An entry in the Fellow Travelers Blog colloquium on principles of left American foreign policy.
By Ro Khanna
For much of our nation’s history, foreign policy has transcended partisanship. But, in recent times, the bipartisan consensus of the foreign policy establishment has led us into war after war, blunder after blunder. Soon we will be in the middle of the 2020 presidential primary season, and candidates in the Democratic party will be debating Trump’s policies of child separation, the travel ban, climate change and taxes. But what will be our party’s stance on foreign policy? It is my aim to put forward five principles that should guide our party’s foreign policy platform moving forward.
Restraint in foreign policy
The health and stability of our nation is at risk when we are engaged in constant warfare and continue to spend more on defense than any other domestic issue. I believe unilateral, military force should only be used when there is a direct threat to our homeland. If there is no imminent harm to our nation, we must pursue solutions through multilateral institutions or diplomacy.
As we have seen countless times before, military interventionism can have untold consequences as today’s allies can turn into tomorrow’s adversaries. It is difficult to predict what will happen when we intervene, how long an intervention may last, and just how many people will die. Furthermore, our military is not equipped to deal with the complexities and complications that go along with nation-building and democratic transition. That is why our first principle when assessing conflicts abroad should be simply to do no harm.
International law/Human rights focus
The United States should engage diplomatically, using the legitimacy of international institutions to solve disputes. In those instances where US national security is not at risk, but there are mass atrocities, we should work to end those and protect human rights by working multilaterally through the UN and the International Court of Justice. America should continue to be a voice for marginalized communities worldwide, and we should work with our allies to speak out for human rights and provide refuge to human rights activists.
Republican Nominee Trump had the right instincts of restraint in foreign policy. These instincts made him more appealing in contrast to the foreign policy establishment that pushed for the Iraq War, pushed for war in Libya and advocated for arming the rebels in Syria. Unfortunately, not only has President Trump not kept his campaign promise of restraint by militarily engaging in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, but he also has championed a parochial worldview of “American First.” Although US policymakers must prioritize American interests, President Trump’s “America First” doctrine is contrary to American interests and values of standing up for democracy and economic freedom.
By unraveling the international institutions we created after the devastation of World War II, we are hurting our own interests. By cutting off foreign aid, we are demonstrating that we no longer have an interest in investing in the stability of the world. By cutting ourselves out of deals like the Paris Climate agreement and the Iran deal, we are showing the global community that our words are not to be taken seriously.
A foreign policy guided on the principle of restraint should not mean we shut ourselves off from the rest of the world, close borders and eliminate foreign aid. Instead of indulging isolationism, we should continue to extend our influence by promoting our values. Ending military involvement overseas does not mean we cannot be active participants in the international community. We, as a nation, have a lot of good to offer. We should peacefully and diplomatically promote our educational institutions, our technology companies, our music and movies, and our sports. We must reverse the trend of increasing defense spending and cutting our diplomatic corps. This is an uncontroversial view held by some of the highest-ranking members in the Trump administration. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated that if the State Department’s budget is cut, “then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Instead of relying on military might to end conflict, we should turn to the power of our diplomats to negotiate for peaceful solutions. President Obama made this choice by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. He heard the calls to bomb Iranian nuclear sites and instead took the path of diplomacy. Because of this, he was able to negotiate an agreement with Iran that was successful in its mission of preventing them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is the type of foreign policy leadership we should be following which will prevent us from making grave errors like we did in Iraq.
Reassert congressional war making powers
In the history of Congress, its members have only declared war five times. It does not take a historian to know the US have been engaged in many more than five. The last time Congress formally issued a declaration of war was against the Axis powers in WWII. Since then, Congress has decided to let the executive branch decide key issues of war and peace. This runs contrary to what our country’s founders had envisioned. They had assumed that each branch of government would seek the most power possible, eventually creating a balance for power.
Because members of Congress do not want to take up difficult votes on foreign policy, they have allowed the executive branch to run away with this incredible power. Four decades ago, Congress stood up to the executive branch and passed the War Powers Act of 1973, overriding President Nixon’s veto. This is a potent tool for Congress to wield when they fear the President has overstepped the boundaries of their power. This is why I have invoked the WPR twice for our involvement in the Yemen Civil War. This is why I believe Congress must invoke the WPR more often to ensure the actions of the President do not go unchecked.
Democratize our nation’s foreign policy
There is an overall consensus emerging that Americans are tired of war. However, the trend of Congress abdicating its war making power to the executive branch centralizes foreign policy strategy to a small group of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. If Congress decided to reclaim its constitutionally granted power, it would empower citizens across our nation to have a direct voice in America’s foreign policy.
Ro Khanna represents California’s 17th District in the US Congress.