Ukraine/NATO Resolution: All Cost, No Benefit

An argument against the "Socialist Anti-Militarism and the War in Ukraine" resolution for the national convention.

The “Socialist Anti-Militarism and the War in Ukraine” resolution can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. In terms of policy, it calls for rejection of all military budgets, as well as an end to US aid to Ukraine and Israel; solidarity with the Russian anti-war movement and a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine; US withdrawal from the NATO military alliance, the abolition of NATO, the closure of all foreign US military bases, and the re-shoring of all US troops stationed abroad. In terms of practical action, it calls for DSA elected officials at every level of government, from the local level to Congress, to agree with all of these policy positions; a National Political Committee-sponsored meeting with DSA members in Congress that would press them to adopt these positions; a subsequent DSA “town hall” involving all of these members of Congress if they do not agree to adopt those positions at the initial meeting; and an international anti-war conference involving participants from around the world as well as DSA’s members of Congress.

My personal view on the war is that it is inconsistent to condemn Russia’s invasion and call for the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, while also calling for an end to support for Ukraine’s self-defense. How will a full withdrawal of Russian troops to their positions before the invasion be achieved unless Ukraine pushes Russian forces out of annexed Ukrainian territory? How could a ceasefire and settlement consistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter, which Russia has violated by annexing Ukrainian territory by force, actually be brought about? Vladimir Putin has staked his future on the war. There is little indication that he will voluntarily back away from his annexations of Ukrainian territory, or the tremendous cost in Russian blood and treasure he has already incurred, because of the serious political consequences he’d face for doing so at home. Opponents of support for Ukraine’s self-defense have never, in my view, been able to provide convincing answers to these questions, and neither does this resolution.

Still, I will not focus on these considerations here. I don’t believe there is currently anything resembling a consensus among DSA members regarding the matter of support for Ukraine, nor will there there be – and I think that’s OK. My argument against the resolution will focus instead on more pragmatic concerns. Simply put, this resolution bites off far more than the organization can chew, and would set off yet another cycle of demoralizing internal conflicts over “accountability” and expulsions.

If adopted, it would put DSA at odds with all of our current elected officials in Congress, as well as other genuine critics of US foreign policy in national politics like Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Bernie Sanders. It would compel DSA candidates and elected officials who have little or nothing to do with foreign policy to adopt positions on matters like NATO, when these are not relevant to their work or the concerns of their constituents. It would commit the organization to demands so out of reach, like a unilateral US withdrawal from NATO, that we can’t do anything practical to achieve them. Finally, it would alienate DSA from left-wing parties and labor movements – including in Ukraine and Russia themselves, as well as in Eastern Europe, the Nordic countries, and elsewhere – who disagree with the positions and policies it advances. Let’s not isolate ourselves from allies at home and abroad, or raise the specter of expulsions and internal strife, over questions of foreign policy we can do little about. Convention delegates should, in my view, vote down this resolution.

A Recipe for Conflict

Last fall the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), of which all DSA members in the House of Representatives are members, issued a letter to President Biden on the administration’s Ukraine policy. The letter urged the president “to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” It highlighted the death and destruction the war has brought to Ukraine, the potential risk of nuclear escalation, and the negative impact it has had on global poverty and hunger. At the same time, it expressed appreciation for the president’s “commitment to Ukraine’s legitimate struggle against Russia’s war of aggression” and “the self-defense of an independent, sovereign, and democratic state” through military, economic, and humanitarian aid.

The letter stirred up a whirl of confusion and controversy, and CPC chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal withdrew it less than a day after it was released. It seems a significant interval of time passed between its initial circulation and the time of publication, and a critical mass of CPC members apparently came to disagree with it in that period. According to Rep. Ilhan Omar, the original drafters did not keep signatories apprised of its progress, nor when or how it would be released. In any case, the letter was withdrawn, suggesting that there was not enough support for it even among its signatories.

If DSA members in Congress backed away from this fairly moderate letter just a few months ago, it seems there is little chance that they will go beyond it now by accepting the resolution’s demand to start voting against support for Ukraine on pain of a DSA “accountability” process. Nor are they likely to begin calling for a unilateral US withdrawal from NATO, the abolition of NATO, and the closure of all foreign US military bases. As such, this resolution all but guarantees a public confrontation with all of DSA’s elected officials in Congress, and protracted internal conflict over whether they should be expelled. It will not convince those elected officials to adopt the positions advanced in the resolution, and it would disrupt everything else our organization is trying to do. It is all cost, no benefit, and should therefore be avoided.

It is worth noting that the leading progressive critics of US foreign policy in Congress would not agree with this resolution either. Bernie Sanders welcomed the CPC letter’s withdrawal, saying “I don’t agree with that, and they don’t agree with it, apparently.” He has been a proponent of support for Ukraine on the grounds of supporting its self-defense against “a major power invading and causing mass destruction.” Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after the 9/11 attacks – who also votes against the Pentagon budget every year in Congress and regularly sponsors the People Over Pentagon Act to cut it by $100 billion – has also been a strong proponent of support for Ukraine. Adopting this resolution would position DSA closer to the likes of Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Josh Hawley than Bernie Sanders and Barbara Lee. Is that something we really want to do?

A more constructive proposal could have simply reiterated the CPC letter’s call for a “proactive diplomatic push” toward a “realistic framework for a ceasefire” in Ukraine, and called on DSA elected officials and chapters to campaign in support of Rep. Lee’s People Over Pentagon Act – which, despite getting the largest number of cosponsors in the bill’s history this year, got just 20 out of a body of 435. DSA members on every side of the Ukraine question could agree on these points, and DSA members in Congress would likely be responsive to them. But this resolution goes far beyond that by demanding elected officials not just vote against aid to Ukraine, but to adopt the most maximalist positions possible on other foreign policy issues too. That just isn’t going to happen.

International questions have been a leading source of division and acrimony in DSA. But they don’t have to be, so long as we put more effort into finding common ground and building practical, unifying campaigns – and less into issuing statements. The People Over Pentagon Act could be one such campaign.

Does a School Board Candidate Need to Have a Position on NATO?

The resolution stipulates that “elected socialist caucuses and socialists in office committees at the national, state, and chapter levels will be responsible for appropriately holding their representatives democratically accountable to this political commitment.” As far as I can tell, this provision would require DSA candidates and elected officials at every level of government, regardless of their jurisdictions or areas of responsibility, to commit to the positions in the resolution on pain of “accountability.” If so, this sets up highly unrealistic expectations for candidates and elected officials who have little or nothing to do with foreign policy, and would probably have a significant impact on our ability to recruit effective candidates for public office.

Does a DSA candidate for a local school board need to have a specific position on Ukraine, NATO abolition, the closure of all US military bases, or any other foreign policy issue? I don’t think they do, even if they happen to agree with every single one of my own views on these matters. The maximalist nature of some of the demands in the resolution means that there is little even a member of Congress, much less a city councilor or state legislator, could do to achieve them anyway. We tend to avoid starting campaigns we have no chance of winning when it comes to domestic policy and politics. Why should we go in the completely opposite direction when it comes to foreign policy and international affairs?

The socialist historian and tenant organizer Greg Afinogenov astutely reminds us that a “preoccupation with abstract questions of foreign policy has been historically corrosive for the left, leading to bitter fights over precisely those issues which we are least able to affect.” Debate and disagreement over these questions is not necessarily a problem, he correctly notes, “but it becomes one the more such issues are treated as existential and the more our discussions are severed from practical concerns.” I’m afraid this is exactly what adoption of this resolution would do to DSA.

International Comrades Don’t Agree

The resolution calls on DSA to organize a conference of “leftist parties, labor unions, social movements, and other anti-war forces from across the world,” and to “build solidarity with left-wing, anti-imperialist forces in Ukraine and the Russian anti-war movement.” Such formulations seem to assume that there is broad agreement with the resolution’s perspectives on the international left, but the fact is that there is not. Many democratic socialists and labor organizers in Ukraine and Russia, for example, would not agree with the views expressed in the resolution. How could we build solidarity with them on the basis of a disagreement over what they consider to be existential questions? The same goes for left parties and labor movements in the countries geographically closest to the war in Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries. They have adopted positions on the war in Ukraine at odds with those expressed in the resolution as well. The international conference the resolution’s authors envision would therefore, quite awkwardly, not include representative comrades from the countries directly involved in or geographically closest to the war.

The resolution is correct to note that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has advanced a neoliberal, anti-labor agenda amid Ukraine’s war effort. Ukrainian trade unionists and democratic socialists have done what they can to fight this under conditions of martial law. But they would not agree that Ukraine should be denied aid because of Ukrainian government policies they oppose. The country’s trade union federations fully back Ukraine’s self-defense and external support for it. The Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Social Movement shares similar views, as do Russian comrades in the Russian Socialist Movement and other left-wing formations.

Left-wing parties in Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries do not agree with the positions laid out in the resolution either. These include: Left Together (Poland), Left Alliance (Finland), Alliance of the Left (Lithuania), Future (Czechia), We are the Left (Czechia), Democracy and Solidarity Party (Romania), Unity List/Red-Green Alliance (Denmark), Green Left (Denmark), Left Party (Sweden), Red Party (Norway), and Socialist Left Party (Norway). France Insoumise members of European Parliament have repeatedly voted in favor of resolutions supporting Ukraine’s self-defense. Yolanda Diaz, Spain’s Communist Party minister of labor and the country’s most popular politician, shares similar views, as does the former radical left mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. John McDonnell, a stalwart of Britain’s Labour left and Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, does too.

Adopting positions that put us at odds with these and other comrades is not, in my view, worth the potential cost. It would alienate us from many of our natural allies in the region – above all, in Ukraine itself – thereby defeating the resolution’s call for building solidarity. DSA should take their perspectives into account when discussing and debating the war in Ukraine and related issues. This resolution doesn’t do that.

Summing Up

The late Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis had three questions that guided her leadership: “Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?” I think that is a pretty good test of leadership, worthy of application to a wide range of issues and questions. The resolution under consideration here, in my view, fails that test on all counts. It is guaranteed to divide us, makes maximalist demands that we could do very little to pursue in practice, and puts us at odds with many international comrades affected by the war, including in Ukraine itself. Convention delegates should vote this resolution down.