How to Build a Socialist Foreign Policy

Our hopes for a socialist United States are constrained as much by US empire as they are by domestic capitalists. But democratic socialist candidates like Bernie Sanders can combat militarism in the service of workers across the world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks at his notes as he watches the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Our hopes for a socialist United States are constrained as much by the material and human costs of the American empire as by the power capitalists wield domestically. If we want to build public support for socialism we must make foreign policy part of our analysis.

We need to be able to explain clearly why the United States is perpetually involved in hot and cold wars; and offer a clear pathway to a different foreign policy that serves the true interests of the vast majority of Americans and the desires of people around the world for freedom from war, environmental disaster, economic oppression, and political repression.

This country’s military budget, trade agreements, foreign “aid,” military alliances, and wars all are designed to further the interests of capitalists and of what C. Wright Mills called the military elite. We need to recognize that at times some capitalists are in conflict with others and that the military elite has its own interests that go beyond making the world safe for American capitalism. Those differences provide leverage for the rest of us to challenge existing foreign policy. However, our main strength comes from showing how most people are harmed rather than helped when the government serves narrow elite interests.

Foreign Policy for American Capitalists

Ever since the 1930s the US government has pushed for trade agreements that give American companies access to foreign markets. At the same time, the United States has used military and non-military means to remove governments that tried to restrict capitalists’ ability to exploit resources and workers in other countries or to create social protections for their citizens. Obviously, the United States is less able to intervene in other wealthy countries, like those of Western Europe, even as America’s ability to mold other nations to its will has increased since the end of the Soviet Union.

US goals in trade treaties have changed over time. Up to the 1960s, the government pushed to open foreign markets to American manufactured goods. But as America’s industrial edge disappeared, the United States instead has sought to win access for financial firms above all. It also aims to protect American pharmaceutical, software, and entertainment firms’ patents and copyrights. In essence, since the 1970s, American trade negotiators have sacrificed industrial workers to protect the profits of Wall Street, Big Pharma, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.

The United States’ trade strategies and interventionist tactics reflect the power that American capitalists as a class, and a shifting set of the most privileged corporations, exert over the US government. As socialists, we need to present this reality and refute the false claim that trade treaties are win-win outcomes for people throughout the world. Indeed, workers everywhere are harmed by the trade treaties their governments negotiate.

We need to note that American trade policies have been consistent over Democratic as well as Republican administrations. Claims that “gold standard” trade treaties protect workers or the environment were as false under Obama and Clinton as they are under Trump. Moreover, they harm workers in China as well as in the United States. The game Donald Trump claims to be playing, of extracting concessions from China that will benefit American workers, is as misleading as the promises that Obama and all his predecessors made about the benefits of their latest trade treaty.

What the Military Wants and Gets

The US military, like those of most countries, protects its nation’s capitalist investments abroad. Howard Zinn, among many scholars, documented numerous instances of American invasions or intimidation to ensure that US corporations could keep the plantations, mines, factories, and other facilities they owned abroad. Sometimes, the United States intervenes to protect foreign capitalists’ investments, as when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 after it nationalized British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

As the United States’ edge over other military powers has widened, it rarely needs to actually send troops to overthrow governments. The mere fact of US military dominance serves to intimidate other governments and prevents other countries from challenging America’s ability to set the terms of international trade and diplomacy.

Such power is enormously expensive to build and maintain. It requires a vast, permanent military establishment. Any organization, like the Pentagon, which commands millions of soldiers and other employees and controls a budget approaching $1 trillion a year, amasses great political power and autonomy as well — both abroad and within US institutions.

The US is unusual among nations in that from its beginning it relied upon private companies to develop and build weaponry. Weapons contracts generate greater profit margins than most other businesses, creating a unity of interests between military officers and capitalists, who otherwise oppose expensive government programs that ultimately must be funded through taxes.

Generals’ views of how to fight wars and what weaponry they need are shaped, indeed determined, by the way their careers are structured. Officers spend their careers assigned to units that man and deploy specific weapons systems. They advance by commanding expensive and technically complex weapons. Winning appropriations for those weapons systems ensures long careers for the ever-expanding corps of generals. Budget cuts or more drastically the cancellation of a weapons system would stymie or end the careers of officers in that military division.

Weapons systems also reward officers in their retirement. Defense firms often hire retired military officers, and the promise of high corporate salaries to supplement their pensions gives officers a powerful incentive not to question the worth of expensive weapons systems, or to dispute contractors’ bills and pricing decisions.

These career and organizational imperatives mesh perfectly with defense firms’ interest in selling advanced weapons systems, which consistently yield the largest profits. Thus, advanced weapons continue to absorb the lion’s share of the Pentagon budget even though those weapons are fundamentally ill suited for the actual wars the United States fights in the twenty-first century.

The United States’ overwhelming military power is complemented by a system of alliances spanning much of the globe. However, relations with other countries are increasingly managed by the military rather than the State Department. The Defense Department since World War II has cultivated direct ties with their military counterparts elsewhere in the world, as has the Central Intelligence Agency.

In addition, the military and CIA sustain independent relations with civilian officials of many foreign governments. The Pentagon has created “commands” for each region of the world, headed by senior generals or admirals, who negotiate directly with both military and civilian officials in the countries of those regions about policy matters that extend far beyond military cooperation. These commands endure across presidential administrations and thus provide more continuity in US strategic policies and foreign relations than do the civilian side of the US government.

Ties between the United States and foreign militaries are further cemented through arms sales since purchasers remain dependent on the United States for training and intelligence. Arms sales abroad also bolster manufacturers’ profits, providing a powerful incentive for American capitalists to support their government’s ties to even the most brutal regimes in the world, as we see now with Saudi Arabia. In addition, a third of America’s measly foreign aid budget, which comes to less than 1 percent of the total Federal budget, is devoted to subsidizing other countries’ weapons purchases.

The Pentagon’s common interests with capitalists, and its increasingly independent links to other governments, makes it difficult for civilian officials — including presidents — to challenge the military’s war plans. The Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars continued for years after it became clear the commanding generals were delusional about the prospects for victory, and as the death toll of both US soldiers and civilians in the countries the United States had invaded mounted. The United States has almost eight hundred bases in more than seventy countries around the world. Those bases expose US troops stationed there to potential attacks, which then become justification for sending more troops and increasing “anti-terrorism” spending. American soldiers offer “training” to foreign armies, and in so doing insert themselves into the politics and conflicts of the countries where they are based. Since World War II the United States has tried to overthrow governments in sixty countries, and succeeded in thirty-four of them.

A Socialist Alternative

It is not enough to say what is wrong with US military and foreign policy. We need to present a socialist alternative. Our foreign policy’s primary goal should be to unite workers across borders to limit the power of capitalists. Capitalists gain a huge advantage from their ability to move money around the globe. The threat of a capital strike or of capital flight is used to break unions; force left governments to reduce social benefits; and cancel environmental, financial, and business regulation.

The United States clearly has the leverage to reverse pro-capitalist policies. After all it has used its power, as we noted above, to impose trade treaties and to intimidate or replace foreign governments. We need to demand that our government instead ally with left governments and popular forces around the world to enact very different sorts of treaties: ones that end money laundering and movements of “hot” money by forcing banks around the world to identify the true owners of capital, tax treaties that impose uniform and highly progressive rates so that capitalists can’t park money in tax shelters, and trade treaties that require exporting countries and firms to uphold living wages, strong health and safety regulations, and favor products made by unionized workers.

Bernie Sanders was correct when he said that climate change is the greatest national security threat faced by the United States; it is also the greatest threat facing humans the world over.

American efforts to limit fossil fuels were nonexistent before 2009; then uneven and pathetically weak under Obama. Now, Trump is actively fostering oil and coal production domestically and around the world.

The rich countries of the world, who in the centuries of fossil fuel use have emitted most of the CO2 in the atmosphere, need to immediately sign a treaty committing them to end fossil fuel use within a decade. The United States can use its economic and diplomatic power to pressure its fellow oil/coal producers and users to make this transition, with the threat that rich countries that continue to use fossil fuels will have their exports embargoed.

At the same time, foreign aid now needs to be focused on helping poor nations make a rapid transition to green energy and on conserving forests and wetlands. The United States needs to recognize that in its budget and encourage other rich countries to do the same.

Wars in their destruction of human life are immoral and almost always fought for evil reasons: to further capitalist exploitation, to allow militaries to self-aggrandize themselves and the politicians who fund them, and to allow powerful groups to dominate weaker ones. Because the United States has such an overwhelming edge in arms and technology, American disarmament can be leveraged to gain commitments by others to disarm. We need to demand that the US government immediately stop all arms sales, withdraw its soldiers from the vast archipelago of bases it holds around the world, and to stop any sort of military cooperation with repressive regimes.

Human rights can’t be applied selectively to delegitimize countries the US government opposes (Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China). Instead the whole array of political, social, and economic rights needs to be upheld everywhere.

A 2020 Platform

Here is a basic five-point foreign policy platform that a socialist candidate for president like Bernie Sanders, or indeed any politician who wants to present her or himself as progressive, should adopt.

First, the greatest danger to the United States, and the main source of future refugees, is global warming. Thus, the primary goal of foreign policy should be to take every step possible to reduce CO2 emissions, and use this country’s leverage from such reductions to negotiate treaties committing other countries to also take significant and verifiable measures.

Second, since arms sales mainly serve to intensify wars, the United States should commit to ending the sales of weapons abroad. Again, the United States should use that commitment to negotiate treaties with the other major arms sellers (our allies like France, Britain, Germany and Israel, as well as Russia and China) to also stop sales.

Third, the United States needs to wind down its empire of global military bases. Those bases, like arms sales, make wars more likely (with the exception of those in Western Europe), and in many countries they fortify authoritarian governments.

Fourth, the American military budget should be cut so that it funds only a truly defensive armed force. Arms cuts, like those of CO2 and of arms sales, can be leveraged in negotiations to get other countries to also reduce their military budgets. This country did this before: President Nixon cut the military budget by over a third and that provided the basis for the series of arms control treaties that significantly reduced nuclear weapons.

Fifth, we need to learn the lesson of the 2008 financial crisis and negotiate limits on capitalists’ ability to move “hot” money around the globe and to hide money in tax havens. The United States has enormous leverage over banks throughout the world because it can threaten to exclude foreign banks from transactions with the United States. That is the power that underwrites the current embargoes against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Instead, such sanctions should be used to cut off any country that does not make information about the true owners of accounts in those countries available to tax officials in their home countries. Thus, banks in tax shelters would need to let the IRS know about all accounts held by Americans in those places, and let the authorities of other countries know about their citizens’ accounts.

These five principles can help develop rational and humane policies in the hotspots that are the focus of attention. They can guide immediate responses to the unpredictable foreign-policy tussles that occur in our twenty-four-hour-media cycle.

Iran, for instance, is not a threat to the United States. If we want to reduce tension in the Middle East, the first step is to stop selling weapons to the antagonists of the region. We should immediately stop sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries which today are using American weapons to massacre civilians in Yemen, creating bitter enemies whose anger someday will blow back on the United States.

For more than forty years the United States has used Israel as its enforcer in the Middle East. Israel, in return for arms and diplomatic support, has intimidated and waged war when necessary on Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and on leftists in Jordan and elsewhere while quietly assisting Egypt and Saudi Arabia in their repression of domestic opponents. US arms sales have served to embolden the most militaristic and intransigent elements in Israel, encouraging aggression rather than negotiation with Palestinians.

The United States tips the scale in favor of the most reactionary elements within Israel and toward policies rejected by a majority of Jews in the United States and around the world. Sanders and other left politicians need to be clear that departing from the establishment policy on Israel is not antisemitic. Since the United States is the biggest supporter of Israel’s policies, it is the United States and not Jewish people who are responsible for the oppression of Palestinians.

Neither Iran nor Venezuela pose a threat to the United States. Their militaries are tiny in comparison to ours. The people of those countries should be able to decide on their own government without US interference. Nor should we encourage neighboring countries to attack. An Israeli attack on Iran or an invasion of Venezuela by any of its neighbors would lead to regional war and create massive numbers of refugees, further destabilizing those regions.

Finally, we need to remember that Russia and China’s military budgets are fractions of that of the United States. They do not pose a threat to this country. They too face budgetary pressures and would gain from new arms control treaties. We should engage their stated willingness to reduce tensions and to negotiate new treaties.

It’s Time for Action on Foreign Policy

Today, in the midst of vicious attacks on workers and the oppressed within the United States, it’s tempting to focus our energies on domestic issues. With so few Americans dying in wars, and the toll the United States imposes internationally often going unseen, to many it feels like a side issue.

However, our ability to challenge capitalists is weakened by their global reach, and resources needed for social programs and environmental transformation are wasted on weapons. These weapons then cause and intensify wars which, thanks to their nuclear capacity and environmental destruction, threaten to destroy us completely.

Transformations within the United States and around the world will only happen if mass movements push them. A socialist domestic policy will be strengthened if it is combined with an effort to remake foreign policy as well. We also will have an easier time explaining the causes of our falling standard of living and of environmental disaster when we can place it in a global context.

The great advantage we have as socialists is that we have a conceptual framework that can make clear the connections between domestic and foreign policy. World affairs often are made to appear a stew of distinct and unrelated actors and events. In that imagined fog, capitalists and militarists who know what they want, and who know better than to separate domestic and foreign affairs, can overwhelm the rest of us.

The best way to challenge their power is to formulate clear demands and back them with sharp socialist analysis that make clear the choice between a world they continue to run and one that instead is shaped by the ideas and the common interests of the vast majority of people on this planet.

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Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

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