With wars breaking out at an alarming rate and democracy going backwards in much of the world currently, lefties need to face the idea of military intervention squarely. Push aside the U.S. election for a moment, and engage the complexity and scale of chaos on the world. What we need to get to quickly is what a leftie foreign policy might be. Not from New Zealand, which faints at the sight of blood. But from a more world-wide perspective.
There are of course many lefts. But the default position of the left is that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy. Get your home situation right before risking life correcting someone else’s mess. Although, immediately after 1945, there was something like a New Deal foreign policy in the planned reconstruction of Japan, Germany, and several other war-damaged countries. History has some pointers to these kinds of left.
In the 1930s, the left in Britain on the whole supported (and some fought) against the Spanish fascists. After World War 2, some kinds of leftie supporters took a while to oppose Soviet military attacks, even after the 1956 Hungary uprising, and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Few left-wing activists joined conservative forces to demand the rollback of this appalling empire. And yet supporting communist causes in Nicaragua was popular in the 198)s if I went by the number who wore Sandanista scarves in the 1980s to university.
On the far left, there is a deep suspicion of anything militaristic. Leftie Catholics attacked the U.S. spy facility at Waihopai, and remain a cause celebre among the remaining peace movement such as Pax Christie. The view that swords should be beaten into plows comes from a deep challenge to re-examine our conception of saving other people and other societies.
A more standard western leftie position is that tyrants should not be helped, unless they are overthrowing colonial rulers. The left in New Zealand tend to support Maori who fought against British troops, rather than supporting Maori who fought with the British.
Anti-militarism isn’t necessarily an isolationist politics. But it’s supported usually by weak countries who need to shelter under common accountability frameworks such as international law, the United Nations, and the World Criminal Court. That is often the worthy, safe and good thing to do. But, as was debated on the left in the U.S. and Britain in the late 1930s, pacifist sympathies can dangerously delay preparation for actual serious threat. Both those countries were woefully incapable at the start for facing a fully prepared opponent, in no small part because of pacifist and isolationist forces in their politics.
Some Marxist militants argue that any war fought by a capitalist country is, by definition, an imperialist war. But the war in Korea, fought by an alliance of capitalist countries against a communist power, was supported by most on the American, European, and Australasian democratic left.
In the 1990s the left were faced with military intervention under what was called ‘humanitarian intervention’; in post-Yugoslav states, and in the Ivory Coast and Rwanda. One could argue that such interventions made it easier to justify the first western-led war when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But that’s not an argument against the use of force for urgent humanitarian reasons. Rather, it’s an argument for making good political distinctions.
U.K. Labor’s David Miliband was on point when he said in 2008 that during the previous decades “the neoconservative movement seemed more certain about spreading democracy around the world” than the left did. The left, he argued, was “conflicted between the desirability of the goal and its qualms about the use of military means.” This is an extension of the left have left the hard stuff to the rightie grownups theory. Who on the left would now support removing Syria’s Assad by force? Who on the left would support military invasion to stop a massacre, as in East Timor, or a tyrant, as in Bainimarama 1987? Who on the left supported the Kanaky militia against the New Caledonia French, and if so who would be better off now if they had been militarily supported by the left? If you’ve read Mr Pip, were you on the Bouganvillian militia side, or Papua New Guinea, or the villagers, or indeed none?
One common leftie shortcut is to support oppressed people, whatever they do and whoever they are. But then, one person’s ‘freedom fighter’ is another’s ‘terrorist’. It gets muddy fast.
The corollary of that leftie shortcut is that actions by strong states like the U.S., Britain, China or Russia are always oppressive and hence always to be condemned. This common leftie response is, again, to retreat from engagement and throw it in the too hard basket. ‘Working on your good domestic policy’ becomes code for cop-out.
Most lefties are idealists, so we presume our ideals will eventually simply win in the world through their righteousness alone. Or at best, we should let those ideals baked within the U.N. and the International Criminal Court hold them all to eventual account. But it’s a complete pretence to believe that the U.N. is anything but a very uneven political agent. Authorisation to militarily intervene comes too late, not at all, or gets manipulated. The rules-based framework only works very occasionally. The unilateral use of force is often, as Jurgen Habermas said of the Kosovo example, “illegal but morally necessary”.
And I haven’t even started on leftie responses to Islamic militant terrorist attacks in Europe. Which would be a post all by itself.
Recoil as some might, we can’t avoid internalization. Our deepest commitment is solidarity with people in trouble. Sometimes stopping tyranny, starvation and mass murder from continuing is better morally than keeping schtum and working out your own problems at home. The rigidly held positions from the left are usually wrong: that the use of military force is never justified; that “imperial” powers like the U.S. can never act for good in the world; and that revolutionaries and fighters for liberation must never be criticized.
We need to learn from our history – and the first lesson is this: no more moral shortcuts, no more pretending.