Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire

The global international order seems to have entered what political theorist George Shulman has called an “interregnum.” The post–Second World War framework organized around U.S. international leadership is unraveling, but it remains unclear what will come next. As Shulman put it last year, channeling Gramsci, “the old gods are dying, the new ones have yet to be born.” To a significant degree, this unraveling is a product of American policymaking failures—whether destructive wars of choice in the Middle East, neoliberal practices that have promoted financial instability alongside extremes in wealth and immiseration, or internal political dysfunctions that have undermined any coherent strategy for dealing with a global health pandemic.

Interregnums offer historical openings; they carry the potential for genuine alternatives, both good and bad. Given the degree to which democratic socialists have been systematically excluded from wielding political power, especially foreign policy authority, in the United States, one might think that the unraveling of the postwar order could present a real political opportunity. After all, that long-standing exclusion from power means that none of the strategic errors of the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment can be blamed on the left.

And yet that is not how American politics in the last year has proceeded. Instead, developments from the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have placed left foreign policy voices on the defensive. Understanding why and working through the tensions within the democratic socialist left’s foreign policy world are imperative. At present, the possible futures that lay before us appear strikingly dystopian: either we languish in an old, broken Pax Americana or we slide into a new multipolar order dictated by competing capitalist authoritarianisms. Without a strong and coherent left alternative, finding a global pathway better than these options will only be that much harder.

Across most of the political spectrum, policymakers and commentators largely embrace the essential goodness of the security state as it is currently constituted. The idea that the U.S. government is a benevolent historical agent with the potential to establish a pacific and stable world community is a central feature of establishment foreign policy—including among American liberals. As this view would have it, whatever the flaws within U.S. society—whether racism, sexism, or class inequality—at root American institutions are more or less just, and are organized around principles of liberty and self-government. American liberalism thus offers a clear vision of internationalism: the security interests pursued by bipartisan policymakers are coterminous with the world’s interests.

Read the full article in Dissent.