Peripheral visions: US third parties and their foreign policies

Peripheral visions: US third parties and their foreign policies
8 min read
Comment: While a spirit of isolationism runs deep in America's political DNA, the ideas of Jill Stein and Gary Johnson ignore Washington's global responsibilities, write Andrew Leber and Nick Morley.
American voters deserve to hear of foreign policies beyond the Democratic-Republican binary [Getty]

Amid an increasingly bizarre US presidential election, much media attention has focused on the foreign policy stances of the major candidates.

Hillary Clinton, for her part, has come in for criticism on the political left for a hawkish record both as a US Senator and Secretary of State - from her vote in favour of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to her role in supporting the 2009 coup in Honduras.

These important critiques pale in comparison to the concerns raised by Donald Trump.

His ill-considered statements on NATO, Vladimir Putin, and nuclear weapons as well as his willful ignorance on key issues has spurred unprecedented mobilisation against his candidacy from the US national security establishment - even from avowedly Republican and nonpartisan officials.

But what of the rest of the candidate field? With scarce electoral prospects, present-day third parties tend toward the fringe - from the state-centric (the Alaskan Independence Party) to the issue-centric (the Prohibition Party); from the far left (the Communist Party USA) to the extreme nationalist right (the American Freedom Party).

Even the strongest alternatives at present, the Green and Libertarian Parties, have barely any representation beyond the local level.

Yet these two parties' foreign policy views deserve to be examined seriously, to hold them accountable for a campaign vision that extends beyond parochial interests, and to understand the appeal of ideas that resonate with around 15 percent of US poll respondents.

Libertarians: Isolationists or 'Realists'?

Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, stands at least some chance of crossing the 15 percent mark in national polls, the arbitrary threshold for inclusion in televised presidential debates. As candidate for the Libertarian Party - socially liberal, fiscally conservative - his campaign is wholly centered around limiting the expanse (and expense) of government in the United States.

This focus informs Johnson's foreign policy, particularly his calls to rein in the country's overseas commitments while reducing military spending and bases worldwide by around 20 percent. Criticizing the "imperialistic foreign policy" of previous administrations - namely interventions under Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (to a lesser extent) Syria - he instead emphasises a renewed focus on an "invincible" defensive force at home.

Johnson - along with running mate Bill Weld - is strong on rhetoric and short on specifics as to how he intends to roll back the greatest informal empire in the world.

Much as Johnson might present himself as a "realist" or a "non-interventionist", his approach to foreign policy banks on the appeal of nominal isolationism to large swathes of American voters while keeping neoliberal economic policies in place. In fact, one of Johnson's few internationalist positions is continued support for ever-freer trade, including the much maligned TPP trade deal.

One specific talking point has been to close the 22 percent of US military bases the Pentagon deems obsolete. Still, the Department of Defense's report speaks of excess capacity, not of excess bases per se, and it is unclear which, if any, of such bases would be shuttered overseas.

At the same time, concerns over rising Chinese power have led Thailand, the Philippines, and even Vietnam to cautiously warm to the possibility of a greater US military presence within their borders.

Johnson's views on Islam suggest little understanding of the forces at work in a key theatre of US involvement

On Washington's involvement in Syria - particularly with regards to the Islamic State group - Johnson acknowledges that IS has attacked the United States and stated that an attack demands a response. Yet though specific on the actions he would rule out (boots on the ground, drones, "nation-building"), he has struggled to define a course of action beyond taking the matter to Congress.

At the same time, Johnson's views on Islam suggest little understanding of the forces at work in a key theatre of US involvement. He has compared sharia law - a broad collection of rulings derived from the precepts of Islam - to Nazi fascism, claiming that "destroying human liberty and doing us harm are what Sharia law dictates".

The Green Party: idealists or opportunists?

Jill Stein, the presidential nominee of the even-smaller Green Party, holds a similar set of isolationist stances on foreign policy, though they draw more on the ideological frameworks of Noam Chomsky than Friedrich Hayek.

Like Johnson, her proposals call for a large-scale re-orientation of US priorities toward the domestic sphere, albeit expressed in an incoherent set of proposals that would leave a gaping power vacuum on the world stage.

Her progressive environmental plans (a "Green New Deal"), anti-Wall Street measures, socialised health care proposals, anti-free trade positions - and even her campaign rhetoric - are at best opportunistic, at worst an outright crib from Senator Bernie Sanders.

With little to gain from fighting Johnson, she has instead sought out the moral high ground against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in barefaced attempts to court Sanders' former supporters.

A Harvard-educated medical doctor with no experience in federal government, Stein's 2016 presidential run is predicated on her extensive experience in environmental activism and research. Her plans to massively scale back US power abroad - both military and corporate - are predicated on fact-light, moralistic assessments of international affairs that would almost certainly cause more immediate harm than good.

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By way of example, she proposes slashing US military funding by a massive 50 percent in concert with the closure of more than 700 foreign US military bases "that are turning our republic into a bankrupt empire".

While the US military can certainly generate examples of profligate spending, would Stein's cuts extend to the blue-water navy responsible for securing some trillions of dollars in waterborne commerce around the globe? Or bases that deter nations in regional hot-spots from embarking on mutually costly aggression? What of the nation's nuclear arsenal?

Like with Johnson's military rollback plan, the rapid dismantlement of empire without a clear plan to do so risks the safety and security of US allies and other nations, regardless of how damaging the present US embrace may be. The costs of the US military-industrial complex are a mangy beast worth taming rather than a dragon to be slayed outright.

Witness Syria, where ceding a greater role to regional actors has not been a recipe for peace but a contributing factor in a raging proxy conflict.

Russia and Iran openly contribute men, materiel, and military support to the ruling Assad regime, which, along with sporadic funding to the opposition, all prolong an ever-more-radicalised, perpetual meat grinder.

Stein is also under the impression that "groups like ISIS cannot be stopped by more violence", a woefully one-dimensional view on when force is justified against extremist ideologies.

Stein's initial response to the Brexit vote also displays a difficulty in distinguishing between what is understandable and what is laudable. She credited the Leave vote as a "victory" and "one more sign that voters are in revolt against the rigged economy and the rigged political system that created it" - sidelining the rampant xenophobia that powered the Leave campaign as a "[result] of the EU's economic policies".

Before many could get a look at this statement, though, she surreptitiously replaced it with a completely different statement that reversed her position almost entirely.

On top of overzealous anti-globalism, Stein also holds simplistic, conspiratorial views of US power abroad that, if implemented, would destabilise key regions.

For example, she has proposed working towards a more "neutral" Ukraine in order to "allow Russia to not feel under attack" since "[the US] helped foment a coup against a democratically elected government" within the country - a view closer to Kremlin propaganda than the the understanding of either investigators or journalists.

American voters deserve to hear of foreign policies beyond the Democratic-Republican binary

Though Stein's calls to increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the United States are a step in the right direction for easing the international crisis, Stein's foreign policies are by and large examples of moral stands that, when detached from present realities, betray their own intentions.

And this is without even touching on her vice-presidential nominee's even more blatantly false, spitefully anti-US views.

Entangling alliances: American isolationism in context

A tendency towards isolationism runs deep in the United States' political DNA.

Calls for the country to turn its back on the problems of the world resonate with George Washington's warning against any "permanent alliance", Thomas Jefferson's forswearing of "entangling alliances", and John Quincy Adams' insistence that the United States "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy".

It is therefore unsurprising that Johnson and Stein can gain at least some traction with these views. There are few good arguments against keeping them off the debate stage come the autumn. American voters deserve to hear of foreign policies beyond the Democratic-Republican binary.

They also deserve to hear critiques of those other views.

While voters may care little about foreign policy, a vision of "right-sizing" the empire that fails to connect with the realities of the United States' global standing and obligations is irresponsible, and pragmatically speaking unlikely to garner much popular traction - to say nothing of the challenges a third-party president would face with the almost wholly two-party Congress.

American third parties, though for now in the wings, could use the spotlight of the presidential campaign to make serious gains at more local levels in coming years.

Before that happens, though, these foreign policies are little more than curiosities, important to understand yet thankfully unlikely to enter into effective diplomacy any time soon.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University, and Nicholas Morley a researcher and graduate of Brown University. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.