During the 2016 presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders made a convincing case for a sweeping domestic agenda. Medicare For All, tuition-free colleges and universities, a tax on Wall Street speculation, transforming our energy system, equal pay for women, the demilitarization of the police, jobs and education instead of jails and incarceration: by dint of a consistent, concise and impassioned message backed by decades of uninterrupted advocacy, Sanders succeeded in changing the terms of the debate in a way that transcended the simple win-lose dichotomy of the election cycle.
On foreign affairs, however, Sanders’ message was less transformative. Although he began to stake out a vision of his own in the final debates of the primary cycle—including a rousing defense of non-interventionism in the Univision debate, held in Miami on March 9th, 2016—these performances came too late to shift the needle of public discourse in as lasting a way. And while Sanders was persistent in highlighting Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq War and mildly critical of her consistent favoring of regime change, in several other areas where she was also vulnerable—her support for the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras that overthrew democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, conflicts of interest resulting from foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and Global Initiative—he was silent.
Doubtless, part of this has to do with the mainstream media’s avoidance of serious debate on any issue, foreign policy in particular: this in itself is the outgrowth of an insular political culture that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of American exceptionalism. An initial reluctance on Sanders’ part to engage the former Secretary of State on what was widely considered to be “her turf” almost certainly played a role as well, as did his explicit desire to avoid going negative (which, however noble, was aptly described by The Young Turks’ Jordan Chariton as the taking of a spoon to a knife fight). Looming in the shadows, too, is the ghost of the old Cold-War idea that, in the words of former Senator Arthur Vanderbilt, “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Whatever the reasons, and despite his remarkable second-half rally, Sanders’ tardy arrival to the foreign-policy stage during the campaign could hardly be classified as anything other than a missed opportunity.
But why is this important? Why waste our time tinkering with the intricacies of foreign policy when people are losing their jobs and their homes, when our infrastructure is crumbling, when African-Americans are being gunned down in the streets and our drinking water is being poisoned by fracking, pipelines and unpunished governmental negligence? For a very practical reason: that there is no route to taking back our democracy that does not pass through the consequences of American imperialism.
As the late Chalmers Johnson explained, a nation can be a democracy or an empire, but not both – at least, not for very long. Empires require large standing armies, massive arms expenditures that lead to a military-industrial complex (I would add, military-industrial-academic-media complex), and, to feed the beast, an unending series of wars. In Johnson’s own words:
[George] Washington said that the great enemy of the republic is standing armies; it is a particular enemy of republican liberty. What he meant by it is that it breaks down the separation of powers into an executive, legislative and judicial branches that are intended to check each other. This is our most fundamental bulwark against dictatorship and tyranny. It causes it to break down, because standing armies, militarism, military establishment, military-industrial complex all draw power away from the rest of the country to Washington, including taxes, that within Washington they draw it to the presidency, and they begin to create an imperial presidency, who then implements the military’s desire for secrecy, making oversight of the government almost impossible for a member of Congress, even, much less for a citizen.
And as progressives work to fill in the void left by the (temporary) collapse of corporate Clintonism, the opportunity to take on our weaponized, butt-of-a-gun foreign policy is one that is not to be missed again. Following are five key areas where progressives need to push to influence whatever new political alignment crystallizes out of the aftermath of the 2016 election.
1. Self-determination – for real, this time
“National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent,” said President Woodrow Wilson during a joint session of Congress at the height of World War I. “‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” Of course, we proceeded to do that very thing. Wilson himself had invaded Mexico in 1914 and Haiti in 1915, the latter occupation to last for nearly twenty years (by means of comparison, our occupation of Afghanistan is in its sixteenth year with the Taliban controlling more territory than at any time since 2001). And from there, it was open season: Guatemala. Iran. Cuba. Chile. The CIA’s meddling in Italian elections. Ronald Reagan’s path of destruction through Central America in the eighties. More recently, US support for the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 and its attempt to destabilize Gaza following the Hamas electoral victory in 2006. The list could go on for pages. A progressive foreign policy must insist that, a century later, respect for self-determination finally go from being a dead letter to an active governing principle—and not only when national interests are supposedly served.
2. Turning guns into ploughshares
At the end of the Cold War, much was made of the “peace dividend” that would allow America to channel its bloated defense budget into peacetime purposes. Of course, said dividend never materialized as the war machine kept churning happily along in Iraq, Haiti, Serbia, Iraq again, and Libya, to name a few, with the resulting blowback in terms of vacuums of power, terrorism and the rise of ISIS. American special forces were deployed to 138 countries in 2016—some 70% of the world’s total—creating a true “age of the commando.” In that same year, America dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven majority-Muslim countries. The US has some 800 military bases in 70 countries and spends more on its military than the next eleven nations combined. While Sanders focused on switching from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources during the campaign, progressives must insist with equal vehemence that we shift from an economy dependent on military spending to one where investment is channeled into peaceful purposes: health, education, sustainable infrastructure, culture and the arts.
3. Ending the out-of-control arms trade
The most glaring manifestation of the above is America’s dominance of the global arms trade: half of all world arms sold in 2015—some $40 billion—come from US manufacturers (with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems and Raytheon leading the way), more than double that of our next closest rival. The Obama administration has brokered more arms sales than any other administration since the Second World War, including 42 separate deals totaling $115 billion to the fundamentalist, women-suppressing dictatorship of Saudi Arabia; our client, in turn, has put them to good use in their bloody bombing campaign of Yemen. The Obama administration also recently approved $38 billion worth of military aid to Israel—the largest package ever—this in the context of the recent escalation of violence that saw over 2,300 Palestinians killed in the 2014 conflict, the most since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in 1967. As a minimum, progressives must insist that the US cease arming governments that use the weapons for aggressive purposes—be it against their own or other peoples—and to ratify the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which has been blocked by the Republican Senate. If America continues to arm the world to the teeth, it should not be surprised when some of those weapons wind up being trained on its own citizens.
4. Putting human rights above corporate privileges
Arms deals constitute just one—albeit the most blatant—of the ways in which the United States supports governments that oppress their own citizenry. On a daily basis, the US provides support, training and diplomatic cover to human rights abusers that fall in line with its economic agenda. The Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto, for example, has received the full-throated support of the Obama administration, despite an atrocious human rights record that includes the unresolved disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College in 2014 and a climate of intimidation and violence towards reporters that has made it one of the world’s most dangerous countries to practice journalism. As Human Rights Watch’s 2016 Report for Mexico states:
During the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican security forces have been implicated in repeated, serious human rights violations—including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture—in the course of efforts to combat organized crime. The government has made little progress in prosecuting those responsible for recent abuses, let alone the large number of abuses committed by soldiers and police since former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) initiated Mexico’s “war on drugs.”
In 2014, however, Mexico privatized its state-owned oil industry, PEMEX, opening 80% of prospective resources to private bidding. The move, which was actively supported by the Clinton State Department, has made Mexico more dependent than ever on importations of US gasoline, leading to a 20% New Year’s gas-price hike that has sparked widespread protests across the country. Progressives must insist that respect for human rights supersede corporate privileges that often lead to a vicious cycle of impoverishment, immigration, displacement, and further human rights abuses.
5. Rolling back the national-security state
It took Edward Snowden to confirm what many had long suspected: your government is spying on you. Democracy cannot operate when the government justifies its abuse of spying powers with rubber-stamp FISA courts, where the CIA spies on Congress and the NSA lies to it, where legislators have to go to a secure room in the basement just to be able to read the proposed text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and where the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial is now codified into law. Progressives must insist that the national-security state be rolled back, the rule of law be re-established, secret courts and overseas gulags such as Guantanamo be abolished, the imperial presidency with its kill lists and drone strikes be curtailed, and the constitutional separation of powers—where Congress and Congress only has the power to declare war—be restored.
Although the incoming Trump administration would appear to portend dark times on the foreign affairs front, progressives can win some important victories, here, too, if we organize. To do so, we must realize that the two sets of struggles—domestic and foreign—are linked. Even if we succeed in redressing the gross inequality of wealth between the 1% and the 99%, even if we succeed, against steep odds, in achieving universal health care, full employment and a living wage within our borders, the stubborn fact remains that there can be no real democracy with empire. Paradoxically, to reform at home, progressives must cast our eyes abroad.