Meanwhile on the Left...

Meanwhile on the Left...

Mini Teaser: How the different strands of the Left have reacted to the end of the Cold War--and how they help explain developments on the Right.

by Author(s): Lawrence F. Kaplan

At the end of the Cold War, there was a widely held belief that an era of rancorous foreign policy debates had been put behind us. But within a year or two foreign policy intellectuals were again going at each other full bore--over Bosnia, China, NATO expansion, human rights, trade and sundry other topics. It is fair to say that these debates have been dominated by conservatives. Typically, they have taken the form of intramural disputes between "neoconservatives" and "realists" in the pages of journals like Commentary, The Weekly Standard, National Review, First Things and The National Interest.

Given this dominance, it has been easy to overlook the fact that some interesting things have been happening on the foreign policy Left. True, with the Cold War's denouement many of its members have shifted their gaze to perceived injustices at home, while others have retreated to the academy and, as Paul Hollander has put it, "to new preoccupations like multiculturalism, identity politics, postmodernism, deconstructionism, or radical feminism." But even if somewhat marginalized, there remains a distinctive leftist critique of America's global role.

Or rather several competing leftist critiques. For just as the demise of Soviet communism dissolved the substantial foreign policy consensus on the Right, so did it sunder the Left into competing factions. From these there have emerged four distinct camps, which are of interest both in themselves and because, in a way, they help to explain the divide on the Right.

The Not-So-New Left

The first and least interesting of these--what might be labeled the Not-So-New Left--descends from the radicalism of the Vietnam era. In fact, to listen to the rhetoric of its spokesmen is to be transported back to that fractious period, for neither the end of the Cold War nor the advent of humanitarian intervention seems to have made the slightest impression on this group. What motivates its ranks and is central to its position is the conviction that American foreign policy is irredeemably tainted, marred by past involvement in too many suspect conflicts and past support for too many dictators. "This fitful attention to human rights should arouse suspicion", Nation columnist Katha Pollitt cautioned her readers during the war in Kosovo. "How likely is it that the United States has suddenly awakened to moral realities of which it was ignorant when it was supporting the Mobutu regime in Zaire, financing the contras in Nicaragua?" And even Pollitt was outdone by Tom Hayden, who seized upon the military effort in the Balkans as clear proof that the United States intended to "consolidat[e] an economic and military alliance" of "the former colonial and imperial powers."

For all their coarseness, however, the Haydens and Pollitts of this world are the residue of a vanishing past. Less hidebound commentators on the Left, indeed, have felt constrained to rebuke them for their reflexive opposition to American power. One of these, David Rieff, recently denounced in the pages of World Policy Journal "the utopian nihilism of a left that would prefer to see genocide in Bosnia and the mass deportation of the Kosovars rather than strengthen, however marginally, the hegemony of the United States."

Likewise, Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens has admonished Noam Chomsky for his rote denunciation of American intervention in Kosovo, drawing his attention to the fact that we live "in a new era, where old reflexes serve us less well." These "old reflexes", moreover, have been subjected to some honest, and what for some must be a painful, scrutiny. Casting a glance backward in Dissent, for example, Paul Berman has conceded that, on matters of foreign affairs, "we, too, as much as any slippery Nation editor or forthright Fidelista or honest Sandinista, had gotten frozen in the past."

The Anti-Globalization Left

This is not to say that the post-Cold War Left is losing its gift for demonization. But at least in the case of our next group, new villains have been designated--specifically, the global economy and the multilateral institutions thought to sustain it. As its title indicates, what inspires the Anti-Globalization Left is antipathy toward the process of rapidly expanding trade and financial ties, much of which has been directed at international economic institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An activist enunciated the camp's logic recently in the pages of In These Times: "The WTO is the latest escalation in the whole system of global corporate rule. We need to stop that escalation and then tackle all the other institutions of corporate rule, such as the IMF and the World Bank." Dissent contributor Susan George has echoed and escalated this argument, insisting that the imperative of defeating "antidemocratic institutions like the WTO" amounts to nothing less than "an epic battle for civilization and freedom against barbarism and tyranny."

There is an irony here. Phrases like "corporate rule", thought to have been banished forever from the lexicon of American politics along with "class war", have once again returned to favor. Only this time such terms are applied not to American power as wielded in Southeast Asia or Central America, but against the very achievement of economic and political integration that has for generations held the progressive imagination in thrall. So long as a borderless world created by capitalism was a distant and unrealizable goal, it fascinated the Left; now, as it increasingly appears achievable, the Left has turned against it, insisting it is little more than a rapacious corporate scheme. Richard Falk, for one, derides as futile the attempt "to project a visionary cosmopolitanism . . . without addressing the subversive challenge of the market-driven globalism currently being promoted by transnational corporations and banks." Immanuel Wallerstein, too, has grown suspicious of those who tout a global polity as an enlightened aim. "The stance of 'citizen of the world' is deeply ambiguous", he cautions. "It can be used just as easily to sustain privilege as to undermine it."

Here we pass through the looking glass. For globalization has driven many on the Left to the extreme of calling for a return to the virtues of "traditional patriotism." While no less a figure than Ralph Nader has lately been hounding executives to begin their meetings with a pledge of allegiance to "the country that bred them, built them, subsidized them and defended them", others, their economic nationalism having mutated into something like political nationalism, have rendered themselves all but indistinguishable from Pat Buchanan.
The Cosmopolitan Left

While all this has been going on in one quarter of the Left, among the ranks of a more urbane liberalism--those we might label the Cosmopolitan Left--we find that the universalist idea is actually enjoying a vogue. The stance of this group is exactly the reverse of the Anti-Globalization Left, for here allegiance to the nation-state becomes the very obstacle to universal peace and justice. Thus, cosmopolitan theorist Martha Nussbaum frets--in an essay that traces the notion of universal citizen back to the Stoics--that "patriotism is very close to jingoism", and rues the fact that the persistence of "a morally arbitrary boundary such as the boundary of the nation" still affects political deliberations. Reasoning, too, that economic integration will yield some sort of political confederation, adherents of the cosmopolitan idea generally applaud the expansion of financial and commercial ties. The view has been neatly encapsulated by New Republic contributing editor Robert Wright, who enthuses that "political globalization is catching up to economic globalization", which is sure to yield a diffuse version of world government, which, he proclaims, is a very good idea.

But the cosmopolitan world-view has relevance beyond matters of political economy. In fact, its influence has been most evident in the recent transformation of mainstream liberal attitudes toward American military power. The precise explanation for this shift is to be found in the emergence of a doctrine for employing that power in concert with, and on behalf of, the "world community." This, in turn, has offered assurance that the awesome military power of the United States serves not only American interests but the interests of all humanity. Hence, Anthony Lewis, Michael Walzer and other writers who consistently opposed the use of force during the Cold War could support U.S. efforts in Kosovo because, as Walzer approvingly observed, "obviously, U.S. national security is not at stake." And where many on the Right declined to support the air campaign in the Balkans because they failed to discern a national interest there, the endorsement of a liberal Democratic congressman like Paul Wellstone derived precisely from what he claimed to be the absence of such an interest.

Alas, beyond humanitarian intervention, cosmopolitanism has proved next to useless as a blueprint for American military policy. As President Clinton discovered after enshrining a version of it in an ambitious policy known as "assertive multilateralism", national leaders who place their military establishments at the service of the world community do so at their own political peril. For the Clinton administration, indeed, the steep political price paid for the loss of twenty-six American soldiers in Somalia demolished the theory's appeal in one fell swoop.


This brings us to neoliberalism, a creed perfectly embodied by the Clinton team. Its essence is the achievement of cosmopolitan aims--the relief of parochial resentments, the obsolescence of major war, and political interdependence--through decidedly traditional foreign policy means: cutting trade deals, pursuing open markets, and vigorously promoting U.S. business interests abroad. According to the President, focusing on markets makes more than just good economic sense; the United States, he insists, may henceforth build "peace through trade, investment and commerce", the increase of which will "compel the world towards integration."

The prefix "neo", as shortly became apparent, signified something other than revised liberalism. While neoliberalism paid lip service to liberal ideals, it seemed more exactly to be liberalism shorn of its ideals, a naked appeal to the satisfaction of human appetites.

Thus, where the Clinton team initially characterized its approach to the international political economy as "neo-Wilsonian", its true inclinations were soon revealed to bear a much closer resemblance to the policies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. "The days when we could afford to subordinate our economic interests to foreign policy concerns are long past", declared former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor. What the United States must do, in the words of former Clinton Undersecretary of Commerce Jeffrey Garten, is "use all its foreign policy levers to achieve commercial goals." Business first; high-minded aims later.

Comforted by the notion that it could achieve democratization by means of sheer acquisitiveness, the administration promptly turned a blind eye to human rights violations in countries where American corporations happened to do business. And in the name of its ostensible commitment to political liberty, the White House has maintained sanctions against states of marginal commercial significance while actively promoting trade with states like China, which boast no less abysmal human rights records but large markets. As for U.S. efforts to influence the behavior of its adversaries, the neoliberal obsession with trade has, if anything, proved less of a help than a burden, creating an interest in maintaining the status quo and inhibiting America's ability to use its power for political ends. Thus has neoliberalism ensnared the United States in moral complications to which, finally, it provides no adequate response.

* * *

The defects of these various stances--the anti-Americanism of the Not-So-New Left; the self-defeating protectionism of the Anti-Globalization Left; the utopianism of the Cosmopolitan Left; the tawdriness of neoliberalism--are numerous and irreparable. Ironically, if it is a principled and sensible liberalism that we seek, we must proceed rightward. And here is where the conservative debate enters the picture.

A centerpiece of that debate has been the charge that neoconservatives are, as Gideon Rose has alleged in these pages, "old-fashioned liberals" whose "ideological passion remains constant and dangerous", and who, therefore, are not "properly conservative." Setting aside the fact that neither America nor for that matter American conservatism qualifies as "properly conservative", the allegation of covert liberalism, with its imputation of ideological heresy, is meant to intrigue. And so it does. But are neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions really comparable to the ones just described? Are they, as has been variously charged, "Wilsonian", "ameliorist", "utopian" and "radical"?

The kernel of veracity in the charge is that, properly understood, neoconservatives are the heirs and custodians of American exceptionalism, a doctrine that does indeed possess certain liberal attributes. Neoconservatives may even be, as their critics contend, Wilsonian. But if so, theirs is a Wilsonianism of a decidedly less grandiose sort than that practiced by Wilson himself. For while neoconservatives do echo his democratic idealism, they vehemently reject his artless universalism--this distinction being precisely what sets them apart from their intellectual relations on the Left.

In the neoconservative telling, the United States does not advance its ideals solely, or even principally, for the benefit of others. To begin with, a straightforward argument from self-interest is offered: As democracies rarely if ever wage war against one another and generally sustain political freedoms, it follows that the more democratic the world becomes the more likely it is to be congenial to America. An even more crucial distinction between neoconservatives and contemporary liberals derives from the former's insistence that theirs is the natural expression of an unabashed and explicitly ideological sense of national pride. While most Americans are disinclined to think of themselves as possessing an ideology, neoconservatives remain keenly attentive to the fact that the United States is a "creedal" nation. That creed--democracy--may be universal in its applicability, but it is equally America's particular inheritance, what Hans Morgenthau has described as a "nationalistic universalism."

What does this distinction mean in practical terms? For one, unlike contemporary liberalism, neoconservatism does not deny the primacy of, or put ideology before, national security. Where the former prefers that peace and political liberty be fostered within international organizations and through the expansion of trade and finance, neoconservatives look to American power. And while a deep-seated reluctance to judge others and lingering skepticism about America's founding ideals lead the Left to emphasize humanitarian aid over the promotion of democracy, no such misgivings inhibit neoconservatives. Accordingly, where members of the Cosmopolitan Left reluctantly concede that America may indeed need to play the role of global policeman, for neoconservatives it must be much more than that. "A policeman gets his orders from higher authorities", writes Joshua Muravchik, "but in the community of nations there is no authority higher than America."

If this religious attachment to the American idea distinguishes neoconservatives from liberals, it equally sets them apart from contemporary realists. True, neoconservatives concur with certain staples of the realist catalogue--above all, the view of the international environment as a fundamentally anarchical and dangerous place. Where the two camps part company is over the neoconservative claim that this condition may be, and indeed has been, tamed through the vigorous application of American power, American ideals, and the ameliorative possibilities of both.

Now, whether--or to what extent--those ideals should be injected into America's foreign policies is a question about which there remains ample room for disagreement. This country's leaders have for two centuries been engaged in a serious and legitimate debate on this very question, with one side arguing that America's international conduct should exemplify its values and the other arguing that, while its ideals indeed possess universal significance, America could best inspire others through their practice at home. To their credit, realists have for years invoked the latter understanding of American exceptionalism to disprove the contention that theirs is an alien creed. Alas, the denial of America's exceptional inheritance has lately become a leitmotif of the realist complaint against neoconservatism, much as it was coming from the Left thirty years ago.

So it is true: while hardly liberal in the current sense of the word, neoconservatism is also not properly conservative. Which makes it well suited to a country that is neither.

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