Old Rivals, New Allies?

Samuel Moyn reviews A Foreign Policy for the Left by Michael Walzer in Modern Age:

In A Foreign Policy for the Left, Walzer has updated some of the accessible and sprightly essays he published in Dissent and elsewhere since 2001 to explain how American progressives should think about their state’s global activities. His central argument is negative: the American left should not stick to what Walzer calls its “default” position of recommending standoffish withdrawal from world affairs.

Like an annoyed teacher who has seen generations of students repeat the same mistakes, Walzer lectures the left on the defects of the confection of anti-imperialism, isolationism, and pacifism he thinks it offers too reflexively. To the contrary, Walzer’s main point is that sometimes American hegemony, “internationalism,” and military force serve progressive ends.

I grant that it is sometimes genuinely worrisome when Americans, on both the left and the right, find excuses for disclaiming responsibility and doing nothing in response to international aggression or humanitarian abuses. But this fact hardly minimizes the even greater risk that Walzer courts—that of prettifying interventionism—as if it were the sole alternative to withdrawal. If inaction and isolation are sometimes sins, it is also true that America’s left and right have erred even more grossly through staunch interventionism and showy moralism.

Like many who defined their leftism around the cause of humanitarian intervention after the Cold War, Walzer is fixated on the quandary of when American military power should be deployed to prevent or halt mass atrocity. The experiences of the 1990s, from failures in the face of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda to “success” in Kosovo, crystallized a sense of obligation and even optimism about the beneficence of American force, if properly applied.

Unfortunately, the history of the current century points the other way: from Iraq (where many progressive hawks supported a catastrophic neoconservative adventure) to Trump’s recent Syrian intervention, the litany of armed American incursions has ranged from the feckless to the ruinous.

More here.