Toward a Modern Theory of Internationalism

Democratic internationalism requires institutions that encourage direct relationships between peoples, not just nation-states.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents serious challenges to the current liberal international order. Its naked, seemingly atavistic aggression belies the liberal pretense of rational states working together to promote peace and stability in the service of trade and economic growth. The question of an appropriate international response has also provoked conflicted feelings among Western leftists, who have good reason to reflexively oppose American military interventions, while often struggling to articulate an alternative that meets the exigencies of this moment. Mutual aid and even sanctions have their place in our response, but they simply are not equal to quickly stopping the Russian war machine. Opposition to military aid is less persuasive when that aid is given at the request of the democratically elected government of a country being invaded, as has happened in Ukraine. It doesn’t serve the Left well to spend this moment railing against the limited slate of bad options that have been forced on us by decades of failed international policy. Instead, we should grapple with those failures and begin building a way forward that helps to prevent similar situations from occurring again.

A New Cycle of Imperialism

The Russian invasion, like virtually all acts of aggressive imperialism before it, has been justified in terms crafted to sound humanitarian and even enlightened. Just as the US used allegations of weapons of mass destruction and a desire to spread democracy to legitimize its 2003 invasion of Iraq, Russia claims that it is acting to defend itself, “de-Nazify” Ukraine, and protect Russian speakers. Whether this rationale is sincere is beside the point. Its operating logic presumes that one nation is entitled to forcefully interfere in the internal affairs of another. This is textbook imperialism.

Unfortunately, in a wider world that itself bears the scars of centuries of imperialism, the international response to Russia’s aggression is almost certain to find its path of least resistance runs along the grooves of those very scars. The nations of Europe, Eastern Europe in particular, have already begun to move even more closely to the US and NATO as protectors and guarantors of peace. Taiwan may now anticipate finding itself in a similar position as Ukraine, with other nations in East and Southeast Asia forced into picking sides should China choose to adopt Russia’s tactics. In this way the cycle of imperialism is reinvigorated by fear, even if Russia’s ambitions are seeming to be thwarted at the moment.

Despite the US’s spotty historical track record when it comes to respecting democracy and human rights around the world, the competition among potential claimants to global leadership is so dismal that it is unsurprising that some countries would turn to the US as the least bad option. Yet even as it presumes to play protector, the US has steadily disengaged over the years from any sort of process that might hold it accountable for the actions it has taken in this pursuit. Even if the US consistently upheld its lofty ideals in practice, it would still be cementing a status quo in which rights are defended at the behest of a single power. The most this can do for us, and for the dream of a just and equitable future, is avoid harm. That might be acceptable in the crucible of crisis, but when the crisis passes we will need more. We need to actively build toward a better future, and for that we need a guiding vision, a modern theory of internationalism that can counter the cycle of imperialism and create a world that works for everyone.

An Internationalist Solution

If imperialism is the problem we seek to solve, we must determine how to recognize it, as it will not always announce itself with a barrage of missiles or a unilateral annexation. Perhaps we can start with why, as leftists, we find imperialism to be so abominable. The Left is fundamentally defined by its opposition to hierarchy. Capitalism offends us because it creates and sustains hierarchy. It separates the owning class and the laboring class and establishes a social, legal, and economic regime that ensures the continued dominance of the former over the latter. Imperialism, whatever its methods, aims similarly, with one nation or community seeking to entrench its dominant position. Note that the entrenchment is key here. It is not imperialist for one nation to simply be richer or more powerful than another. The relationship between them only takes on an imperialist character once the stronger power seeks to exploit its current advantage in order to establish ongoing dominance.

Unfortunately, our current international system has been extensively molded by exactly these imperialist ambitions. In seeking to challenge this system and the exploitation it enables, we need an egalitarian alternative that replaces the temptations of domination with the embrace of a true global community. This alternative must be internationalist, in that it imagines a world beyond nations and seeks to bring their inhabitants directly into community with each other, allowing advantages to be shared and benefits to be broadly enjoyed. Where imperialism has demanded subservience, internationalism offers democracy. Where imperialism has bred impunity, internationalism establishes accountability. Where imperialism has sown division, internationalism cultivates solidarity. These are the principles on which a free and peaceful future must be based. The road to this future begins with nations coming together to reduce the barriers between themselves and culminates in a new community, not of nations, but of individuals. It is important to emphasize that good intentions on the part of the powerful, while helpful, are not enough to bring about this state of affairs. This is fundamentally an issue of institutions, as these are the tools a society uses to rationalize and implement its values.

While current institutions may merely pay lip service to democracy and only occasionally manage to hold tyrants accountable, it is solidarity that is truly most lacking in our international institutions. Vital to the current imperialist framework is a separation between the exploiters and the exploited. While the imperialists help themselves to their victims’ land, labor, and natural resources, a division is maintained between those the system enriches and those it exploits. The two groups’ interests are set against each other, and no solidarity is allowed to blossom between them. This is most devastating to the exploited, who are denied full recognition of their humanity, but even the exploiters find themselves chained to their own power and separated from the embrace of community. Even within an ostensibly democratic system, this dynamic can be at risk of reemerging, thus a truly internationalist approach must operate from a premise of solidarity. The purpose of its institutions cannot be to manage affairs between essentially separate entities, but to unite new communities to manage their common interests, acknowledging that most fundamental fact of human existence, which so many of our present crises have seen fit to dramatize for us again and again: we are, and will continue to be, all here together. Operationalizing this principle will be a challenge, but democracy, accountability, and solidarity are not merely organizational principles, they are tactics as well as goals within themselves, and if we let them guide us, we can build a better future.

The Current Situation

To see this framework in action, let us apply it to the years of conflict that are now culminating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whatever Russia’s official casus belli may be, it clearly is seeking to ensure that Ukraine’s internal politics only develop along lines that Russia approves of. Part and parcel of this intent is that Russia retains veto power over Ukraine’s decisions, effectively rendering it a client state and maintaining the existing hierarchy from which Ukraine has been making more determined attempts to break away since at least the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. This places Russia’s actions since then squarely within our definition of imperialism, as they constitute a reactionary response to the Ukrainian effort to alter or escape the unequal dynamic of their relationship with Russia.

How can the internationalist principles discussed above be applied in this situation, both in understanding its origins and formulating a response? Let us first consider solidarity. As justified as anger toward Russia may be, the proper focus of an internationalist response should be on supporting the Ukrainian people, the victims of this crime, rather than primarily seeking to punish the perpetrator, Russia (both as a nation generally and Putin and his cronies specifically). On an individual basis, or working collaboratively in civic organizations, some immediate needs can be met through donations and charity. Unfortunately, there are currently very few effective avenues for foreign leftists to employ solidarity to directly oppose the Russian invasion. Individual contributions and civic organizations can support the Ukrainian resistance to this aggression, but they can’t halt the Russian war machine. Similarly, boycotts and sanctions can exact a toll on the Russian economy, but their effect is proportional to participation and even this effect is unlikely to be felt swiftly enough to influence the course of hostilities. The sort of mass action that would be needed to bring the invasion to a halt would have to come from inside Russia itself, and the intergovernmental focus of current international institutions has left any internal dissent against Putin’s regime isolated for too long for it to maintain the strength and coordination needed for such an effort.

In the effects of that isolation we can see the importance of another of our principles, democracy, and how the shortcomings of international democratic norms both foment conflict and make it more difficult to address. The current focus on state-to-state relations undermines civil society in ambivalently democratic states by denying it the nourishment of international relationships outside its own government’s influence. Much is made of whether a particular country meets some minimum standard necessary to be considered a democracy, but democratic principles often fall to the wayside in actual state-to-state relationships. By focusing narrowly on intergovernmental measures like diplomatic recognition and trade agreements, international institutions have largely set themselves up as collections of governments, rather than governmental authorities in their own right who would be able to draw legitimacy from their connection to the people that their decisions affect. This biases institutions’ decision-making towards concern for the well-being of elites and weakens the institutions in any crisis that pits their legitimacy against that of a nation-state. The modern nation-state derives its authority from popular sovereignty, and without a similar source of legitimacy, international institutions are left at a severe disadvantage in any conflict.

One clear way this shortfall of legitimacy manifests is by limiting these institutions’ willingness and capability to hold member states accountable to their formal commitments, or common standards of democracy and human rights. This is evident in the current situation in Ukraine, as even before the beginning of the crisis in 2014, European states were largely content to allow Russia to remain in more or less good standing with the so-called “international community,” even as its elections became progressively less free and fair, its officials more corrupt, and its disdain for international norms more brazen. This permissiveness allowed Putin to consolidate power and develop an aura of impunity both at home and abroad. Despite the complaints of many European states, they collectively struggled to impose any serious consequences on Russia and only became more dependent on it for natural gas, even after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. It is easy, and certainly appropriate, to decry the greed and shortsightedness of European leaders in this situation, but the prevailing paradigm of international relations did substantially tie their hands. As their interactions with the citizens of Russia were mediated through the Russian state, they were left with a fairly binary proposition: continue to engage with the Russian state, and thereby tacitly support its actions, or to disengage from both the state and the people, leaving the Russian populace to become alienated from the outside world and increasingly dependent on the same state whose iniquities such an action was intended to protest. A system more suited to a world of people, not states, could offer more graduated and targeted repercussions, allowing state actors to be isolated without necessarily spurning the entirety of that society.

More fundamentally, the current system of inter-state relations cannot offer accountability, as this is only available to those who have acknowledged mutual responsibilities to each other. Instead it offers punishment, or even vengeance, which is problematic for many reasons; among them, that leaders of autocratic countries can typically pass much of that suffering on to their own people, while shifting the blame toward others. Fear of retribution from neighbors can also weaken ties between countries, which in turn encourages them to each seek protection from more powerful patrons. These dynamics undermine international solidarity and lead to the further entrenchment of imperialism.

A failure to enact, uphold, or enforce democratic norms on the international stage led to the marginalization and isolation of the Russian populace, undermining solidarity. This isolation strengthened the hand of the Russian government, weakening that nation’s democracy. As the crisis deepened, other nations placated Putin (a failure of accountability), leading to him becoming bolder, both domestically and in foreign affairs. Eventually, as now seems to have happened, his aggression could no longer be ignored without undermining Western global authority, prompting open conflict between Russia and NATO. Though this rancor has only recently bubbled over to the surface, its seeds were sown in the initial failure to cultivate direct relations between the populace of the two societies.

What Was the Nation-State Good For, Anyway?

We seek to build an internationalist community, to take the next step in human social organization towards a world in which all people share and recognize a common bond with each other. As with all communities, the basis of this internationalism must be the material and social reliance of its members on each other, that is, they must need each other and they must recognize that need. Encouraging these relationships requires the development of trust between countries, and eventually their citizens. That process must be to some degree organic, but there are a few immediate steps we can take to help it along its course. To guide our efforts, we may actually take some lessons from the rise of nationalism as an ideology. While we can’t expect a successful transition to internationalism to follow the same path or be driven by the exact same forces, examining what made nationalism attractive and continues to make it attractive can give us a sense of the hurdles any internationalist project must confront.

Emerging in the early modern period, nationalism arose as a consequence of the spread of capitalism, advances in technology, and the proliferation of mass media. Previously, the majority of economic production had tended to take place in the context of local or regional communities. Though larger communities were capable of more efficient production through increased specialization and greater capacities for resource acquisition, the size of these communities was limited by both the difficulty of mass communication and the need to maintain a certain degree of trust. Growing too large or letting in too many strangers would cause the costs of security and collaboration to outpace the gains from specialization. The emergence of capitalism increased the pressures toward economic specialization and required trade beyond one’s local community to become commonplace, and new forms of communication like newspapers allowed for the emergence of a public sphere capable of informing and influencing far more people than could any speaker in a town or village square. This allowed the scope of peoples’ imagined communities to grow dramatically and led to a similar growth of state capacity as national authorities were both seized by the nationalist trend, and seized upon it to construct national identities that bound citizens more tightly than ever to the state apparatus.

Can internationalism surf the developing trends of our times to similar success? Let us consider the economic, technological, and social trends we face. The world’s economy is certainly more globalized than it has ever been, and that trend only seems to be accelerating. As supply chains become more global, people everywhere are more likely to feel the effects of conflict anywhere, potentially creating openings for developing international solidarity. This goes hand in hand with social trends, themselves spurred by the innovations of the digital age. It is easier than ever to not just hear about, but see live video of, both crises and everyday life around the world, often with a chorus of several thousand providing context or comment. The impact of this explosion of information has been decidedly mixed so far, but as platforms mature and social norms evolve, there is reason to believe that they will increasingly function as vectors of education and community building across borders, just as they have so often disrupted the hierarchies within those borders.

These are encouraging signs of an emerging international spirit, but that is not the same as a committed ideology of internationalism. And even should such an ideology win adherents, that will not be enough by itself to durably transform the world on its own. Modern nation-states did not grow from unplowed fields; the ascendant nationalist ideology interacted with the existing institutional landscape. Those institutions which now thrive in the international arena insulate autocrats from demands for democracy, privilege the movement of capital over the movement of people, and teach children distorted history to earn their allegiance. Each of these is repugnant on its own terms, but beyond that they undermine the emergence of international solidarity. For this reason, these institutions will be our primary obstacles to establishing an internationalist order and it will be necessary to challenge them in order to create the conditions for internationalism to succeed.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Of course, such institutions will not simply will themselves into existence – they must be created through collective political action. Unfortunately, there is not yet an organized constituency with the capacity to do so. There is, however, a potential path toward creating one. First, we must continue to build and encourage the development of democratic domestic institutions. For all the wariness with which people may approach the citizens of a foreign nation, that wariness is amplified when those foreign citizens are subject to the dictates of authoritarian rule. Undemocratic government precludes joining a community of equals because such a system inherently rejects equality. This does not preclude solidarity with the oppressed population, but no government that is unwilling to be accountable to its own people can be trusted to be accountable to anyone else. On the other hand, a functioning democracy will tend to express the values of its citizens, allowing them to find positions of common interest with those of other nations, thereby easing the transition from a nationalist to an internationalist outlook. A logical consequence of peaceful relations and recognition of common values will be a desire among the people of those nations to interact.

This leads naturally to another priority, the free movement of people. While substantial effort has been put towards easing the passage of capital across borders in the past few decades, nation-states continue to erect harsh and arbitrary barriers to human migration. This recreates the classic imperialist separation between exploiter and exploited. Those nations with means can extract the wealth of the less powerful while barring the people they’re exploiting from migrating to the very pastures rendered greener by that exploitation. That this exclusion is seen as a legitimate function of the nation-state incentivizes the less scrupulous members of society to exploit borders for their own gain, causing societies that are already artificially separated by restrictions on migration to be set against one another. Contrast this with the situation of European integration. Since its early days, it has taken the free movement of persons (at least within the European continent) as a fundamental principle, helping to foster the development of a collective European identity on a continent historically prone to bitter ethnic conflict. While prejudices toward southern and eastern Europeans certainly still exist within the EU – as well as prejudice and xenophobia toward migrants from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere – the enshrinement of freedom of movement has forced societies to confront the tangible costs of giving into that prejudice and made clear that the benefits of further integration tend to outweigh the discomfort of pooling national sovereignties. Constructive interactions between populations can do much to foster solidarity, and we should do all we can to incentivize such interactions, but a precondition to this is the recognition and enshrinement of the right of those people to interact in the first place.

By focusing first on freedom of movement and the domestic fight for democracy, we create the conditions for international communities to form beyond state interference. Once those rights are enshrined, the populations will naturally start to form more extensive social connections, eventually leading to the development of a vibrant international civil society, one which could conceivably challenge government institutions. This capacity could then be institutionalized over time into structures with the legitimacy and capacity to supersede, and potentially abolish, nation-states. It may take several cycles of this, with each successive cycle expanding the geographic scope of integration, before those communities become truly global. Europe, for example, is perhaps between the first two stages of this framework, but given the regional focus of its integration, there will need to be further cycles to move from a regional bloc to something that truly fulfills the internationalist vision, as it joins up along the way with other regions taking a similar path.

Finally, I will note one unavoidable obstacle. If we treat democracy as a guiding principle, internationalism can only be achieved if it is freely chosen. This implies that people must be free to choose it, and to understand the choice they are making. We can help ensure that people have that choice, but we  cannot make it for them. As vigorously as we may oppose imperialism, as fervently as we may feel internationalism necessary to finally extinguish it, it is not a solution that can be imposed. It must, to live up to its own standards, be a free choice.