Between Sovereignty and Solidarity
Four DSA members discuss their conceptions of internationalism, imperialism, and the responsibilities of socialists living in the US.
What are the internationalist responsibilities of socialists living in the United States? Do the principles of international solidarity and non-interference in other countries’ affairs conflict, and if so how should socialists navigate that tension? If the world is entering a new multi-polar era, how will this affect our understanding of and practical opposition to imperialism?
There are no easy answers to these questions. With global tensions on the rise amid the war in Ukraine, it is incumbent upon the US left to discuss and debate them as widely as possible. To that end, Socialist Forum recently invited four DSA members – Bill Fletcher, Jr., Paul Garver, Ron J., and Mirah W. – to talk to each other about their conceptions of internationalism and how socialists in the US can most effectively fight for a just and peaceful world. (Note: this discussion took place before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 – eds.)
What are the basic principles and experiences that shape your approach to internationalism?
Ron J.: For me, my approach to internationalism is influenced by two big factors. One, growing up in India where my family’s from, and also growing up in the US during the war on terror era. As a child in India, I was very much shaped by the legacies of the British colonial rule in India. I saw the impacts in the environment around me, and heard the stories of people who grew up during that time. This was a regime that violently exploited and oppressed the people in the subcontinent. And of course, the people fought back and ultimately liberated themselves in a variety of ways. So the historical memories of that era still impact a lot of politics in South Asia even today. It also profoundly affected my views on anti-imperialism and anti-colonial struggles in general.
After that, I returned to the United States. When I did so, I was aware that the Global War on Terror, and the Islamophobia and xenophobia that were central to this imperialist project, impacted Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrant communities in the US in addition to the people of the countries that the US invaded and still bombs today. I had to learn about this because I knew it shaped how people around me, but especially white people in this country, viewed people who look like me. So ultimately for me, my approach to internationalism is very much focused on doing everything I can to resist the US empire and its allies, who use their power to subjugate the rest of the world under their boots. I view the anti-imperial struggles of today as directly descending from the decolonization movements of the Cold War era, which saw people around the world, including in the US, fight for liberation against Western domination. And from my perspective, that struggle is not finished, and we must continue it from the heart of the empire.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: There are two critical images for me. The first is the slogan, “workers and oppressed people of the world, unite!” The other is non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. Now, those two slogans are actually somewhat in contradiction, which many people don’t quite want to admit. I begin with “workers and oppressed people of the world, unite!” because I think that as socialists, we need to be always keeping in mind the struggles of the oppressed, no matter what government they are up against. Whether that government claims to be on the left or is actually on the right, we have to be looking at the conditions facing working people and other segments that are often disenfranchised, if not openly oppressed. So I think that’s the starting point – making a critical analysis of what’s going on in different situations, and what can we do to support the struggles of the oppressed.
As for the issue of non-interference, we should generally be fighting here in the United States to not have the government interfere in the internal affairs of different countries. But what do we really mean by non-interference? For example, in the 1980s, when there was a struggle against apartheid in South Africa, there was a demand that the United States impose sanctions on South Africa. Is that interfering? This is where it gets complicated, and there has to be a non-rhetorical strategic discussion in every case. In general, we should be trying to keep the United States from launching coups, wars, etc. But the United States isn’t our only opponent on this planet. That’s why I think it’s really important to begin from the standpoint of the oppressed, not from the standpoint of individual nation-states.
Mirah W.: My study of internationalism is very much grounded in US foreign policy and my own personal academic background. My undergraduate studies are in international studies with a focus on Africa and colonialism. I have a master’s in public administration, but was also internationally focused. My father is an immigrant from Iran, and I grew up in an environment that was highly critical of US foreign policy. So that’s my own personal setting in it. I don’t think any sort of study of the US’s imperial role in the world is really complete without putting it into a larger pattern of the history of Western colonialism and the extractive economic relationship that was set up during that time, and continues today in terms of neocolonialism. And that those economic relationships between the global south and the west are enforced with violence by the US and its allies.
So my opposition to US imperialism is oriented more toward the nation-state level in general, in relation to what Bill was just talking about. I oppose US imperialism in all of its forms, including building bases overseas, selling arms to other countries, direct military intervention, sanctions, meddling in other countries internal affairs, including by funding dissidents and doing disinformation campaigns. I don’t really think of myself as a citizen of the world. I think that that’s a very tempting framing that I try to resist, which probably comes somewhat from my own personal background, but I think of myself as a citizen of the imperial core and take that as my primary responsibility. My role as an American citizen, although I’m also a citizen of Iran, is to oppose and counter US imperialism first and foremost.
Paul Garver: It’s pretty obvious to me that my formation was in a different period than Ron’s and Mirah’s. I really got involved in international labor solidarity issues in the 1980s, largely as a result of US intervention in Central America. I visited El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua all on labor solidarity efforts. My first effort was against US intervention, especially on the labor side. I engaged in a little battle in the US labor movement. I publicly debated Tom Kahn, who was a member and international affairs director of Social Democrats USA (SDUSA) and the international affairs director. SDUSA was very much a proponent of the US camp in the Cold War struggle with Russia, and the US labor movement was pretty much in thrall to the CIA and the Cold Warriors.
So my job as a democratic socialist in the labor movement was to help root them out, and I think that effort largely succeeded. We totally changed the ideology of the Service Employees International Union at the 1988 convention, where there was a big left caucus of which I was the coordinator. We did battle with the administration caucus led by John Sweeney. In the end, we ended up with a compromise whose perspective was very much along the lines of what Bill said before – solidarity with workers across borders, the working class and the labor movement comes first, not governments.
So that’s my foundation. I lived and worked overseas for a good part of my life and worked overseas, but I never got the impression that the US was the only capitalist power. I get a little concerned when we don’t talk enough about global capitalism, and the struggles of the global working class against capital. I really like creative projects where we can work together. Working together on things like the Philippines or like Myanmar, or like the Starbucks organizing that’s happening now both here in the US and places like Chile, where we can work creatively with people who have some different positions, but have a common cause within DSA, I feel very good about. I feel much more energetic when working on constructive projects together with comrades than in doing ideological battle.
What do you think are the main responsibilities of US socialists when it comes to international and foreign policy matters?
Mirah W.: To me, the responsibility of US socialists when it comes to international foreign policy matters, is to keep a laser focus on US imperialism and its material impacts on the rest of the world, and to keep a really clear focus on what the overarching narrative is about some of these other countries, because I don’t think the US is ever really coming from a genuine place when it comes to concern for workers. Not that there aren’t Americans who come from a place of genuine concern, but the government and the state itself, when it takes on the mantle of something like democracy or takes on the mantle of something like human rights or labor rights, and points them at other countries in a critical way, is not done in an even handed way, right? Is not done against dictatorial states that we consider client states or that are compliant with US policy. It’s really directed very specifically against enemy states.
I think it’s important to keep in mind how lending our voices to what is already a chorus of criticism, can help to add to the pressure to manufacture consent, not just for actual war but also for other forms of intervention and hybrid war. Secondly, it’s important to remain humble at all times and realize that we are the ones who should be learning from existing socialists and anti-imperialist revolutions around the world, to help aid our own process of change in the United States. We are still in the infancy of such a movement here in the US. We’re steeped in American exceptionalism here, and it’s hard to avoid a chauvinistic frame and the desire to dictate to other countries what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: I agree that the principal role of US socialists is taking on our own government. But principal doesn’t mean exclusive, and it does get thorny. In 1936, socialists and communists around the world wanted the direct intervention of their respective imperialist countries in Spain to support the Spanish Republic. Even though the United States was being very naughty in Latin America, people here said, “the US government should support the Spanish Republic.” My point here is that while our main work needs to be focused on the US, that’s not the only thing.
This is why the slogan “workers and oppressed people of the world, unite!” is my critical image. When I looked at what happened in Syria, the US was not the main problem in Syria. Iran, Hezbollah, and the Russians were the main problem on top of the Assad regime and what it was doing. Yet there were segments of the left that acted like the US was the main problem there, and they ended up having very contradictory views, particularly with regard to the Kurds. I had many arguments with people on the left around Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe was the president. When the Mugabe regime was in the process of repressing opposition, including but not limited to the trade union movement, I and a number of other people spoke out against it, and some people denounced us for allegedly aiding US imperialism. I mean, I personally knew people who were being tortured by the Mugabe regime. It wasn’t a hypothetical case to me. I think we have to be very careful of how we approach these situations, and recognize that the US is not the main problem in every case. Myanmar is another example today. The question then is, what do we do about it? Do we side with the oppressed? Or do we take a de facto isolationist position?
Ron J.: We can have discussions about who is culpable for what. We can have discussions about which countries are capitalist or not. We can have a lot of these intellectual discussions and political education, but the question always comes down to what is it that we can and should do? As Paul said before, what are the projects we can find unity on? Where can we agree and push forward together? What can socialists who live in the US really do and accomplish?
This is basically the same framework we apply for all sorts of issues and work, whether it be electoral campaigns to housing organizing or eco-socialist efforts. Just as we cannot endorse and help elect every socialist running for office, we should also figure out what is the most strategic and materially impactful way to engage in anti-imperialist and internationalist work. That’s sort of the concrete question we should tackle here. Just to take the example of Syria, yeah, we can have a lot of discussions about who is culpable or who is the primary actor, but the question is, would US intervention be helpful for anyone at all? Would any sort of US action be helpful for the people of Syria no matter what we think about this conflict? Is it really useful for us to talk about the Assad regime? That’s sort of the factor we need to think about. We can have these discussions but at the end of the day, as socialists we have to act and organize, and just like how we tackle other issues we must also learn to prioritize. In my opinion, the greatest area of unity is in organizing against US imperialism in various regions around the world. Whether it be US support for Israeli apartheid, US support for a new Cold War against China, or the sanctions regime that our country places on countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran. So it’s really a matter of, what do we want to prioritize with the limited resources that we have?
Paul Garver: I very much agree with Ron’s emphasis on material support, and I think that that’s where we often don’t have enough imagination when we issue statements. While I was waiting for this call, something popped up on my screen sent by the president of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance in the Bay Area about Chevron divesting from Myanmar. This is not a final victory, but a step in a struggle we actually launched in March with a statement about Myanmar, and with the labor subcommittees doing a GoFundMe campaign to fundraise for communications equipment for the resistance in Myanmar.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: I want to go back to something Ron said before, because I don’t agree with that formulation. On one level Ron’s comments sounded very reasonable, until I found myself thinking about the Zimbabwean trade unionists who were the victims of Mugabe’s repression, who asked me, “What are African Americans in the US thinking? Why would anybody support Mugabe? Do they see what is actually happening here?” You’re basically making an argument that Syria, for example, is just a matter of academic discussion. If we go back again to 1936, one could have made a very serious argument that the US should not have been asked to help the Spanish Republic, because after all, the US was mucking things up in Latin America and the Caribbean and they should have just stayed away. There was in fact a movement based on that. It happened to be a very right-wing movement.
I think we have to look far more carefully at situations, look at what’s going on, and ask whether there are things that we actually can do. So when Paul mentions what’s going on in Myanmar, or in other places where there’s a struggle against tyranny, do we have a responsibility? Are there things we can do? Now, it’s very different when the oppressor is not the US. We’re not going to be able to have the same direct impact, but that’s different from treating those cases as an academic discussion. The torture of Zimbabwean trade unionists was not academic, right? It was something very real. That’s where I think we disagree.
Mirah W.: I’d like to respond to something Bill said earlier in regard to Syria. I think it depends on what your focus is. Are you zoomed into the micro situation of what’s happening? Or are you looking further out at what the historic patterns have been in relations between these different countries? And the United States is far and away the number one underminer of left and socialist governments around the world historically, and continues to be in my opinion, to this day. Often the US media will start to cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the moment at which Hamas fires rockets back. Right? But they’re not following it before then. So when you talk about some of these conflicts in different places, and you’re just focusing on the civil unrest that’s happening and the reaction to it, which oftentimes is very oppressive, I would agree.
You’re not looking at the billion dollars the CIA was spending to destabilize Syria, or why the US would want to destabilize Syria, because it serves as a conduit for other countries to the Palestinian resistance. There is a geopolitical arrangement the United States tries to enforce throughout the entire Middle East, to support its policy goals there. It’s something that’s willing to destroy multiple countries with no regard for the welfare of the citizens, or whether or not they want their particular government in a lot of places. The new normalization drive between Arab governments and the Israelis, would not be supported by their populations if they were not absolute monarchies. They are able to do these very unpopular things that serve their elite interests in concert with the interests of the United States and Israel, without having to think about what their own populations want, because the US isn’t interested in creating real self-determination in a lot of these places.
Ron J.: I would push back against Bill’s point that I am characterizing certain things as academic discussions. I think the real crux of the question is, again, what is it that we can do? What would happen if a socialist were to call on the US government, or other entities to intervene in the context? Like in Syria, the US government already intervened there by supporting some proxies. Well, if the socialists were to call on the US government or other entities in the west to get more involved in Syria or really decisively take the side of one group or the other, then what are the consequences that will happen from that? That is really the crux of the question here, which I think us as US socialists bear a lot of responsibility for, because we live very different material lives than people living in Afghanistan or Syria, Ukraine, or other countries around the world. And I think we should really keep in mind the responsibility that we will bear if things go wrong.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: Sure. But we demanded that the US impose sanctions on South Africa, right? We demanded that the US imperialist government impose sanctions on South Africa. We should just be clear about that. I hear what you’re saying, Ron, and I agree in terms of the principal aspect of our work. But you have Spain, you have South Africa, you have other cases where you have demands that are placed on the government to do certain things. We’ve just got to be real about that. We’re not going to agree on Syria. But take the case of Myanmar. Are there things that we want the United States to do or not to, as the case may be, so that the people of Myanmar can free themselves? I think it’s a very concrete question.
Paul Garver: On Myanmar, we will have a dilemma because there is a comprehensive Burma bill going through the US Congress right now that pretty carefully avoids broad sanctions. That’s partly because the DSA members of the solidarity committee keep insisting on that, but the bill will have very specific sanctions on the natural gas industry that supplies half of its revenue to the Myanmar military, which uses that revenue to fight its war. I think it is an example like the South African example. I visited South African trade unionists shortly after Mandela got out of prison, and they were very grateful for the fact that the combination of sanctions and engagement from the United States helped them win their struggle. I think that’s a model we need to think about in cases where the US government is not the primary opponent and can be pressured, as in the case of the anti-apartheid movement, to make a big difference in the material conditions for working class people being attacked.
Mirah W.: Context really matters. Yes, the US eventually signed onto sanctions against South Africa, but prior to that, the US was one of the primary defenders of South Africa and wasn’t leading the way at all. It’s like if you gave the US credit at the very last moment for signing on to some sanctions against Israel. If the US were to get out of the way, for instance, of BDS and international censure against Israeli policy, everything would move a whole lot faster. I mean, it’s not to say that there are not some limited exceptions, like I would say South Africa and Israel where certainly the US should sign on to some sanctions policies in regards to them, but you have to look at what the historic relationship of the United States policy is to those nations, and who we were defending in that scenario, which was the ruling class and the enforcers of apartheid in both cases.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: But I know that. Everyone knows that. That’s not my point. My point was, there was a popular demand that the US government take a stand. And it wasn’t something that was a demand that just happened in the 1980s. There was an ongoing demand going on for years that the United States take a stand on apartheid. That’s what I’m talking about. There was a demand that the US state do something. Of course, they did it at the very last minute. I wish they had done it earlier, I wish that they hadn’t been cooperating with the Portuguese in their colonies, et cetera, et cetera. My point is only that there are times when we have and will demand something of the US state, knowing full well that this is an imperialist state, but nevertheless we will make demands on it. We shouldn’t act like we don’t do that.
The DSA International Committee’s recent statement on the Ukraine crisis generated a good deal of discussion and criticism. What do you make of the response to the statement?
Ron J.: Just to give some context with regards to the statement, there was a lot of discussion and deliberation within the International Committee by a lot of people, including from people with familial and relational ties to Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe – including the affected regions in eastern Ukraine – who advocated for a position of US non-intervention. So in my opinion, the statement outlined a very practical stance that’s appropriate for a US-based organization to take, which is to call for our government to deescalate and withdraw US troops first and foremost, and also to support a diplomatic solution to the crisis, which the US fueled by supporting Ukrainian ultra-nationalists over the past few years. Now, there’s been a lot of criticism. From what I’ve seen, a huge amount of the criticism came from mainstream liberal Russia hawks, which I think demonstrates the legacy of the Russophobic propaganda that has been part of US discourse for nearly a century, especially after the creation of the Soviet Union, and which has also been further amplified since the 2016 election.
So on that front, it shows we still have a lot of work to do to undo these media narratives that inform public opinion today. Coming back to the statement itself, when it comes to statements we need to first and foremost consider what is the point that we are trying to make? What is it that we want to accomplish with the statement? And I think the statement we published did a good job of that, which is to call for our government not to intervene, and generally calling for diplomatic solutions to this crisis. I don’t think making positions about Russian actions or actions of other actors in this context would have helped.
Paul Garver: I voted against the statement in the International Committee because I think the statement is unbalanced, and I don’t think it does what you say it does, Ron. On the other hand, I’ve been collaborating with Code Pink and Mass Peace Action to carry out actions for diplomacy. I think the statement has been bad for DSA’s image, but in general people have taken up the suggestion to collaborate with the broader peace movement in urging a diplomatic solution. So I kind of divided my feelings about the statement. In general, I don’t like statements. I like action, because statements tend to be divisive, and reflect only one particular ideological position in the International Committee. Actions tend to be collaborative and more constructive. So that’s my attitude about the Ukraine statement.
Mirah W.: It seems like the statement touched a nerve far more with liberals than the more mainstream DSA folks we sometimes get pushback from. I think liberals in the US have become very polarized against Russia since the 2016 election, and they associate support for the Russians now with the GOP, which is an odd facet of how domestic politics have polarized a whole lot of things in recent years. Many people want to employ “both sides” framing to everything that happens. On some kind of banal level that can be true. All governments commit abuses of one sort or another. In this situation, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to look at this situation and say Russia is just as in the wrong for having their troops at the border of their own country as the US is for having troops spread all over the entire world. The US made promises to Gorbachev that they were not going to expand NATO, and these promises were not kept. There’s a question of core Russian security there. Do the Russians have a right to be worried about what is happening at their borders? The Minsk agreements which were negotiated separately from the US, haven’t really been carried out. I don’t know the degree to which the United States is applying pressure to carry those out after the US-backed coup in 2014. Pursuit of NATO membership has been written into the Ukrainian constitution at this point. Even people as hawkish as Henry Kissinger, have come out to say that this is a foolish policy for Ukraine to pursue NATO membership because it crosses a Russian security red line, I think in a very similar fashion as Taiwan independence does for China. The United States is foolish to try to pursue its advantage to the very end. It actually really comes to be counter to United States interests. I think this episode, for instance, has been a fracturing one for NATO and has served to weaken it. In my opinion, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I think that NATO is an outdated institution that should no longer exist. But just like the AUKUS deal did with submarines and the French, these policies can actually undermine these alliances that the United States is supposedly interested in protecting.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: I wasn’t in the debate over the statement. I think the Putin regime is a kleptocratic, white supremacist, homophobic, Eastern Orthodox fanatical, repressive regime. What it did in Crimea was wrong. I think that that’s clear to most of the world. That said, that’s not what’s at issue right now. The issue of NATO expansion that Mirah pointed out earlier is interesting. The US actually didn’t make promises to Gorbachev. Secretary of State James Baker agreed to something, and then he went back to George H. W. Bush, who said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But your general point is correct, Mirah, that Gorbachev and others said pretty consistently, “Don’t expand NATO and things will be cool.” But the United States decided, very arrogantly, to continue pressing the envelope. That has been completely inflammatory, and I think people have the right to insist that the United States pull back from that. That has nothing to do with how people assess the Putin regime. I don’t think that we should allow ourselves to be in a situation where we start engaging in apologetics. I’m not accusing DSA of this, but there are other forces on the left that are essentially giving critical support to the Putin regime, and I think we should distinguish ourselves from that.
Ron J.: I’ll just add that we had an internal vote on the statement, and the overwhelming majority of the folks who voted, voted to release the statement as it is. The statement doesn’t really make a claim about Russia one way or the other. I think it did a good job of balancing a lot of the different possible implications of the crisis and making a simple demand that the US government should stop playing a role in escalating this crisis.
The George W. Bush administration’s misadventures in “democracy promotion” really discredited this idea in the eyes of many, particularly on the left, for very good reasons. Do you think that it would be possible or desirable for progressives and democratic socialists in the US – like, say a hypothetical Bernie Sanders administration – to advance a democracy promotion agenda that does not entail that kind of reckless militarism or delusions of America’s goodness in the world?
Paul Garver: I make a distinction between the US government’s democracy promotion efforts that are almost all cynical and really great power demands, just weaponizing the idea of democracy, but there is of course, a global democracy movement. It’s called the trade union movement. We’ve always been in favor of democracy, and promoting democracy. And if you look at all the global unions and the International Trade Union Confederation, with some 200 million members, it is a democracy promotion group. Other groups like the Progressive International are also democracy promoters.
So we should separate out the fact that the US government weaponizes it and spoils it from the genuine concept of democracy promotion, which has always been what socialists stand for and work for. If those efforts are sometimes ineffective, as they often are, because they’re too bureaucratic and top down with not enough on rank-and-file mobilization, then that’s something we have to work on. But of course we’re in favor of democracy. Now, we’re not in favor of US-style democracy, we’re in favor of genuine democracy based on the working class and on mobilization of oppressed peoples from below.
Ron J.: My feeling is that when it comes to the language of democracy promotion, it’s inextricably tied to Western notions of democracy and what that means. This is very much informed by my experiences growing up in India. The British justified its colonization of India through values, that Britain is going to bring civilization to India, Britain is going to bring women’s rights to India, and so on. The French did similarly in Africa, and other European powers engaged in similar efforts. Of course, they didn’t mean any of it. It was primarily about exploiting lands around the world under colonial administration. Our government is acting similarly as well, using this language when in reality, it’s exerting its control and domination around the world.
Because of this historical context, a lot of people around the world understandably care about their sovereignty and making sure that government officials in Washington, DC or Paris or London don’t intervene in their internal affairs. So I think it’s ultimately up to the people in other lands to define their own political destiny. Even if you had a Bernie Sanders administration or a perfect socialist administration, I don’t think it’s Western socialists’ role to tell other countries and other peoples what kind of governments that they should pick, because it would be inextricably tied to the legacies of Western domination. Honestly, even if we try to do it, we’ll probably create disaster just like the Bush administration did in Iraq and other places.
Paul Garver: I think it’s useful that we introduced Bernie Sanders as an example, because I think that language is very important. The so-called democracy promotion really did mean something, and it had nothing to do with democracy as it’s been pointed out, but I think it’s useful to think about what we would want the foreign policy to be if a progressive or leftist won the presidency. I think that we would want a foreign policy that promotes global cooperation rather than global bullying. I think we’d want to see a removal of US bases as Mirah has pointed out. I think, in other words, that there are concrete steps that can be taken in the realm of foreign policy, which would objectively support democracy with a small D but would not be about imperial interventions. One thing we should not fall into, is the idea of isolationism. We should guard against isolationism, which can sometimes sound actually quite radical, but it’s not. But I think that we want a different relationship with the rest of the world. There are really concrete steps that can be taken now that are very different than what this country has done historically.
Mirah W.: I agree that I don’t think the United States should be isolationist, and that we need to move away from having a bullying presence in the world to one that is collaborative and cooperative. There is tremendous need in the coming decades for countries to collaborate on science and technology, climate change, preserving habitats around the world, dealing with the issues of migration and refugees from conflicts. There are many places where I think there are positive opportunities for collaboration and cooperation, but I think that can only happen if the United States stops trying to move every situation to its advantage all over the world. We bully allied states too when they won’t go along with what it is that we want them to do. I think they’re well aware of that, and they fear opposing US policy for that reason in a lot of cases.
I think the removal of imperial pressure is a prerequisite for national economic and social development in many countries. Needing to resist the constant specter of destabilization and war, only reinforces some of these more oppressive drives on the part of a lot of these governments. Similar to how maybe Muslim women might not want to talk about their own oppression in the context of Islam, for the fear of fueling Islamophobia. When you remove some of these pressures and allow these countries to develop more normally, I think that they will increasingly find their own paths towards liberation, which might not look exactly like our path, but it’s a valid path for them to be taking.
Rather than having this kind of paternalistic and manipulative relationship with the rest of the world, the United States perhaps under a socialist president would act differently. But you have to realize the entire ship is imperialism, not just the person who is piloting the ship. There’s the media, business interests, the military-industrial complex that benefits from these conflicts. There’s all the lobbying and money that is associated with continuing these processes. So we would have seen Bernie Sanders come under tremendous fire from these various forces, and I think we should think critically about how we build a movement that is not just critical of the state, but of the corporate and media collaboration with these elements. How do we help to insulate our electeds in this environment to oppose US imperialism and not get just destroyed in the process?
Much of what a progressive or left-wing administration would do would be negative in the sense of simply stopping bad things the US government is doing in the world. Do you think there is potential for a positive and proactive progressive agenda for international and foreign policy affairs?
Paul Garver: My own feeling is that Bernie couldn’t have done it. His movement was not based on foreign policy issues, and the constituency for a really progressive foreign policy is still not there in Congress. There are a few moves toward it, but I think it would not have made much difference because our movements were not really ready for that. We have to build it from the ground up. To that end I really recommend reading Robin Alexander’s new book on the strategic alliance between the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT) in Mexico. Bill wrote a blurb for it. That alliance started in 1992, which is 30 years ago, and it’s been percolating ever since. And it’s been percolating and working. The UE is a small left-wing union that was decimated by the anti-communist purges in the 1950s, and it chose a single project to focus its international work on, which is to build a bottom up rank-and-file strategic alliance between their union and the independent unions in Mexico. So, yes, there’s so much we can do. The only way we’ll ever get there at the national level is by multiplying this kind of effort by 1,000 times – building up links across borders among working-class people who are independent and autonomous from government policy, and strike out for a genuine working-class agenda, which is objectively socialist.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: I don’t think what we were talking about was negative, I thought it was actually a positive program. In other words, there’s everything from the elimination of military bases to what Mirah was talking about in terms of global technological cooperation or cooperation on space travel. I’m not joking, I mean cleaning up space and space exploration. There’s the issue of real financial assistance to developing countries, and helping their economies. Going after these corporations that have pillaged the planet, like the revelations in the Panama papers and the more recent papers that revealed what these different global companies are engaged in. So there’s all kinds of things that a progressive government could do, but that goes to the point that Paul raised. It would be very difficult for any administration to pull some of this off without fear of assassination. I’m not being funny about that, particularly in the absence of a mass movement. I mean, keep in mind that John Kennedy was worried about a military coup against him, because of the negotiations with the Soviet Union over the test ban treaty. So I think in the absence of a mass constituency, as Paul is pointing out, it would be very difficult to make some of these changes. But not impossible, and some things actually could be done fairly easily. Like right now, we need President Biden to renounce Trump’s support of the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara. I mean, you don’t have to be a socialist to do that, he could do that right now. So there are things that actually could be done.
Ron J.: When it comes to these issues, we should ask where do the demands or the initiative come from? When it comes to concepts like global cooperation, considering US’s history any socialist presidential administration should be really humble about how to approach this because, as Mirah said, there is a long legacy of western paternalism we should not replicate. So that means genuinely listening and following the demands of people from around the world and actually working together. In the context of climate change, that shouldn’t mean climate change measures for the West and scolding for everyone else. A proper response in that context would be the US actually working as equals with countries like China or India to come up with solutions that benefit people all around the world, ensuring that climate change is properly combated while also making sure that poor countries are still able to provide a good life with high living standards for their citizens. That’s really the crux of the issue for me.
Leading figures on the nationalist right have recently spoken out against the Republican Party’s support for an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy and have questioned the Biden administration’s approach to the Ukraine crisis. What do you make of this emergent trend on the right?
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: When it comes to Ukraine, part of the right is driven by an alignment with Putin and Trump as ideological godfathers. We on the left often misread right-wing isolationism, and we don’t appreciate that it was never actually isolationist. It was unilateralist, even in the 1930s. The issue for them isn’t cutting the United States off from the rest of the world. It was about not having any binding agreements that inhibit the United States from doing whatever the hell it wants to do. These nationalists and authoritarians don’t want to be constrained by any agreements, they want the United States to have the unilateral option.
When you look at the 1920s and 1930s, the right wing that was supposedly isolationist was not saying, “Let’s leave Latin America alone and let the Latin Americans do what they want.” No. They were saying, “We want to control Latin America. We don’t want to be bound by European powers to fight some other European war.” I think we are seeing both of those things right now. First, an ideological alignment with Putin and others like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And second is the idea that the United States should not be bound by agreements and should be able to do whatever it wants.
Ron J.: There are intellectual trends on the right all the time. Over a decade ago people were asking whether Rand Paul was the next big trend in the GOP, and obviously that type of libertarianism hasn’t really panned out. So with this trend, the question is whether it’s really going to change the trajectory of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. That remains to be seen. And again, when dealing with questions like this I think we should always come back to what we can concretely organize around. This doesn’t seem really relevant to that, especially in a context where the US is still ramping up tensions against Russia, and is still intervening in other countries around the world. So I think when it comes to the left, we need to engage with the organizing that’s going on against the empire, against our government’s policies, and not what seem to be intellectual trends.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: So again, Ron, we’re going to disagree. I don’t think these are just intellectual currents, these are currents that actually have a mass base. As we saw in the 1920s and 1930s with right-wing isolationism, it has real ramifications. Segments of the far right, particularly in the aftermath of the Cold War, grabbed on to various slogans from the left, and in some cases they carried out what we called “red-brown” alliances, uniting with the left in very opportunistic ways. This segment on the right will seize on some of this, but we have to dig beneath the surface when they are talking about foreign policy.
Here’s an example. In the 1920s and 1930s, the isolationist movement was very much focused on staying out of Europe while fascism was rising there. The isolationist movement was incredibly anti-Semitic. There weren’t really isolationists when it came to Asia, they were prepared for the US to get involved there. Well, what’s going on here? We may think that there’s a consistency to right-wing thinking here, but it’s not. It’s a form of opportunism, and I would argue a kind of racial opportunism. If you read Pat Buchanan speeches from the 1990s he can sound like a leftist if you read parts of it out of context. But when you start reading the larger context, you realize that this guy is a global white supremacist. That’s what we have to understand when we’re looking at the right and when they’re talking about foreign policy. We on the left have to be very careful about the conditions under which we might work with them. As someone working on the Western Sahara issue, there are conservative Republicans who are very anti-Moroccan. We don’t agree on anything else, but they are very anti-Moroccan. You have to be very careful about such alliances because it’s much easier for us to get swept under their agenda, rather than the other way around. We have actually seen individuals on the Left–or at least progressive movement–become entranced by rightwing isolationists and populists, believing that you can somehow dissect their “rightwing-ism” from their “populism.” It does not work that way.
How do you think DSA and progressive organizations in general can integrate international concerns with practical local organizing?
Paul Garver: In the Boston DSA Internationalism Committee we’re looking at working with the Brazilian diaspora on the upcoming elections in Brazil because there’s a big Brazilian community here. Brazilians can vote by absentee ballot in the upcoming elections. In the last election, Bolsonaro got a huge percentage of the overseas vote and we’d like to cut into that. There are a lot of creative things you can do at the local level, if you start thinking about it.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: We always have to keep in mind that people have varying reasons for being interested in international affairs. There’s never a silver bullet, which I think the left is always looking for, that will mobilize millions of people on these questions. It doesn’t work that way. Some people get interested because of particular situations, like East Timor in the 1990s. Other people get involved in international affairs because of a direct material thing, like they don’t want to go to war, they don’t want to see people die, or they see the impact of war budgets on the rest of the economy. One size doesn’t fit all, and there are a number of things we have to look at.
We need to build a larger core of leftists who are truly internationalists, and not simply what I’d call the “US out of North America” type of orientation, by which I mean limiting ourselves to being reactive to all events rather than having a proactive approach to foreign policy and international affairs. We’ve got to be people who are really thinking broadly about workers and oppressed people and what we can do to build solidarity. It will be just a core, it’s not going to be millions of people, but a core that’s really committed to building campaigns and reaching out to and integrating with other social movements – the environmental movement, the various racial justice movements, the movement against the counter-revolution against women. All of these things have an international aspect.
Mirah W.: Just to return briefly to the previous topic, I agree with Bill that the right-wing opposition to adventurism and intervention is opportunistic in nature. There has always been a sector of the right that kind of apes leftist aesthetics and language for their own purposes. It’s possible for people to come to the right position but for the wrong reasons. The right doesn’t want to be involved in the affairs of people on the other side of the planet because they’re brown, or different from us, or because we don’t want immigrants coming into the United States. I also agree that we do need to create more linkages in Americans’ minds about how imperialism and the military-industrial complex ties into their lives. Any time the American people ask for one tiny little drop of something from our government, whether it’s healthcare or paid leave or debt relief for student loans, we’re told that there’s no money for it. And yet every single year the defense budget gets bigger and bigger. The money for our children’s education and our healthcare is going to fund Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It is not going to the taxpayers or the workers in this country who generate that wealth. It also does not benefit workers in other countries who are being subjected to imperialism, or the environmental degradation that the United States military brings to the rest of the world. The US military has the single largest carbon footprint of any organization on earth.
So all of these linkages are I think in fact, very clear, but they are disambiguated by our media. The media treats them as things that exist in total isolation from one another. It’s our job to draw those linkages for people, and help see the relationship between the military-industrial complex and the shipment of surplus military equipment to oppress communities of color in the United States. All of these things really are tied together I think a lot more tightly than people realize, and I think we can do a great deal to help eliminate that for people.
Ron J.: The US is a major agent of imperialism around the world. There’s a lot we can do here, whether it’s electing truly anti-imperialist candidates to office, or organizing your union or other groups that you’re a part of, to make statements and practical commitments to support liberation movements abroad. I’ve been inspired by new stories about how people struck at their ports to prevent the unloading or the transportation of products to or from Israel, just to use an example. There are a lot of different ways to go about doing this. Now, anti-imperialist organizing will look different depending on the local context. It’ll look different in New York compared to Alabama, but there are things that people everywhere can do. It’s just a matter of figuring out what the opportunities are in one’s own community, and leveraging that.