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Democracy On The Brink


The peace and justice movement should realize that we’ve played a role in undermining public support for direct US military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iran. In several cases we have helped galvanize congressional opposition -Iraq, Afghanistan – and seen AIPAC rebuffed by Obama over the crisis in Iran. US drone attacks have declined in part because of public resistance. While it’s impossible for the peace forces to claim “victory” given the massive suffering and squandering of resources, it’s important to realize that grass-roots activism has a relevance which is irritating to the self-anointed national security experts and clandestine services.

Sometimes the relevance of the opposition is impossible for the state to deny, as in the case of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange. After all, what greater proof of protest’s relevance than the fact that the massive surveillance state is justified by the fear of domestic dissent?

In the mainstream narrative, unfortunately, the opposition to more wars like those of the past decade is attributed repeatedly to a “public fatigue.” This framing, used continually in the mass media, simply deletes social movements as being agents of change. It’s as if the public needs a rest – before the next cycle of war revives their energy. We have been forced into a “peace lull” until taking the next battlefield.

Take Syria. Obama was poised to launch a missile strike, with majority congressional acquiescence, until the grass roots launched a barrage of protest towards congressional offices. When a compromise was offered by Russia, Obama took it. Obama was including public peace sentiment in his presidential calculation, while the war lobby, the Saudis and the Israelis seemed to care less.

One reason the peace and justice movement often fails to perceive our relevance is a mode of thinking based on principles that are impossible to implement. Gradualism and partial victories wear down the spirit and are hard to measure. The inspiring liberation movements of the Sixties are few and far between in 2014. Victory often is defined as having prevented a disaster from becoming worse. The euphoria has gone out of social activism.

Something very important is happening nonetheless, in significant part because of public opinion – which the New York Times headlined as “the other super-power” in its front-page coverage of the global protest against the Iraq War, Feb. 15, 2003.  Those demonstrations eventually subsided, but only after more than ten occasions when over 100,000 Americans assembled in protest. They subsided because the troops began coming home, the wars became more invisible, and the economy began to crash.

Where are we as a result? Call it an empire or a superpower; the US is being forced to cancel the option of expensive, unwinnable ground wars involving thousands of US troops. The primary reason for the use of drones and secret operations is to contain the political protest that might arise if they the public only knew what is being done in our name. The scaffolding of secrecy is rising for the same reason, in preparation for wars in the shadows.

Combine the pivot towards secret spying and clandestine war with the effort to negotiate secret trade agreements with minimal media or congressional oversight and you have the structure of a new American system built to keep the people at bay.

The security apparatus is circumventing democratic reforms like the War Powers Act [1973], the Freedom of Information Act [1975], and the oversight mechanisms imposed on the FBI and CIA [1976]. Similarly, the global corporations are circumventing the labor laws of the 1930s and the voting rights, civil rights, environmental protection and campaign finance laws of the 1970-90s. The elites refuse to be bridled. They are abandoning the democratic reforms and public policies achieved at great cost by past social movements in order to accelerate their drive for power outside of public accountability or meaningful influence. This is a constitutional crisis in which domestic and foreign policy are inseparable. The issue uniting all dissenters and concerned citizens is democracy itself. We need “democracy promotion” at home.

Matters are likely to go from bad to worse in the 2014 elections if Republicans gain Senate seats while maintaining their House and Supreme Court dominance. That will set the stage for a historic showdown in 2016. Progressives will be part of a multicultural, multiracial majority movement, and the “majority faction” which the Federalist authors feared. We are the 21st century “motley rabble” who were condemned in 1770 by John Adams, lawyer for the British soldiers in the case of the Boston Massacre.

In the short term, progressives should discuss and debate a new policy agenda. 1. An urgent conversation is needed on how to “rein in” (the term is President Obama’s) the executive power over surveillance, secret war, and cyber-war, all currently out of control. 2. Key environmental and liberal leaders need to end their advocacy of failed NAFTA and neo-liberal policies and join with the fair trade and climate change movements in demanding global policies aimed at ending the catastrophic dependence on fossil fuels for energy and sweatshops for labor. 3. Both parties need to be realigned, but the Democrats in particular need to shift from the Wall Street dependency of the Clinton era to the more progressive positions taken by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Mayor De Blasio, not to mention Pope Francis. If the current drift prevails, states on the Right will become Red Zones defying federal power, while on the Left states will become limited laboratories of progressive reform. Sooner or later, the powerless will react with unpredictable fury, each uprising surpassing those before, always led by the young. The insurrections to come can be predicted based on the Lost Future which already is unfolding:

 

§  Downward economic mobility for today’s young people. 

§  Shorter lives for those same young people. 

§  Greater health problems for the same generation. 

§  The knowledge that nothing is being done to reverse the Armageddon of climate change.

 

Uprisings and social movements have their role. But out of the coming tumult must also arise a new governing model that surpasses the so-called Free Market and New Deal opposites, one more democratic, more just, and more based on understanding the environmental imperative. The “new inequality” so much in the news must be expanded as a global phenomenon driven by the predatory practices of the One Percent aided by the new surveillance state.

This progressive populist movement will either succeed through reforms that bring a new equilibrium to the social order, or fail in preventing a new era of ugly civil strife.   

Submitted by Michael Klare, February 21, 2014

Any discussion of a revised, progressive U.S. foreign policy must begin with a recognition of America’s altered international status: rather than being the “hyper-power” that invaded Iraq in 2003, the United States is a diminished superpower – the most powerful international actor by far, but not strong enough to control the course of world events or to prevent rival great powers, like China and Russia, from advancing their own agendas in the face of U.S. opposition (as Russia has done in the case of Syria). 

Washington’s strongest “card,” its ability to use military force at the president’s discretion, no longer appears usable, given the public’s resistance to further Iraq- or Afghanistan-like operations; nor does the weakened U.S. economy permit costly military adventures abroad.  In order to accomplish its goals abroad, therefore, United States must rely on the cooperation of its allies – nations that may repudiate U.S. objectives or push Washington into embracing their own, alien objectives (as in Japan’s drive to compel Washington to back its aggressive stance on disputed islands in the East China Sea).  All this leaves Washington with far weaker tools with which to influence world events than were available to previous administrations.

None of this is to say that the United States is a declining power, or that it is on the verge of being overtaken by China or some other rival – far from it.  The U.S. remains the world’s strongest power and will retain this position for as long as we can see into the future.  The U.S. is also likely to retain its superior position in military might, space technology, and other measures of strength.  What is happening, however, is that America’s power relative to contending actors, whether nation-states or non-state actors, is in decline.  At the same time, the U.S. must contend with a more complex and challenging world in which a host of newly empowered actors are pushing their own agendas at America’s expense.

What would a progressive foreign policy looklike under these circumstances?

To begin with, we must embrace this country’s diminished status in the global political order and not seek to either reassert American dominance or withdraw from global responsibility.  Rather, weshould identify our core values and interests and find ways to maximize their attainment without relying on military force or acting as the world’s Big Brother.  This means emphasizing the non-military, “soft” instruments of influence: diplomacy, cultural ties, economic and technical aid, people-to-people contacts, and so on.  We can no longer – nor should we – seek to coerce­ other states and peoples into obeying our will; rather, we must persuade them of the validity of our views, and employ our still substantial resources to nudge world affairs in the best possible direction.

Our first task, then, is to identify our foreign policy priorities: the goals we seek to advance in everything we do internationally, even when we know that they may not be advanced in any particular encounter.  This requires collaborative thinking, but here, for purposes of discussion, are the ones I’d place at the top of the list:

·      International peace and stability; demilitarization and disarmament

·      International human rights; prevention of genocide

·      Genuinely representative government

·      Averting catastrophic climate change

·      Ending world poverty and economic inequity

No doubt discussion will add to this list orrevise it; the point is, we need to set a list of priorities that should guide all else.

The next step is to determine how the U.S. can best advance these goals without relying on military force.  This will be hard to do, given American policymakers’ belief that diplomacy is most effective when you can wave that “big stick” of military action.  Much of our work, in fact, will involve learning how to achieve progress in a worldwhere the threat of American military action is not the main driver.  Instead, we will have to get a lot better at persuasion, communication, collaboration, listening, assisting.  This is sometimes called “soft power” and is often reviled by the Right (often in sexist and sexualized ways) but should be embraced in positive terms – as what progressive and enlightened people prefer to do.  And, once we arrive at this outlook, we will see that the world is full of potential for progress on our primary objectives.   

With this in mind, the next step is to acknowledge that America’s values and interests can best be advanced in a world with strong international institutions, strong international norms, and strong international solidarity.  The U.S. should do everything it can to enhance the powers of the United Nations and other representative international bodies, and use these venues to promote its values and interests.  The more we can involve other countries in advancing our goals, the greater our chance of achieving them – not just because of the strength in numbers, but also because they will acquire greater internationallegitimacy, the essential requirement for all true progress.

At the same time, the U.S. should seek to constantly expand international membership in international organizations, trade groups, and other components of the “international community.”  The greater the degree of their participation in such networks, the lower the risk that marginal and excluded countries will choose to become “outlaws” in the international system, provoking conflicts of various sorts.  In the same vein, the U.S. should not actively prevent the rise of other powers such asChina – the intended aim of the administration’s “pivot” strategy – as this will provoke hostility and resistance, putting the U.S. in an even more perilous situation than it was before.

As we diminish our reliance on military means of achieving our objectives, the U.S. must bolster its non-military capabilities.  The more useful things we can offer the world, the better position we’ll be in to promote our interests.  China is gaining friends in Africa by building infrastructure (roads, railroads) and training teachers and doctors.  We used to do things like this, but have cut way back.  A progressive foreign policy would call for much greater investment in suchnon-military aspects of international engagement, particular in areas that matter to us: human rights, war prevention, climate change, and so on.

Further thoughts:

My biggest worry is that the U.S. and China will drift into a Cold War-like adversarial relationship – not going to war, but always on the edge of crisis.  In my mind, this is the worst thing that can happen in the world today, both because of the risk that a crisis can lead unintentionally to war (see: Sarajevo 1914) and because a Cold War environment will generate increased military expenditures and the loss of any hope of addressing climate change.  Although leaders of both countries say they seek to avoid such a situation, powerful forces on both sides, especially in the military, are pushing things in that direction.  Hence, a major priority of a progressive foreign policy must be to push back against anti-Chinese militarism.  This can’t be left to chance – it must be addressed pro-actively!

Another worry is that the Global War on Terror has spawned a covert war complex that seeks to perpetuate its mammoth appropriations just as the Cold War spawned a military-industrial complex that continues to fight for a high level of military “preparedness.”  This complex keeps seeking new wars to fight, and is finding them in Africa.  As a result, the U.S. is being drawn deeper and deeper into a series of covert, dangerous wars in Africa – often fought with drones and proxy armies – which have no prospect of ending soon or happily.  Along with our other tasks, therefore, we must find ways to scale back this complex and extricate ourselves from these secret wars.

Instead of fight covert wars, the U.S. should concentrate on the prevention of war, genocide, and humanitarian disaster, rather than on responding to them (which usually entails the use of military force).  This means cooperating with the UN, regional organizations, and other countries to avert disasters by engaging in pro-active preventive measures, including diplomacy, mediation, disarmament measures, and economic aid.  When violence nevertheless occurs, the United States should defer to the UN and regional bodies, like the African Union, to take appropriate action – only joining in when requested by the UN Security Council and to the minimal degree possible.

The United States should not allow its allies to dictate its foreign policy.  The U.S. should support its allies – Israel, Japan, the Philippines, and so forth – when their goals are legitimate and accord with America’s own objectives; when, however, they clash with America’s vital interests, they must be resisted. 

By the same token, the United States should not allow Corporate America to dictate its foreign policy.  Increased international trade may, under certain circumstances, bring economic benefits to U.S. workers and consumers; in pursuit of such trade, however, the U.S. should never sacrifice the interests of labor rights, human rights, or the environment.

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