Why Progressives Don’t Have a Foreign Policy (and Why They Need One)

One of the more curious things that happened on the way to Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 was that a number of both mainstream newspaper commentators and left-wing figures in good standing offered a counter-intuitive take on the proceedings. The most well-known example was probably Maureen Dowd’s much discussed “Donald the Dove” column, but other prominent figures who took a similar line included Australian leftist filmmaker John Pilger and Slovenian Marxist gadfly Slavoj Žižek.

The argument went something like this: Donald Trump is certainly a racist, sexist buffoon, but his election might ultimately serve the cause of global peace and anti-imperialism. This line of thinking arose both because Trump had made some vaguely anti-interventionist noises (however contradictory) and because, as a political outsider, he was not beholden to networks of US military and foreign policy powers, which have prevented the country’s withdrawal from global empire. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is deeply embedded in such networks, has made threatening statements towards Russia and China and was known as a hawkish voice inside the Obama cabinet. Therefore, on balance—so the argument went—a Trump presidency might be preferable from a global perspective, even if it would be worse from a US domestic one.

Though this opinion, just under two years later, might seem laughably naïve at best, there is evidence that it might have contained some truth. The policy that the Trump administration has pursued towards North Korea has been deeply incoherent and contradictory, but it seems to be moving, according to indications from the South Korean government, in the direction of conflict resolution. Though it is very difficult to predict what will happen next—and even if a positive outcome were to occur, it would not mean that Trump’s election was worth it—it is certainly an unorthodox approach, which could yield positive results. Similarly, putting aside the questions of personal collusion and electoral meddling, one might see a certain logic in Trump’s desire for a better relationship with Russia, and his related questioning of the continued relevance of NATO. After all, Russia is a large, nuclear-armed power, with whom a direct military confrontation would be potentially catastrophic for the entire world. Respected establishment foreign policy figures such as George Kennan have previously made the case that NATO should have been disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that later moves to expand it were needlessly provocative towards Russia. It is not necessary to have the kind of personal affection for Vladimir Putin and his style of governance that Trump seemingly does to pursue this policy, and one could reasonably see a progressive or liberal government pursuing it.

It is also curious that these two policy tracks—by far the most dovish that Trump has pursued—have been the source of the most withering criticism, both from Democrats and from his fellow Republicans. Trump has been repeatedly depicted as surrendering to foreign powers, abandoning traditional allies and, most explosively, of committing treason against the United States itself. If Trump were genuinely pursuing a rethinking of the global position of the US, along the lines of even a partial withdrawal from military dominance, it might be worth defending him from such attacks, if only to uphold the ideas themselves. However, other aspects of his approach to foreign policy, such as moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, abrogating the Iran nuclear deal and the gloves off military policy in Afghanistan, demonstrate that, whatever may be motivating his relatively unorthodox approach in some areas, it is not a coherent alternative doctrine.

A Problem of Power

What the confusion around the relative merits of Trump’s freeform musings on global affairs (they lack the coherence of policy) ultimately reveals, then, is less about Trump and more about people like Pilger and Žižek: namely, that they are politically starved for an alternative—no matter how incoherent—to the apparently bipartisan status quo that defenders term the liberal international order and detractors call US (or Western) hegemony.

The progressive Left—a broad political category, ranging from social democratic Bernie Sanders supporters to more radical Marxist-inspired socialists—do not have a clear, coherent alternative vision of foreign policy, outside of dominant paradigms. Though the Left does have some relatively unified, consistent stances on individual issues and levels heavy, often deserved, critiques at the status quo, it is not clear what they would do differently, at a fundamental level, were they to gain power.

This lack of a program may be partly due to a fundamental skepticism about state power as such, among certain parts of the Left. For those who take this perspective, discussion of state­–to–state international relations is inherently anti-progressive: the focus ought to be on building global solidarity from the ground up via worker–to–worker contact. A great deal of activism, both within and outside the formal labor movement, focuses on precisely this.

However, a good portion of the Left, energized by the successes of campaigns such as those of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, has started to seriously reengage with the taking of state power via electoral means. This rejection of state power as a goal has, at least in the recent past, been primarily a feature of the Left in the global North. One of the more encouraging elements of the so-called Latin American pink tide governments was their desire to construct alternative multilateral institutions and independent foreign relations practices, outside of the US-dominated status quo. Of course, those governments faced criticism from leftist movements within their respective nations, but they tended to approach the questions of state power and state-focused foreign policy as pragmatic, rather than doctrinaire, ones.

Broadly speaking, current strains of foreign policy thinking on the left can be slotted into three categories (though these occasionally overlap and the proponents of them may not identify as such): pseudo-realism, anti-imperialism and modified liberal internationalism. Though all three have virtues—and are certainly better than the status quo—they are all beset by holes and contradictions, which render them partially inoperative as functional alternative policy models.


The first mode, pseudo-realism (which does not fully subscribe to the academy theory of realism, but retains aspects of its analysis), most accurately describes the thoughts on foreign policy offered by Bernie Sanders. For advocates of this position, the primary problem with Western foreign policy has been hubris and overreach, combined with the globe-conquering impulses of certain elite groups and prominent individuals. Most often, critiques from this perspective will talk about the regional chaos in the aftermath of the Iraq War, as well as the bullying presence of the United States across the world, as evidence that it is better to stay home and fix one’s own metaphorical roof. The loss of blood and treasure in these conflicts is also often framed in terms of the social programs that could have been paid for with the wasted military expenditure. This approach cautions against war, viewing it as a last resort, and is particularly critical of regime change wars, due to the instability they cause.

In some ways, pseudo-realism is the least radical and forward thinking of the three modes listed above, probably because of the essential conservatism (in the classical sense) of realism as a doctrine. Pseudo-realism has little to say about the exploitation of workers in low-wage countries by corporations based in the global North, for instance, other than to express general concern, often framed as a critique of outsourcing. Its adherents also tend to defer to conventional wisdom on issues such as terrorism, though they do call for a less militaristic, more law enforcement-based approach to these questions. Pseudo-realism also has something in common with the nationalist impulse to take care of our own first, before embarking upon idealistic quests to serve the global good (though of course the way it frames our own and the global good is very different). Beyond this, the essential problem with pseudo-realism is that, though it identifies past problems well, it offers little guidance for future action, beyond a suggestion that we stay out of the wider world militarily and redirect resources towards social protection at home. Though its adherents tend to be skeptical of trade agreements and other international instruments, such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, pseudo-realists say little as to how such organizations should be reformed or what ought to replace them. Pseudo-realism also tends to be inconsistent on questions of global co-operation in other areas, such as climate change, or what on what ought to be done, from a non-military perspective, to deal with states with poor human rights records. Unlike classical realism, this mode does not view maintaining state sovereignty as a goal in itself, but it is unclear on when and how it can be abrogated to serve progressive purposes.


The anti-imperialist position takes the objection to Western military power further. Within this framework of thought, actions such as the Iraq War are not viewed as blunders, or as the fault of individual bad actors, but rather as an exercise in reinforcing unequal global power structures. It links these interventions to economic exploitation by private actors, in alliance with their respective governments, and opposes them on all levels. Though anti-imperialism contains an important structural element that pseudo-realist explanations of global events lack, it has conceptual problems of its own: namely, its tendency to view all the world’s problems through the lens of Western interests, thereby flattening out political and policy contradictions and conflicts within and between states in the global South. Such a philosophy makes it very difficult, for instance, to make sense of the fact that leftist Kurdish militias are reliant on airpower supplied by the United States, in their fight against ISIS. Taken to extremes, this position can bleed over into apologia for oppressive regimes, such as Assad’s Syria, on the often spurious basis that they are resisting American hegemony. One should not be suspected of such sympathies merely for opposing Western intervention—but such interventions can be opposed, without harboring illusions about the intentions of the state actors on either side.

Setting such considerations aside, the largest conceptual problem with anti-imperialism is that it is very much a position of outsider critique, as opposed to a recipe for handling actual state power. Put bluntly, it is unclear what—aside from ceasing to exist—powers such as the United States could do to improve the world, in this vision. This renders anti-imperialism more of a slogan than a guide for policy or action, if one is indeed interested in attaining state power. For this reason, Western anti-imperialism tends to be associated with those on the Left who are most skeptical of state power and electoral politics. Jeremy Corbyn has positioned himself alongside anti-imperialists in certain ways (in particular, in his portrayal of terrorism as a result of blowback from Western intervention), but his positions have tended to straddle a middle point between the three modes described here, depending on the subject at hand, particularly since he became leader of the Labour Party and has had to realistically grapple with the notion of running the British state, as opposed to being a mere backbencher.

Modified Liberal Internationalism

Finally, the modified liberal internationalist position seeks to achieve progressive goals by modifying the actions and purposes of existing international institutions. Under this conception, it is the responsibility of progressive actors within more powerful nations to use their power in a way that addresses global economic and social problems. Often, this view is expressed through calls for the embedding of strong labor and environmental standards within the main text of trade agreements; or actively pushing for traceability provisions on natural and manufactured goods, to combat child labor, forced labor or illegal mineral extraction. Adherents of this mode of thinking may favor military intervention in situations such as the Rohingya genocide, if the mission is sanctioned by the United Nations and has clear humanitarian purposes. The crucial point is that international co-operation is necessary to achieve any of these goals.

The major difficulty in constructing a modified liberal internationalism (we might term it progressive internationalism if it is truly implemented) is that it requires a very high level of policy coordination between states, in order to be tenable. This is true of any effort at the international level—especially given the wide ideological, cultural and organizational differences between countries—but it is particularly true of progressive causes. This is both because of powerful corporate opposition to such efforts and because of what existing international institutions were essentially designed to do. Post-WWII institutions were and are structurally designed for a few tasks: chiefly, the maintenance of a general global order and the facilitation of economic trade. They are also designed to privilege certain countries—the major powers at the time of their creation—over others (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are the most obvious example of this). As they have evolved, and other institutions have grown up around them, they have also tended to take on a more explicitly neoliberal cast. The actions of the European Union in terms of forcing austerity on recalcitrant nations such as Spain and Greece are prominent examples here. It is theoretically possible to reform institutions away from their initial purposes—and indeed there has been some progress towards this, in terms of global action on climate change and other forms of pollution. However, the efforts of individuals such as Yanis Varoufakis to reform the European Union, for instance, have been mostly stillborn. It might be possible to build up new international institutions, with different explicit purposes, but it is difficult to see what the impetus for this would be, especially given the unlikelihood that an alliance of leftist governments seeking to foster such institutions would attain the kind of simultaneous hegemony needed to pull off such a feat.

A Way Forward

Given the problems outlined above, where does this leave the Left in terms of foreign policy guidance? We have had little experience of truly leftist—as opposed to merely liberal—foreign policy in the global North, with one major exception. Under the leadership of Olof Palme, in 1969–76 and 1982–86, the Swedish government executed one of the most dramatic shifts of foreign policy direction in post-WWII Europe. Though, for both pragmatic and ideological reasons, the country’s Social Democratic Party leaders had always maintained a fairly neutral stance in the Cold War and remained relatively independent of other global North nations (Sweden never joined NATO), Palme came from the left wing of the Social Democrats and wanted to go further. During his tenure, Sweden denounced the imperial actions of both the United States and Soviet Union, played a coordinating role in global anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa, and developed relationships with revolutionary governments and organizations, from Cuba through Palestine to the Western Sahara. In doing so, Palme may have come the closest of anyone to actualizing a leftist approach to foreign policy in the global North—an approach which earned him both friends and enemies in equal measure.

Though this approach was not without internal contradictions (Sweden retained a secret military treaty with the United States throughout the Palme government, despite several freezes in formal diplomatic relations), it represents a path not taken over the longer term, occurring as it did during the last gasp of traditional European social democratic governance and at the dawn of the neoliberal era. With many now arguing that this era itself is now coming to a close, it is the time to start looking to past successes for potential lessons, both positive and cautionary, and Palme’s Sweden may be the most analogous to our current circumstances. It is not the only—or even the primary—example we should look to, but it deserves more engagement than it has received in recent years.

In the political realm, it is not enough simply to be against the status quo, particularly since the space for a purely anti-establishment voice can be so easily co-opted by figures from the political Right. There is a huge gap within the foreign policy conversation. Many polls, for instance, have shown that the American general public is skeptical of conventional trade agreements and overseas interventions, but the Left has not been able to successfully fill this gap by giving coherent shape to these ambient social feelings. For the sake of our political future, and of global peace and human development, it is time to start seriously theorizing about what to do if and when we find some of the most powerful policy levers in human history within our grasp.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:


  1. You seem perplexed by Trump’s “deeply incoherent and contradictory” foreign policy, but the North Koreans, the South Koreans, the Chinese and the Japanese seem to be able to make sense of it and are happy to make progress on that basis.
    So the more plausible explanation is that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

  2. Trump is withdrawing from the world because it is not in the interests of the American people to spend six trillion of their badly needed dollars feeding a fire that will never warm them.

    Just imagine the nice things we could have had with that money. Free college for all, free healthcare for all, a sane immigration system that keeps out the riff-raff and only cherry-picks the best people in the world to join us, a border wall because good fences make good neighbors, a military that defends our borders but little else, and a strong people who provide an example for the rest of the world to follow, but who do not impose their ideals on others. Especially who do not impose their ideals on others by force, as people like John McCain forcefully advocated.

    The faux “Pax Americana” brought us unprovoked wars, illegal coups, regime changes, shock and awe, ultra-right wing or jihadi proxy armies, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, agent orange, CIA backed mujahideen, death squads, torture, assassinations, extraordinary renditions, black sites, Guantanamo, drone wars, big brother and the surveillance state, the list goes on.

    The MIC, neoconservatives, AIPAC, and the intelligence agencies have brought the US citizenry nothing but perpetual war, sucking every penny out of the national coffers and making Americans the most despised people on the planet.

Leave a Reply