By Jane Ball
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 touched a dormant but significant fault line on the left. On the one hand, much of the left was outraged by the invasion, believing it to be an illegal and genocidal land grab. On the other hand, a cadre of the left, especially in the US and the UK, took the opposing position. They blame the US for NATO’s eastward expansion for provoking Russia’s invasion to defend its “legitimate security interests.” This second group, given voice by Noam Chomsky and by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has consistently demanded Ukrainian capitulation to Putin’s demands. These voices combine an economistic definition of capitalism with the offensive realist IR theory (mainly John Mearsheimer‘s) of international relations as driven by the politics of power projection. Thus, they attribute Ukrainian unwillingness to capitulate to an American capitalist Realpolitik that perpetually threatens Russian security and not as an authentic defense of their nation.
However, this argument suffers from a poverty of theory. It views the world as a mechanistic body driven solely by predetermined (capitalist) instincts and denies human agency to affect the world. It also suffers from acute ahistoricism. Mearsheimer’s formulation of an anarchic “security competition” is a tautology that self-consciously excludes factors that contradict his theories as outside the scope of international relations. He does not explain how this anarchy developed, what specific social property relations it expresses, or how those social relations evolved. Thus, while it is necessary to question NATO’s continued relevance in the 21st century, the critiques by Chomsky and the DSA rely on a theory of international relations that is divorced from the material realities of the actual historical process. A leftist IR theory must be firmly rooted in the specificities of history and must account for the development of the social relations buttressing the international order. If Western capitalism is to be blamed for the war, then capitalism should be defined. The theory must also understand the evolution of internationalism as a complex and sometimes contradictory ideology, which implies a complete understanding of its revolutionary origins. Finally, a left IR theory must consider how militant worker action impacts the creation of world systems and their tensions.
The Head and the Heart
The DSA position is that the US is uniformly responsible for capitalist expansion and exploitation. It is easy to dismiss this as typical left-reactionary anti-Americanism, but this proposition is critical to DSA’s analysis of capitalism. For example, its original NATO statement argues that provocation from NATO’s expansion is the sole reason for Russia’s militarization. The International Committee’s opening statement proceeds from the organization’s 2021 platform, which states “DSA operates in the heart of a global capitalist empire” and later says, “as socialists living in the heart of the American empire.” The conflation of the US with the totality of an empire of Capital suggests that they view the two as indistinguishable. It is not just a rhetorical posture; it is a philosophical disposition.
From a moral standpoint, the DSA statement is correct. As the sole remaining superpower, the US is responsible for many atrocities and horrors, disproportionately targeting people of color and developing nations. These horrors have been committed – sometimes justified – as necessary actions to spread democratic values, protect human rights, and above all, capitalist social relations. The DSA is right to call out these hypocrisies, and they stand on firm moral ground. However, as a critique of the current imperial order and an analysis of the specific social relations that comprise the existing order, they present a reductive and mechanistic theory of history that ultimately undermines their moral capital.
Consider DSA’s description of an individual’s relationship to the system of Capital. The system is a body, the US, the body’s heart. Humans living “within the heart” are individualistic cells encoded by DNA for specific functions. Cells have no agency – they can only do what they were programmed to do. A single cell cannot change the direction the body moves and does not exist apart from the body. The body is intrinsic to the cell’s identity and existence. Not only do people have agency that goes beyond the orchestrations of a univocal political “body”, but this agency is social and linked to other relations of affiliation and dependence.
Likewise, analogizing the US as the “heart of empire” has problematic implications. The heart pumps blood, distributing blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Without it, the body could not function. This reasonably analogizes the US’s function in the imperial system. As the prime hegemonic power, the US economy and military have an unprecedented ability to exert their influence directly and indirectly to maintain the imperial order. However, this is where the analogy breaks down. DSA presents the body—capitalism—as a totality, defined and driven entirely by a mechanistic heart. There is no agency here, let alone the heterogeneous institutions and stakeholders that actually make things move. The inevitable march of capitalism flattens everything.
These notions of inevitability are at odds with the historical process. By imagining people as individualized cells within a mechanistic body, the DSA theory denies the working classes of the past the agency and the ability to effect positive change in the world that inspires them to organize today. It collapses the last five hundred years of human history into an inevitable, perpetual, and all-consuming system called “capitalism.” In doing so, the DSA theory merely inverts the Whig narrative of historical progress rather than changing them. It does not analyze the structure of the current imperial order, its origins, or what specific property relations they reflect. They see that the US pumps capitalism’s blood but ignores the mind controlling the body. The US acts in “service to Capital.” Still, DSA does not precisely define what capital is. Capital is everything and exists a priori and apart from the human experience. The US may be the “heart of empire,” but the heart does not direct the body’s actions. It does not create the logic through which the body engages with the world. By centering the mechanical heart and not the dynamic mind, DSA conflates the guarantor of the imperial order with the imperial order itself. This mistake renders their geopolitical posture incoherent; there’s no specificity to the social relations guiding the imperial international system. The United States’ actions are definitionally imperialistic, regardless of the actual social and political context.
The Left’s Realist Turn
There is no better demonstration of this tautology than a portion of the left’s critique of NATO and response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For instance, here is how Noam Chomsky summarizes the crisis:
There are some simple facts that aren’t really controversial. There are two ways for a war to end: One way is for one side or the other to be basically destroyed. And the Russians are not going to be destroyed. So that means one way is for Ukraine to be destroyed. The other way is some negotiated settlement. If there’s a third way, no one’s ever figured it out. So what we should be doing is devoting all the things you mentioned, if properly shaped, but primarily moving towards a possible negotiated settlement that will save Ukrainians from further disaster. That should be the prime focus…We can, however, look at the United States, and we can see that our explicit policy — explicit — is rejection of any form of negotiations. The explicit policy goes way back, but it was given a definitive form in September 2021 in the September 1st joint policy statement that was then reiterated and expanded in the November 10th charter of agreement.
According to Chomsky, the outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion; Russia will inevitably “destroy” Ukraine, and the only way for Ukraine to avoid destruction is to negotiate with Russia, having accepted this inevitability from the start. Since this outcome is obvious, it is irrational for Ukrainian officials not to accept this reality. Therefore, the refusal to accept Russian demands must come from an external force – the U.S. Rather than Zelensky’s refusal to capitulate reflecting Ukrainian rejection of Russia’s terms, it is caused by the US not allowing him to negotiate. The US is forcing the Ukrainian military to continue to fight to weaken Russia, thus confirming that the US and NATO are actively antagonizing Russia via NATO expansion and justifying Putin’s “legitimate security concerns.” Even now, a year into the war, Chomsky downplays Putin’s responsibility for the war in favor of placing blame on the United States while continuing to hint at Ukraine’s inevitable destruction:
Let’s return to the current topic: how policy is being designed to bring about “much worse” by escalating the conflict. The official reason remains as before: to severely weaken Russia. The liberal commentariat, however, offers more humane reasons: We must ensure that Ukraine is in a stronger position for eventual negotiations. Or in a weaker position, an alternative that does not enter into consideration, though it is hardly unrealistic.
On the topic of NATO’s expansion, the Chomsky argument weds itself to the statements made by proponents of the offensive realist school of foreign policy – John Mearsheimer in particular. In a New Yorker interview in March 2022, Mearsheimer makes a similar version of this argument:
Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just NATO expansion. NATO expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes EU expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.
Mearsheimer, like Chomsky, depicts the United States as the prime mover in the story of NATO’s expansion. NATO’s expansion is something the US did to push a “Western bulwark” further east, closer to Russia’s borders. In both accounts, the US is the only country with agency; everyone else is just along for the ride. Both deny Putin’s imperial desires and believe Russia is only reacting rationally to the security threat the US is perpetrating. However divergent their intellectual paths to this moment may have been, Chomsky and Mearsheimer are in complete alignment in arguing that the US has stretched the limits of unipolarity and is facing the natural, inevitable, almost mechanical reaction from its adversaries. This convergence is not new; for instance, Chomsky has long argued that NATO intervention in Kosovo was an imperial act of aggression by the US against Serbia. Nor is it just a rhetorical convenience; it betrays that both Chomsky and Mearsheimer share a highly deterministic view of capitalism and empire that, at its base, rejects the importance of diverse human agencies in the historical process. Nothing is contestable.
The left should be wary of aligning itself with offensive realists like Mearsheimer and, more recently, Henry Kissinger. In the first place, Mearsheimer’s worldview is highly simplistic and self-reinforcing. He defines his worldview on his website: “I believe that the great powers dominate the international system, and they constantly engage in security competition with each other, which sometimes leads to war.” This statement reveals that Mearsheimer believes that competition is every state’s historical default security posture and that international relations can only be defined as the sum of this competition, with the most powerful states monopolizing this competition. Only the Great Powers can express agency; minor nations are along for the ride, and the heterogeneous agencies of a state’s populace receive no consideration in his analysis. The reification of the nation-state and the naturalization of competition as a universal law of politics is antithetical to any leftist project that believes that collective action by the working classes can positively transform society.
Second, leftists who would invoke realist foreign policy should know why Mearsheimer is so critical of the US’s focus on Russia. He is not advocating for dismantling American imperialism; he believes the US is distracted by a weakened Russia and is not doing enough to engage in Great Power politics with China, which he views as the true global rival. In his words:
We do face a serious threat in the international system. We face a peer competitor. And that’s China. Our policy in Eastern Europe is undermining our ability to deal with the most dangerous threat that we face today.
Contrary to the left’s goal of preventing a new Cold War between the US and China, Mearsheimer is advocating for such a Cold War.
Finally, neorealism self-consciously lacks historical explanations for international relations and state behavior variations. The theory declares a universal and transhistorical motivation for state behavior – specifically “security competition” – and only concerns itself with factors affirming the view. Aspects that contradict the theory are externalized; these are forces outside the narrowly delineated sphere of international relations beyond the scope of consideration. Mearsheimer presents another mechanistic world where complex social relations are relegated to a series of If/Then loops with narrowly defined parameters. Outcomes are predetermined, and reactions are instinctual and predictable.
Ignoring the social complexity of history’s unfolding, Mearsheimer reduces inter-state politics to competition for security dominated by the most powerful states. Each state, like each individual “under capitalism,” has objective “interests” that are defined a priori: a zero-sum game of security flatly mediated by the invisible hand of power. Chomsky’s theory of international relations is nearly identical to Mearsheimer’s, with the difference that Chomsky incorporates a vulgar Marxist specter of Capital to position the US as the invisible hand moving all international relations. It assumes that if a Russia-Ukraine war were against the US’s interests, the US would prevent or stop it. Therefore, the conflict continues because the US wants it to continue. The US is one “actor”; the heart beats, the body responds.
Internationalism in Name Only
DSA claims its anti-NATO position is principled internationalism. However, carefully reading their statements undercuts both claims of internationalism and the arguments made to justify the DSA stance. In the preamble of the June 11th, 2021, “No to NATO” statement, DSA calls for an immediate and unilateral withdrawal from the alliance. Regardless of NATO’s continued relevance in the 21st century, such a unilateral move by the US would be viewed – rightly – as an act of betrayal by our allies and would seriously hinder possibilities for future international cooperation. Further, immediate withdrawal would create a defense vacuum, as the defense umbrella European countries have planned their entire economies around for decades will suddenly evaporate. The vacuum would cause a rapid intensification of defense spending, well beyond the 2% of GDP requirement, leading to increased instability domestically and internationally. Domestically, intensifying defense spending would divert essential resources from the civilian sectors. Internationally, unilateral withdrawal makes the concept of “common defense” across Europe moot. The sudden vacuum of the American defense umbrella would spur a flurry of regional defense pacts among factions with diverging – and sometimes competing – security interests. Instability on both fronts is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that many of the NATO countries are also part of the Eurozone, whose monetary policy is effectively controlled by the German central bank. Far from undoing American imperialism, a unilateral withdrawal of the US from NATO is a continuation of Bush-era foreign policy and displays utter contempt for international institutions.
Additionally, the language of the first bullet point in the “No to NATO” statement is inherently nationalist, not internationalist. The bullet point reads:
Article 5 of the founding document that binds NATO members stipulates that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” A hypothetical attack on small Baltic nations that border Russia, although all the way across the Atlantic from the US, would force Americans to fight on European soil.
This statement is explicitly isolationist, arguing that the Baltics are too distant and insignificant for Americans’ concern. The phrasing of “European soil” also naturalizes the arbitrarily delineated borders of the nation-state.
Likewise, the fifth bullet point in the No to NATO statement is ostensibly a critique of the hypocrisies of liberal internationalist humanitarianism. However, in practice, it does more to cast doubt on the legitimacy of humanitarian concerns rather than the methods used to affect humanitarianism. The statement doesn’t argue for a better way to address humanitarian concerns; it dismisses any humanitarian justification as a pretext used to manufacture consent. Strikingly, though, the most potent example of the US using humanitarianism as a pretext for naked American aggression – Iraq – receives the least attention. Most of the critique is directed at the NATO intervention in Serbia, where the humanitarian situation was unambiguous. This position is consistent with Noam Chomsky’s overt denial of Serbian ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosniaks and Kosovars as part of his criticism of the intervention., The Chomsky-DSA foreign policy may be anti-imperialist, but it is not internationalist. An approach that calls for the unilateral withdrawal of the US from its defense commitments combines all the arrogance of Bush unilateralism with all the fatalistic bleakness of Kissingerism. The denial of the genocides that precipitated NATO’s interventions in the Balkans and, more recently, the dismissal of Ukrainian sovereignty perpetuates fascist propaganda propagated throughout Europe and Russia. The defense vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal advocated for by DSA would further destabilize Europe during its second refugee crisis in a decade. The lack of an American presence will drive European military spending, not decrease it. DSA’s No to NATO statement demonstrates this fact.
On the one hand, to support its claims that NATO encourages European militarization, the statement points to an increase in France’s defense spending in 2018. On the other hand, it notes that the US and France’s chief executives have recently questioned the relevancy of NATO, with Trump nearly withdrawing the US from the alliance. The specter of a NATO without the US increased French military spending. Realizing such a withdrawal will encourage more militarization across the entire continent. With decades of austerity policies and multiple refugee crises, widespread militarization increases the threat of reactionary and fascist movements. The Chomsky/DSA position is reactionary anti-imperialism and is a dead end as a leftist vision of international relations.
What Must Be Done
DSA’s adoption of neorealism comes at the most inopportune time. Now is a time for questioning the continued relevance and future of NATO. If the left is to have a voice in this conversation, it must be able to speak coherently with other political factions in this country. A left critique of the current state of IR cannot resort to polemics and sloganeering. It is not enough to say, “the US acts in service of capital.” This statement has no explanatory value. A critique of American foreign policy cannot assume that historical “forces” – capitalism, imperialism, or liberalism – are self-motivating, nor can it be guided by purely economistic theories of history that adopt conservative premises and assumptions of international relations.
Missing from both left and right neorealism is any social content. Both ascribe the movement of history to large and impersonal forces impervious to human input, a riderless locomotive charging through a desolate landscape. “The US is the heart of the imperial project and acts in service to capital.” This is a description, not an explanation. It treats imperialism and capitalism as interchangeable words rather than distinct phenomena that interact with each other. For example, while NATO’s intervention in Kosovo certainly qualifies as an imperial projection of power, it’s unclear how such an intervention served the interests of capital. These words need grounding to a materiality that clearly defines them as social relations and is tied to the specificities of history. Capitalism isn’t a thing. It is the name used for a set of social relations defined by market dependency to meet basic needs. These social relations are not a transhistorical force; they developed in a particular place under specific circumstances. Moreover, the constitutive relations of “capitalism” are not constant over time. They are contestable across and within classes and often adapted ad hoc to crises and changing circumstances.
Likewise, there must be an explanation of the origins of the imperial state system, from the seniority rankings of European monarchs below the Papacy to its evolution into today’s liberal internationalist rules-based system. Much of the imperial system’s history predates the global dominance of capitalist relations; the political and social character of early modern imperial disputes must be understood on their terms, not as subordinate parts of capitalism. Imperial competition in the 17th and 18th centuries was motivated by dynastic rivalries and the secularization of the Reformation into disputes over political rights and legal jurisdiction. It was not until after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that capitalist relations became integral to imperial power competition. What precipitated these reconfigurations, what social tensions did they mediate, and how did states respond?
Additionally, we must make distinctions among different iterations of the imperial system and the purpose of each. Differences must be enumerated. For example, the Congress of Berlin system is qualitatively different from the post-war liberal internationalist system. The Congress of Berlin self-consciously triggered an imperial competition for resources as the European powers rushed to industrialize to catch up to Britain. On the other hand, the post-war liberal international system saw itself as the ultimate triumph of the ideals of the French Revolution; the Declaration of the Rights of Man heavily influenced the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the very least, a Left IR theory should use these principles as our comparison point; how has the US, the other western powers, and the international institutions they created undermined these goals? It should then attempt to answer how to articulate better and realize the UDHR’s principles. We should not, as realists do, reject their importance as superfluous or merely as a cynical excuse.
Finally, a Left IR theory must recognize heterogeneous working-class agencies and their ability to affect the trajectory of history, including in international relations, for both better and worse. Mass movements over the past two centuries have profoundly impacted the foreign policies of imperial nations. For instance, during the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the British government considered recognizing Haiti as a French possession to increase the legitimacy of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy. However, the British public, building off over two decades of grassroots agitation against the slave trade, vocally rejected this concession. A massive protest campaign organized by the African Institute sent 800 petitions with 750,000 signatures to Parliament. The outrage forced the British government to back away from the proposal and ultimately to insist the Congress of Vienna include an international repudiation of the slave trade. Returning Haiti to France was essential to the British government’s geopolitical interests- it would have provided the Bourbon monarchy financial self-sufficiency while still leaving them beholden to British sea power to protect French trade, neutralizing them as a threat on the continent. Public agitation intervened to change the treaty’s terms decisively, forced the British government into an anti-slavery position, and committed the resources of the British Navy to enforce the ban on the slave trade.
However, just as these mass movements forced human rights concessions from the ruling class, they have also been co-opted by the ruling class to further the imperial mission. As anti-slavery sentiment grew in mainstream society in the middle of the 19th century, it coalesced in the “Free Soil, free Labour” ideology. Historian Eric Foner argues that the Republican Party formed as a coalition among certain aspects of the Capital class, artisans, professionals, and radical worker elements espousing this ideology to counter the political influence of the Slave Power. By the end of the century, the abolition of slavery was a primary justification for colonial intervention in Africa; Germany, France, the UK, and King Leopold of Belgium used the suppression of the slave trade to justify carving Africa amongst themselves at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885. On the one hand, this represented the ultimate success of abolition over the planter classes. On the other hand, it represented the ultimate betrayal of the radical ideals of the abolitionist movement.
Similarly, the international institutions and world order created by the United States and the Soviet Union represented the ultimate success of many revolutionary ideals espoused since the English Civil War. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR outlined four universal freedoms that became the justification for the Allied war effort: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt later expanded on these four freedoms in his 1944 State of the Union speech when he argued for a Second Bill of Rights that guaranteed economic and social rights such as guaranteed employment, a basic income, decent housing, adequate healthcare, and education. In many ways, the Second Bill of Rights echoes some of the most radical revolutionary demands from the 1800s; the Soviet Constitution of 1936 likewise contains similar provisions. The four freedoms became the basis of the Allied war goals and formed the ideological underpinning for the United Nations. Though there were deep ideological divides between the Allies, each manifested a society shaped by similar revolutionary ideals. The post-war international institutions were designed to extend these ideals worldwide.
Despite these lofty goals, and although much of the world’s population did see a significant overall increase in living standards, the reality of the post-war consensus was a betrayal of many revolutionary ideals. The post-war “peace” was predicated on preventing another land war in Europe and domestic politics hostile to labor militancy in Europe and the US. The transition from coal to oil as the primary energy source after WWII allowed for the extension of middle-class prosperity to more people spatially dispersed across a wider area. Replacing coal with oil also altered the social relations of energy production and consumption. Coal mining was labor intensive, required high concentrations of largely autonomous workers to extract and transport to sites of consumption, and was done by workers within Europe and the United States. By comparison, oil requires far less labor to extract and transport, and reserves were primarily in formerly colonized countries. This change in production requirements and locations further cemented the control of capitalists over energy planning, undercutting worker movements in industrialized nations by shifting the nature of work while reinforcing the economic power of former colonial states in the newly independent states of the Middle East and North Africa. With coal, labor could exert significant control over energy production and, thus, the entire economy, whereas, with oil, workers were too few and spatially dispersed to exercise political power similarly. The change in geographic location outsourced the violence and instability necessary to maintain worker discipline from urban centers in both the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to newly independent nations in the MENA. The post-war attempt at securing political, economic, and social rights for the middle classes of the industrialized nations came at the cost of undermining those same rights for people living in oil-rich countries.
One year into the conflict and contrary to Chomsky’s prediction, Russia has not destroyed Ukraine. While it is undoubtedly true that NATO’s military and financial support has been invaluable to the Ukrainian war effort, the failure of the Russian invasion is a testament to the Ukrainian people’s will to maintain their independence from Moscow. Despite ongoing resistance from Ukrainians, the Chomsky Left continues to view the war through a lens of brute economistic offensive realism. They rely on vague assertions that NATO’s goal is to destroy Russia and “expand capital.” However, their arguments lack specificity and are unmoored from the historical process. They adopt a mechanistic view of history that assumes that capitalism is natural and inevitable. They claim the mantle of internationalism while utilizing isolationist rhetoric to advocate for unilateral treaty withdrawals. Further, by aligning with offensive realists, they dismiss the possibility of cooperative institutions at the international level, rejecting the left’s first attempt at ending imperialism during the first world war. Finally, by characterizing capitalism as a totality, they deny working class agencies in affecting history, including international affairs.
If the Left is to articulate a coherent anti-imperialism for the 21st century, it cannot adopt conservative theories about the construction of the international system. The historical specificities around the development of capitalist social relations and the imperial order must ground our critiques. Likewise, it cannot hold itself hostage to the ideological battles of the Cold War nor be guided by a rote opposition to anything the United States supports. The Chomsky-DSA reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine failed on all accounts. As a result, they’ve squandered an opportunity to offer a coherent alternative to the current international order that deals with the challenges of the 21st century – particularly climate change and the rise of authoritarianism both at home and abroad. By joining with neorealists such as Mearsheimer, they eschew a material analysis of the imperial system for one that treats the system as constant and inevitable – a mechanistic progression of history – rather than constitutively polyvalent and contested. More than strange bedfellows, such a marriage is a death knell for international solidarity in the 21st century.