A Better Foreign Policy Abroad Requires a Strong Labor Movement at Home

Despite a number of dramatic changes in the international distribution of power over the past three decades, the United States has not fundamentally abandoned its grand strategy of primacy (also called “liberal hegemony” or “deep engagement”). During the so-called unipolar moment, the United States faced no peer competitors, and yet remained in a state of near-constant war, attempting to impose its preferences on large parts of the world. As new powers rise, the United States seeks to maintain primacy despite finding itself in a state of severe strategic overstretch, facing growing challenges with diminishing relative resources, and possessing many protectorates but few independently capable allies.

Some foreign policy experts have questioned why “the Blob” has not pursued a corresponding strategic readjustment. The rough answer, as Stephen Walt has pithily summarized, is that “liberal hegemony is a full employment program for the foreign policy establishment.” The foreign policy establishment enjoys particular autonomy within the government and, while shielded from public oversight or accountability, remains mainly answerable to the corporate beneficiaries of US primacy abroad.

The intransigence of the foreign policy elite is due to a general deficit of democratic control over American government. A revitalized labor movement is necessary in order to both replenish democracy at home and to act as a powerful institution to channel otherwise diffuse public interests and influence policymakers.

Walter Lippmann, one of the last century’s most prominent journalists and political commentators, spent much of his career critiquing what he saw as the excesses of modern democracy. Lippmann argued that amid the complexity and dislocation of mass industrial society, the public was incapable of rendering responsible judgements on political affairs. An enlightened technocracy was necessary to manage public opinion and govern on their behalf.

Lippmann’s political philosophy was a response to what he perceived as the failure of twentieth-century democratic governments to adequately respond to the international crises which precipitated the two world wars. Claiming that the public oscillated impulsively between naive isolationism and intemperate jingoism, Lippmann argued for a stronger executive and constraints on popular sovereignty in order, in his view, to preserve liberal government at home and prudent statecraft abroad.

At least since the Cold War, foreign policy has indeed been run by an increasingly autonomous elite, deeply insulated within an executive branch that commands ever-expanding powers. Ironically, Lippmann would likely characterize America’s currently overcommitted elite-run foreign policy as “insolvent.” As a pioneer of the neoliberal movement, were Lippmann alive today, he might also be discomfited by the domestic consequences of unconstrained elite rule. The neoliberal turn in American politics weakened organized labor, empowered corporations, and hollowed out New Deal social investment, resulting in mind-boggling economic inequality alongside the highest incarceration rates in the world, mass epidemics of despair and anomie, and mass surveillance by both the national security state and tech corporations.

Belying elites’ stated enthusiasm for meritocracy and innovation is a track record whose hallmarks have been unaccountability and inertia. Those responsible for catastrophic failures like the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, or the loss of the presidency to an historically unpopular buffoon were confronted with neither punishment nor lost esteem. Instead, something resembling a mutual protection racket allows leaders who violate the public trust to continue circulating through the revolving door between government, the private sector, and media commentary and academia. Meanwhile, amid widespread corruption and culture-war pandering, the government seems increasingly incapable of either day-to-day functioning or much-needed reform.

While Lippmann believed that the failures of American foreign policy were caused by an excess of democracy, it seems self-evident today that the calamities of American foreign policy are due to a deficit of democracy.

In an influential article, the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argued that the correlation between democratic government and capitalist market economies was due to the growth of the professional middle class; however, comparative historical evidence shows that the urban working class has been the most consistent champion for democracy, while the professional middle class has often preferred restrictions on democracy or even shifts into authoritarianism when they feel their interests are endangered by challenges from below.

One recent study concludes that, in many cases, “middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth,” and that self-described centrists “seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.” As Karl Polanyi long ago argued, the correlation between capitalism and democracy is not due to their inherent compatibility but rather to their inherent tension; the inequality produced by capitalism generates its own resistance in the form of popular movements that seek to expand democratic control over a market economy which fails to self-regulate.

Alexander Keyssar’s important history of the right to vote makes clear that struggles for universal suffrage in the United States have from the beginning been a class struggle alternating between expansion and contraction of the franchise, with the most decisive factor being the need to mobilize the “lower orders” in wartime. From the beginning of the nineteenth century through the AFL-CIO’s critical support for the Civil and Voting Rights acts, organized workers’ movements have played a central role in fighting for democratic expansion. As the AFL-CIO executive council declared in 2020: “Democracies are not, in the last analysis, protected by judges or lawyers, reporters or publishers. The survival of democracy depends on the determination of working people to defend it.”

It is generally overlooked that, even in their diminished current state, labor unions still represent more women, African Americans, and Latino citizens than any other membership organization. As Jake Rosenfeld demonstrates, labor unions are even more effective than churches in their ability to increase voter turnout among working-class people. These effects are particularly strong among private-sector union members, and even more so among those with less than a college degree — a demographic with a particularly low propensity to turn out to the polls.

In the electoral realm, unions’ biggest impact comes not from campaign donations, where they are vastly outspent by business PACs that face much looser campaign finance rules, but by providing masses of campaign volunteers and engaging in broad voter registration drives. Alexis de Tocqueville adamantly believed that civil associations were the fundamental ballast for democracy; for tens of millions of Americans over generations, labor unions have been the primary locus of civic life and democratic assembly, acting as “schools of democracy” and bridging the main site of workers’ everyday activity with local and national self-government.

According to Pew Research Center, most Americans believe that the United States should be actively engaged in world affairs and international trade, but prioritize “good diplomacy” over “military strength,” and rank domestic issues at the top of their concerns. Unfortunately, according to an important 2005 study by Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, public opinion has virtually no effect on foreign policy, which instead strongly tracks the preferences of internationally oriented corporations, which favor open access to trade and investment abroad. Page and Jacobs noted that experts seemed to have some effect on foreign policy, but that experts are also likely influenced by business groups.

Interestingly, Page and Jacobs found that unions’ preferences tended to be similar to those of the public in general, but unions seemed to have a greater effect on policymakers than public opinion. While anti-union critics portray organized labor as a “special interest group,” gaining benefits through concentrated influence at the expense of a diffuse general public, economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff, in an influential study, found that unions tend to have exactly the opposite function, most successfully lobbying for legislation advancing broad social and economic benefits rather than legislation benefiting unions alone. This suggests that a strong union movement could be a powerful tool to impress the public’s policy preferences — including foreign policy — on lawmakers and policymakers.

The history of organized labor’s foreign policy has not always been rosy. During the Cold War, the AFL-CIO was consistently split: the AFL under the leadership of George Meany pursued a hard line on the Soviet Union and nonalignment in the developing world (even denouncing George Kennan for being “soft” on communism), while the CIO under UAW president Walter Reuther demonstrated a greater willingness to pursue limited engagement with the Soviet Union, along with arms control and foreign aid. Under the consolidated leadership of Meany and his successor, Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO opposed communist-affiliated trade unions worldwide, sometimes even collaborating with the CIA and aiding subversion efforts in advance of US.-backed coups.

In recent years, however, organized labor has tended to be increasingly skeptical of the use of American force. The AFL-CIO passed convention resolutions in 2005 and 2009 demanding an end to the Iraq War. In 2011, the AFL-CIO executive board issued a statement that “the militarization of our foreign policy has been a costly mistake,” and called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan. Despite historically having been favorable toward military spending to support defense-related jobs, in 2013 the AFL-CIO passed a convention resolution entitled “Our Nation Needs New Priorities: Cut Pentagon Spending to Invest in Our People and Communities,” and again in 2017 passed a resolution titled “War Is Not the Answer,” which called for greater spending on education, infrastructure, and jobs at home instead of costly military interventions abroad.

Organized labor’s firmest foreign policy position has been its opposition to free trade deals like NAFTA, permanent normal trade relations with China, the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is unsurprising, as a number of studies have found that free trade and offshoring have significantly contributed to job losses and wage stagnation for millions of American workers.

The erosion of America’s manufacturing base in the face of foreign competition is starkly correlated with the decline in union membership over time, as shown below. Union preferences may actually align with policymakers’ recent efforts to “onshore” or “reshore” strategic industries and avoid critical supply shocks.

(Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis; US Census Bureau; unionstats.com)

A strong labor movement is neither a panacea for America’s problems nor a guarantee for good policymaking, but it is a necessary condition for a government that is responsive to the majority of its constituents. Unions increase civic participation, amplify the policy preferences of the general public, and act as a counterbalance to narrow corporate interests in government. Organized labor supports a foreign policy that puts working Americans over multinational corporations and that exercises military power more cautiously. And by consistently advocating for greater attention to domestic imperatives like education, health care, housing, and wages, unions help to strengthen the foundations of America’s power.

After decades of strategic overextension, disastrous interventions, and bloated defense budgets that have arguably contributed to America’s relative decline rather than forestalling it, more attention to problems at home is the prudent policy that the public demands and that existing policymaking experts refuse to supply. Ironically, a foreign policy program backed by labor might finally, to paraphrase Walter Lippmann, bring America’s commitments into balance with its capabilities.

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