An Interview with Former Sanders’ Advisor Daniel Bessner on the State of the Left’s Foreign Policy

Daniel Bessner’s head shot, used with permission from Mr. Bessner
Image: Daniel Bessner Personal Website

By Noah Schwartz

If the progressive Left is mentioned in mainstream political discussion, it is often associated with a generally egalitarian and pro-worker progressive agenda. However, little attention is paid to its foreign policy. 

For most of the twenty-first century, the only Left-wing foreign policy discourse has been the never-ending series of columns chiding an imagined Left for not adequately supporting intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, and more. 

Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns reignited the progressive electoral American political project and raised questions about the foreign policy of such a project. To understand the foreign policy of the contemporary American Left, Realist Review reached out to Daniel Bessner.

Daniel Bessner is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute and an associate professor of international relations at the University of Washington. Between 2019 and 2020, he served as a foreign policy advisor for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

Additionally, Daniel is a contributing editor at Jacobin and the co-host of the “American Prestige” podcast.

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Will a new Cold War with China fracture the Quincy Coalition between non-interventionists on the Right and Left?

Sure, it’s a good question. It really gets at the heart of the matter. I think the origins of the Quincy Institute, the immediate origins were the United States’ interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This was easier for various points on the political matrix to agree on. I think you are right to identify that when it comes to China, there is more diversity of opinion within the so-called restraint school. There are people like me who think that, as I wrote an article in Harper’s last July, it is effectively impossible for the United States in the medium/long term to continue to dominate in East Asia. Then there are people like John Mearsheimer who think the United States should focus on maintaining some form of positive balance of power in East Asia. 

But, I do think that, broadly speaking, the coalition itself will be able to maintain itself because I do think that from a broad level, the United States should do far less in the world and shouldn’t have as much of a global military footprint, even if there is disagreement about what to do with the so-called rise of China. 

How does the Left maintain belief in the power of reason in international relations without falling into Wilsonian liberalism? And simply the idea that the right group of ‘good people’ in power will fix everything?

I think it is really more of a question, ultimately, of ontology. Someone like a Mearsheimer or a more general realist would say it’s almost impossible. Even though someone like Hans Morgenthau might have put off the world state, indicating that it was indeed possible. For the most part, in practical politics, they think that the sort of overcoming of the tragic realities of international relations are not possible. I just think that is obviously empirically false. Things change over time. You can be skeptical about the ability of reason in the moment to solve all problems, but it’s just clear that if you look at the broad sweep of history that things change. Human agents have an impact on the direction that things change. That is what you have to strive for.

What type of foreign policies do you think a President Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could make that would help them take on the Blob? 

It is very difficult to know. I think you would want to do a genuine look for base closures. I think that is probably how you start. I think you would want to take another look at the defense budget, which is just higher and higher. Those would be the first two issue areas that I would focus on in the first hundred days of a progressive presidency.

Do you see foreign policy having any impact on the upcoming midterms?

I think it is unlikely that foreign policy will play that much of a role in the election.

Did the war on Ukraine actually pose intellectual problems for the foreign policy of the American Left-wing foreign policy? Or is this similar to 2003 and the Iraq War lead-up? 

Americans have no real stake in the game. They like feeling romantic, like they are part of a larger struggle. These aren’t difficult arguments for the Left to overcome. My favorite argument is when people say ‘the real imperialist is Vladimir Putin.’ Sure, if you want to use the language of imperialism to describe what Putin did, that is not inaccurate. But I think the point of an anti-imperialist critique is to have a political effect. If you are in the United States, it is much more likely for you to be able to affect what the United States does, as opposed to what Russia does.

Read anything good lately?

I am reading The Expanse. It’s a fun series of books.

You can read Daniel’s work in Jacobin here. Listen to his podcast with Derek Davidson on American foreign policy, current events, and history here.

Noah Schwartz is a graduate of George Mason University with a Bachelor’s degree in Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese grand strategy and Left Realism.

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