- Interview by
- Cale Brooks
US global dominance is eroding, but what’s replacing it may not be much better. To varying degrees, the Chinese and Russian states are capitalist, authoritarian, and imperialist. Must the US left support one of these would-be competitors as an alternative to American imperialism?
For scholar Aziz Rana, the answer is no. Instead, he argues, we should take inspiration from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century internationalist left, which built transnational solidarity through labor unions, left-wing parties, and anti-colonial organizations. Only by rebuilding these institutions can we reconnect foreign policy decisions to the needs and interests of workers around the world, rather than the imperatives of business interests and the US national security state.
Cale Brooks recently interviewed Rana for Jacobin magazine’s YouTube channel. In their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, they discuss the disastrous effects of US empire, the assault on left institutions that organized across borders, and the liberatory promise of “an approach that combines antiauthoritarianism and anti-imperialism everywhere.”
What has the dominant US understanding of internationalism been, and, in contrast, how has the Left understood internationalism?
Over the last century, and certainly since the 1940s, American elites and the public have thought about the American project as essentially grounded in liberty and equality: America’s representative institutions and market capitalism are consistent with just outcomes and the inclusion of all, and the US promotes these bedrock universal commitments abroad, so its interests are more or less the world’s interests.
Now, there’s a recognition here of America’s history of sexism, racism, and class inequality. But the thought is that these histories don’t go to the heart of the national project; they are problems that the country is in the process of overcoming. And so, when the US acts overseas, it’s promoting the essence of its system, rather than these problematic aspects of it.
There’s also a recognition that internationally, sometimes the US gets things wrong — even disastrously so, in the case of Vietnam or the Iraq invasion. But there’s a sense that these are exceptions, and that by and large American foreign policy aims at creating a pacific, prosperous world order.
All this ends up justifying a version of liberal internationalism, which defines the US national security state’s project. The thought is that, for a stable international order to exist, there has to be a dominant state that has the authority to intercede and even to move outside the rules, to ensure that the rules as a whole are being followed. This power ends up falling to the US.
There’s been a sustained left critique of this approach, which goes something like this: at the heart of the national security state’s project is a specific combination of corporate and military elites. As a result, the long history of the “American century” has been one of sustained interventions, coups, and assassinations across the world. Rather than rule following, the norm has been violence and lawlessness under the guise of rule following. And rather than global prosperity, American primacy — through its dollar hegemony and global economic standing — has promoted the accumulation of wealth for elites.
The response from the Left — and you can see this in anti-colonial struggles and workers movements — is that in order for there to be a genuine internationalism, Americans have to commit to an independent foreign policy that’s distinct from the objectives of the security state. Otherwise, we will never be able to treat the global commons as a universal resource, redistributing global wealth in ways that are nonexploitative and foster self-determination.
This independent foreign policy would be organized through transnational commitments that link together workers and colonized peoples everywhere; it would see the relevant networks of community not as between, say, a worker and a powerful co-national with none of the same interests, but as between people that have a common interest in this alternative framework.
In a recent Dissent article called “Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire,” you argue that the weakness of American left internationalism has to do with the collapse of internationally focused left institutions, especially in the Global South. Can you explain what those institutions were and why we no longer have them?
If you took a snapshot of politics in the 1960s and 1970s, one major difference from the present would be the existence of liberation and anti-colonial organizations all around the world. You might think of the African National Congress (ANC), but there were a number of other anti-colonial liberation groups, many of them connected to left organizations in the US: SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], the Black Panthers, and a variety of others.
Alongside that, you had a first generation of independence leaders: Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Michael Manley in Jamaica, and many others that were thinking about how to build alternative international arrangements. Adom Getachew, a terrific scholar, has written about the New International Economic Order, which was an effort to think about a multipolar regionalism that would have reconceived the global commons on nonexploitative grounds. All of this provided a framework for conversations across borders about everything from security hot spots to political economy.
At the same time, though it was weaker than earlier in the century, there was still a global labor movement. Institutions of global labor were very closely tied with these anti-colonial institutions; they played a central role in mass organization against imperialism and colonialism, and they also linked together folks on grounds of shared class solidarity.
Unfortunately, many of those first-generation independence leaders ended up instituting forms of authoritarianism and plutocracy that broke elements of the liberationist imagination. But alongside the problem of authoritarianism, once you had independent states across large chunks of Asia and Africa, two other significant things occurred.
First, the US security state, along with its various allies, systematically attempted to destroy these networks. They did so through assassinations and coups, which destabilized nonaligned, socialist, and left institutions and governments.
Second, the US and European countries pursued an economic vision that was the direct opposite of ideas like the New International Economic Order. Instead, it was premised on footloose capital, transnational corporate property rights, the expansion of market access, and privatization. These policies of neoliberal austerity went hand-in-hand with a dramatic global assault on labor institutions, and on the class foundations of left international politics.
All that’s left for conversations about national security and foreign policy are security states — not just in the US and in Europe, but also in the Global South, where security states are often deeply aligned with US interests.
American anti-imperialism can suffer from a “vulgar” anti-imperialism that simply says, the American empire is big and bad. Obviously, the American empire is real, and it does have horrible consequences for many people around the world and in the US. But this vulgar analysis also ends up flattening the world and erasing the role of capitalism; it gets rid of class distinctions, and it sees the world in terms of nation states. How did this vulgar anti-imperialism evolve, and what are its stakes today?
After the end of the Cold War, the bipartisan political establishment and the national security state increasingly argued that American foreign policy had no political character. The idea was that during the Cold War, there was an ideological confrontation between capitalism and socialism, but now in a unipolar world, all you have is the US as a site of rule protection and the rest of the world as sites of disorder and humanitarian harm. When the US engages in airstrikes and imposes harsh sanctions, what it’s really doing is going after rogue states. It’s just following a moral imperative to protect the world.
The truth is that the post–Cold War era of unipolarity has been one of sustained American rule defection, precisely because this was the agenda of the security state. The very rules that the US promised to uphold ended up being rules that it systematically violated.
In the 1990s and 2000s, a lot of anti-imperial analysis was about exposing this ongoing political character of American power and contesting the moral innocence that cloaked American unipolarity. For instance, in the Middle East, given brutal wars of choice, this meant highlighting the destructive consequences of the security state’s overarching strategy — whether it be protecting access to oil and promoting corporate interests, or backstopping Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s regional priorities. The analysis focused on how post-Cold War unipolarity was producing negative consequences, both internationally and at home.
But today, the structure of American unipolarity is breaking down. We’re starting to see incipient forms of multipolarism: strong alternative states with their own projects like China and Russia, which are not yet full-on competitors, but are also engaging on the world stage. For the criticism of American empire that came out of the 1990s and the 2000s, the natural response is to say multipolarism is good — we don’t want a unipolar world marked by American primacy.
That’s certainly my position as well. I think an ideal global outcome is a multipolar world in which ordinary people are the ones making decisions about how to organize the global commons. But the version of multipolarism that’s emerging right now is not that emancipatory one.
It’s a version of multipolarism where the US is still a very powerful hegemon, one that lurches from circumstance to circumstance with no real clarity, with dysfunctional domestic institutions marked by growing de-democratization, and with global policies of aggressive sanctions and militarized confrontation. On the other side, you have these authoritarian capitalist states that are multipolar sites of regional authority. Their projects are also not emancipatory, and are in many ways shaped by the half century of transformations in the global order that undermined left institutions.
In this context, it’s easy to criticize what the US is doing without articulating an approach, as Bassam Haddad has argued, that combines antiauthoritarianism and anti-imperialism everywhere.
The Left should certainly be antiauthoritarian, and part of the reason to do so is that we want a better enemy to resist: we’d rather go up against liberal-democratic capitalists than authoritarian, brutal dictators, whose power is unlimited. Still, I think we need to remember the basic cleavage in capitalism, between workers and capitalists, the exploited and exploiters. That divide exists, whether it’s among white people or brown people, and whether it’s in the Global North or the Global South.
Anti-colonial and national liberation movements have approached this question of nationalism in diverse ways: Do they ally with their domestic ruling class against the US, or do they see the ruling class everywhere as their primary enemy?
In the twenty-first century, we live in a global capitalist world, with only small pockets of noncapitalists. Does this make the confrontation between those who are exploited and those who exploit more fundamental?
I agree with the point you’re making. The Left has become trapped within national borders.
A sharp divide between the domestic and the foreign helps disappear the dynamics of global capitalism and their relationship to the dynamics of empire. And it transforms most conversations about foreign policy into exchanges just with the national security state.
The security apparatus in the US and the security apparatuses even of American foes have a lot in common: the way that they’re constructed, their presentation of perceived enemies, their use of counterterrorism tools against domestic dissidents, and their linkages within global networks of power.
Think about a country like Iran, which has been framed very clearly as an American enemy. But it seems the government wants to be part of global networks of capital — it’s not presenting an alternative economic organization.
A focus on the nation means that we can’t think about these problems in terms of transnational communities, stitched together by common interests, a common class experience, and a common anti-colonial experience. Instead, we think like Henry Kissinger: in terms of state objectives, grand strategy, and rivalries.
This tension appears in discussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the one hand, we’re talking about what the US government should be doing. On the other, we’re trying to imagine what the Left’s response would be, if it were in power. In your view, is the point of discussing foreign policy on the Left to influence government actions, or is it just an exercise in understanding?
The Left has to engage in this balancing act precisely because of its systematic historic exclusion from power. To the extent that the national security state’s framework is the only one on the table, it’s going to drive conversation. To begin the process by which that might cease to be the case, you have to build credible left alternatives by talking about how the Left would exercise state power. You need to present a credible alternative, and you also need to highlight how the approach of the security state systematically produces deleterious outcomes.
On Ukraine, my own position is that a commitment to anti-colonial self-determination means that you have to oppose imperial invasion of one country by another. I think that justifies defensive military assistance — but defensive military assistance, combined with a commitment to diplomacy and de-escalation.
If you’re going to impose sanctions, they should be narrowly targeted against those that are driving Russian aggression. We should oppose a broad-ranging sanctions regime that punishes ordinary people. And if you’re going to go after Russian oligarchs, that has to be a global project of closing tax havens and attacking oligarchs everywhere, rather than just Russian oligarchs.
All of that has to come from a theory of solidarity that’s built around not just necessary humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, but also global humanitarian assistance. The UN secretary general has said that 1.7 billion people around the world are facing food, energy, and financial crises, partly as a result of the US sanctions regime. There’s clearly enough money to alleviate these struggles through redistribution. So, you could imagine what a left alternative approach would be: one that takes the principles of anti-imperialism and antiauthoritarianism seriously.
That’s not what the US is doing. The US is combining a commitment to rejecting Russian aggression with the pursuit of its own geostrategic objectives, and those geostrategic objectives include weakening a global adversary. That framework is part of why the same policies are being imposed yet again: this wide-ranging and extreme sanctions approach, which is having really disruptive effects on ordinary people, both in this specific crisis and around the world. There’s no clear history of these strong sanctions generating peaceful outcomes.
All that is tied to flooding the conflict with arms, in ways that promote a militarized intensification with serious humanitarian consequences for people in the war zone. It also has real effects for Europe more broadly. A peaceful Europe, in my view, is a demilitarized Europe based on collective security.
How do we marry left politics and anti-imperialism in a practical and strategic way? How do we get there, rather than just saying it should be?
Mainstream social-democratic politics in the US, since the Cold War, have really separated foreign and domestic issues. You can see this as part of a compromise that the labor movement in particular, but the Civil Rights Movement as well, entered into in the mid-twentieth century.
For the labor movement, many of the benefits of the New Deal settlement were organized around the idea that business, labor, and government would work together to build a limited social welfare state at home. But a condition for that compromise was that labor activists wouldn’t contest what the US did abroad.
There was also a background set of reasons why labor accepted this compromise. Many folks in the labor movement had genuine concerns about the Soviet Union, particularly the authoritarianism of Stalin. And US dollar hegemony, its control over the global financial system, its access to foreign markets — all of these things fed domestic prosperity, especially for a white working and middle class. In the ’40s and ’50s, you could make a plausible argument that, for some portion of the American public, social democracy and American primacy were stitched together.
But over the long run, the objectives of the security state and corporate elites ended up cutting against global labor protections. The global labor movement in general became trapped within borders, while capital became footloose and mobile. This first generated austerity and immiseration elsewhere; eventually, these consequences came back home, and American workers faced the realities of capital that can move effortlessly, that has strong property rights, and that undermines labor protections. Once capital destroyed the labor movement domestically, that had profound effects on sustaining not just the institutions of social democracy, but also the experience of material progress and a rising tide.
By the time we get to 2022, it’s hard to sustain the idea that American primacy is creating wealth for large segments of the American population, rather than just those that enjoy the benefits of corporate power. So there’s a kind of loop here, where the combination of social democracy and empire just doesn’t work. That failure highlights how domestic struggles — over political economy, over class, over the potential for social democracy — swim in the water of global realities.
Therefore, these struggles require not just strong, transnational institutions, but also thinking about foreign policy beyond specific US troop deployments. We have to think about foreign policy as a site for movement activism and movement organization, in which the foreign and the domestic work together. Promoting global labor rights, decriminalizing the border, and cutting back the security budget are all good policies. But they are also policies that are essential for the institutional strength of the Left at home and abroad.
I should also add that there are incipient sites of an international left in the US that didn’t exist five, ten, or twenty years ago. You can see this in the solidaristic actions that do take place, even if they don’t have thick institutional connections.
Think about the Movement for Black Lives, which emphasizes the connections between racial justice in the US and the experience of Palestinians. That transformed the domestic conversation about Palestine and the response, even in mainstream media, to Israel’s actions in places like Gaza. More and more people are highlighting, for instance, the Amnesty International report that calls the treatment of Palestinians a form of apartheid. And then we have incipient sites of institutional connection, like the Progressive International, that are attempting to link solidaristic efforts within the US and overseas, through unions, through peace movements, and through other connections.
We’re trying to recover a mode of thinking, a mode of politics, and a mode of organizing that has been systematically broken apart over the past half century. The only response, both at home and abroad, is to bind anti-imperialism to social democracy, and to do so in ways that think of the global commons as a repository for all, and of domestic American politics as a site for liberation.