An entry in the Fellow Travelers Blog colloquium on principles of left American foreign policy.
By Kate Kizer
We are at a turning point in progressive politics. In less than a month, a new cohort of progressive leaders may be elected to Congress. Already the largest caucus in the House of Representatives, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is poised to gain even more power within the Democratic Party and have a chance to moving the party left on key foreign policy issues.
While this election cycle has focused on the popularity of progressive candidates’ domestic agenda and their absorption into the Democratic mainstream, there have been numerous lamentations about the limited amount of discourse about progressive foreign policy on the campaign trail.
Progressives already have a starting point from which to develop our international priorities: our values. Progressive values inform our domestic agenda, and there is no need to create a new set of values to inform our foreign policy agenda. Our progressive values don’t stop at the water’s edge and we shouldn’t apply one set of values within our borders and another for our engagement abroad. Instead, we can and should outline a clear vision for progressive foreign policy by applying the same set of values to foreign policy as we apply to domestic policy.
Here’s how progressive values would apply to five key foreign policy priorities in the next Congress:
Ending endless war
The United States has relied on a violence-first foreign policy to address security challenges around the world for far too long. After 17 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is now “fighting terrorism” in 76 countries according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University. This mission creep has not brought the promised result of eradicating anti-Americanism. Instead, extremist groups have proliferated and innocent lives continue to be lost in US military operations of dubious legality.
All of this should expose the dismal failure the so-called war on terror has been and the need for a new approach that recognizes the challenges we face from terrorism do not have a military solution. Progressives’ first priorities should be ending Donald Trump’s blank check for endless war by repealing the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force that have been stretched by multiple administrations to wage global, endless war, and engaging in a robust public debate on how the US should change its approach to addressing these security challenges. Progressives should move to reshape the US approach to focus on peacebuilding, supporting accountable governance, and local empowerment measures that address local drivers to conflict, which are typically rooted in failed and corrupt governance and a lack of economic opportunity. Ending the United States’ blank check of support for authoritarian governments in the name of stability must also be key to this resetting of US policy, as this approach has fueled impunity and facilitated state violence against local reformers who US policy should instead be supporting.
Peace and Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
North Korea’s nuclear program presents a unique challenge and opportunity for the United States. For over 60 years, the United States has remained in a state of conflict with North Korea. Decades of distrust and hostility led to the development of North Korea’s nuclear program and an untenable status quo on the Korean peninsula. Despite President Trump taking the peninsula to the brink of nuclear war last year, forward-leaning and bold diplomacy by South Korean president Moon Jae-in created an opening for peace and denuclearization earlier this year. Washington, however, remains paralyzed by the mistaken assumption that the US can unilaterally dictate the terms North Korea’s denuclearization without making any concessions.
The status quo thinking on diplomacy with North Korea undermines a key progressive value: centering the voices of the people our policies affect. President Moon has pushed forward with his agenda for peace and reconciliation with North Korea – which also happens to achieve denuclearization as part of his vision of a peace regime – based on the public mandate he received from the South Korean people. It is clear that the Korean people are sick of the constant state of war on the peninsula and want to forge a new path forward to secure their futures. Progressives must seize the opportunity to refocus US policy on uplifting those desires and embracing an action-for-action plan that offers US security and peace guarantees in exchange for North Korean denuclearization steps. To secure the North’s disarmament, we must follow the lead of our South Korean ally and reimagine the US security posture in East Asia as one based on diplomacy and coordination, rather than hostility.
Reforming the Pentagon’s Budget
Democrats and Republicans have viewed national security spending through the prism of the Pentagon for far too long. This past year, Congress increased the Pentagon’s budget to some of the highest levels since World War II, despite the fact that the department has never passed an audit and nearly half of its budget goes toward unaccountable defense contractors. American taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing the defense industry or bankrolling unpopular wars of choice that harm global security. The bottom line is that current levels of Pentagon spending are unsustainable and do not make us safer.
Progressives are often asked how they will pay for their bold domestic agenda that includes Medicare for All, universal basic income, free college tuition, and more. The reality is that reforming national security spending is the key to reforming our economy and ensuring our government invests in human needs to bring about security around the world, rather than in industries and weapons that prey off of human suffering. Progressives should prioritize drastically cutting Pentagon spending and reallocating public dollars toward tools of diplomacy, inclusion, and development on the international stage and invigorating a sustainable, green peace economy at home.
Resolving the Conflicts in Yemen and Syria
The civil wars in Yemen and Syria grew out of Arab Spring uprisings in which the majority of Yemenis and Syrians took a public stand to call for their rights and democratic reform. The ensuing conflicts, which have been internationalized by various countries including the United States in pursuit of their own “interests,” have devastated Yemen and Syria and unleashed sectarianism, hate, and authoritarianism in the region and around the world. For its part, the United States literally fuels the conflict in Yemen by supporting the Saudi and UAE-led coalition war in Yemen that has produced the world’s worst cholera outbreak in modern history, a famine of biblical proportions, and killed thousands of innocent civilians using US weaponry and military assistance. In Syria, the US-led coalition has destroyed parts of Syria in pursuit of the self-described Islamic State, and now seeks to illegally and indefinitely occupy parts of Syria with the goal of confronting Iran.
Progressives should move to end these military misadventures that have never been authorized by Congress nor debated by the public. Our military entanglement in these conflicts does nothing except prolong the bloodshed and undermine the United States’ ability to act as a credible mediator to end the conflict and establish mechanisms for accountability. We cannot promote accountability for others if we ourselves violate international law. In both Syria and Yemen, a significant diplomatic intervention is necessary to establish an inclusive peace process that not only achieves an end to the fighting, but also establishes a path to accountability for all actors in these conflicts, even if it includes holding ourselves accountable for the atrocities committed by our own military. Progressives must be in the business of promoting human security around the world, as fomenting insecurity and impunity around the world remains an irresponsible response to our own feelings of insecurity.
Preventing war with Iran
The Trump administration has made clear that it seeks military confrontation with Iran. It has already attempted to blow up the Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by unilaterally withdrawing from the deal that has successfully blocked Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. The administration is reimposing nuclear-related sanctions in November, despite the fact that International Atomic Energy Agency has certified Iran’s compliance with the deal nearly a dozen times. Trump and company – John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in particular – have dusted off the Iraq war playbook to create a narrative in which war with Iran appears to be the only viable option to deal with the “grave threat” it poses. In reality, the threat is minimal and its inflation has been the work of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the right-wing interest groups in Washington all pushing for regime change in Iran. Although the tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi – the Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist apparently murdered by the Saudi government – has created an unprecedented backlash and disrupted the administration’s march to war with Iran, progressives must speak out now to prevent yet another foolhardy and devastating war in the Middle East that will benefit no one but the military-industrial complex and establishment elites.
Iran is certainly not an innocent actor within its own borders or in the region. However, the current break in the cozy US alliance with Saudi Arabia due to its murder of a US journalist presents an opportunity for progressives to expose the true intentions behind Trump’s Iran policy and educate the American public on the dangerous path we are headed down unless we reign in the president and his hawkish cronies. Progressives should lay out a clear and constructive agenda that promotes the reentry of the United States to the JCPOA, works multilaterally with US allies in Europe to sustain the nuclear deal and presents a roadmap for engagement on Iran’s human rights abuses and harmful military actions in the region, and prevents the passage of more sanctions that hurt the Iranian people. US policy on Iran is an opportunity to solve our security challenges diplomatically, while also refocusing US engagement in the region based on our core values of dignity, equality, and equity.
These issues represent five tracks where progressives have an opportunity to reshape US foreign policy and break down the divide between our domestic and foreign policy agendas. By capitalizing on this opportunity, we can not only begin to ensure our values are reflected in our foreign policy, but also begin to build a global movement for dignity and equality for all that is necessary to challenge growing authoritarianism at home and around the world.
Kate Kizer is the policy director at Win Without War. She is an expert on US foreign policy and democratization in the Middle East.