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Grand Strategies of the Left, Out Now! Part II
Shoutout to Patrick Fox at JQAS for this awesome pic. Love seeing Grand Strategies of the Left out in the wilderness!
Two things are true about my writing generally, and especially Grand Strategies of the Left.
One is that I heavily rely on others. Family foremost, but also friends, colleagues, and increasingly, parasocial relationships. I’m “milieu friends” or “intellectual friends” with a number of people I’ve yet to meet in person but who have made a major imprint on my thinking. I’m not sure any writer with something to say to others can exist apart from the human world. Turtle on a fencepost.
The other brutal reality is that writing is a solitary venture—we all have our Walden Ponds. I go in my office, sit in my chair by a window looking out on rolling green hills, put on some ‘90s hip-hop instrumentals, blaze up that…coffee, and write. Hour after hour, day after day. It’s gruelling and very lonely work, but I also can’t imagine not doing it.
I may write a longer thing about this book’s origin story separately, but some of that background ended up in my preface. If you’re trying to situate Grand Strategies of the Left in its historical moment, or in my own personal-political context, the preface reveals some of that.
And like I did when I launched Pacific Power Paradox, I thought I would share the full preface with subscribers (below).
This is a book about how the sources of a more durable “security” for the nation and the world lay to the left of liberal internationalism, tying imaginaries and broad political commitments to concrete policies.
If that’s your jam, read on. ✌️
Preface and Acknowledgements
I started this book in 2018—a time when I saw the world very differently than I do today.
As a one-time “defense intellectual” and a longtime creature of the national security state, I always had a hard time reconciling the unspoken politics of my vocation with what I gleaned from having one foot in the progressive movement. For a while, circumstances made it possible to avoid acknowledging internal contradictions. Obama’s presidency encouraged people like me to get out of the streets and put down radical texts in favor of being consultants and policy insiders.
Because of what the Democratic Party has been my entire life, I was “on the left” only in the thinnest, American-hegemony sense of what that meant—vague cosmopolitanism and an antiwar sensibility, yet reflexively in support of the going concerns of the Democratic Party, including (paradoxically) military primacy. And let’s face it, I led the bourgie, luxury hotel, brunch-filled, NPR cloth-bag-at-Whole-Foods existence of a foreign policy mandarin. That lifestyle didn’t confront me with hard truths and intellectual contradictions; it sublimated them.
But the Trump years were topsy turvy, sending me searching. Initially I sought succor in the liberal internationalism I had propped up my entire career, which naturalized a brief fling as a China hawk. But I quickly started recognizing the reactionary potentialities within liberal foreign policy—particularly on China issues.
Eventually, I came to see liberal internationalism as a worldview that not only obscured who benefited from U.S. policy, but also offered no satisfying way of either asking or answering the kinds of questions plaguing me.
How was Trump possible, and if Washingtonians find him so repugnant, why are most of them untroubled by the tremendous continuities of Trump’s policies with both his predecessors and successor? Why are policymakers (I was once one) incapable of acknowledging how the domestic and the international spheres of policy affect each other? What good is American power if perpetuating it requires horizonless war, or horizonless preparation for it? How do we justify the numerous hypocrisies in liberal foreign policy (from killing in the name of security to keeping secrets and allying with dictators in the name of democracy to sustaining spheres of influence while repudiating others doing the same), especially when there are alternatives available?
Above all, why is the plight of workers—average Americans—totally absent from the geopolitical machinations of the national security state?
There is much more I could say about that period of my life, but this book allowed me to work through things the only way I know how—by reading and writing. Following the “soak and poke” model laid down by Richard Fenno in Homestyle so many years ago, I immersed myself in the ecosystem of global thought to the left of liberal internationalism, spanning from left-liberal reformists to labor historians to anti-imperialists to radical communists, and everything in between.
Grand Strategies of the Left stands on its own merits as an analytical work that speaks to several audiences as once…but it is also unmistakably personal. While I do not actually endorse all the prescriptions and wagers presented in these pages—even, paradoxically, when citing some of my own older work—any reader familiar with my background will see parts of me in both the overall claim (the solutions to global insecurity lay in the political and economic conditions at their root), and the numerous tensions within leftist thinking that the book tries to identify and navigate.
For help in seeing liberal internationalism more clearly and rethinking what security ought to mean, I owe an immense debt to a lot of people who are active in the public intellectual (and sometimes activist) scene. In no particular order, Jeannie Morefield, Patrick Iber, Michael Kazin, Matthew Specter, Brian Mueller, John Feffer, Mike Brenes, Kate Kizer, Christopher McKnight Nichols,, Tobita Chow, Jake Werner, Spencer Ackerman, Adom Getachew, Gabe Winant, Promise Li, Olufemi Taiwo, Sam Ratner, Lacie Heeley, Patrick Porter (whom nobody should mistake for a leftist), Ted Fertik, Stephen Wertheim, Malcolm Harris (who may have reservations about this book), John Carl Baker, Stephen Miles, Kelsey Atherton, Daniel Immerwahr, Loren Schulman, Adam Mount, and Ganesh Sitaraman were among the many folks who either shared their time with me or whose work guided my political evolution (often both). Reading them, I would frequently end up investigating/rediscovering more canonical writers ranging from Harry Braverman and Paul Sweezy to W.E.B. Du Bois and Antonio Gramsci. Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’s former foreign policy adviser, started out as an object of my research before eventually becoming a friend and recurring collaborator. The work of Peter Dombrowski and Simon Reich helped me realize grand strategy was a tradition worth both critiquing and rescuing. My conversations with helped me better grasp the world of “non-offensive defense,” which I hope to bring back en vogue. Danny Bessner, someone I once thought of quasi-adversarially, has become someone whose work I respect, and whose intellectual style I appreciate. His desire to heighten, rather than obscure, the differences between socialism and liberalism pushed me to sharpen how I characterized anti-hegemonism.
Dan Nexon has my biggest debt of gratitude. His work on empire and liberal internationalism was clarifying. His early-career work on relational IR theory shaped how I think about the world, and primed my receptivity to historical materialism and world-systems analysis. The Duck of Minerva blog he started long ago became an outlet where I road-tested a lot of the ideas that made its way into this book. And his writing about progressive foreign policy—even just the idea that there are policy-relevant alternatives beyond the horizon of liberal internationalism—made me think this project was possible.
Beyond gratitude, I’m compelled to make three brief clarifying points about what follows in the coming chapters.
First, anarchism is barely mentioned in this book. To be sure, anarchists and progressives have different political sensibilities when it comes to non-state violence, but they also have radically different dispositions toward the idea of state power. The scope of this book—concerned with the demands we should make of the state as a vehicle for a more peaceful, democratic, and egalitarian world—rests on a premise that many anarchists might reject. And anarchism, for all its rich history and potential allure, is not much of a resource for foreign policy or statecraft (notwithstanding Proudhon).
Second, this book only indirectly invokes world-systems analysis—a research tradition offering a powerful repertoire for making sense of the world that has historically found an audience on the left but has gotten short shrift in the academy. The primary reason for not leaning on world-systems thinking more heavily is quite simply that progressives and leftists expressing views about foreign policy today show scant awareness of it.
The grand strategies of progressive worldmaking presented in this book are constructed out of prevailing discourses, and precious little policy advocacy is grounded in an explicit world-systems perspective. Moreover, as of this writing, world-systems analysis has been far better used for describing the terrain of global politics (literally a system-level view) than it has been a guide for the foreign policy-making of individual states (the unit level view).
Still, consistent with world-systems thinking, there is an implicit understanding of the planet running through this book that distinguishes core from periphery, differential developmental trajectories, and the material constraints of being positioned within not only a given historical conjuncture or a given economic order but also a given geography.
Third, the choice to make this book about “progressive” foreign policy may prove controversial to some friends on the left, particularly those who either look to Marx as a North Star or recognize the reactionary strands that were once bound up with the progressive movement. I’m occasionally discomfited by how capacious “progressive” is, and am sensitive to the stark differences between what passes for progressivism inside the Beltway and the straightforward democratic socialism that has a more rightful historical claim to “leftism.”
In other words, I’m self-conscious about conflating leftism and progressivism but I sometimes do it anyway. Why? I give a lengthier rationale in chapter three, but some of it is because the historical moment that birthed this book was one in which alternative foreign policy proposals from “the left” consistently fell under the category of progressive. In both popular discourse and among the presidential campaigns of the Trump years (I was involved in several of them), everything to the left of liberal internationalism was called “progressive.”
But even if that weren’t the case, I want liberals to look to the left of liberal internationalism. This is the book I wish we had while searching for viable alternatives to liberal hegemony in those presidential campaigns. There are ideas here that could be taken up in a pragmatic spirit, even by those who are dismissive of (or find threatening) socialism and more radical currents. The progressive signifier is useful in that sense.
Finally, this book is the culmination of a larger project, some of which has appeared in other places. Portions of Chapters one, four, five, six, and seven originally appeared in “Left of Liberal Internationalism: Grand Strategies Within Progressive Foreign Policy Thought,” Security Studies Vol. 31, no. 4 (2022), pp. 553-92. The editor of Security Studies at the time of publication, Ron Krebs, also deserves my thanks for helping me tighten how I think about the role of anti-militarism in social democracy. Chapter eight is a revised and expanded version of an article I wrote for International Journal, set to appear under the title, “A Capital Critique: Progressive Alternatives to Neoliberal Economic Order.” And Chapter nine contains a paragraph that originally appeared in Security in Context’s journal, Insecurity Monitor, under the title, “Security is Beyond the National Interest: Grand Strategy and Progressive Worldmaking,” as well as several sentences from my author reply as part of a roundtable series of responses in Security Studies following my 2022 article (the series titled, “Progressivism and Grand Strategy: An Exchange”).
Kristin Chambers has been patient and open-minded as I went on this life-altering research journey. But our young son, Anders, deserves far less credit for this book. If anything, I finished it in spite of him. He took every opportunity to disrupt my writing, albeit in sometimes cute ways. “Why do you spend so much time writing books that nobody needs?” he asked. I can only hope that future readers will be more charitable. ✌️
Buy this book!