On Independence Day, many Americans celebrate throwing off the yoke of oppression by a distant power. They recall the unfairness and indignity of life under colonial rule. What too many Americans haven’t done is reckon with the fact that the founders of our nation were colonizers, not colonized, and that in the 245 years since declaring its independence, the United States has only expanded the scope of its imperial domination.
While systemic white supremacy and the state’s use of violence against people of color in this country is at the forefront of the national debate, the structural racism of US foreign policy has escaped serious scrutiny. Yet the two are deeply and immutably linked. It is precisely through its brutal history of genocide and slavery that the US government learned to use violence and military force to make white people secure in their positions of privilege and domination at home and abroad.
American exceptionalism is grounded in racism and militarism. It posits that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, exempt from the international laws and norms it expects other nations to follow, and is thus entitled to kill or subdue those who disobey its orders. It has resulted in US bombings and assassinations of people of color around the world criminalized as “terrorists” or otherwise defined as dangerous “others,” exorbitant Pentagon spending, an expansive global network of military bases, and a system that gives sole authority to the US president to decide whether to annihilate the planet.
At its heart, US “national security” doctrine assumes that the lives of white Americans are more valuable than those of others, and that “we” can make ourselves more secure by making “them” less secure. The foreign policy establishment sees the primary threats to national security as military in nature and emanating from outside US borders. No matter that the greatest existential threats are climate change and nuclear catastrophe, nor that pandemic disease, rising inequality, militarized and racist policing, and gun violence—the burdens of which all fall heaviest on Black, Indigenous, and otherwise nonwhite people—pose far greater dangers to American lives than do any imagined threats from China, Russia, Iran, or global terrorism.
The consequences of this doctrine have been devastating. Current US foreign policy is destabilizing the world and robbing it of the resources needed to achieve human development, human security, human rights, and human dignity. The surest way to protect American lives is to eliminate poverty and hunger; achieve racial and gender equality; reverse climate change; create fair and humane systems for migration; develop a robust global capacity to prevent pandemic disease; build an open and inclusive multiethnic, multiracial democracy at home; and establish peaceful and cooperative relationships with other nations. None of these goals can be achieved through military force.
To keep all people safe, regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other factors, US leaders must renounce the quest for global dominance and pursue a strategy of global solidarity. They must reject the lie that there is a hierarchy of human value in which some lives are worth more than others and the myth that violence is a necessary and effective means for achieving political ends. Not in our name should they conduct military aggression, impose devastating economic sanctions, squander public resources on exorbitant Pentagon budgets, criminalize refugees and migrants, turn American cities into battlefields, or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
A more ethical, effective, and peaceful approach to the world begins with acknowledging, apologizing for, and making amends for the genocides of Native American peoples and the enslavement of Africans over many generations. It requires the termination of current US wars, including those conducted by drones, air strikes, and targeted assassinations, and the revocation of their open-ended authorizations. It involves significantly reducing the size of the Pentagon budget and paring back the global network of US military bases that serve as springboards for aggression.
The United States must join the international consensus by signing, ratifying, and complying with major treaties and agreements, especially those that prohibit nuclear weapons, eliminate discrimination against women, protect the rights of children, set legal frameworks for the use of the world’s oceans, and establish the International Criminal Court.
These changes will enable the US government to address the far more serious challenges to global human security with the diligence, resources, and sense of urgency they require.
Only when that happens will the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness be secured for all.