For Socialist Realism on Foreign Policy

"The question is that the world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other … enrolling everyone in their armies. … Let us avoid false optimism and approved gestures. And seek truth."
-Thomas Merton

In high schools around the country, we periodically see the staging of Model United Nations conferences. Students assume the identities of different nations’ representatives and play UN General Assembly. In Democratic Socialists of America, and in socialist organizations of the past, the same sort of exercise has gone on. Debates over which national government should do what, and what we think about it, give rise to votes and statements. The statements’ texts are wrangled over like the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, albeit by utterly powerless conferees.

Can we come back to planet Earth for a moment?

The truth is the impact of any US socialist proclamation on the foreign affairs of nations is nil. The real impact is on what others may think of DSA, which in turn will have a bearing on DSA’s growth, or lack thereof. We should care about this because we want to see DSA continue to grow.

Mobilization is a different matter. Usually in the US, as far as foreign policy goes, the only thing that gets people into the streets is the deployment of massive numbers of U.S. troops to combat situations abroad, or the credible threat of such a deployment. No such deployment is currently in prospect. Statements from a critical mass of peace-oriented groups may have an impact, but issues raised in the International Committee (IC) statement make such unified action problematic.

I take Noam Chomsky’s point that US citizens’ first responsibility is to pay heed to their own government’s misdeeds. And so we do. But comment on foreign affairs is still reasonable. Other nations’ behavior is also fair game for comment.

I have my own reaction to certain recent statements from the IC. One would expect IC statements to be guided by the ebb and flow of tensions around the world. Two places that have been heating up involve the confrontations on the Eastern border of Ukraine and machinations of the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea.

It was surprising, therefore, to see an IC statement on January 19th on … North Korea (NK). I have no quarrel with demands for the removal of sanctions in this case. The NK regime has proven itself immune to such pressure, but this is an old story when it comes to economic sanctions. They are often a diplomatic statement of displeasure more than a material assault. The consequences may be more serious for less powerful nations, but NK has missiles and nukes, among other resources.

The IC finally got around to Ukraine on January 31st. I agree with demands that NATO, really the catspaw of the US, stay out of any military engagement. In fact, the legitimacy of NATO itself is questionable. The European Union is an economic juggernaut that does not need the US for protection.

What is missing from the IC statement, however, is any reckoning with the role of Russia. Russia had already invaded Ukraine when it seized Crimea. Its use of barely disguised proxy forces within Ukraine is not disputed. The nature of the Russian state should not inspire confidence among democratic socialists. (I will not try to evaluate China’s socialist bona fides in this post.) As a general matter, massing troops on the border of another country deserves disapproval. No hint of these concerns can be found in the IC statement.

Thus far the US has limited itself to a minor troop deployment, military aid and threats of sanctions. The IC describes this as “brinkmanship,” and the corresponding Russian troop build-up as media-generated sensationalism. This turns the balance of forces on its head. It is Vladimir Putin, if anyone, who could be accused of brinkmanship.

Republicans are having it both ways on this. We get some pushing a neo-con line, attacking President Biden for weakness in the face of Russian aggression. For its part, Biden’s State Department is going full neo-con in its response to press skeptics of its alarums. Meanwhile, the more Trump-identified are following Tucker Carlson and Russia Today, relaying Putin’s talking points.

This is not as contradictory as it may seem. The R’s have Biden in a crossfire. It’s as simple as that. Whichever way he moves, he exposes more of one flank. There is no deep principle involved. If Trump was in the White House, they would all fall in step behind his pronouncements, no matter how vapid and bizarre.

The purportedly anti-war Trumpists ought not be taken at face value. The opposition to NATO aggressiveness in Eastern Europe is offset by their militancy on the PRC. As the consistently anti-interventionist conservative Daniel Larison points out, what’s in conflict here, within the GOP, are competing militarisms.

Patrick Cockburn in CounterPunch makes the interesting point that both sides of this flap (the US and Russia) have an interest in exaggerating the seriousness of the situation. Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine (the numbers don’t work), and the US has no intention of defending it. Russia does want to intimidate Ukraine, and the weak Biden administration wants to look tough. By contrast, the Ukrainian government is telling everyone to chill out.

The IC is on firmer ground in criticism of the longer-term expansionism of NATO, the existential necessity of which I have already dismissed, but the statement is bereft of any notice of the acceptability of the Russian maneuvers. The soft-on-Russia pattern is reflected in IC text that indulges Russia’s claims on the Donbas region in Ukraine.

We can concede that Donbas is a heavily Russian-speaking enclave in Ukraine, but the borders of many nations are imperfect outlines of recognized national or ethnic regions. Failure to respect borders in place, warts and all, is a formula for endless trouble, including confrontations that in some cases have flared up into open military conflict. (The same goes for Hong Kong or Taiwan.) It’s not as if absorbing Donbas into Russia would bring liberation to its working class.

What is a socialist to say?

I would reduce it to the following, again keeping in mind here that the point is not our negligible impact on the situation on the ground but on how DSA can attract like-minded recruits for struggles in the US, where we do have the chance to make an impact:

  • No working-class interest is served by further Russian incursions into Ukraine, nor by deeper NATO engagement;
  • Russia should respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and withdraw its military forces from threatening positions on the border;
  • Ukraine has a perfect right to join the generally social-democratic European Union and to refuse any forced marriage to the whatever-you-want-to-call-it Russian-sponsored “Eurasian Economic Union”;
  • The obsolete NATO alliance should reverse its drive to embroil states bordering Russia in its intrigues, or even better, disband altogether;
  • Ukraine should respect minority rights, in this case its Russian-speaking minority;
  • The US government should sever all its ties with outright neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine.

There is room for debate on the nature of the PRC, but arguably less so when we consider the Russian state. Great nations tend to compete with each other, regardless of their economic systems. Capitalist nations war on each other, and the PRC once invaded socialist Vietnam.

When it comes to the great and near-great powers, there are no good guys. As I.F. Stone said, all governments lie, if they aren’t doing much worse. There is no need to turn a blind eye to either side’s deficiencies. Our focus is democracy, which cannot flourish under conditions of war, the abrogation of minority rights or the denial of national rights to self-determination.

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