Where the Left Goes Wrong on Foreign Policy

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published in Inquiry,
July 1982.


the Old Right Sounded (Almost) Like the New Left


With every
passing year, as memories of the Vietnam War fade from our nation's
historical consciousness, the calls for America to reassert itself
in the world arena grow more insistent. A proliferation of national-security
think tanks and conservative publicists issue daily proclamations
that all the world is a battleground between the United States
and its Soviet adversary. The infrastructure of intervention,
from Carter's Rapid Deployment Force to Reagan's 600-ship navy,
forges ahead, unmindful of the legacy of our past interventionist

Who is there
to remind us of those follies? Now that neoconservatism has captured
so many of America's liberals, it seems at times that the left,
which can still round up a good crowd to demonstrate against aid
to El Salvador, has a monopoly on the noninterventionist wisdom.
But the left, too, is changing with the times; although it can
always be counted on to oppose American support for rightist regimes,
increasingly the left has abandoned the lessons of the 1960s to
advocate its own, more "progressive" brand of intervention
on behalf of radical regimes and social movements. Soon it may
be true that only the libertarian heirs of the old right will
stand for a principle that, before World War II, commanded
the loyalty of the majority of the population.

In today's
political lexicon, of course, the right favors a militant foreign
policy of global intervention, whereas the left is still seen
to advocate nonintervention and peace. But it was not always so.
Indeed, from the mid-thirties down to the mid-fifties, the right
was "isolationist," anti-interventionist and anti-militarist
to the core, opposing American entry into World War II, the Marshall
Plan, NATO, conscription, and the sending of U.S. troops to Korea.
In contrast, before, during, and considerably after World War
II, spokesmen for the left were ardent partisans of the interventionist
policy of "collective security," a philosophy on which
the United Nations was founded. The left proved as anxious to
prosecute the Cold War as it had been to join in the Second World
War. It remained for later revisionist historians to realize that
the left-wing campaign of Henry Wallace for the presidency in
1948, so ardently supported by the Communist Party, was mired
in the same reverence for the global American Empire, and the
same worship of collective security, that had long captivated
liberals and centrists in American politics. This kinship was
starkly revealed when Henry Wallace and Glen Taylor, the Progressive
Party candidates on the 1948 ticket, later enthusiastically supported
American entry into the Korean War.

It is ironic
that in American politics, aside from a few Marxist sects and
one or two independent journalists, the only forces strongly opposing
the Korean War were the writers and politicians of the old, classical
liberal right: Robert Taft, Kenneth Wherry, George Bender, and
Howard Buffett in Congress; Felix Morley, Garet Garrett, and John
T. Flynn among the writers and theorists. The liberals, including
the Nation and New Republic, endorsed the Korean
War and strongly attacked the conservative opposition.

The collective-security
concept that so enchanted the old (pre-1965) left sounded pretty
good: Each nation-state was viewed as if it were an individual,
so that when one state "aggressed against" another,
it became the duty of the governments of the world to step in
and punish the "aggressor." In that way, the bitter
and lengthy war in Korea became, in President Truman's famous
phrase, a "police action," needing no declaration of
war but simply an executive decision by the world's chief cop
— the president of the United States — to be set into motion.
All other "law-abiding" nations and responsible organs
of opinion were supposed to join in.

The "isolationist"
right saw several grave flaws in this notion of collective security
and the analogy between states and individuals. One, of course,
is that there is no world government or world cop, as there are
national governments and police. Each state has its own war-making
machine, many of which are quite awesome. When gangs of states
wade into a conflict, they inexorably widen it. Every tinpot controversy,
the latest and most blatant being the fracas in the Falkland Islands,
invites other nations to decide which of the states is "the
aggressor," and then leap in on the virtuous side. Every
local squabble thus threatens to escalate into a global conflagration.

And since,
according to collective security enthusiasts, the United States
has apparently been divinely appointed to be the chief world policeman,
it is thereby justified in throwing its massive weight into every
controversy on the face of the globe.

The other
big problem with the collective-security analogy is that, in contrast
to spotting thieves and muggers, it is generally difficult or
even impossible to single out uniquely guilty parties in conflicts
between states. For although individuals have well-defined property
rights that make someone else's invasion of that property a culpable
act of aggression, the boundary lines of each state have scarcely
been arrived at by just and proper means. Every state is born
in, and exists by, coercion and aggression over its citizens and
subjects, and its boundaries invariably have been determined by
conquest and violence. But in automatically condemning one state
for crossing the borders of another, we are implicitly recognizing
the validity of existing boundaries. Why should the boundaries
of a state in 1982 be any more or less just than they were in
1972, 1932, or 1872? Why must they be automatically enshrined
as sacred, so much so that a mere boundary
crossing should lead every state in the world to force their citizens
to kill or die?

No, far better
and wiser is the old classical liberal foreign policy of neutrality
and nonintervention, a foreign policy set forth with great eloquence
by Richard Cobden, John Bright, the Manchester school and other
"little Englanders" of the nineteenth century, by the
Anti-Imperialist classical liberals of the turn of the twentieth
century in Britain and the United States, and by the old right
from the 1930s to the 1950s. Neutrality limits conflicts
instead of escalating them. Neutral states cannot swell their
power through war and militarism, or murder and plunder the citizens
of other states.

Such were
the lessons taught by the right and ignored by liberals and the
left. By an irony
of history, however, both sides were to reverse course after the
Korean War. The reversal started with the right wing. The death
of such leaders as Senator Robert Taft and Colonel
Robert R. McCormick, powerful publisher of the Chicago Tribune,
and the retirement of others, including the resignation of Felix
Morley from the weekly Human Events (which he had helped
to found) in protest of its change of heart, provided an ideological
and political vacuum for a new right to emerge and become triumphant
in American conservatism. The influential biweekly National
Review, founded in 1955, quickly captured the right wing with
its ideology of militarism and global anticommunist crusades.
The right was now firmly and even more fervently in the very same
prowar, interventionist camp that had once been a monopoly of
the left and center.

For a decade
or more, the Cold War consensus was scarcely marred by a ripple
of dissent. Ideologists and politicians vied with each other over
who could be more anticommunist in their favored use of American
power abroad. Kennedy and Nixon, during the 1960 campaign, hastened
to accuse each other of being soft on various communist regimes;
and it should not be forgotten that for John Kennedy, then the
idol of liberals and many leftists, Camelot included sending the
Green Berets into Vietnam and marching to the brink of nuclear
war in order to force Soviet missiles out of Cuba.

Of course,
it was Vietnam that turned the tide and led to the flowering of
the new left in the late 1960s. While the student and antiwar
rioters received the publicity, the most enduring new leftists
were historians and scholars who challenged the consensus views
of the Cold War by showing the enormous extent of US responsibility
for East-West conflict. Most of the historians were students of
William Appleman Williams, then at the University of Wisconsin.
Williams established the new-left paradigms of anti-interventionism
in foreign policy, and attacks on corporate liberalism, or New
Deal statist policies in domestic affairs. Though socialists and
independent Marxists, Williams and his followers — David Horowitz,
Ronald Radosh, James Weinstein, and others — acknowledged the
lonely and prophetic struggle against war and intervention waged
by the old right and praised the moderate anti-interventionism
of Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover. Ramparts magazine, the
vanguard of the new left, even gave space to classical liberal
antiwar writers.

Moved by
its opposition to the Vietnam War, the new left came to echo (largely
unwittingly) the old right in attacking the imperial presidency
and its growing executive dictation over foreign affairs. While
the new leftists never understood or appreciated free-market economics,
they showed a willingness to make common cause with libertarians,
not only on foreign policy and civil liberties, but even in attacking
centralized post-New Deal statism. Their occasional mutterings
about local, "decentralized" communitarian socialism
seemed vague and quixotic, but at least they appeared to appreciate
the menace of the Leviathan State, at home and abroad.

however, the new-left interlude seems to be over in more ways
than the disappearance of the much-vaunted counterculture or of
student riots. On the domestic front, the antistatist insights
of the new left are mostly forgotten, leaving the new left virtually
indistinguishable from the old. Read In These Times, for
example, the weekly published by the Institute for Policy Studies
(IPS) and edited by James Weinstein, a distinguished historian
of the Progressive Era who seems to have abandoned scholarship
journalism. On domestic affairs, apart from superior intelligence,
there is very little to distinguish In These Times from
such old-left papers as the Daily World. There is the same
concentration on local left-wing political action, and on the
boring activities of various
insurgent union locals. Ronald Radosh and other new-left scholars
have joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (now
the Democratic Socialists of America), the epitome of old leftism
in its devotion to the Democratic Party and to the "Browderite"
strategy (named after Earl Browder, former head of the Communist
Party) of achieving socialism through gradual accretions of state
power. Whatever happened to the blistering new-left critique of
Progressivism and New Dealism? Whatever happened to the new left's
repudiation of Browderism and centralized statism?

On foreign
policy the current position of the left is far more ambivalent.1
Certainly they are still opposed to the Cold War and to the current
manifestations of US imperialism. William A. Williams recently
wrote for the Nation a trenchant and hard-hitting attack
on "Empire as a Way of Life." Once in a while, they
still praise libertarian foreign policy and call explicitly for
nonintervention. Thus, in his latest work, America's Impasse,
Alan Wolfe,
a Marxist historian and foreign-affairs expert close to the IPS,
flatly urges a "noninterventionist foreign policy" and
favorably mentions the libertarian foreign-policy work of Earl

And yet one
wonders. First, of course, there is economics, never the new left's
strong suit. While Williams certainly uncovered an important cause
of American imperialism in the continuing drive to subsidize American
exports, he unfortunately also contributed the egregious misconception
of "free-trade imperialism." In this view, free trade
is just another variant of imperialism, less messy perhaps but
just as effectively imperialist as colonial conquest or the neocolonialist
blend of political pressure, undercover intrigue, and economic
aid. It seems impossible for socialists to understand the peaceable
and mutually beneficial nature of free markets and free trade.
Sir Norman Angell and other nineteenth-century liberals may have
been overoptimistic in their paeans to the peaceful influence
of free trade, but they grasped a vitally important point. The
old motto "If Goods Can't Cross Borders, Troops Will"
still makes sense. Oddly enough, the left recognizes this in a
backhanded way when it argues, correctly, for freedom of East-West
trade as a linchpin of détente. Why, then, does it seem
incapable of extending that analysis to other countries? Why should
the virtues of free trade not apply, for example, to relations
between the United States and the Third World?

Free trade
not only means unrestricted trade; it also means unsubsidized
trade. One of the agreements between classical liberals and the
new left used to be their opposition to foreign aid. Foreign aid
is a system by which the American taxpayers are mulcted, in the
name of national security or defense of the "free world,"
to subsidize US export companies and prop up client states (often
ruled by dictators maintaining their regimes through systematic
torture). It is, in that sense, a gigantic racket, and it was
exposed with gusto by old-right classical liberals, and following
them, by the new left.

But I am
not sure that the left still opposes foreign aid with its former
enthusiasm. It was not long ago that the left argued vehemently
for continuing economic aid to the leftist regime in Nicaragua.
And Alan Wolfe in his manifesto calls not for the scrapping of
foreign aid, but rather for a "concerted effort to provide
foreign aid through international agencies not committed to strategic
and capitalist interests." Shades of Henry Wallace and the
liberal imperialism of the 1940s! The left wants to overthrow
American imperialism without touching one of its major props,
foreign aid. The taxpayer is still to be robbed, but this time
the looting is to be cleansed of "strategic and capitalist"
interests through some sort of UN agency. Yet, as a good Marxist,
Wolfe should surely know that there is no such thing as a neutral
state agency, national or international, devoid of strategic interests
or power politics. Some power group is going to control
it, at the expense of the taxpayer and of genuine freedom of enterprise.
And since the United States
will be doing much of the taxing to support any such agency, it
presumably will have at least something to say in the division
of the loot.

In the same
book, Alan Wolfe calls upon the United States to ratify the Law
of the Sea Treaty as a first step toward "international economic
negotiations that would establish trade and currency rules…"
What Wolfe fails to tell us is that these "rules" would
impose a permanent cartel to restrict production of minerals and
to raise their price on behalf of foreign governments. Private
enterprise would be crippled or shut down altogether. Whatever
the Law of the Sea Treaty is, it is scarcely consonant with the
"noninterventionist foreign policy" that Wolfe says
he is calling for.

welfare imperialism in behalf of Third World governments is explicitly
called for by Marcus Raskin, cofounder of IPS, in his book The
Politics of
. Raskin comes out for an "International
Economic Order built on principles of equity, sovereign
equality. . . and narrowing the gap between rich and poor nations."
Again, it is scarcely noninterventionist to advocate a massive
stripping of property from Americans and Western Europeans in
order to subsidize Third World governments, a process that would
kill the Western goose and lay virtually no golden eggs for Third
World peoples, who will not find prosperity until they make it
for themselves.

economist P.T. Bauer is far more cogent about what such an international
economic order would entail:

It is now
widely urged that differences in income and living standards
should be reduced or eliminated not only within countries but
between them, and indeed even globally. Hence the proposals
for a New International Economic Order approved by the General
Assembly of the United Nations. Because of the enormous and
stubborn differences between peoples, policies designed to equalize
their living standards would require world government with totalitarian
powers. Such a government, to be equal to its ambitions, would
be even more coercive and brutal than the totalitarian governments
of individual countries.

It is encouraging
that Raskin, as does Wolfe, "look(s) with respect at such
men as Robert Taft who asserted a noninterventionist road for
the United States." But it is difficult to see Robert Taft
doing anything but spinning in his grave at the thought of a scheme
for world egalitarianism through the use of coercive government.

Another piece
of massive global intervention the IPS people seem to be endorsing
is some form of world monetary planning. IPS cofounder Richard
J. Barnet calls for the "hard work of developing a new international
monetary system." What this is supposed to be remains highly
vague, although it is scarcely reassuring to find Alan Wolfe urging
a reconstruction of the International Monetary Fund and the World
Bank and a return to
their "original purpose." These Bretton Woods institutions
imposed dollar imperialism on the world, by tying other currencies
to an increasingly inflated dollar — in short, these institutions
brought in their wake chronic and aggravated world inflation.
Wolfe's "original purpose" provides no balm; he chides
the United States for rejecting proposals during the 1950s that
would have been far more inflationary, on the grounds that the
world would have "grown" (i.e., inflated) even faster.
Wolfe's blueprint would give one agency the power to generate
a worldwide inflation. Not only is his scheme pernicious; it
hardly squares with the ideal of nonintervention.

Another disquieting
aspect of left opinion is a tendency to cast a blind eye toward
the dictatorial or totalitarian character of the socialist regimes
that it tends to favor. Most on the left think of themselves,
and probably sincerely, as "democratic socialists,"
as believers in a blend of socialism with democracy and freedom
of speech and opinion. Libertarians hold that vision to be self-contradictory,
and democracy, freedom of speech, and socialism to be ultimately
incompatible. But, be that as it may, one would expect democratic
socialists to be unsparing in their denunciations of violations
of freedom and democracy in socialist countries.

Sadly, the
left's record has scarcely been reassuring on this issue. The
hysterical reaction of many leftists to Susan Sontag's belated
discovery of communist totalitarianism is only the latest instance
of this myopia. Fortunately, there is little remaining of the
old left's adulation of Stalin, and it is difficult for anyone,
even Russians, to get particularly excited about Brezhnev or whoever
his stolid successor may be. But romantic revolutionaries like
Castro and Ho Chi Minh are another story altogether, and, despite
the salutary criticisms of Cuba by Ronald Radosh, we have seen
numerous apologias by the left of the Castro regime, by Barnet
and others of the Vietnamese regime, and, in earlier years,
by Gareth Porter (an ex-IPSer) of the odious Pol Pot regime in

Take, for
example, the monthly Democratic Left, organ of the Democratic
Socialists of America. In it we see a laudatory article about
the Cuban revolution by Michael Germinal Rivas,
a Cuban émigré who chaired the Hispanic Commission
of the DSCO ("Twenty Years After the Cuban Revolution,"
February 1979). Rivas is certainly not completely uncritical of
the regime, but we find that "while remaining critical of
some aspects of the revolutionary process, there has been increased
appreciation… for the undeniable accomplishments of the Revolution"
among the younger Cuban exiles, which clearly include Rivas himself.
Delighted that Castro has been willing of late to open a dialogue
with Cuban exiles as well as with the United States, Rivas writes
glowingly of Cuban schools, hospitals, and fishing fleets. As
Rivas simperingly puts it, there is "the Cuba of people very
proud of building a modern, more equitable society in the face
of very difficult odds." Rivas goes on about "positive
elements in the revolutionary process," hopes for the future,
new signs of pragmatism in the regime, and all the rest. He even
claims that democracy is on the rise, since local people are allowed
to discuss such issues as street lighting and garbage collection.

Well, suppose
that someone in the 1930s wrote similarly — as many journalists
and visitors in fact did — of the great achievements of the Mussolini
and Hitler revolutions, how they made the trains run on time,
how there was a new spirit of hope in the revolutionary process,
and so on. How would we — indeed how would our democratic socialists
— feel about that? They would treat such guff as nave and repellent
apologetics for a detestable regime, whether the specific "achievements"
were true or not. Why then do they use a different standard for
socialist regimes?

All this
is not to excuse the equally repellent apologetics of neoconservatives
and right-wingers in glossing over the brutalities committed by
right-wing regimes, such as Chile or South Africa. A focus only
on their economic achievements — which are far more plausible
than the supposed socialist triumphs — while ignoring or glossing
over the brutalities and oppression should earn the equal contempt
of all people who are truly devoted to personal freedom. Double
standards by right or left — or by any group — should receive
our condemnation. The Kirkpatricks who try to maintain that left-wing
torture is bad while right-wing torture is okay, are no more contemptible
than the leftwingers who would, implicitly or explicitly, maintain
the contrary.

It is true
that logically one's friendliness or hostility to a foreign regime
has no relation to one's maintenance of an interventionist or
noninterventionist foreign policy. In theory, someone may love
one regime and hate another and yet not advocate that the United
States aid and subsidize the one or move coercively against the
other. In practice, however, relaxing our standards of truth and
freedom for or against a regime can easily lead to an interventionist
position. There is, for example, the left's record of favoring
intervention — US aid — in the affairs of socialist Nicaragua,
along with the blackmailing claim that without such aid the regime
would turn Marxist. Take the way Eldon Kenworthy handles Nicaragua
in In These Times (February 24/March 9, 1982). In this
whitewash, the regime appears to be interested almost solely in
growing rice and beans and in building latrines. Nicaraguan rule,
claims Kenworthy, is not totalitarian.

In fact,
in a breathtaking statement, Kenworthy maintains that the Nicaraguan
state "controls less than it needs to, to make the country
run." One grows glad that Professor Kenworthy is not himself
in power. As for the outlawing of the publication of any "false
news" that might harm the economy, this is brusquely dismissed
as called for by the economic emergency. (Why is it that socialist
regimes always seem to have such "emergencies"?) As
Kenworthy sums it up: "Given the economic crisis confronting
— shared by all Central America — such emergency measures do not
seem out of line." I suppose whether or not they seem "out
of line" depends on one's perspective: whether from inside
Managua or sitting in capitalist comfort in Ithaca, New York.

To its credit,
The Nation is not so ready to ignore the growing tyranny.
The thirty-day suspension of civil liberties and the declaration
of a state of emergency, it writes, "should sadden all those
who think of themselves as friends" of the Nicaraguan revolution.
The Nicaraguan justification — this time the US threat rather
than economics — the Nation considers real, but not enough
to require the suspension of liberties. The magazine points out
that the revolution will be hampered by this imposed silence and
the covering up of abuses of the Sandinista regime. Fair enough,
but perhaps the Nation will one day rethink its
friendship to the revolution, and come to see that, in the good
old Marxian phrase, "it is no accident" that socialism
has been accompanied by increasing tyranny. The Nation so
far refuses to accept the contention of the opponents of the regime
that despotism is inevitable, given the centralizing, socialist
ideology of the Sandinistas; the magazine instead adopts the cop-out
that "by imperiling the Nicaraguan government, they [the
forced the worst from the Sandinistas. They are partners with
the Sandinistas in deserving blame." By adopting the convenient
"we are all murderers" theme, the left, as it has done
repeatedly, lets those actually committing foul deeds off the
hook. Again, how would the Nation itself treat a journal
that used these very words, say, about the current Chilean or
Salvadoran regime, let alone those of Mussolini and Hitler?

Anyone who
thinks that the specter of possible left interventionism is exaggerated
should ponder the point that the left has led the mainstream in
the United States in urging intervention against the right-wing
government of South Africa. And suppose that the remarkable, recently
stated aspiration of the Reagan administration should come true,
and Fidel Castro should agree to a détente in the Caribbean
in return for massive US governmental aid; does anyone think that
the left would rise in protest?

Despite occasional
obeisances to the libertarian and indeed American tradition of
nonintervention, then, it looks very much as if the current left
has betrayed much of the analysis of the new left and has at least
partially returned to the Browderism and the collective-security
notions of the old. Today the left still considers itself in opposition
to US imperialism. But when the veteran Yugoslav democratic socialist
Bogdan Denitch, in an important foreign and defense policy thinkpiece
in Democratic Left (December 1981), calls for "a nonimperialist
US that could ally itself with democratic struggles for self-determination
and popular rule," and for allying itself with "popular
forces" in South West
Africa, South Africa, Angola, Ethiopia, and Latin America, one
realizes that the left has a long way to go to reach a policy
of nonintervention. One wonders, in fact, whether the left is
at all prepared to accept a foreign policy in which the United
States government allies itself with no one and retires
from the world scene, leaving all international encounters to
the private realm of free trade, travel, and cultural and social
exchange. For that is what a policy of genuine noninterventionism
and anti-imperialism would mean: a world in which the US government
no longer tries to push other people around, on behalf of any
cause, anywhere.


  1. In
    the current "left" I do not include either the New
    Republic, which is so interventionist that it now may be
    termed "left neoconservative," nor the various febrile
    Marxist-Leninist sects. This leaves mainly the Nation,
    In These Times, and the IPS people as the major left

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

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