Militarized nationalism, devoid of history and context, relentless in its push for American hegemony, is completely inconsistent with progressive values, argues our contributor Genevieve Riccoboni.
Although candidate Trump was praised by the media for his campaign claims to “stop endless wars”, President Trump has (unsurprisingly) drawn his foreign policy from the classic militaristic playbook. He is potentially leading the country into a catastrophic war with Iran, providing support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen (contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis), and has increased troop numbers in Afghanistan. He has alienated the US’s traditional allies and pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. His racist immigration policy (led by people with demonstrated links to white supremacist organizations) has separated children from their families, forcibly adopted out children born in immigration detention, and gutted the asylum system, leading to large migrant camps along the US-Mexico border. And much of this appears to be only a sideshow to the recent impeachment process, involving foreign interference in US elections.
Trump’s unhinged approach of “foreign policy by tweet” has certainly gotten its fair share of criticism. But it’s hard not to notice that much of this criticism has been superficial, rather than substantive. Since 2017, too many onlookers and decision-makers alike have been engaged in a delusional project of historical revisionism, one that pretends that the US’ approach to international relations was fine – or at least palatable – before the current administration.
This narrative is contained in a constant flow of op-eds and TV interviews from former government officials and pundits. In these, someone will say that Trump is the “first president who has made me ashamed of my country”, and that what the world needs today is a strong US leader who responds to global “challenges”. Their commentary usually avoids mention of (or quickly brushes aside) the Iraq War, the broader War on Terror, or our country’s longer history of intervention and interference around the world. It doesn’t ask us whether our 800+ military bases and over $700 billion a year in military spending are a problem, or even at a purely budgetary level, an unbelievable waste of tax dollars.
Incredibly, on occasion the reactionary approach of Democrats and Never-Trumpers ends up more hawkish than that of the man himself. Take the ongoing situation on the Korean Peninsula. When discussing North Korea policy in debates over the past few months, most Democratic frontrunners for the presidency have not joined South Korean officials, Korean civil society, and some of their US House colleagues’ calls for an end to the 66-year Korean War – a conflict which lies at the root cause of the contemporary security situation. They haven’t criticized Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions programs, which have been linked with harmful impacts on the North Korean population. Instead, a number of them have criticized Trump for talking to North Korea without conditions (aka, diplomacy).
In other situations, Democrats’ attempts to distance themselves from the president’s chaotic policies end up inadvertently bolstering them. Recently, following the targeted killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, most Democrats criticized Trump’s decision to call the strike because of its potential to fuel conflict with Iran. However, with a few exceptions from more left-wing Democrats, many failed to question the strike’s underlying legality or justification, or acknowledge that the worst effects of such a war would, as always, be on civilians.
Meanwhile, Americans are actually tired of decades of war and hawkish foreign policy. According to recent research by Data for Progress, Americans today are supportive of a more progressive, peaceful US foreign policy. They support ending existing conflicts, think about security in non-military terms, and are in favor of spending American resources on peacebuilding and human rights. They oppose “America First”, but also American exceptionalism.
As feminist international relations theorists have long pointed out, traditional definitions of “security” which rely on militarized visions of strength actually undermine peace.
A lot needs to change for this vision to be realized. But change starts with shaping the discussion. Too often, foreign policy issues are framed by Democrats and Republicans alike in terms of “America’s vital interests”, “defending our country from threats”, “protecting our national security”, or “making our country safe”. This securitized framing is not neutral: in fact, it’s a deeply right-wing, limiting way of understanding the concept of security.
Building and maintaining peace and stability should be the goal of all foreign policy efforts. Such an idea is not radical: it’s the cornerstone of the international system, and the core mandate of the United Nations Security Council. And as feminist international relations theorists have long pointed out, traditional definitions of “security” which rely on militarized visions of strength actually undermine peace. They have argued that to build a peaceful world, security must be understood to encompass human security and wellbeing.
In practice, these visions of security would involve budgets that redistribute money previously spent on the military on protecting the environment, healthcare, and education (either domestically or abroad). Military interventions would be replaced by peacebuilding and mediation. Our governments would focus on preventing war by addressing the root causes of conflict, including inequalities, environmental degradation, the proliferation of arms, and unjust policies. We would work to build inclusive peace processes and agreements that ensure a just post-conflict reconstruction period.
Changing the security discussion is vital because any side that cares about peace and human rights consistently loses debates about “national security”. In its most recent iterations, “national security” justified the United States’ post-9/11 War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute, has cost almost $6 trillion, and killed between 480,000 and 507,000 people. It justified glaring human rights and privacy violations under the Patriot Act, including indefinite detention and torture programs. It supported Trump’s dangerous withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, a decision which has been part of a broader escalation in conflict.
And buying into the traditional national security discourse has particular implications for politicians on the left. In an age of prominent nationalism and xenophobia, can it be progressive to talk about protecting the nation from an undefined (or defined) Other? Who is part of the “nation” in the first place? And who does the “nation” need to be secured from? In many ways, adopting the security establishment’s rhetoric undermines other arguments Democrats try to make about human dignity and rights, equality, and people-centered politics.
American lawmakers, pundits, and would-be political leaders need to stop evoking ahistorical notalgia for pre-Trump foreign policy. Instead, especially in this moment where we face the prospect of yet another horrific war, we must use the catastrophe of the Trump administration to genuinely reflect on how to change our approach to international affairs for the better. As even centrist Democrats are trying to label themselves “progressive”, it’s vital to remember that to be progressive and anything other than anti-war is an irreconcilable contradiction.
Featured Image: Wakil Kohsar, Getty Images.