Vision for a New Foreign Policy

Vision for a New Foreign Policy

As a new president takes charge, it is time to talk together, to walk together and to work together. It is the only time we have.


Peace activist Cora Weiss delivered this speech at the 28th annual Conference for Peace sponsored by the New Jersey Coalition for Peace Action at Princeton University November 16, 2008. It appears here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, focused on the spoken word.

Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there has never been a time like this.

On Day One, President Barack Obama must repeal the gag rule that prohibits US funds from supporting women and health clinics that discuss or administer abortions worldwide. Bush issued that gag order on his Day One. Obama must now expunge it.

Obama needs to shut down Guantánamo, return that piece of Cuba to the Cubans and declare that his foreign policy will be based on the force of law, not the law of force.

When Obama issues his plan for the return of all soldiers and contractors from Iraq, and a program for the reconstruction of the country, he should not send them instead to Afghanistan. He should announce a diplomatic surge.

This new era began when Barack Obama opened his campaign, quoting Dr. King, and spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” When he became president-elect, Obama told us that “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals, democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

Obama has promised to “return to an American foreign policy consistent with America’s traditional values and wants to partner with moderates within the Islamic world to counter Al Qaeda propaganda.”

Everyone here agrees that the agenda is long and difficult. Nuclear weapons, Iraq, Iran, Israel; Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, trafficking of girls and women, child soldiers, torture–and the list goes on.

As a strong believer in participatory democracy, I decided to ask people who are impacted by our foreign policy what kind of foreign policy they think we should have.

Lucy, in Nairobi, Kenya, writes: “We would like America to stop giving military support to countries in this region simply because we border Somalia. These arms find their way onto our streets and help fuel festering conflicts.”

Secondly, she said, “Now that Bush is exiting…please can the US do more in ending the war in the DRC, Congo.”

Loreta in the Philippines writes: “It was Obama’s anti-war stance that made me think he would be better than Hillary. My hope is that his foreign policy will truly use the power of nonviolence to resolve problems. Use diplomacy, and carrots and sticks (incentives and sanctions), but do not give legitimacy to war as a means of conflict resolution.

“The world favored him because of the hope he would be multi-lateralist, listen to other voices and start a new world ethic among industrialized countries. They hope for him to lead in fair trade and resist corporate interests that ruin the environment.

“The presence of the US military in Mindinao,” she concluded, “is adding to the negative views about the United States. We need humanitarian and development aid and not a US military presence.”

Then there was the woman from Queens, New York, who said, “We need to re-establish our reputation around the world. People can relate to Obama. He is someone who grew up poor and is half Kenyan. He’s an excellent communicator and will help diminish terrorism. Maybe they won’t hate us anymore.”

Since FDR, there has never been a time like this.

Never so much hope, never such high expectations. We must be careful not to give up our hope but to reduce our expectations so we won’t be disappointed. The miracle has happened–the miracle of the most participatory inclusive campaign; the miracle of the election. Now we must keep our agenda alive, reasonable and doable.

“Nothing happens unless first a dream,” said Carl Sandburg. And, “When we dream alone it is just a dream, but when we dream together, it becomes reality,” wisely promised Dom Helder Camera, the late archbishop of Récife, Brazil.

So, I dream. Not nightmare dreams. Not daydreams. I dream “Why not?” dreams, and I welcome you to dream with me so they will become reality.

Why not call for the abolition of war as an institution? Why can’t President Obama, by his actions, invest in diplomacy and return the State Department to its original size and significance? Why can’t President Obama, by his words, build a case not only for taking unilateral steps to remove nuclear bombs from hair-trigger alert, and start abolishing our stockpile, and work for a treaty on nuclear weapons abolition, but build a case for the abolition of war? Why not?

Remember–return to the force of law, not the law of force.

The world once abolished slavery, colonialism, apartheid. And even the prohibition against women voting is gone. We can all vote, so, why not abolish war?

War is expensive, destructive, deadly, and as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no winners. The lethality of weapons, the homicidal presence of nuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, makes war an impossibility if we want to preserve planet Earth with people on it.

Who do you think once said, “We are in the era of thermonuclear bombs that can obliterate cities and can be delivered across continents. With such weapons war has become not just tragic, but preposterous”? Dwight David Eisenhower–former general, former president of the United States.

Abe Lincoln, our next president’s hero, questioned “an American invasion of a country that was in no way molesting or menacing us.”

So, do I think Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, should take an oath never to go to war? You bet. And to keep Bill out of it? Absolutely. And should she agree to nominate progressive women of all colors and religions with peace and justice values to be ambassadors? For sure.

And should she read, memorize, and learn how to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, unanimously adopted, which calls for placing women at all levels of decision-making, especially at the tables where the fate of humanity is at stake: peace-making tables? On Day One.

But let us be clear. It takes more than ovaries to put a woman at any table. We have just survived the most egregious example of fundamentalism in a skirt. The Republican candidate for vice president is the best reason why we can no longer call simply for more women. We need women who will work for the total elimination of nuclear bombs; women who will talk peace, walk peace and make peace; women who will work for the full implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and justice for all; women who will reject all forms of torture; women who will promote education for all women and girls everywhere; women who will plant windmills, provide solar panels and cut polluting emissions; women who will throw our energy, enthusiasm, support and solidarity into a robust democratic United Nations; women who will cut the military budget; women who will help figure out how to restore economic stability to our nation and to the world. We could use men like that as well, caring men. We need gender equality–but not equal to the male policy-makers who have brought our nation, our image, our economy down in so many ways.

What do you suppose Bishop Desmond Tutu dreams about? He calls on the new president to close “that abomination, Guantánamo; to replace the guidelines on the treatment of detainees; launch a comprehensive inquiry into who authorized torture and when; and apologize to the nation and to the world, especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.”

The retired archbishop includes the following on his list, with which I wholeheartedly concur: He says, “The standing of the US has been damaged by its hostility to the Kyoto Protocol on green house gases; its refusal to assent to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, establishing the ICC’s role in prosecuting war crimes; its restrictions on the use of US funding to fight AIDS; and the arrogant unilateralism it has employed in declaring to be enemies any countries it deemed ‘against us’ because they were not ‘for us.'” Why can’t Tutu’s dream list become reality? Why not?

The year 2009 has been declared the Year of Reconciliation by the United Nations. What an opportunity! What better resolution to stand on! Why can’t Obama, no matter where he is speaking, start talking about what people are doing to heal the wounds of hatred, the wounds of anger? What are people doing to prevent violence, to teach peace? Obama’s hero, Abe Lincoln, spoke of reconciliation as making strangers into neighbors.

How about giving all of our Peace Corps volunteers, and all of our Teach for America volunteers special courses in how to play an active and informed role in democracy? I believe that a humane, democratic, decent, peace-filled foreign policy begins at home. So a healthy foreign policy with well-prepared emissaries, negotiators and representatives depends on a good education for all our people.

We need to integrate peace education into all our education classes, from pre-K through university. We need to teach about human rights, gender equality, nonviolence, disarmament, sustainable development, social and economic rights, international law, human security and traditional peace practices.

The methodology of peace education is based on participation, on listening, on critical inquiry. That should also be the methodology of good governance. Obama can set the example. He is a good listener; he asks good questions. And look at how many hundreds of thousands of people he had participating in his campaign!

Everyone knows that the next president is an international person. So foreign policy should be second nature to him. He is not only half Kenyan and was educated in Indonesia but a town in Ireland has a welcome song ready for him:

O’Leary, O’Reilly,
O’Hallahan, O’Hara,
There is no one as Irish
As Barack O’Bama

Obama has said that the economy is the greatest challenge of our lifetime. But civil society has not yet gotten together to put together the frightening economic crisis with military spending. If half the world’s $1.3 trillion military expenditure were put into infrastructure, millions of jobs would be created–$1.3 trillion will not prevent another 9/11. Only by proving to the world that we do not hate people, that we will not bomb people, that we will not put our military bases on their soil and our soldiers will not rape their women and girls; that we won’t take their resources; that we will behave multilaterally; that we will encourage student exchanges; that we will sow trust; and we will condemn any act of racial, gender or ethnic discrimination will we prevent more 9/11’s.

FDR established the life-saving WPA. He said, “I have seen the face of war, I hate war”; he sent his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, to develop and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She later refused President Truman’s demand that she reject the idea of economic and social rights because they were the product of the then-Soviet Union.

So, it is time to remember Roosevelt, time to recall Lincoln, time to ask: “Why not?”

It is time to dream together, to talk together, to walk together and to work together. Time for reconciliation. This is our time. It’s the only time we’ve got.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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