Policy from the People: Seizing Agency

This is the second installment in our Policy from the People series, in partnership with Win Without War. Each month, Policy from the People will feature thoughts on foreign policy challenges from activists at the leading edge of the progressive movement.

By Tristan Guyette

As an organizer with Beyond the Bomb, a people-powered campaign to mitigate the threat of another global catastrophe — nuclear war — I feel an inescapable sense of futile rage with the COVID-19 crisis. I suspect most of us do, no matter where we work or what we do. How do we protect against a virus many of us are unable to avoid contracting? How do we continue our own work in the face of a virus that cares not for borders, laws, or social contracts? How do we fight against a system that devalues the lives of so many  when our usual tactics — rallies, demonstrations, marches — are off the table?

For many in America, this is a familiar feeling.  It is the feeling of powerlessness. It is the feeling of railing against a system that seems never to budge. It is the feeling of having something essential stripped from us: our agency.

The struggle for a better world is in many ways defined by the push and pull of agency. 

Take the ongoing struggle for women’s equality. Women, whose agency has been denied in so many realms, have exercised what agency they do have to fight for more. Everything women have accomplished has been demanded, sweated for, and bled over — finessed into existence. Every trapping of agency they possess has been negotiated for: from driving, to voting, to the recognition of marital rape. And now, conservative legislators have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to undermine agency even further: to attack the bodily autonomy of those seeking abortion access by attempting to close clinics in states like Ohio and Texas.

But while fights for civil and political rights like these are widely understood in terms of agency, there is a realm where the role of agency, or lack thereof, is rarely discussed: national security. War and peace, as often conceived, are matters of strategy, of costs and benefits. Treated as a question of making the right moves or the wrong moves, we often forget that national security is also about power. Whose agency will be denied by the violence enacted in war, and who has the agency to make that decision?

Each year, Congress passes a new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as though it has no other choice but to inflate the war chest at the cost of lesser line items, like health and human services. This budget request totaled $633 billion, nearly half of the $1.4 trillion allocated to discretionary funding, in the fiscal year 2020.  In contrast, the second largest line item is Health and Human Services, with a drastically smaller $106 billion budget — less than 10% of discretionary spending. 

The NDAA request for 2021 includes a staggering $2 billion a month for nuclear weapons alone, which amounts to $15 a second. In other words, Congress decided suffering Americans are each worth roughly a minute and a half of nuclear spending, securing just a one-time payment of $1,200 for the millions of Americans out of work or displaced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Would these priorities be the same if the everyday American had the same agency in the foreign policymaking process as the billionaire weapons CEOs? 

Watching a virus and the economic devastation it has wrought threaten our friends, family, and communities while the US security state continues on blithely “protecting” us, we know the answer to that question. Yet the current structure of our policymaking apparatus makes it nearly impossible for individual Americans to contend with the power of defense-industry money. The voices of the American people, including the head of the CDC, have been drowned out by the siren’s song of Lockheed and its ilk. This startling lack of control by the people perfectly illustrates our lack of agency over not just spending, but foreign policy at large. We need to dramatically restructure both the US foreign policymaking structure and the ways we demand policies that reflect our true values and don’t simply feed the war machine. 

As we reimagine what our world could look like after this pandemic we must be audacious in our demands for an equitable and inclusive future — one in which everyday people have taken foreign policymaking into their own hands. And who could be better trusted to make this a reality than those who have long fought for the same? As Congress diversifies, women like Pennsylvania congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan have the opportunity to shape policy. As Houlahan told POLITICO “I think that veterans—and women in particular—have a heritage of team-building, collaboration and pragmatism that I think is really needed right now when we’re a very, very divided nation. I’m hopeful that we’ll bring a fresh set of legs into what is kind of a dysfunctional environment,” 

In this pandemic, we have a silver lining of opportunity to construct a better future. Across the globe are calls for groundbreaking peace, from over a million signatures on an Avaaz petition calling for a global ceasefire, to CODEPINK’s petition to lift economic sanctions on Iran.  Despite misleading announcements from multiple governors, abortion clinics have remained open. In a time of loneliness and confinement, solidarity has sprouted up across communities nationwide. This neighbor-to-neighbor community building at the local level is crucial to the development of grassroots networks that demand accountability from their elected officials on critical pieces of legislation like the NDAA. We have the tools we need to direct how our country behaves as a global citizen, we just need to focus on using them. It’s time to center agency in how we make our foreign policy.


Tristan Guyette is the national field manager of Beyond the Bomb, where they lead volunteers across the country to mobilize and advocate for sane nuclear policy through No First Use.

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