Forty-one years ago, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Michael Walzer published Just and Unjust Wars, an exploration of the morality of going to war and of war-fighting—a 20th-century update on the old problems of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. A professor at Harvard and Princeton University and long a member of the idiosyncratic left-wing intellectual crowd around Dissent magazine, Walzer established himself as an original thinker and laid the predicate for his lifelong willingness to call out fellow leftists as necessary for the sloppiness or shoddiness of their often abstract moral reasoning on matters of war and peace.
Vietnam was an unjust war, in Walzer’s view, one that should never have been fought. But for him, it hardly followed that all wars are unjust. At a time when a kind of nihilist pacifism was taking hold among many on the left, Walzer insisted on reminding his comrades of the moral necessity of World War II and the struggle to defeat fascism. Similarly, at a time when many of his contemporaries were apologizing for, if not celebrating, brutal regimes emerging in postcolonial states where liberation movements had thrown off an imperial yoke, Walzer insisted on holding these governments accountable for their misdeeds. And even as many on the left were working up a post-Marxist critique of neo-imperialist America as a malevolent force in international politics, Walzer insisted that some wars America might wage, including armed interventions for humanitarian purposes, could still be just.
Now, at the age of 83, he has produced a slender new volume, A Foreign Policy for the Left, consisting mostly of material reworked from articles of consequence he published previously, mostly in Dissent. This effort offers not comprehensive foreign-policy prescriptions but rather a comprehensive way of thinking about foreign policy from his point of view—that of a stalwart man of the left.
Why not, one wonders, a simpler title or even a broader one? Perhaps A Foreign Policy for America or Justice in Foreign Policy? Walzer is certainly a personage venerable enough to speak to all Americans, whether they end up agreeing with his policy principles or not. Yet he has chosen quite deliberately to write for a narrower audience—“for the left.” The striking reason for this becomes apparent through the course of the book: It’s because the left, in his view, needs more persuading before it can be said to have possession of foreign-policy principles that are intellectually and morally defensible.
Walzer is a polemicist in form true to the word’s origin. One can describe his writing over the course of an illustrious career as not only an argument for the conclusions he has come to, but also as an “attack” on the erroneous conclusions of others. In Just and Unjust Wars, his enemy is the remark frequently attributed to Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman: “War is hell”—meaning that considerations of morality cannot really enter into the discussion once one decides to wage it. Just and Unjust Wars is a book-length rebuttal beginning with the observation that even in hellish times, human beings can and do consider what they ought to do, taking their own moral reasoning as an important guide.
The attack in the new book is on what Walzer calls the “default” view of those on the left, namely, “an almost exclusive focus on how we and our fellow citizens live when we are among ourselves. For many of us, the only good foreign policy is a good domestic policy. Americans will be more safe in the world, and the world will be better off, leftists have repeatedly argued, if we concentrate on creating a just society at home.”
In service to this preference, the left has been too prone to give in to “the politics of pretending”—taking the world and the challenges it poses to be something other that what they are. Leftists have developed a number of “shortcut” arguments to which they can easily repair rather than undertaking the harder work of moral reasoning that real-world cases require. First among the shortcuts Walzer identifies is an almost instinctive tendency to think of the oppressed as “angels”—leading to a likewise reflexive tendency to side with leaders speaking in their name, and therefore to refrain from according the latter the moral scrutiny they warrant. Second is the imperative to stand up against “imperialism”—and therefore to oppose much if not all action abroad by the latter-day hegemon, the United States. Third is to blame Israel as the source of almost all troubles in the world’s most troubled region, the Middle East. Fourth is, regardless of the circumstances, “to support every government that sets itself against American interests”—which actually seems to be an amalgam of shortcuts one and two.
Against these tendencies, Walzer offers the left what he sees as far superior guidance, from the starting point that the actions the United States takes abroad might actually be good and just—or at least better than a status quo featuring, for example, the slaughter of innocent people. The inequities within the United States at the time of World War II, though never irrelevant, paled in comparison to the urgent task of defeating fascism. Likewise justified was the military action the United States and its allies took to halt ethnic cleansing and genocide in Kosovo in 1999. A like situation in the future would warrant a similar response.
Walzer levels his aim at many other verities prevalent on the contemporary left. He has little time for those who place faith in the International Criminal Court as the place to hold bad actors to account and thus to deter them. He calls the Court “the judicial arm of a world government that [does] not exist—another act of pretending.” Further: “Pretending that an effective system of global justice exists when it doesn’t seems to me morally and politically irresponsible.” Toward those on the left enamored of the possibility of transcending the state system in favor of world government, Walzer is similarly withering, offering a full-bore defense of sovereignty and the international system it produces: “The goal is a world of states with relatively secure borders, a world from which no sizable group of people is excluded.”
It is perhaps at this point that many conservatives skeptical of ineffective mechanisms to promote global justice, supportive of state sovereignty, and willing to deploy American force as needed internationally, unilaterally if necessary, may begin to wonder if they are not, after all, leftists of the sort Walzer would approve. Add in as well conservative support for human rights and local forces promoting democratization and liberalization under oppressive conditions, and the sum seems positively neoconservative. And indeed, Walzer himself allows for the possibility of working with conservatives in tactical alliances in support of shared ends.
But no, what the similarity really discloses is the classically liberal character of both Walzer’s idealized left and mainstream conservatism (at least before Donald Trump’s still incomplete effort to remake it). Left and right will remain divided over the role of property rights in the Enlightenment scheme of things—with conservatives in support, and thus aligned with the latter-day forces of global capitalism, and the left determinedly opposed, albeit with no coherent alternative. But on what might constitute a values-based approach to a muscular foreign policy, there is much in common.
Or rather, there would be, if the left Walzer addresses would listen to him. Walzer acknowledges that his place on the left is with the “socialists, social democrats, and left-leaning liberals,” but he is at considerable pains in the early pages of the new book to establish his bona fides as a man of the left writ large. He seeks a broader audience: “Anyone self-described as a leftist is one. I mean to talk about all who claim the name”—which is to say, to speak for all who claim the name.
He knows he really doesn’t; that’s the point of the book. The question isn’t so much whom Walzer considers to be a leftist but how leftists construe Walzer. And outside the dwindling ranks of “socialists, social democrats, and left-leaning liberals,” the answer would seem to be: as far too conservative.
Walzer has chosen a just fight for his polemic, and he fights justly—and to me his moral reasoning is clear and largely persuasive. But I am not the one who needs persuading.