Breaking Camp: The US Left and Foreign Policy after the War in Ukraine
The end of the unipolar era should encourage the US left to reassess the frameworks that have guided our attitude to foreign policy.
For the last century, US left-wing thinking on foreign policy has been structured by an abiding tension between internationalist values—solidarity with toiling and oppressed masses everywhere in the world—and the concrete implications of those values for the messy reality on the ground. These are genuinely difficult dilemmas, though various tendencies habitually present their preferred view as obvious and straightforward and thus opposition to it as corrupt, stupid, or malicious. These vitriolic but abstract debates have generally failed to move beyond questions of stance towards questions of materially meaningful strategy and tactics.
Before 1991, the greatest controversies concerned the left’s relationship to the Soviet Union (USSR) and other state-socialist powers. Anarchists grew disillusioned with Bolshevik rule in the USSR soon after the 1917 revolution, but for most of the organized left the first serious quandaries emerged after Stalin’s rise to power in 1927. Beyond the question of Stalinist repression, participation in the Stalin-era Communist International (Comintern) committed members of the Communist Party USA to a bewildering sequence of political shifts—for instance, the party’s rapid abandonment of antifascist rhetoric after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which drove thousands out of the party, and its equally rapid resumption of that rhetoric after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. From the Soviet perspective, this made sense. The USSR was the world’s only workers’ state and needed to do what it had to do to survive, while the role of the international communist movement was primarily to assist in that survival. In subsequent decades each shift in Soviet policy would lead the party to bleed members, but a central core stuck firm until the USSR’s demise made this commitment irrelevant. Splitting from the party in the Trotskyist manner, on the other hand, seemed to condemn the splitters to an unending sequence of further splits, ultimately leading to the anti-Stalinist left’s fragmentation into tiny sectarian groupuscules.
There was another danger, too. In 1925 a young journalist named Max Shachtman, already a leading figure in the US Communist movement, traveled to Moscow to attend a congress of the Comintern. In 1928 he was expelled from the party as a Trotskyist, becoming one of the leaders of the anti-Stalinist wing of the movement. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he sided against Trotsky and refused to defend the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, even a degenerated one. In the following years he became one of the pioneers of the “Third Camp” doctrine, which saw both Stalinist state socialism (which he described as “bureaucratic collectivism”) and Western capitalism as enemies of true democratic socialism. In the 1960s he refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba or to demand the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, endorsing anti-Communist labor leader George Meany’s policy of neutrality on the war. After his death in 1972 – his last political act was opposing the antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern – many of his followers became influential neoconservatives, jettisoning the socialist component of Shachtman’s program to articulate an aggressive policy of US “democracy promotion” abroad.
Not every third-campist became a de facto supporter of the US empire. Hal Draper’s International Socialists (IS) and its most prominent offshoot, the now-defunct International Socialist Organization, maintained a consistent critique of both Soviet and US imperialism, though they could be plausibly accused of favoring a kind of revolutionary purism that rejected any worker’s movement once it had succeeded in gaining power. Like other left-wing formations after the 1960s (including the Maoists, whose foreign policy stances became increasingly baroque), Third Camp groups that escaped the Shachtmanite trap never succeeded in finding a way out of the groupuscule model. While Trotskyist militants made important contributions to the building of a democratic rank-and-file labor movement in the US, their anti-imperialist politics lacked any mechanism for influencing the actions of their own or any other government.
The same was true of Sam Marcy, a Trotskyist whose Workers World Party (WWP) took a very different approach from Draper’s IS. Marcy’s 1950 memorandum is in many ways a typical Trotskyist document. It demands “the consistent, energetic and absolutely uncompromising exposure of the perfidious role of Stalinism all over the world” and calls Mao’s party the “negation” of revolutionary communism. Yet Marcy sees only two camps, that of global capital and of the proletariat. However flawed, countries like the Soviet Union represent an advance in proletarian power, the subsequent growth of which will surely sweep away these temporary aberrations. From the standpoint of the US left, this meant a policy of “revolutionary defencism” in relation to those countries (accompanied by a vigorous critique of Stalinism), and of “revolutionary defeatism” in relation to the US. One would assume that the collapse of the Soviet Union would have rendered this model unworkable, since capitalist states like Russia are in no sense emanations of the global proletariat. Yet, paradoxically, it was only in the post-1991 period that the WWP and its offshoot the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) became a visible force on the left. What made the two-camp doctrine uniquely appealing was the emergence of the unipolar era.
The age of unipolarity began with the first Gulf War in 1990-91. Citing financial disputes related to oil production, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (a longtime ally of the United States) invaded and occupied Kuwait, possibly convinced that the US would turn a blind eye to what its ambassador had termed a “border disagreement.” George H.W. Bush swiftly assembled an international coalition that destroyed the Iraqi army and restored Kuwait’s repressive monarchy, but declined to push further into Baghdad to overthrow Saddam’s regime. With the unilateral abdication of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War freed the US to proclaim a “rules-based international order” which, on the one hand, was held to bind the world’s countries through a set of international institutions dominated by the US and its allies—swiftly punishing violators like Saddam—and on the other hand carried a normative drive toward the promotion of liberal democracy and global capitalist integration. This horizon has shaped left-wing politics for the last three decades.
As left-wing commentators frequently point out, there was a clear tension between these two aspects of the post-Cold War program, since most countries are not liberal democracies. The “rules” could either apply to everyone equally or they could be altered to favor liberal-democratic states, especially US allies. The US chose the latter route, engaging in armed intervention all over the world and freely manipulating the rules when they suited its normative agenda. To adapt one internet commenter’s description of conservatism, the “rules-based international order” consisted of in-groups which it protected but did not bind alongside out-groups which it bound but did not protect.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 was motivated by a great-power nationalist drive to unite the “fraternal” East Slavic peoples in a shared geopolitical space. It was also shaped by a growing disillusionment with the US-led international order—not just NATO expansion but also the US role in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and especially Libya in 2011. Russia did not veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians from regime retribution, but Russian leaders were shocked when the intervention expanded to the killing of Muammar Gaddafi and eventually produced a catastrophic civil war. Putin concluded that, if the rules-based order did not protect him or his allies—especially in light of US government support for the protests that erupted against his rule in 2011—they could not remain bound by it. After his Ukrainian ally Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by US-supported protesters in 2014, Putin began to actively intervene in Ukraine, (almost) bloodlessly annexing Crimea and controlling a separatist insurgency in the Donbas. His statements took on a tit-for-tat logic: if the US can take Kosovo away from Serbia, he announced in March 2014, we can take Crimea away from Ukraine. The West’s inability to resolve the resulting crisis one way or another encouraged him to embark on this year’s far larger and more destructive invasion.
To understand the war in Ukraine as being in part the result of a structural crisis in the US-led international order is not a moral justification or a form of whataboutism. By definition, an international order whose goal is the prevention of large-scale war must constrain actors operating with a range of motivations, from defensive to aggressive, from self-interested to ideological. By failing to constrain the US it ultimately failed to constrain Russia as well.
As a result, unipolarity is on its way out. While the US-led Euro-Atlantic bloc continues to control the lion’s share of the global economy and its military expenditures dwarf those of any possible rival, it is no longer the sovereign arbiter of world events. Its failure to intervene or even take a meaningful position in recent conflicts such as the Azerbaijani-Armenian war and the civil war in Ethiopia suggests that the US no longer views itself as the world policeman and the enforcer of a rules-based order. Its inability to intervene directly in Ukraine, on the other hand, points to the emerging limits on US power which operate regardless of its intentions. The unprecedented scope of economic sanctions on Russia will not be enough to compel a retreat, let alone to overthrow Putin, and Ukrainian leaders themselves have lost hope in NATO protection. Even the mounting rhetoric of US politicians about a Cold War with China implies that they no longer hope to contain their most powerful rival through US-dominated international institutions. As Donald Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership showed, such projects have decreasing domestic appeal, especially for right-wing segments of the electorate.
The emergence of a unipolar order after the Cold War gave birth, on the left and parts of the right, to a new conception of anti-imperialism. While there were certain continuities between this new phenomenon and older mainline communist arguments—for instance, defenses of Soviet intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia—contemporary anti-imperialism was shaped above all by the massive worldwide response to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the broader movement against the international order that legitimized it. Anti-imperialists felt that the energies unleashed by the antiwar movement could be turned to revolutionary ends, as long as the left remained committed to resisting US propaganda in all its forms. International A.N.S.W.E.R., an antiwar front led by the WWP and subsequently by PSL, drew hundreds of thousands of attendees to protests framed simultaneously as opposing the Iraq invasion, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the oppression of Arabs and Muslims in the US. This attitude meant suspicion not only of rhetoric about democracy and human rights, which was fully on display during the run-up to the Iraq War, but also of local protest movements in countries deemed unfriendly to the unipolar order. These came increasingly to be seen as knowing or unknowing US proxies, whose rhetoric at best provided cover for the neoliberal dismantlement of developmentalist welfare states. At worst, such movements could become the spearhead of the utter devastation unleashed by the 2011 intervention in Libya, which was framed as supporting local protesters turned insurgents.
The most controversial feature of contemporary anti-imperialism is its tendency to boil down to the simple procedure of determining which side the US is on in any given conflict and automatically taking the opposite position. This is often justified by arguments that echo Lenin’s World War I-era “revolutionary defeatism,” which argues that socialists in an inter-capitalist conflict should work for the defeat of their own side in order to provoke a revolutionary civil war. Yet in practical terms this parallel is irrelevant in a context where socialist forces have minimal influence on events (as opposed to 1914, when the Social Democrats were the largest party in Germany). It also goes well beyond the views of Lenin himself. Even in the midst of the world war Lenin and other Bolsheviks continued to attack German and Austrian imperialism. If they had not done so, their critique of the mainline German Social Democrats would not have made any sense. In practice, contemporary anti-imperialism is not a coherent political strategy in the way that revolutionary defeatism was.
Instead, anti-imperialism in the unipolar era combines several disparate elements. It takes up a rhetorical stance as conscience of the international order, exposing the hypocrisy of the hegemon in the name of equity for all kinds of regimes—former US allies and established enemies, bastions of neoliberalism and socialist holdouts. It realizes this stance principally through statements of solidarity as well as small-scale protests, which serve as recruiting grounds for socialist organizations that attract a dwindling trickle of idealistic young people. There is generally neither the expectation nor the hope that these tactics will lead to concrete gains, whether in the form of preventing a particular conflict or in changing the overall landscape of US foreign policy. At best these are sallies on the level of narrative, though the much greater reach of the mainstream media makes the fight a drastically unequal one (unless one chooses to make common cause with right-wing isolationists like Tucker Carlson). Even the much greater energies of the anti-Iraq War movement either dissipated or were co-opted into various Democratic political campaigns—though the increasingly anti-interventionist positions taken by some members of the party’s left wing may reflect the movement’s lingering significance. Today the hundreds of thousands of US protesters in 2002-3 are a distant memory.
The end of the unipolar era should encourage the US left to reassess the traditional frameworks that have guided our attitude to foreign policy. As long as capitalism reigns unchallenged, a multipolar world is neither more nor less just than a unipolar one. Even as multipolarity constrains the US’s ability to intervene at will in societies around the world, it gives a freer hand to other actors pursuing their own economic or imperial goals. China has certainly demonstrated less willingness to deploy its military power in the service of a regime change agenda, but neither has it wielded its economic might in the service of greater justice or equality for the world’s working masses. Russian imperialism is much more aggressive, even if its body count is still much lower than that of US interventions in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, or of the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen. If accusations of hypocrisy were ineffective in a unipolar context, they will be even less effective when the alternative seems to be yet another form of imperialism.
Reassessing anti-imperialism doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea that US imperialism must be our primary enemy—if nothing else, we have even less power to influence politics outside of the US than we do within it. Instead, it means understanding how a commitment to socialist internationalism should extend across the growing divides of the multipolar era, just as capitalism remains global in spite of the ever more extensive use of economic sanctions. This is why socialists should be wary of embracing foreign-policy realists like John Mearsheimer. Their recognition of the need for rational limits on the use of US power abroad was salutary in the age of unbridled unipolar neoconservatism, but the effective normative content of their vision is a world divided between great powers, each with its own sphere of influence. Not only has such a doctrine failed to prevent conflict—the eighteenth century, with its addiction to spheres of influence and power-balancing, was an era of constant warfare—but it is also incompatible with broader socialist goals.
The networks of complicity generated by global capitalist integration cut across a variety of political systems, liberal-democratic or not. In one of countless examples, the journalist James Meek has analyzed the impact of the right-wing British government’s co-optation of “Green New Deal”-style rhetoric. Its “green jobs” pledges have been nullified by the companies contracted to produce wind turbines, which successfully exploit labor arbitrage to shift production to Vietnam—yet that shift has not led to better conditions for Vietnamese workers, whose lower cost of labor is achieved at the cost of grueling working conditions and whose ability to take independent labor action on the workplace level remains limited even after recent reforms. In state-socialist countries, independent labor unions tend to be the prime targets for suppression. Not only do they challenge the ruling party’s claim to speak on behalf of workers generally (including through party-controlled unions), but they also place limits on the labor discipline required to achieve developmental goals. This may have allowed the Soviet Union to build a form of socialism in one country, but the context of global capitalist integration, weak labor protections anywhere undermine the power of workers everywhere. Such inequities determine the shape of fights at home as well as abroad.
Ukraine since the beginning of the current conflict with Russia in 2014 is another example. The economic components of the 2014 EU Association Agreement are leading to large-scale privatization, drastic cuts to public services, and the state’s emergence as a zone of weak labor laws enabling cheaper production for European multinationals normally constrained by EU labor legislation. Yet labor conditions in the separatist republics of the Donbas are even worse, despite their neo-Soviet “people’s republic” branding and political structure; here the benefits of labor arbitrage and political coercion accrue to Russian rather than Western elites. Solidarity with Ukrainians against Russian imperial aggression also means recognizing that not everyone who claims to support Ukraine has Ukrainians’ best interests at heart. Unlike other political viewpoints, socialist internationalism understands global struggles as being intimately linked to domestic ones. While we may lack influence over the Vietnamese government or the war in Ukraine, we have the power to confront the Western capitalists and politicians who benefit from worldwide exploitation.
The energy of the antiwar movement has waned, but the fight for justice must continue. Neither third-camp attempts to thread the needle nor the two-camp strategy of exposing US hypocrisy are capable of achieving their desired ends. Expressions of solidarity with the targets of US or any other imperialism certainly have a moral value, but without a link to materially efficacious political action, they become increasingly hollow—not to mention fundamentally demoralizing for left-wing activists and organizers. Of course, the left has encountered challenges everywhere. Our electoral strategies have not been successful on a large scale, and in national politics we can anticipate years of right-wing ascendancy. To be blunt, there is no clear roadmap or blueprint for reversing this process, and as a result we have no choice but to embrace a “theory of small deeds,” as nineteenth-century Russian socialists put it in a similar situation. But how can small deeds be made to add up to something bigger, especially in an arena as daunting as foreign policy?
In this context four particular struggles stand out: migrant justice, climate justice, Palestine solidarity, and labor. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of left-wing priorities. Other campaigns, like struggles for housing rights and police abolition, have seen an infusion of energy and in many cases significant victories on the local level. Yet their material links to wider global concerns remain tenuous, and beyond verbal acknowledgements it is hard to see how they might be deepened in a tactical sense – though campaigns to end police collaboration with the Israeli state are one possible step in that direction. These four areas, on the other hand, are directly relevant to foreign policy, resonant with broader public concerns, and offer opportunities for at least small-scale victories—but they also face significant obstacles.
Immigration is deeply connected to foreign policy, both because imperialism from Latin America to the Middle East to Ukraine drives migrants to flee their homes and because the inequalities inherent to global capitalism produce relentless economic pressures. The difficulty with migrant justice campaigns is twofold. First, because most of the key policy decisions relevant for immigration struggles take place on the level of the federal government, a left that remains weak in that arena will have difficulty achieving material gains. Second, the explosion of public interest in migrant justice in 2017-19 was closely linked to liberal opposition to Donald Trump and declined quickly when Democrats returned to power. Perhaps this will change again if Joe Biden loses the 2024 election, but it is clear that liberals are at best unreliable allies in this fight. The left has an important role to play in terms of media strategy, contextualizing immigration and making its links to foreign policy explicit while exposing the racism that underpins the differential treatment of Ukrainian and other migrants. There are also fruitful local campaigns to support migrants crossing the border and to oppose the structure of detention and deportation. Beyond this, however, immediate opportunities for mass mobilization here are few.
Climate justice is less vulnerable to electoral swings—despite the Democrats’ failure to pass significant climate legislation, climate change is an issue of growing concern both in the US and abroad. It is linked to foreign policy in too many ways to even begin to sketch out here. Finally, local-level campaigns around divestment and public utilities offer a plausible entry point for immediate organizing. Yet here again we have the problem of achieving material gains without power on the federal level. The worldwide climate movement has been unable to break out of a cycle of symbolic mass protest, limited and insufficient concessions by governments, and accumulating evidence of the continuing advance of the crisis. While it is true that liberal climate activism has been reluctant to identify capitalism itself as the source of the problem, this move hardly makes the strategic dilemma any easier; the world revolution, after all, is no closer than ever. Calls for climate terrorism as a tactic are perhaps more suited for the urgency of the moment, but the record of left-wing terrorism as a means of achieving useful political change is historically even more dismal than that of Democratic realignment. Climate justice, then, offers certain opportunities and openings, but not a clear path forward.
Unlike migrant justice and climate justice, Palestine solidarity—again a cause with growing public support—is not quite as dependent on the conquest of state power. Needless to say, the US entanglement with Israel can only be dismantled by undoing countless layers of diplomatic agreements, legislation on all levels of government, and informal corporate and institutional ties. Yet the Palestine solidarity movement has been clear-eyed about the prospects of such a transformation. Instead, by pursuing a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, it builds pressure through concrete actions that can be taken by civil society to make continued support for Israel politically unacceptable. The campaign against apartheid South Africa followed a similar model and was ultimately successful, though of course the two cases are not perfectly comparable. Despite this parallel, the BDS strategy cannot easily be transplanted to other contexts to achieve left-wing aims: Israeli apartheid is exceptionally dependent on foreign economic and political support. We have seen in the Russian case what amounts to a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement rapidly take shape and achieve many of its goals in the space of a month, largely as a result of a savvy Ukrainian public relations campaign operating in an exceptionally favorable environment. This will certainly undermine Russia politically and diplomatically and perhaps even help promote a global energy transition away from fossil fuels, but it is unlikely to end Russian imperialism or seriously threaten Putin’s rule. In the long run, such a strategy if widely applied only furthers the fracturing of the world into hostile imperialist blocs and torpedoes global solidarity on issues like climate, not to mention immiserating millions of people.
It is in the field of labor that foreign policy opportunities for the left are greatest. While the labor movement on the whole is continuing to shrink as union members retire, public support for unions is at its highest level in decades and new organizing campaigns are emerging every day. In the process, labor reformers have begun to wrest power from conservative union bureaucracies, as the case of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s long-awaited victory (in coalition with other opposition groups) in the Teamsters elections in November 2021. Of course, the labor movement has often been complicit in empire. George Meany’s notorious role as AFL-CIO president from 1955 to 1979 is a case in point, and the organization’s long standing collaboration with the CIA is a black mark on its history. But there have always been unions with an anti-imperialist bent, like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has staged anti-war and anti-apartheid actions for decades.
Naturally, not all labor campaigns have a clear tactical link to anti-capitalist struggles abroad, and not all socialists have immediately viable opportunities to organize their own workplaces or take part in solidarity actions. Yet there are ways that every socialist can contribute concretely to fighting global capitalism in the era of multipolarity. Research and political education can help untangle and clarify the complex financial flows that enable US employers or multinationals with a US presence to profit from exploitation abroad, whether through complicity with imperialist forces, labor arbitrage, or the accumulation of offshore assets. Maintaining contacts with leftist organizations and labor movements abroad and seeking ways to concretely contribute to their work—beyond statements of solidarity, though these may also sometimes be helpful—can reveal areas of tactical opportunity where local labor struggles overlap with international ones.
The details of this strategic sketch are certainly up for debate, and there may well be other opportunities which have thus far remained latent. The crucial principle, though, is to recognize which of our commitments are purely verbal and which have a real potential for being realized. In general terms, the goal should be to acknowledge the current limits of our power, focus on areas where we can be directly involved, and concentrate on tactics that strengthen our organizing in the long run. Calling for the abolition of NATO costs nothing and there is no reason to stop doing so, but neither does it have any chance of success. 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. The quest for doctrinal unity that underpins such conflicts is a phantasm. Leftists will always disagree about particular international crises; this disagreement itself is not the problem, but it becomes one the more such issues are treated as existential and the more our discussions are severed from practical concerns. Hence in the 1970s the New Communist Movement splintered into hostile, demoralized sects over questions such as whether the “main blow” of anti-imperialism should be directed at the US or the Soviet Union, even as neoliberalism and globalization were reshaping the landscape of class struggle in the US. Today, we have a chance to reevaluate the relationship between theory and practice. The fight against empire begins at home.