Don’t be fooled by the ‘left foreign policy’ scam
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a meeting of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, February 1, 2017. Some in the foreign policy establishment are trying to clean up the image of U.S. imperialism as they jockey for positions in a possible Sanders administration. | Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP

“Where is the left wing’s foreign policy?” “A foreign policy for the left.” “The rising left needs more foreign policy.” “A new, progressive, left, foreign policy for shiny happy people.”

Headlines like these are becoming more common. (Maybe not that last one.) We are in, so they say, a trailblazing era for United States foreign policy, one oriented in a more progressive direction. The stories attached to those headlines feature forceful, self-assured rhetoric, full of “we”s, “must”s, and “should”s. You wonder where this sudden burst of enthusiasm came from.

I have a theory. Despite tearful exhortations from the mainstream media and the entry of former Vice President Joe Biden into the race, U.S. Senator and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Forward-thinking figures in the national security, policy, intelligence and media ecosystems are more than capable of reading the writing on the wall, and shrewd enough to start angling for positions in the Sanders campaign or a Sanders White House. They are doing so while claiming to chart a new course, crafted in opposition to previous regimes of “liberal interventionism”—the use of military might to resolve alleged humanitarian crises abroad.

Those of us who know the history of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere might be inclined to treat such declarations with skepticism. After all, why would the U.S. deliberately change tack when the value extracted from neo-colonies and comprador states in the Global South accounts for so much of its economic growth? Why would it abandon the many multinational companies who reap obscene profits through resource and labor exploitation, companies whose managers have enormous sway over the political system? What’s more, why should we take these policy peddlers at their word when so many of them have worked to uphold these practices in other administrations?

The answer is simple. This “new” foreign policy is a scam, a concerted effort to rebrand the liberal interventionism of yesteryear into something more palatable to a generation fed up with U.S. wars for profit and corporate power. These hucksters do a few twists on the standard playbook, warping tried-and-true “world police” language so it sounds different enough to be labeled radical or leftist. But don’t be fooled. They’re relying on the same scare tactics as their John Bircher forbears, and can’t imagine a world where the U.S. doesn’t reign supreme.

Miraculously, in this “new” formulation, the U.S.’ designated enemies remain so. “Chinese imperialism” is a “looming threat,” as are Iran, Russia, Cuba, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It’s taken as a given all these countries are legitimate threats; not once is it suggested there might be no need to “handle” or “manage” them at all. The bogeyman of “authoritarianism” is invoked to condone this scare-mongering. However problematic U.S. hegemony might have been before, they say, it’s infinitely preferable to governance by those dastardly authoritarians.

Thus the same old interventionism is repackaged in several Trojan horses, including “democracy protection” and “human rights.” Pure coincidence, no doubt, that the countries deemed insufficiently democratic or defensive of human rights in this calculus are the ones the U.S. is already targeting with sanctions, economic warfare, and coup plots.

These “left foreign policy” boosters might decry the ballooning military budget of the U.S.—a budget at least as big as the next seven countries’ combined—but they’re talking out of one side of their mouth. The other side is regurgitating the narrative used by the Department of Defense, the State Department, the CIA, and arms contractors to justify more war spending. They want to have their cake, eat it too—then sharpen the fork into a deadly weapon.

All this amounts to a redemption story, one which paints horrific cruelty as “honest mistakes” or “blunders.” By their estimation, the U.S. has fallen short of an imagined ideal, rather than willingly brutalized entire populations for the sake of profit. This is ridiculous by any measure; no country has waged more war in the last century, to say nothing of non-military action. The U.S.’ moral ledger is not merely “in the red”—it’s soaked with blood and viscera. What we have been allowed to read of these atrocities shows they were committed with enthusiasm, if not outright glee.

But this “new” foreign policy purports to leave all that messy business in the past where it belongs—an all-too-familiar refrain. Only after time has passed does it become acceptable to denounce the U.S. government, well past the point when such denunciations would carry any weight. Convenient for the perpetrators, wouldn’t you say?

Whatever the motivation, pushing these ideas only preserves the status quo. If it’s a certainty China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, the DPRK, or another country represents a threat to the global order, and if it’s a certainty the U.S. can be absolved of its crimes and act as a nobler steward of that order, then we’re right back where we started: There is no real alternative, we live in the best of all possible worlds. The assumption undergirding this whole argument is the world must have a leader, and that leader must be the United States. In other words, they want imperialism with a human face.

The reality is there’s far more to intervention than military assault, and the “left foreign policy” clique knows it. The U.S. Army didn’t have to invade Chile to destroy Salvador Allende’s government any more than the West had to fire a shot to extract billions of dollars from the Global South. Economic encirclement, intelligence operations, and all manner of clandestine action can ensure a country moves into the U.S. sphere—or at the very least, away from the embrace of the aforementioned Bad Guys. Yet these hawks in dove’s clothing would have us believe so long as there aren’t uniformed troops involved, any policy, even sanctions, can be branded “progressive.”

Now let me use a few “we”s, “must”s, and “should”s. If we want a real break from our murderous past, we must put an immediate end to interference and disruption schemes—covert and overt alike. We must unilaterally dismantle our nuclear arsenal, close the nearly 800 military bases in operation around the world, and stop all sanctions regimes currently in place, to name only a few essential measures. There should not be any “soft” techniques of coercion or manipulation used to fill the resultant “influence gap;” compelling desired behavior from countries via economic advantage is intervention by other means.

But all this is functionally impossible within our present political and economic system—precisely why it won’t gain traction with the policy and media luminaries already ingratiating themselves into the Sanders campaign. That by itself should be evidence of their flimsy commitment to genuine change.

Ultimately, our slogan to combat this con should be straightforward. We should be repeating what has been a universal truth for all people suffering under the yoke of imperialism: The only truly progressive U.S. foreign policy is no foreign policy at all.


Ian Goodrum
Ian Goodrum

Ian Goodrum is a writer and digital editor for China Daily in Beijing, China.