share some language and approaches, but can differ greatly on means, ends, and underlying rationale. The first of these perspectives is “Progressive Pragmatism,” which starts from US foreign policy as it is and seeks to make it more equitable and just. Another is “Antihegemonism,” a camp that sees the United States and US power as responsible for the far-right at home and abroad and seeks to minimize US power in order to reduce the influence of the Right in the world. Finally, “Peacemaking” seeks to structure international relations through means other than the national security apparatus, especially military and intelligence agencies, relying instead on cooperative security and transnational civil society to manage conflict.

While those camps can be at odds, they often share an expansive way of thinking about security, one often missing from narrow assessments of tank numbers or warheads in arsenals.

“The human security agenda, for example, which stresses anthropogenic threats (climate change) and naturogenic threats (pandemics), has received short shrift in grand strategy literature but is instrumental in how progressives think about security; they believe foreign policy should attend to the root causes of geopolitical problems, which reside disproportionately outside the military realm,” writes Jackson.

Guiding all three camps of Left foreign policy is an understanding of some degree of greater kinship with people outside their own nation. This is crucial to all movements that seek international solidarity in a fight for a better tomorrow against reactionary forces, but how the groups define allies can be illuminating.

“In essence, all progressives claim to be global solidarists with an at least thinly cosmopolitan outlook, but that conviction can be directed narrowly at democratic governments, selectively at the working class, or universally at human beings,” writes Jackson.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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