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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

How could progressives push for better US foreign policy?

 Welcome to SWOT Sunday!


Many progressives are horrified by President Biden’s current embrace of Israel, given their genocidal war against Palestinians and apparent refusal to consider any other course of action.  That certainly includes me.   


Some are saying they won’t vote for Biden this fall because of it.  That group doesn’t include me.  I don’t see electing Trump as offering any support for our progressive agenda, and I do see the consequences of electing him again as extremely dire.  In a future post, I’ll address the impending collapse of our two-party system, and what would need to happen for more palatable third parties or factions to actually accrue power.


Today, I want to undertake a discussion of what it might take to actually improve US foreign policy overall. Israel is far from the only problematic ally we have, and Israel’s war on Gaza is not the only conflict we’re on the wrong side of right now, not to mention all our sins in the past.  The question is, what can we do about it?  This is a long-term problem with no short-term solution.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t think about how we might be able to make a difference.


Here are a few reasons I see for the current situation, followed by recommendation(s) for addressing them.  I’m not an expert on foreign policy, but I have been around long enough to remember a number of wars we’ve been involved in, and how the public response may have affected the government’s actions.


Most Americans don’t have skin in the game


What got young people’s attention with the Vietnam War in the 60’s and 70’s was the draft.  Most young men had to sign up, and they were sent to war or not, based on the number they received in a lottery.  


Yes, many people cared about the immorality and brutality of our war on Vietnam and surrounding countries.  Many people didn’t see the “Communist threat” as an existential matter the way our leadership class did.  But what separated Vietnam from the wars that came after, in terms of political engagement, was the end of the draft. 


Richard Nixon campaigned on abolishing the draft in 1968, because he believed it would undermine student agitation against the war.  Although by the time it took effect in 1973, the war was all but over, such widespread and passionate anti-war sentiment hasn’t been seen again in this country.


It’s also true that the only war really fought on American soil since Revolutionary times was the Civil War.  Most people get their understanding of what war really means for humans living through it from movies or TV shows.  Less than 1% of our people are serving in the all-volunteer military at any given time.


The volunteer army has led to less social cohesion, less belief in the common good, and more polarization between the rural and Southern areas, where the military and impact on military families is strongest, and the rest of us.


The Week (always an insightful publication) had a wonderful piece on this back in 2017.  


They point out that it was star conservative economist Milton Friedman “who popularized the view in the 1970s that military conscription is a form of slavery in which free individuals are coerced into sacrificing their freedom, and sometimes their very lives, for collective enterprises they often personally reject. The premise of this view — that individual freedom is and ought always to be the highest value in political life, overriding all public goods — was endorsed by Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign and seemingly vindicated by his two-time triumph at the ballot box.”  This has led to a very different country than the one that was united around the fight against the Nazis in World War II.


It's hard to imagine that a draft will ever be reinstated.  But there are other ways we could raise the profile of our foreign policy in a meaningful way.


What to do?  Help Americans see they do have skin in the game


Most Americans today think of foreign policy as too distant from their lives to care much about.  Certainly most political campaigns don’t ride on it.  In the past, progressives were too focused on it, giving others the impression that they cared more about foreigners than about what Americans were going through here at home. 


So how could we do a better job of persuading people that foreign policy does matter?  That it has a lot to do with who we really are as a people, what we value, what we want for America itself?  How could we get more politicians to take a stand against our excess military spending and involvement with bad actors, and support doing more with diplomacy and giving support to other countries in a positive way?


Here’s a start:  Russia’s war against Ukraine has united us


Clear majorities of Americans support Ukraine and the aid that our country has given them.  Many of us feel this is what American foreign policy should be: steadfast support of a people fighting for democracy and self-determination.  People also see that Russia won’t stop at Ukraine, if they’re allowed to win.  Sometimes there are good reasons to fight a war: this is a new idea for younger people, for sure.


Now, who knows what would happen if it comes to American boots on the ground.  It would be a struggle.  But I hope there would be support for it if need be.


The question of Israel and Palestine


This is not the time or place to go into detail on this conflict.  This story in the American Prospect, which has fine coverage on this issue generally, provides important historical context.  What matters to this discussion is how popular support for Palestine could translate into more political support from our leaders, and how it could lead to progressives ultimately having more say in what we do overseas.


It's important to understand that GOP support for Israel stems from the importance of Israel to evangelical Christians.  It’s hard to explain, but NPR gives it a try.  Democratic support stems more from the desire to show that they want to protect the Jewish people from attack. For older people in particular, it matters. Also, there are long-standing relationships among Jews and Blacks, the labor movement, and others, where American Jews have stood with them in their battles for justice.   Jews are only 2% of Americans, but all these relationships make their foreign policy issues more salient than they would otherwise be.


As Israel has become more violent toward Palestinians, and less willing to entertain a new Palestinian state or a single state where everyone is equal, over the past few decades, support for them has frayed.  This includes among Jews who believe in that social justice framework.  Yet their institutional support remains strong.  That has to be challenged.


The Israel lobby group AIPAC is spending a fortune to remove the Squad, the most prominent national supporters of Palestine, from office.  Conservative Democrats share this goal, of course. 


If you want to keep the pressure up, there’s nothing more important than supporting the Squad and other progressive candidates who support Palestine right now, and keeping them where they are.  We need to show AIPAC they’re not the boss of us.  It’s also so important to keep in contact with your own representatives in Congress, and to publicly support people in your community who have been threatened or silenced over their support for Palestine.


If there’s ever going to be peace over there, Palestinians must have more power and support for their right to have a homeland, too.  “Peace plans” to date have kept them away from the table and we need to fight for them to be there.


To me, it’s simple:  Why is it wrong for Russia to bomb civilians in Ukraine who want self-determination, but it’s not wrong for Israel to do the same?


It’s all about the Benjamins


There are three issues here. 


One is about the vast power of the military-industrial complex, which makes its profits off selling weapons and related high-tech gear and other stuff in America and all over the world.  Their genius move, years ago, was to place facilities in every Congressional district in the country.  This makes it hard for Congress to take a stand against military spending (I refuse to call it “defense”), lest they be accused of taking away jobs at home. 


As an article in Jacobin noted in 2022, “Every year, military contractors spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political contributions, lobbying expenses, and donations to prominent think tanks…


“These investments have been devastatingly effective: despite resurgent austerity in the public sector and a clear need for a diplomacy-centric approach to foreign policy, Pentagon spending in fiscal year 2023 could end up being higher than at any point since World War II.”  


Clearly, more limits and transparency on lobbying and campaign spending, as well as how our tax money is being spent, would shine a light on this whole picture.


The second issue is about Congress’ role in military conflict.  Congress is supposed to hold the power to declare war.  But since Truman sent troops into Korea in the 1950’s, that power has been eroded time and time again.  A 2020 report by the Brennan Center asks, “Why does any of this matter? Recall that a main purpose of giving Congress the power to declare war was to keep us out of wars.”  Yet the executive branch seems to be able to get us into wars at will.  There have been some moves in recent years to take the power back, for example, when Congress voted to end U.S. military activities in Yemen. 


Of course, people in Congress do take money from the military contractors.  But electing people who will fight this battle has to be part of the solution.


We need butter, not more guns

The third, and most important, issue is about how military spending takes money away from the needs of our people.  We spend more on the military, by far, than any other country in the world.  Do we need a certain amount of support to allies and defense capability?  Yes.  Do we need everything we spend money on? No.


This is where people really have skin in the game.  This is where we can build momentum for a better foreign policy. 


Since we built most of our public housing and schools decades ago, the budget for maintenance has shrunk and the buildings are crumbling.  If we cut military spending in a smart way, could we free up money to fix up those buildings and build new ones?  You bet. 


But only the people can make defunding the military and funding human needs into a political issue.


Last points:  Expanding awareness, foreign aid and diplomacy

Sometimes you have to fight.  Other times, you can talk things out and figure out some kind of win-win without fighting.  This is where diplomacy can come in.  And foreign aid can help reduce the tensions that can lead to civil wars and regional conflicts.


Our country, as a global capitalist power, has helped suppress people’s movements in favor of global business interests in many places around the world, throughout our history.  We have extracted resources from other countries and left nothing behind but the toxic waste.  We need to address at some level the role of capitalism in our global relations, and how it can be tempered or changed.


However, I do believe there are aspects of this moment that offer some hope. 


One aspect is that there are more foreign-born people in the US, from all over the world, than ever.  According to the Census, it is about 14% of the population. Many of these people have escaped from war and conflict.  Progressives could engage them on telling their stories of what our military spending and relations with dictators actually does out in the world. 

Those who are citizens could also vote and organize more in their communities with foreign policy issues in mind, even run for office.  Americans who have traveled abroad – which is actually a majority of us – could play a role in highlighting roles we have played, and roles we could be playing, beyond our borders.


Another is that the climate crisis has made it clear that we are all in this together.  The Canadian wildfire smoke that permeated the US and even made it to Europe last summer made it clear that borders are artificial.  We all know that we have to work together to address the climate crisis, yet each country and region has different challenges.  I have to believe there are quite a few people in America who would be motivated to try and work with other countries on solutions.


The Brookings Institute offers an excellent primer on what every American should know about foreign aid.  We give a lot; however, we give less as a percent of what we have than other countries do.  Our aid is often more effective than you might think. 


Biden has put real effort into improving our diplomatic efforts, leaving Gaza aside. My favorite recent example of this is Guatemala.  You may recall he sent Kamala Harris to Central America to discuss and develop the administration’s  Strategy For Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America.  Recently, the leftist Bernardo Arévalo was elected President of Guatemala.  It seemed like the ruling class would prevent him from taking power. 


Biden made it clear that he stood with Arevalo, inviting the new president to the White House.  Biden’s readout on the March meeting said in part:  “President Biden met with President Arévalo to congratulate him on his inauguration in January and reiterate our commitment to a strong partnership between the United States and Guatemala.  The two leaders, whose meeting followed President Arévalo’s meeting with Vice President Harris, discussed good governance, effective migration management, the importance of upholding democracy, and other issues of mutual interest. President Biden thanked President Arévalo for his leadership in hosting the next Los Angeles Declaration for Protection and Migration Summit planned for later this spring.”


So at least this is a start.  There is so much we could do to make the US a better player on the world stage, including, but also going beyond, helping to bring peace to the Middle East.




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