This is the first edition of November Revolution, a monthly column from Pam Campos-Palma on foreign policy in the 2020 election.
By Pam Campos-Palma
In 2016, a right wing populist celebrity billionaire whom the establishment treated as a joke won his first election, in large part by treating themes of defense and security as a “bread and butter issue.” Four years later, it’s election time again. The United States has endured political trauma, asymmetrical polarization, and a corrupt, nationalist incumbent who has aggressively executed his neo-fascist agenda in the intervening years, but the centrality of foreign policy to President Trump’s message hasn’t changed.
A president’s powers are least constrained in areas of international affairs and security, and Trump has used that flexibility to deliver on some of his most chilling campaign promises. He has exonerated war criminals, pencil-whipped an entire new military branch, instituted multiple and repeated discriminatory bans of entire classes of people based on their identities, gutted the State Department, ramped up for war with Iran– and the list goes on. In this consequential election, foreign policy will play an outsized role, and Democrats must assert a bold vision that contests Trump’s jingoistic, nationalist agenda and rejects the corporate, war hawk status quo of the past.
Much of my life has been shaped by American foreign policy and national security in ways that are intimately imprinted on my mind, heart, and skin. My mother immigrated alone from Honduras to the U.S when she was pregnant with me. Decades later, in 2005, she would ask me to enlist in the Air Force as a pathway to college and upward mobility. I served as an intelligence analyst in the Air Force, a job that equipped me well to do the work I do today as a political strategist and organizer focused on peace and security and global movement building.
My military and political experiences underline for me the disconnect between the mainstream foreign policy community — a world of white papers and hegemonically white thought leaders — and today’s political realities. With the stakes of this election so high and foreign policy such a crucial political battleground in it, it’s important to shine a light on that disconnect and reflect on how progressives can meaningfully engage on foreign policy beyond the traditional boundaries of the blob.
To that end, a few things I’ve observed this cycle keep me up at night. One is the continued lack of understanding by political operatives, think tankers, and wonks of the populist moment we’re in after decades of increasing wealth inequality, systemic corruption, and institutions failing everyday people. A prime fuel for the populist turn in politics are elite, insular institutions who refuse or are very slow to acknowledge their lack of race-class-gender analysis has been a liability. Foreign policy and national security institutions embody this problem, arguably to an unparalleled extent. One of the few political articles of faith left for the mainstream foreign policy community is the arrogant and ignorant belief that everyday Americans either do not care or aren’t educated enough to grasp matters of foreign policy. Beltway wonks, think tanks, and foreign policy elites have structured the entire sector to be inaccessible, siloed, and insular, only to then blame everyday people for “not caring or paying enough attention.”
The consequences for this insularity might have been less extreme had the foreign policy apparatus demonstrated the imagination necessary to meet the evolving threats of our time. Instead, climate change, militarism, state violence, and international oligarchy have been allowed to fester, and people understand those failures. In my organizing work, I’ve seen the way foreign policy and national security is germane to the many and how the populist moment is an opportunity to build a new world. Trump knows this too, but the mainstream foreign policy world remains in denial.
Unfortunately, that denial extends to much of the Democratic field in the presidential race, which also keeps me up at night. Even now, a majority of the eight candidates for the Democratic nomination have shown themselves to be bought politicians attempting to tap dance their way around mediocrity and poor leadership records. A couple are billionaires who are using their wealth to buy vanity campaigns. Mayor Pete’s “military-officer-guy” allure has aided him in failing up in a bizarre manner. Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer don’t even know the name of the President of the country we share a southern border with.
Among the most interesting of foreign policy issues for me thus far has been how all of the Democratic candidates have adopted “ending endless war” as a requisite slogan, largely due to increasing cross-partisan grassroots attention and pressure. On one hand, it’s heartening to see candidates adopt this obvious position after 18 years of multiple military engagements and the recent release of the damning #AfghanistanPapers. On the other hand, I also see a majority of the candidates continue to disrespect the intelligence of the American public by refusing to go beyond sound bites and articulate concrete policy details that move us away from reactionism.
There are reasons for optimism, though. Bernie Sanders has been the candidate to most consistently thread the needle between international and domestic affairs, and has most clearly made foreign policy a cornerstone issue of his campaign from the beginning. Elizabeth Warren has become known for having the most detailed and expansive policy plans of any of the candidates and has shown herself as a potentially transformative Commander in Chief, aiming to tackle corruption in diplomacy and the defense sector. It’s no coincidence that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren have both prioritized input from grassroots groups and frontline progressive movement leaders to shape their platforms. For the most part, it appears the wonks working with them understand a return to the past is not an option. The impact of this can be seen in both Bernie and Warren growing more confident and intentional in shifting the way we see the world and our future.
Even still, we can learn a great deal about candidates’ real foreign policy approaches by listening very closely to how they define security and insecurity, include or exclude communities most under attack at home and abroad, and fearlessly name bold policies that match the scale of crises we face. Substantive peace and security policy found their way into a debate this past month, but much is still missing.
As we step further into the frenzy and desperation of primary season it would be wise for candidates to not put foreign policy on a shelf to dust. The worst thing anyone can do is once again underestimate Trump, misunderstand populism, and think a Democratic transition of power is guaranteed. With an Afghanistan drawdown and war with Iran both potentially on the horizon, foreign policy will remain core to the president’s reelection campaign. Beyond the need to break with the past, cohering a human-centered foreign policy doctrine that addresses issues of race, class, gender, and a rapidly evolving threat landscape has never been more important to chart the bold vision that wins the future and the just world we all deserve.
Pam Campos-Palma is a political strategist, advisor and organizer focused on peace & security. She served in the US Air Force for over a decade as an operations intelligence analyst and is a trusted leader and advocate bridging grasstops policy and grassroots movement worlds. You can find her on twitter at @_pamcampos.