Left-Right Bedfellows

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 June 1999 NATION


William Appleman WIlliams

“We are the evil empire. Our war in Kosovo is the latest chapter in a century of American imperialism that includes Vietnam, the Gulf War and our shameful, secret wars in Central America.” No, these aren’t Tom Hayden’s words, nor do they come from any of the other progressives who’ve opposed the US war in the Balkans. They belong to Thomas Fleming, editor of the conservative–no, paleoconservative–magazine Chronicles. Noting that the anti-interventionists in the Kosovo debate span the left and right, the New York Times recently opined that the war against Yugoslavia has made strange bedfellows in US politics. But most thoughtful leftists have long known that when it comes to a serious critique of US foreign policy, they have far more in common with elements of the right than they do with the cold war liberals and their globalist progeny currently running US diplomacy. After all, the late, great radical historian (and frequent contributor to these pages) William Appleman Williams, who always urged the left to respect and learn from conservatives, has been celebrated by the Chronicles crowd for almost as long as he’s been smeared by that Good Liberal, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

SDS president Carl Oglesby perhaps exaggerated when he concluded during the Vietnam War that “the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate.” Still, while Al Gore, George W. Bush and the editorial writers of The New Republic and The Weekly Standard vie with one another to sound most like NATO public affairs officers, only the anti-interventionist left and right are asking the tough questions, not just about the current war in the Balkans but about the fundamental purposes and instruments of American foreign policy, such as why, ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall, do US statesmen repeatedly insist that America must retain “world leadership” and its attendant globe-girdling cold war defense alliances?

NATO’s war against Serbia has given anti-imperialist progressives and conservatives the best opportunity since Vietnam to start a real debate about US foreign policy–a debate that revolves not around how to administer the Pax Americana but whether there should be a Pax Americana at all. It has also given them their best chance to mobilize ordinary Americans–who have always maintained a healthy skepticism toward the foreign policies advocated by the globalist elite that dominates both political parties–in an effort to change fundamental US global strategy.

After all, since the Spanish-American War a century ago, significant elements of both the left and the right have patriotically embraced a popular anti-imperial, antiwar position. And the public would naturally respond to a homegrown radical tradition–comprising such heterogeneous figures as Eugene Debs, Charles Beard, Edmund Wilson, Williams and Gore Vidal–that has emphasized the limits of US power, been wary of a universalist conception of US security interests, held to the convictions that democracy can’t be imposed by war and that the United States cannot and should not remake the world in its own image, and warned against excessive presidential power, secrecy and deception in foreign policy. This tradition has been far more than simply antiwar. Its proponents have pursued a vision of direct, participatory democracy–and its concomitant, social and economic equality–that has perhaps been America’s noblest aspiration.

Obviously, there will still be areas of intense disagreement between left and right noninterventionists (that’s what coalitions are all about), and neither group should attempt to convert the other, but they should listen to each other. The left, for its part, would benefit enormously (as have frequent Nation contributor Bruce Cumings and Nation contributing editor Thomas Ferguson) from the old right’s class-based analysis of US foreign policy, promulgated by such radicals as Senator Robert Taft, which long ago located the origins of America’s globalist foreign policy in the capitalist consolidation of the national economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the emergence of large, capital-intensive, advanced-technology corporations, investment banks and internationally oriented commercial banks, all of which took the world market for their target. Indeed, left and right foreign policy critics may well find that their agreement on noninterventionism extends to consensus on castigating the domestic US elites pushing economic globalization and even to agreement that the free market itself is the greatest threat to “family values” and social cohesion.

Of course, any alliance between the anti-interventionist right and left will be attacked as “neo-know-nothing isolationists,” in the words of Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, by the conservative and liberal establishments. But Americans can be reminded that during the Vietnam War extremist Walter Lippmann declared that America should “eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness.” He too was accused by pro-war members of the foreign policy cognoscenti of being a “neo-isolationist.” The Democratic and Republican establishments would do well to heed Lippmann’s reply: “Neo-isolationism is the direct product of foolish globalism. Compared to people who thought they could run the universe, or at least the globe, I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.

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