The Democratization of US Foreign Policy

The Democratization of US Foreign Policy

The Democratization of US Foreign Policy

It’s the only way to stop a dangeous imperialist tradition.


Editor’s Note: For much of the past two decades, and certainly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, progressive foreign policy has been defined by what it is against—primarily, an aggressive neoconservatism that has led us into multiple wars in the Middle East and has sacrificed important domestic goals in favor of a global crusade for American dominance. But it is much less clear what a progressive foreign policy stands for, and what it would look like in practice. It is especially important to try to define one now, after the election of Donald Trump.

Progressives would be wise to avoid two tendencies on this issue. The first is defining a progressive foreign policy as simply a rejection of whatever Trump says or does. Of course, he has already appointed some dangerous extremists to important foreign-policy positions, and Trump himself is erratic at best, seemingly incapable of focusing in a sustained way on difficult foreign-policy problems. But some of his statements— his calls to work with Russia, end America’s destructive wars, and create more equitable trade agreements—are not so far removed from ones that we ourselves have embraced. We will need to champion our own progressive version of these positions rather than simply reject them outright.

The second tendency we should avoid is falling into nostalgia for the Obama era. Of course, we should defend the administration’s notable achievements in beginning the normalization of relations with Cuba and helping to engineer a nuclear agreement with Iran. We can also laud the intent behind some of the president’s wonderfully crafted speeches that were meant to repair America’s image in the world. But we must also remember the shortcomings of Obama’s foreign policy: his perpetuation of the “Global War on Terror” (albeit without the Bush-era name), including an undeclared drone war stretching from the Maghreb to South Asia, and an unnecessary but dangerous new Cold War with Russia. And while this magazine endorsed Hillary Clinton against Trump in the general election, we actively opposed many of the so-called “liberal interventionist” policies that she favored.

For all the democratic promise of the movement that Senator Bernie Sanders inspired, he didn’t leave us with a series of foreign-policy proposals to guide our thinking for the future. That’s the unfinished business we take up in this forum. We asked six leading progressive thinkers to offer their thoughts on what the defining ideas and principles of a progressive foreign policy should be as we look beyond the 2016 election (see “Related Articles” for the companion pieces). It’s the beginning of a discussion that our nation must have, but not, by any means, the end.

Current US foreign policy operates on imperialist principles that are dangerous for both the United States and the world. These include the quest for unchallenged primacy (aka “American exceptionalism”); indifference to international law; hypermilitarization; extensive and dangerous arms deployments and sales; the trivialization of congressional oversight; and a policy regime governed by pervasive secrecy and lies. My core thesis is that the American people do not support this approach, though they can be scared into temporarily backing it from time to time (as happened after 9/11). Therefore, a key strategy for moving from imperialist strategy to peaceful diplomacy must include the democratization of our foreign policy, with the American people exercising their rights as citizens in this sphere.

The imperialist approach to foreign policy did not start with George W. Bush—and, unfortunately, it did not end under Barack Obama. Its most recent manifestations include the wars in the Greater Middle East, stretching from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as the rest of the Sahel.

The current failure of the covert operations and 
regime-change wars in this region follow the failure of similar US efforts in Southeast Asia (1950s–70s), Africa (1960s–80s), and Central America (1970s–80s). The loss of life has been immense, the confusion and lies surrounding US actions are pervasive, and our leaders’ lack of accountability to the public is nearly complete. Americans have little knowledge about the extent of Washington’s lying or of the US-supported violence, and there is almost no discussion of either in the mainstream media.

A nonimperialist foreign policy would be based on a respect for the UN Charter and international law (including the Geneva conventions); the primacy of the UN Security Council in matters of war and peace; the use of war only as a last resort, only as a matter of national defense, and only after the diplomatic options have been exhausted; the end of the nuclear arms race, including the “modernization” of our nuclear forces; and a scaling back of both US military alliances and our military bases overseas.

We are very far from achieving these goals, as the early appointments and rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump underscore. And we won’t achieve them until we address the root of the problem: the fact that our militaristic foreign policy is driven as much by the “deep state” of the military-industrial-intelligence complex as it is by the personalities of the politicians in office at any given moment. This is a lesson we have learned once again in the Obama era.

The democratization of US foreign policy must put the emphasis on informing the public about America’s real security options, including the superiority of diplomacy over war in almost all cases. It must stress presidential accountability to the public and to Congress for all overseas military operations and alliances; clear and honest revelations about the deployment of US forces, including Special Operations, and about all alliances for training and arming insurgents (as in Syria and Libya); and clarity on the budgets for covert operations and our intelligence agencies. It must require an authorization by Congress for all covert and overt military operations, including drone attacks and other air strikes; reliance on the UN Security Council as the locus of global diplomacy and peacemaking; and, most importantly, shutting down the CIA’s secret army. The CIA’s sole function should be as an intelligence-gathering agency, with all of its military operations returned to the Pentagon and placed under civilian oversight.

The American people would be the biggest beneficiaries of a diplomacy-based foreign policy. Our bloated military and perpetual wars cost us nearly $900 billion per year if we include not only the Pentagon but the intelligence agencies, homeland security, the nuclear-weapons programs in the Energy Department, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. At roughly 5 percent of GDP, these outlays swamp every area of domestic discretionary spending, including education, job training, science and technology, transportation, the judiciary, the environment, and more. Indeed, military spending constitutes a staggering 23 percent of all federal outlays.

The shift toward democratically centered diplomacy would also enable a new era of global cooperation on critical issues like climate change, disease control, pollution reduction, conservation of biodiversity, and management of increasingly scarce freshwater supplies. We have no chance of solving these environmental threats unless we decisively shift from never-ending conflict and arms races to global cooperation on sustainable development.

Such a momentous shift to democratic oversight may seem fanciful, but it is vital—and an informed electorate will demand it in the interests of survival. Our highest priorities now are to spread the truth about our dangerous foreign adventures, avoid new wars, and restore the sovereignty of citizens over our nation’s foreign policy.

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