The entrance of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. into the Democratic Primary and announcement that Cornel West will be seeking the nomination for the Green Party in 2024 have both sought to turn what is usually the automatic re-nomination of a presidential incumbent into a heated contest between rival factions like 2016 or 2020. However one felt about those primaries, however, something quite different is at work now, and for 2024 it is more important than ever that leftists and liberals work together even though our goals may differ. While in the domestic sphere the occupant of the White House is rarely the limiting factor in terms of liberal reforms (compared to the Senate and Supreme Court), in the realm of foreign policy they are crucial. Any candidate besides Joe Biden would be a disaster for both leftism and liberalism worldwide.
Bidens’ two major non-Republican challengers do not seem to believe this. West could be an effective pressure candidate within the Democratic party, and had a guaranteed slot running for the symbolic ‘People’s Party’, but has opted now to run for the Green Party nomination. This is a party to which he has fewer apparent ties, but which would grant him ballot access in November. By contrast, Kennedy’s stances—against nuclear power, against vaccines—put him well outside the norms of the Democratic party but would make him a popular Green Party candidate—one with enough conservative media exposure to take votes from both sides. However, he is instead running for a Democratic primary which he will most likely lose but which detracts from Biden’s efforts at building party unity. Both men have taken paths contrary to what one would expect if their goals were to advance an agenda or achieve electoral success, but which instead seem most likely to harm President Biden’s chances for re-election. I’m not here to speculate as to their motivations, but it’s important to call out what’s in front of our faces—because liberals and leftists absolutely need to work together to achieve an acceptable outcome in 2024.
Leftists frequently complain that all the Democratic party can offer is the lesser of two evils, and that if it instead opened itself up to leftist candidates and solutions, those candidates could become electable. I am skeptical that there is a winning electoral coalition to the left of Joe Biden, but rather than focus on electability or ‘but Trump’, it’s worth examining why leftists should vote for Joe Biden over the ostensible leftist candidates in the single area where the president has the most independent influence—foreign policy.
First, a look at Biden’s foreign policy. Biden entered the presidency with several massive human rights and other international crises facing him, and he quickly took decisive, if controversial, action on them. Most headline grabbing was the ending of the war in Afghanistan – though the pullout of American troops was criticized for being poorly organized and for the casualties sustained by US troops and Afghan civilians due to terror attacks and erroneous drone strikes, Biden accomplished what three previous presidents could not and brought the war to an end. This opened him up to considerable criticism from the right, but it’s unclear what Kennedy or West would have done differently. Similarly, Biden has done more than any president before him to tighten the rules on drone strikes and in the process dramatically reduce their incidence and the casualties associated with them. And in the sphere of economic war, Biden has gradually lifted sanctions on countries like Venezuela and Cuba and helped smooth the fraught democratic transition to Lula da Silva in Brazil, which threatened to be overturned by far right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. And as covid continued to harm both human development and economic growth worldwide, the administration engaged in an energetic program of vaccine donation that has seen nearly 700 million doses delivered, primarily to low or middle income countries. Around the world, Biden’s administration has delivered real gains in quality of life and peace, reducing America’s lethal interaction with the world while increasing direct aid.
Moreover, facing a horrific (but largely underreported) conflict in Yemen which was costing thousands of lives by starvation and malnourishment, the Biden administration sharply curtailed US support for the Saudi war effort and oversaw what has thus far been the longest lull in the fighting as well as a partial easing of the Saudi blockade. And as new conflicts arose, in Ethiopia and between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Biden responded promptly and his administration has worked to encourage ceasefires and negotiations without direct military involvement. Whatever valid criticisms exist of Biden’s approach, his administration seems to have been guided by a desire to reduce US military involvement while mitigating humanitarian crises when possible. While West and Kennedy may stake out more zealous foreign policy positions, neither has the foreign policy experience or political capital of the president, and there’s no strong reason to believe that Kennedy or West presidency would have been as successful in navigating these difficult issues. Even where Biden has fallen short, for example in failing to respond strongly to human rights violations by Israel, it’s unclear improvement is easy. Kennedy, otherwise unafraid to question Democratic party convention, has come out strongly in favor of Israel, while even a West presidency dedicated to improving conditions for Palestinians would run up against a congress dedicated to bipartisan support for Israel. Moreover, a poor showing by Biden in the upcoming primary or general elections would indicate that there is essentially no political advantage to his less bellicose stances on drones and sanctions and would thus sharply dissuade future presidents from staking out a similar course.
The largest issue to confront Biden, however, has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here, he has similarly walked a tightrope – giving Ukraine the aid needed to protect its sovereignty and reduce the civilian casualties it suffers while avoiding a direct confrontation with Russia. By contrast, Kennedy, West, and Donald Trump all have essentiall+y the same approach to Ukraine, even if they dress it up in different rhetoric.. West has spoken eloquently about the crimes Russia is committing in Ukraine, succinctly and clearly identifying the issue – “Russia has its own deep authoritarian and neofascist elites who are in control and concerned about the Russian empire being gloriously based on its past, Ukraine being a part of it, and Ukraine not existing,” Nonetheless, he proposes disbanding NATO and halting all foreign military aid. The inevitable result of this policy, which a hypothetical president West would have substantial power to accomplish, would be for the Ukrainian army to be destroyed on the battlefield for lack of ammunition, allowing those deep authoritarian and neofascist elites in Russia to take over the lives of millions of Ukrainians and continue their to bolster their reactionary experiment. Worse than West, Kennedy has made immense and contradictory claims about the magnitude of American commitments to Ukraine, but has been clear on what he believes their impact has been—a waste of taxpayer dollars and a sacrifice of Ukrainian lives for little gain. So again, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he too would hollow out the Ukrainian army by depriving it of ammunition and supplies from American stocks. In effect both candidates seem to mirror Donald Trump’s commitment to ‘end the war in a day’ – a plan that is characteristically devoid of detail but almost certainly means, again, the halting of aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Both Kennedy and West claim to believe these would be life saving measures—that the continued fighting capacity of the Ukrainian army is extending the lethality of the war. This runs into two massive reality checks, however. The first is obvious to anyone who has paid attention to modern wars. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere, the worst casualties occur after regular armies have collapsed and combat turns to asymmetric and counterinsurgency warfare. The second is the simple fact that an absolute majority of documented civilian casualties in Ukraine occurred in February and March of 2022, before Western heavy weapons started arriving. Even without that aid, the Ukrainian army fought and suffered immense casualties, but they were unable to protect major civilian populations. Western weaponry has largely shifted that balance. While military casualties are a closely guarded secret, we know that civilian casualties have dropped off substantially as the Russian army has lost its ability to steamroll through Ukrainian defenses and occupy swaths of Ukrainian territory with impunity. .
And what are the long term implications? Some on the left seem to see the destruction of Ukraine as a necessary price to pay for the black eye it would give the ‘American Empire’ or the opening they imagine it would give for the creation of a multi-polar world. This is wishful thinking at best.
The world Russia is building is one that leftists, perhaps even more than liberals, should view with horror. It is a world in which domestic violence has already been legalized in defense of the ‘traditional family’ and gender transition is on its way to being completely outlawed. If either West or Kennedy had their way, this world would extend at the very least to the Baltics (utterly vulnerable without NATO) and likely further, extinguishing some of the most promising movements for extending gender equality and sexual liberty in the world right now. The rest of Europe, long a bastion of social democracy, would find itself in the shadow of a fearsome oligarchy. The star of right wing authoritarianism worldwide would shine much brighter—to the detriment of the vulnerable around the world and especially to leftists themselves. No marginal changes around other policy matters, particularly on the scale the president is capable of shifting without the help of Congress, could make up for the immense loss this would be to both the left and liberal understandings of global progress.
By contrast, Biden’s approach to Ukraine has been steady but sure. American aid to Ukraine has effectively allowed them to stabilize the front line and ensure their continued sovereignty without beginning a shooting war with Russia. Liberals may cheer the potential expansion of the EU or the decline of a major conservative military power, but leftists also have much to gain from success in Ukraine. Carbon dioxide emissions in the EU have dropped as Europe decouples from Russian fossil fuels. The overall principle of national sovereignty from invasion has been roundly re-affirmed in the United Nations, deepening the precedent against future US adventurism. And a reduced threat from Russia—via, if nothing else, the depletion of the country’s massive conventional weapons stockpiles inherited from the USSR—can free up demilitarization options for dozens of countries worldwide.
To demonstrate the superiority of Joe Biden over his competitors to the left, even from a leftist perspective, it is not even necessary to raise the specter of another Trump presidency, as inevitable as that is in the absence of a Biden victory. Whatever its faults – and they surely exist – the Biden foreign policy is a truly liberal one in the best sense. Biden’s state department has been energetic in seeking to mitigate flare ups in violence across the world and secure democratic gains where it can do so without heavy handed intervention, as in Brazil. Though more movement is needed to curb the excesses of the American sanctions regime, the progress made in limiting both economic and drone warfare have moved the US closer to a truly liberal foreign policy than any administration in living memory. And on the biggest geopolitical issue confronting the US today, only Joe Biden has an approach that actually seeks to expand freedom globally. The simple fact is that neither of the president’s major challengers from the left have a realistic approach to foreign policy and their proposals, even if enactable, would be disastrous in the face of rising socially conservative authoritarianism globally. In the end, liberals and leftists should, if for separate reasons, agree that for all his faults Joe Biden is currently the best option for President of the United States in 2024.
Featured Image is Exhibition of destroyed Russian military equipment for Independence Day of Ukraine 2022-08-21 on Khreschatyk, by EleNte