Consider the disaster of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump. While the president spent his first year in office trading insults with the dictator of North Korea, that country has moved steadily forward with its nuclear program, and the United States has moved steadily closer to a war that no one wants.
In Syria last April, US forces attacked government installations with a one-time bombing raid that, with no political or diplomatic follow-through, achieved nothing. Similarly, after arming Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State on its behalf, the US has stood by and watched Turkey attack those same men and women.
As a result of the Trump administration’s abandonment of Obama-era restraints on the use of airpower, a US-led coalition “victory” in Mosul, Iraq, caused thousands of civilian casualties and left a pile of rubble. As in Vietnam, America had to destroy the city in order to save it.
Under Trump, the US has also become a staunch supporter of authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines. And in Europe, far-right leaders in Poland and Hungary walk eagerly in Trump’s footsteps.
In Israel, the US has effectively allied itself with the settler movement and the far-right government, thus rejecting the old Zionist dream of “little Israel.” In fact, on his recent trip to Israel, Vice President Mike Pence refused even to talk to the leader of the opposition Labor Party.
All told, the US has alienated some of its closest allies, weakened the NATO alliance, and become a bigoted and xenophobic presence on the world stage.
We on the left oppose just about everything Trump has said and done. Yet none of us has offered a plausible or coherent alternative. We either have not talked about foreign policy at all, or we have simply objected to any use of force abroad, while drifting toward our own version of isolationism.
But isolationism is just another way to have no foreign policy. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned strongly and effectively in 2016 when addressing domestic policy. But, even though he was running to be president of the global hegemony, he had virtually nothing to say about international politics.
First and foremost, the left needs to think seriously about the use of force, which is the central issue in foreign-policy debates. It is right to use force in self-defense or in defense of others. It is wrong when we are fighting for regime change, in support of authoritarian governments, or against national movements that have already won the battle for “hearts and minds.”
Another fundamental question concerns how force should be used. But that one is easy: it should be used with restraints designed to minimize civilian casualties. These aren’t hard questions, but when we take them seriously, they can lead to complex policy positions.
For example, the US was wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, but it was right to join the fight against ISIS, and to rescue the Yazidis from a massacre. It was right to attack the occupied city of Mosul, but it was wrong to reduce the city to dust.
It was also wrong to call for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, because the forces opposed to Assad lacked the necessary popular support, and the US was not prepared to help them win that support. On the other hand, helping the Syrian Kurds was a good idea, because they were effective fighters with strong support from their own people; and they probably would not have survived under an IS caliphate.
Elsewhere, it is right to strengthen South Korean and Japanese defenses, but obviously wrong to threaten a nuclear war. Nuclear weapons can serve no conceivable human purpose. But that is not true of all weapons, and the left needs to come to terms with that. We cannot be pacifists when people around the world live in fear of mass murder because they belong to a particular ethnic or religious minority, believe in the “wrong” ideology, or live in vulnerable countries alongside revanchist powers.
At the height of the Cold War, many leftists opposed NATO. And in recent years, politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, before he became leader of the UK Labour Party, have supported withdrawing their countries from the alliance, precisely because it is committed to using force as a means of mutual defense.
This commitment was originally directed against the Soviet Union, and is now directed at Vladimir Putin’s Russia. American leftists should approach this situation by putting the question to leftists in Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine, where the stakes are high. I would guess that many Eastern European leftists are NATO supporters, and would want America to be a supporter, too. We don’t always have to do what our friends want us to do, but we should always listen to them.
An old tenet of leftist ideology holds that hegemonic capitalist countries like the US can never act well in the world. But that is wrong. After all, the US played a leading role in the defeat of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, two of the most brutal regimes in world history.
In fact, the US can do good things in the world, and sometimes does. American leftists must demand that their country act well, and we must object when it fails to do so. But we can’t successfully demand or oppose anything until we have shaped a coherent view of international politics.
Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is A Foreign Policy for the Left. -- Ed.