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Progressive Policy Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

“Dignity, not Domination”: Imagining a Progressive U.S. Foreign Policy

What should a progressive U.S. foreign policy look like? Is such a thing even possible, or is this line of inquiry akin to asking how best to reform the British Empire or green the fossil fuel industry? How can a country with its hands in multiple wars, with approximately 800 military bases in 80 countries around the world, and with daily state violence waged against Black, Indigenous, brown, and poor people within its own borders, begin to develop a progressive foreign policy?

These are the questions that panelists sought to answer in the first Progressive Caucus event of the Fall 2020 semester, which can be viewed here. The Progressive Caucus was honored to host Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Shireen al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University as well as an activist and journalist, and Tobita Chow, Director of Justice Is Global, to discuss what a progressive U.S. foreign policy should look like and how we can achieve it.

The first step in such a process is rendering visible the violence that the U.S. commits abroad and honestly grappling with its destructive impact. While this violence is easily recognizable and on display to those living in Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, or Pakistan, it is normalized and made invisible within the United States through a wide range of means, including ideologies of American exceptionalism, orientalism, and racism, as well as discourses of ‘national security’ and an unshakable belief in the good-ness of America and the righteousness of our intentions.

With the destructive Trump presidency thankfully coming to a close, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are eager for the Biden administration to restore American leadership on the world stage; however, it is critical to examine what exactly this ‘leadership’ has produced throughout the world.

“The overwhelming bulk of U.S. foreign policy runs contrary to progressive values like justice and equality. It is an unjust and destructive set of activities,” Khury Petersen-Smith argues, tracing the threads of injustice through successive U.S. administrations of different parties back to the foundation of the American project.

Research by Brown University’s Costs of War Project has estimated that the United States’ ongoing ‘War on Terror’ has caused the deaths of over 801,000 people through direct war violence, including 335,000 civilians, with several times as many killed indirectly. They also found that these wars have displaced 37 million people. These numbers are still rising, as the United States continues to launch air and drone strikes in at least seven countries and send soldiers on combat operations in at least 14 countries.

These hot wars are but one form of U.S. violence abroad, complemented by severe economic sanctions imposed on ‘enemy’ populations; military and financial support to repressive governments in Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and elsewhere; and a crushing neoliberal economic order that traps Global South countries in successive debt crises.

A constellation of harmful national beliefs underlies this violence. Petersen-Smith argues that “a progressive U.S. foreign policy requires rethinking and, frankly, rejecting conventional notions of American leadership.”

Shireen al-Adeimi describes how these notions of American leadership are driven by the idea of American exceptionalism, the false belief that “we are better than the rest of the world; we have more to offer than the rest of the world; and we deserve better than the rest of the world.” The consequences of this logic are predictable, she explains: “why not police the rest of the world? Why not invade and impose our own ideas and impose our own systems, our own ideology onto the rest of the world?”

Moving  away from the harmful practices that have long defined U.S. foreign policy requires a fundamental recasting of the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world. The United States must, for the first time, view others as equals and partners rather than rely on domination, imperialism, and exceptionalism.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment, whether in good or bad faith, tends to dismiss these criticisms of U.S. militarism and interventionism from progressive or leftist circles as calls for ‘isolationism.’ This could not be further from the truth. A progressive foreign policy is rooted in the recognition that global engagement and cooperation are essential to address the shared crises of climate change, deadly pandemics, and the dysfunctional global economy and to provide for the needs of the world’s refugees, migrants, and other frontline communities.

International cooperation around these goals is undermined by the rampant militarism, great power competition, and global austerity that have long defined the U.S. foreign policy playbook. A progressive foreign policy rejects these practices in pursuit of a more just and equitable world built on mutual respect.

For Tobita Chow, this process begins with a shift in worldview that rejects the idea that the rights and wellbeing of people in other countries, particularly countries perceived as enemies of the United States, are at-odds with the flourishing of people in the United States. He rejects this zero-sum mentality as “an incredible act of ideology and propaganda,” that is patently false and harmful to all.

Capturing the essence of what this new internationalism should be, Petersen-Smith referenced the words of his colleague Azadeh Shahshahani, the Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South, who said that U.S. foreign policy towards Iran should be about “dignity, not domination.” American engagement with the world should not be about subjugation or “maximum pressure,” but about partnership in pursuit of human flourishing and reducing human suffering.

This can only come about through constructive international engagement that treats others as equals deserving the same rights and privileges as Americans. “We can’t begin to think about a progressive foreign policy,” al-Adeimi says, “unless we think about it from a space of respect for sovereignty and people’s self-determination.” With this respect, she argues, cooperation and partnership will naturally follow.

As we build cooperative alternatives to traditional notions of American leadership, Chow emphasizes that “shifting things in the U.S. has a crucial role to play in creating a just society,” pointing to a compelling slogan from the U.S. Social Forum: “Another World is Possible; Another U.S. is Necessary.”

There are many immediate policy actions that the United States can and must take to end the harms it is actively committing. Panelists identified such steps as:

  • Ending the operations associated with the ‘War on Terror;’
  • Halting military aid and weapons sales to foreign governments committing human rights abuses;
  • Ending the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere;
  • Withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops deployed around the world and closing the hundreds of military bases and returning the lands to the countries where they are located;
  • Undoing economic arrangements that the United States has secured to its benefits but to the loss of countries in the Global South;
  • Cancelling the debts that have trapped formerly colonized nations;
  • Ending U.S. sanctions against perceived “enemy” countries like Iran; and
  • Ending America’s jingoistic competition with China that only fuels nationalism and persecution of marginalized groups in both countries.

However, for the United States to play a truly progressive role on the world stage, it needs to do more than put an end to its harms; it also needs to invest in repairing the wrongdoings committed both within and across its borders. “Developing and advancing progressive visions” Petersen-Smith argues, “can’t involve cosmetic changes. They require real deep transformations.”

Referencing the massive uprisings against racism this year, he explains: “Those uprisings have not only targeted particular police killings. Of course, they have demanded justice for people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. But also, those protests put on the table deep problems of anti-Black racism whose origins lie in the foundation of the United States. It begs a reckoning, and similarly, I believe that what the United States has done, and continues to do, abroad begs a reckoning.”

Al-Adeimi likewise asked “How do you begin to think about justice and freedom and progressive foreign policy when we’re still oppressing people here, and we’ve never recognized that we’ve been oppressing them?” Pointing to the need for reparations for slavery, the theft of Indigenous land, the ongoing abuse of migrants, and state violence against Black Americans, she argues that “until we come to a reckoning of all of the ways in which we’ve harmed people, Black and brown mostly, here at home, at our borders, and across the world, then we can’t begin to think about how to change that.”

The injustices at home and abroad are connected and feed into one another. “When I think of U.S. violence, I think of it in terms of circuits,” Petersen-Smith says, calling the United States an “incubator for a violence that then gets deployed elsewhere.” This exchange goes both ways. He references a torture ring organized out of a precinct in the South Side of Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s, where police tortured dozens of Black people, using techniques they learned during the U.S. war in Vietnam. Similarly, in her book Bring the War Home, historian Kathleen Belew shows how disillusioned soldiers returning from the Vietnam War fueled white power paramilitary violence within the United States itself.

This year in Portland, as Petersen-Smith notes, unidentified federal agents dragged protestors into unmarked vans, deploying tactics used by ICE in immigrant communities and by the CIA abroad against protestors in the streets of a major American city.

Chow succinctly summarizes these dynamics: “militarism abroad feeds racism here and violence abroad feeds violence here,” explaining, as part of the Chinese diaspora, that “the way that the U.S. treats me and people who look like me and the way that the U.S. treats China are linked.”

These linkages impact every sphere of domestic policy, with “the bloated pentagon budget [acting] as a force that undermines spending on domestic priorities,” according to Chow. In line with abolitionist thinking, he advocates for “shifting funding from the military to policies and systems that can meet human needs.”

Dismantling these interlinking systems of oppression is essential and urgent, since, as Chow describes, “status quo U.S. foreign policy is locking us into a century of escalating global crises around public health, around the global economy, around climate, and there is no border and no wall that can protect the United States from these global crises.”

Building a progressive alternative to U.S. foreign policy is critical, and it will be a monumental organizing effort. Al-Adeimi notes the importance of seeing ourselves as one global community, and she stresses that “if we recognize that our oppressors are the same, we have much more power to dismantle these structures.”

Chow sees a path forward through grassroots organizing that builds the power and capacity of ordinary people—particularly those impacted by U.S. militarism and national security narratives—to become a powerful voice of critique and shift the discourse. “The foreign policy establishment is not ready for that,” he argues. “National security debates have been so thoroughly insulated from anything like how the majority of people in this country think.”

“The people are out there that we can organize,” Chow explains. “I think there is an enormous opportunity here to pick progressive foreign policy fights and bring those into the rarified air of DC foreign policy circles, backed by organized people power.

“I think we can make some real gains there and it could be a lot of fun to get into those fights.”

See the full conversation here.