There are few words in contemporary foreign policy debates that are more abused than “internationalist.”
Internationalism should refer to a foreign policy approach that prioritizes resolving conflicts peacefully, respecting international law, strengthening international institutions, and eschewing coercive policies as much as possible.
As it is commonly used in Washington today, however, internationalism often means almost exactly the opposite. It is a euphemism that advocates of U.S. “leadership” use to describe their preferred policies of pursuing dominance, dictating terms to other states, and routinely using force or the threat of force to get their way. The label internationalist has become code for supporting militarism and interference in the affairs of other countries, which is just about as far from what it used to mean as it is possible to get.
The internationalist label is usually paired with and opposed to the “isolationist” slur used to dismiss critics of U.S. foreign policy. To be considered an internationalist in Washington, one needs to be comfortable endorsing the extensive use of American power, including and especially the use of hard power. Expressing doubts or asking questions about the wisdom or necessity of this extensive use of power is one of the quickest ways to earn the “isolationist” tag.
According to this warped set of definitions, the so-called internationalists are the ones that seek to impose Washington’s will on other nations while the “isolationists” are the ones that respect their rights and sovereignty. Even generally hawkish presidents will be accused of “isolationist” leanings if they “fail” to order military action somewhere, as we saw with Barack Obama and the red line episode in 2013. Meanwhile presidents will be praised for their "internationalism" when they order illegal attacks.
It is common for analysts to conflate support for U.S. primacy with internationalism. Earlier this year, Foreign Policy magazine published a long article by Ash Jain classifying different foreign policy camps and putting them under the headings of “internationalist” or “non-internationalist.” In one of the more bizarre examples of how this worked, the “unilateral internationalists” represented by the likes of John Bolton and Dick Cheney, were included among the internationalists because they were champions of power projection, but restrainers were deemed “non-internationalist” because they favored fewer commitments and a less ambitious overall strategy.
Nothing could better demonstrate how absurd the contemporary use of “internationalist” has become when someone like Bolton, who has a record of despising international law and institutions, can be considered an internationalist while defenders of international law are not.
The conflation of support for primacy with internationalism goes all the way back to the remaking of U.S. foreign policy in WWII. As Stephen Wertheim explained in Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, "officials and intellectuals redefined armed supremacy as the epitome of internationalism and the core of international organization.” That redefinition was made because internationalism had meant something profoundly different in the past. Unfortunately, the redefinition stuck, and the more older understanding of internationalism faded into obscurity.
That has had serious long-term consequences for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. The distortion of internationalism into a project of global power projection fed the worst impulses of U.S. policymakers. As Wertheim explained, “to install one’s dominance in the name of internationalism is something else. It effectively turns one nation’s military supremacy into the prerequisite for a decent world. This kind of internationalism denies that armed force can obstruct cooperation and provoke others. It also attenuates the value of international rules and bodies.”
Such a deformed, militarized internationalism will not be a stabilizing force, but will often become a threat to the international peace and security that its adherents claim to defend.
As long as the world’s leading power refuses to respect the limits of international law, it will always be a destabilizing force in the world and a contributor to future conflicts. A principled internationalist approach to the world requires that the U.S. not only follow the laws that it expects others to follow, but that it should also hold itself and its clients to the highest standards. Any attempts to carve out exceptions or to create loopholes for the U.S. and the states aligned with it will serve to undermine international law and encourage more violations.
That is what is happening with the war in Gaza right now as the U.S. makes a mockery of international law by enabling a devastating military campaign that has already killed well over 10,000 civilians.
Many self-described internationalists are quick to invoke international law and the U.N. Charter when it comes to the actions of U.S. adversaries, but then become suddenly mute when a U.S.-backed government begins trampling on the same things. The champions of the “rules-based order” evidently do not believe that international law applies to the U.S. and the governments that it arms and supports, and they have no intention of doing anything to hold those violators accountable. If the U.S. is going to take international law seriously, it can’t keep doing this. Washington must not play favorites by giving some states a free pass to commit terrible crimes.
The U.S. would benefit a great deal from the recovery of a genuinely internationalist approach to the world. It would still be deeply engaged around the world through commerce and diplomacy, but it would have a far less militarized and less coercive foreign policy. Because it would be taking sides in very few conflicts, it would be in a stronger position to act as an effective and trusted mediator in whatever conflicts did arise.
If the U.S. made a habit of adhering to international law and did not selectively trample on it when expedient, it would likely find a much more receptive audience in foreign capitals when it appealed for their support in a dispute. The U.S. would not be cutting itself off from the world, but it would also not be overcommitted and constantly embroiled in wars, whether they were its own or those of its clients.
Recovering an internationalism that prizes peace and cooperation rather than the pursuit of dominance and rivalry is crucial for the U.S. in the coming decades to face the global threats of pandemics and climate change. America and the other nations of the world can ill afford to squander this century in fruitless contests for supremacy. To that end, Americans need to rediscover the internationalist tradition that flourished in this country a century ago.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
"Malabar 2021" featured tactical training with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Special Guard, U.S. Navy Pacific Special Command, and Indian Navy Special Operations Forces. (Government of Japan/Creative Commons/Twitter)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
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Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns prepares for a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 10, 2022. After the House passed a late night government funding bill with more than $13 Billion in additional funding for Ukraine, the Senate is expected to take up the measure and pass it before a government shutdown deadline.
The White House’s messaging on the Ukraine war is built around two simple-yet-powerful adjectives: “We are united in our condemnation,” said President Joe Biden almost two years ago in a joint statement with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “of Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The “unjustified and unprovoked” line has been used numerous times by a chorus of top U.S. officials and allies, quickly becoming a rhetorical mainstay of Biden’s maximum pressure campaign against the Kremlin.
This messaging conflates two important, yet fundamentally different issues. There is little question that Russia’s invasion has wrought a horrific human toll on Ukraine and upended European security in ways that few anticipated prior to February 2022. But it is also not without its context, which includes a litany of grievances that — however unjustified from the perspective of the West — constitute what the Kremlin saw as sufficient provocation to initiate the most destructive war in Europe since 1945.
An explosive New York Times exposé by Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz sheds light on major developments preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the report, the Ukrainian government entered into a wide-ranging partnership with the CIA against Russia. This cooperation, which involved the establishment of as many as 12 secret CIA “forward operating bases” along Ukraine’s border with Russia, began not with Russia’s 2022 invasion, but just over 10 years ago.
Within days of the February 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that culminated with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a firmly pro-Western government, the newly appointed head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, reportedly proposed a “three-way partnership” with the CIA and MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service. Ukrainian security officials gradually proved their value to the U.S. by feeding the CIA intelligence on Russia, including “secret documents about the Russian Navy,” leading to the establishment of CIA bases in Ukraine to coordinate activities against Russia and various training programs for Ukrainian commandos and other elite units.
A graduate of one such CIA training program, then-Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, went on to become the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence.
Kyiv routinely pushed this relationship’s boundaries, violating the Obama administration’s red lines around lethal operations by carrying out assassinations of high-profile Russian fighters on territory controlled by Russian-aligned separatists. The Kyiv-CIA partnership deepened under the Trump administration, yet again putting the lie to the baseless idea that former President Trump was somehow amenable to Russia’s interests while in office.
As Budanov reportedly put it, “It only strengthened. It grew systematically. The cooperation expanded to additional spheres and became more large-scale.” This cooperation, as painstakingly outlined by the Times, went far beyond helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia in a narrow, technical sense — rather, Ukraine was drawn into a Western coalition for the purpose of waging a broad-based shadow war against Russia.
The New York Times’ exposé offers no shortage of disturbing implications. Ukraine is, needless to say, a sovereign state in charge of determining its own security arrangements. The underlying issue is not whether Ukraine is within its rights to enter into this kind of relationship with the CIA, as it obviously is, nor is it whether the Maidan Revolution put Ukraine on a certain path toward political cooperation with Western entities.
The problem, rather, is one of basic security perceptions. Moscow repeatedly warned — for many years before 2014 — that it was and remains prepared to take drastic action to prevent Ukraine from being used by the West as a forward operating base against Russia. Yet that, as recounted in lurid detail by The New York Times, is precisely what has happened over the past 10 years.
The fact that Ukraine has not just willingly but enthusiastically submitted to this arrangement is immaterial to Russia’s core concerns. Nor can this issue be entirely reduced to NATO membership: Ukraine can play the role of an anti-Russian outpost on NATO’s eastern flank without ever formally joining the alliance, and this, too, is unacceptable to the Kremlin.
Justification is by nature a subjective exercise, but there can be little question that the activities described in this exposé constitute, from the Kremlin’s perspective, a dire provocation and would be seen as such by the United States if the situation were reversed and a rival superpower established such bases in Mexico. This perception is an inseparable part of the military and political context that shaped this war’s outbreak. It can be dismissed as paranoid, but if so it is a paranoia common to all security establishments.
It is unclear what concrete U.S. interests these joint intelligence activities served. They certainly did not facilitate de-escalation between Moscow and Kyiv or promote regional stability, goals ostensibly shared by the Obama and Trump administrations. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how Kyiv’s deepening relationship with the CIA needlessly fed into Moscow’s worst security fears and precipitated its conclusion — whether justified or not — that it must act decisively in the face of an implacable conflict with the West over Ukraine.