What Should a Progressive U.S. Foreign Policy Look Like?
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The HKS Progressive Caucus hosted Khury Petersen-Smith, Shireen al-Adeimi and Tobita Chow for a conversation on progressive U.S. foreign policy, moderated by caucus co-chair Joey Leone. To hear about future events, follow the Progressive Caucus on Twitter @Progressive_HKS.
Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He researches, writes, and speaks about US empire and resistance in the Middle East and the Pacific. Khury focuses especially on the War on Terror, US support for Israel and the Palestinian struggle for justice, US militarization and resistance movements in Asia and the Pacific. You can follow Khury on Twitter at @kpYES.
Shireen al-Adeimi is an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University. Since 2015, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the Saudi-led war on her country of birth, Yemen, and works to encourage political action to end U.S. support for the war. You can follow Shireen on Twitter at @shireen818.
Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, a special project of People’s Action to build a more just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism. His recent work focuses on the US-China relationship and the growth of Sinophobia under the COVID-19 crisis. You can follow Tobita on Twitter at @tobitac.
Joseph Leone: As we approach a new year and a new presidential administration in the U.S., the world remains confronted by many enormous challenges, crises, and injustices. Among these are the COVID-19 pandemic; nearly two decades of the U.S.-led War on Terror; climate change; the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Syria; mass displacement, xenophobia, and the militarization of borders; as well as rising right-wing authoritarianism; the ongoing occupation of Palestine; and increased tensions between the U.S. and China, to name but a few. While we are all of course thrilled to see the end of the Trump administration, which has fueled so many of these crises, we know that these injustices have progressed under both Republican and Democratic administrations and will not suddenly disappear with the election of Joe Biden. To meet these pressing challenges of our time, a true progressive alternative to the status quo is essential, and it is needed now. Each of our speakers today has worked admirably to help move us towards that progressive alternative, and to imagine a more peaceful and just future. I’m thrilled to introduce our speakers for this discussion, all of whom I admire greatly.
First, we have Khury Petersen-Smith, who is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Khury researches, writes, and speaks about U.S. empire and resistance in the Middle East and the Pacific. Khury focuses especially on the War on Terror, U.S. support for Israel and the Palestinian struggle for justice, as well as U.S. militarization and resistance movements in Asia and the Pacific. Next, we have Shireen al-Adeimi, who is an Assistant Professor of Education at Michigan State University. Since 2015, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the Saudi-led war on her country of birth, Yemen, and works to encourage political action to end U.S. support for the war. Last but not least, we have Tobita Chow, the director of Justice is Global, a special project of People’s Action to build a more just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism. His recent work focuses on the U.S.-China relationship and the growth of xenophobia under the COVID-19 crisis.
We want this event to be as much of a discussion as possible, so please submit your questions over Zoom so we can discuss them during our Q&A discussion. Without further ado, I want to ask our panelists, starting with Khury, to discuss their work and to describe what a progressive U.S. foreign policy should look like, and how we can make it happen.
Khury Petersen-Smith: I’m really grateful to be here and to share this event with such fantastic people. I’m also grateful to the Progressive Caucus at the Kennedy School for organizing this – I think that it says a lot, actually, that this event is even taking place. It is critical because there has been a growing conversation in the U.S. about what a progressive agenda looks like, one that’s concerned with things like social justice, racial justice, economic justice, climate justice, et cetera. What does that agenda look like, in terms of our big visions and in terms of policy? I have been concerned that so much of that conversation seems to stop at the U.S. borders, how conversations about the progressive agenda are usually framed in domestic terms, and I think it’s really critical for us to grapple with this place in the world, you know, and what the U.S. does all around the world. So, I’m very happy to be here.
As Joseph said, I research and talk and write about U.S. power as it is wielded in the Middle East and the Pacific; and I’m also interested in the resistance movements that challenge that power. I look at the War on Terror, displacement, the ongoing Palestinian freedom struggle, I’ve worked with [Tobita] on the U.S.-China rivalry.
I think the question of what a progressive U.S. foreign policy looks like is quite a provocative question. Is it possible to have a progressive U.S. foreign policy, even? And I have some provocative responses, so please indulge me. I’ll start by saying at the outset that there are any number of particular aspects of what progressive foreign policy could look like. But the big takeaway that I want to put on the table is that a progressive foreign policy would require rethinking (and, frankly, I would argue, rejecting) conventional notions of American leadership. That is a big point, so I’ll flesh it out.
It must be said that, at the moment, 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. Now, that may not be controversial to say, especially for a gathering like this. But what I want to add is that the injustice runs deep. As Joseph said, this isn’t the domain of one particular policy. Rather, there are thread of injustice that we see running through successive administrations of different parties; and I would argue that those threads stretch back to the foundations of this project called the United States.
I was thinking about this event and thinking about the Kennedy School. I live in Boston, and while I know there are those of you who are affiliated with the Kennedy School who might not be in Cambridge at the moment, I want you to imagine with me for a second that you’re at the Kennedy School. You’re in Cambridge. And if you go about a block up from the Charles River, there’s this park called Winthrop Square. There’s a Peet’s Coffee there, usually someone playing music, sometimes even good music. But it’s called Winthrop Square because it’s named after Governor John Winthrop, the 17th century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony famous for his speech before the setting sail of the ship Arbella to Massachusetts from England. His speech was called “A Model of Christian Charity,” better known as the “City upon a Hill” speech. He says a number of things in this sermon about what society looks like and what it should look like, and Christian values and so on. But he ends with a paragraph that has played quite a role in the thinking behind U.S. foreign policy for a long time. He says:
“We shall find that God of Israel is among us when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations ‘may the lord make it like that of New England.’ For we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Now, this speech has been referenced by U.S. presidents from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama. The notion that this colony must be a model Christian project, which will set an example for the whole world to aspire to, is foundational to things like Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. Of course, there are different chapters of the history of the project that can be called the United States and its foreign policy since the 17th century; but there is a lineage from that origin to the wielding of U.S. power on the world’s stage today. And when we’re talking about that power and things like American exceptionalism and the injustices that come with it, they run very deep.
To help me illustrate that depth, I wanted to call to mind the massive outpouring of protests and uprisings against racism that’s taken place this year in this country. Because those uprisings have not only targeted particular police killings, not only have they demanded justice for people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but they also put on the table deep problems of anti-Black racism whose origins lie in the foundation of the United States. It begs a reckoning. Similarly, I believe that what the U.S. has done and continues to do abroad begs a reckoning.
Developing and advancing progressive visions in these areas can’t involve cosmetic changes; they require real deep transformations. I believe that we need a deep unsettling of the whole American project, and I know that’s a massive thing, and I understand that that’ll be a process. For today, what I’ve been thinking about when I think about this event, what I offer my comments in the vein of, is imagining that we’re somewhere along the way of that process. Not at its end, but somewhere along the way. In other words: imagine that there’s a very progressive government. I don’t know who the president is; I don’t know who is in Congress, but imagine that [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is Secretary of State and Ilhan Omar is Secretary of Defense—what should they do?
There’s another thing I want to put on the table, and I’ll try to make this quick. There was an experience I had when I took my job at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. And shortly after moving to DC to start work at IPS, I went to this event about the Saudi war in Yemen and what advocates of human rights can do to stop Saudi human rights abuses in Yemen. It was a symposium that included people from various non-profits, NGOs, people who have worked in the foreign service, and so on. This was right after I got to DC, and I have a lousy memory, so I can’t remember any of the details about who organized it or who spoke (which is true but also very convenient for the purpose of this conversation, so I won’t get in trouble by naming names). But there was a conversation about the various horrendous things Saudi Arabia was doing in Yemen, and what the U.S. could do about it. And the takeaway was that, at the moment, the U.S. is limited in advocating for human rights because there’s this failure of American leadership in the form of Donald Trump in the White House, so there’s not much the U.S. can do to stop Saudi Arabia. So, then my colleague and mentor Phyllis Bennis, who also works at IPS and is a long-time critic of U.S. foreign policy, tactfully asked, ‘well, what about America’s own role in Yemen, and what can be done about that?’ And when she asked the panel this question, nobody got offended by calling attention to what the U.S. was doing – it was as though they just hadn’t thought about it. It was just about critiquing Saudi Arabia, but what Saudi Arabia has done with the United Arab Emirates and a number of other states, the U.S. has been central to that in Yemen. It’s been done with U.S. weapons, U.S. planes, U.S. programs for fueling those planes, U.S. intelligence. When Saudi Arabia carries out a bombing in Yemen, the U.S. has been part of every step except for the actual dropping of the bomb. And the U.S. carries out its own operations in Yemen, as it has since at least 2002 under the heading of “counterterrorism.” So there’s any number of things the U.S. could and should do, not only in terms of stopping Saudi crimes in Yemen, but also its own abuses. And by the way, because of U.S. counterterrorism operations, U.S. personnel themselves have killed [Yemeni] civilians, and this is well-documented. And yet, the thinking of the people who are in Washington was such that the advocacy for human rights was distorted by this question of American power, when, in fact, American power is a central part of the problem.
When we think about what a progressive foreign policy could look like, I think about a couple of things. One is – I was talking recently to Azadeh Shahshahani, who is an Iranian critic of U.S. foreign policy at Project South in Atlanta, and we were talking about U.S. policy towards Iran. And she said, “it needs to be about dignity, not domination,” which I think is an incredibly useful heading. To elaborate on that, I want to quote from a piece Phyllis Bennis wrote for In These Times about what a progressive U.S. foreign policy could look like. She writes that: “without… U.S. domination, the possibility arises of a new kind of internationalism: to prevent and solve crises that arise from current and potential wars, to promote nuclear disarmament, to come up with climate solutions and to protect refugees.” I think that’s really useful, and of course there are countless particulars in terms of what can be done to advance progressive foreign policy. I think, primarily, it involves stopping U.S. harm that’s being committed at the moment and has been committed. So, of course, the operations associated with the War on Terror should end. The various weapons sales to governments around the world and military aid to governments around the world that are committing human rights abuses, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE toward the people of Yemen, to Israel toward Palestinians – the many states around the world carrying out repression with U.S. funds and weapons at this moment, including but not limited to Egypt and Nigeria. All that should stop.
But the general point I think is that a progressive foreign policy would mean really joining with the rest of the world to address the problems that are facing humanity and the planet – climate change, the incredible level of inequality, the pandemics and other public health crises, the mass displacement of people around the world, environmental catastrophes and so on and so on. As residents of this planet and of the human community, we all have a responsibility to address these problems, but that can only be done in a just way if it is coupled with the United States dismantling its power on the world stage. This means demilitarization, withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops deployed around the world; closing the hundreds of military bases and returning the lands to the countries where they’re located. And those decisions wouldn’t be driven just by a conversation in Washington alone: there are social movements in places like Okinawa and South Korea that have been calling for demilitarization and withdrawal of U.S. forces. It means undoing economic arrangements that the U.S. has negotiated and secured to its own benefit, but to the detriment of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. That means debt jubilees, cancelling the debts that have trapped formerly colonized nations. And frankly, it means a lot of repair, because the U.S. has caused a lot of damage. That would need to be done alongside transnational collective conversations and arrangements to address things like climate change and provide for the needs of refugees and other vulnerable groups. It means recasting the relationships between this country and others as equals rather than on relations of domination.
I’ll end on the point of Iran, thinking of various conversations that have to happen, that should happen, because the fact is that the people of Iran and the people of this country are bound together in any number of ways. But at the moment – there has been at least one aircraft carrier group stationed off the coast of Iran this entire year. At times there have been two. There is an incredible sanctions regime on the people of Iran. There have been thousands of U.S. troops added to the Middle East – in addition to the thousands that were already there – under Trump, as part of what he calls the “maximum pressure campaign.” No conversation – no honest conversation – can take place in that kind of relationship. That must end for a conversation and a new relationship to emerge. That’s what I hope for that relationship, and relations between this country and countries all over the world.
JL: Thank you so much Khury. And now we’ll turn it over to Shireen.
Shireen al-Adeimi: I recently finished reading a book about the creation of the Oxford English dictionary, so my instinct was to go and look up the word “progressive” and see what it means to be progressive. As an adjective, “progressive” means to “favor or advocate progress, change, improvement, or reform as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters,” and as a noun, it’s “a person who is progressive or who favors progress or reform, especially in political matters.” So, in thinking about things as they are, you know, this is what we want to push against. But, like Khury said, he said this so eloquently, but essentially U.S. foreign policy as it has been for the past centuries and decades, has been characterized by both direct and indirect imperialism, war, militarism, interventions. And these interventions can be direct intervention – war, occupation, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and a place like Yemen, which is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yet, you can have this entire conference, like Khury mentioned, that doesn’t even recognize the role of the U.S., that none of this would be happening without the U.S.’s support. I can get into that in just a few minutes.
The idea driving all of this, like [Khury] mentioned, is American exceptionalism: 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. So why not police the rest of the world? Why not invade and impose our own ideas and impose our own systems and ideology onto the rest of the world? When we can, and we’re better, and we should.
This, among other things, has been driving what we see around the world with U.S. foreign policy. This is what I think we have to be working to oppose. A progressive foreign policy would be a policy that opposes any and all of these things. Not one aspect of it, but all aspects of U.S. militarism and interventionism and exceptionalism. And, so, the injustice that the U.S. has caused around the world has to be undone, and we can’t begin to think about a foreign policy unless we think about it as coming from a space of respect for sovereignty and peoples’ self-determination. We are not exceptional, and we shouldn’t be thinking about the rest of the world as less than, as needing our help, needing our assistance, needing our interventions because they cannot direct their own country. I hear this about Yemen all the time: you know, “Yemenis can’t be trusted to lead their own country, to determine their own future, so the U.S. has to be involved in Yemen because how could these people decide their own future?” Cooperation and partnership would follow if you have actual respect for other people and their right to self-determination, which we don’t currently have. We won’t cooperate with people because we try to enforce our ideas (by force, often) onto other people and nations. This would entail ending U.S. sanctions, U.S. policing across the world, ending U.S. interventions, and ending all the ways that the U.S. has intervened and imposed its ideology and hegemony over the world.
None of that will happen without first recognizing and reckoning with U.S. wrongdoings within and across our borders. How do you begin to think about justice and freedom and progressive foreign policy when we’re still oppressing people here? We’ve never recognized that we’ve been oppressing them. We’re still on stolen land – we haven’t acknowledged that, nor have we made any steps to undo some of that injustice. Reparation is still something that is incredibly foreign to people – we haven’t even thought about that in any kind of cogent way, what reparations for slavery would look like. We still have migrants at our borders that we continuously abuse and deny their basic human rights. We have people at home who can’t walk in their streets without the fear of being shot or persecuted for who they are. Until we come to a reckoning of all 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.
And I think we need to be held accountable. The U.S. government can’t just say “well, yep, we recognize all of this, moving on.” There’s a lot that we have to undo, whether it’s giving land back (my idea is to give it all back, but am I going to live to see that happen? I don’t know) – until we actually undo the things that we’ve done, I don’t think it would really be progressive. Then we’re just – maybe we can get at some aspects of this, maybe we can end some intervention, maybe we can begin to cooperate with some countries, maybe we can begin to open our borders in ways that are more humane and just. But if we’re really thinking long-term and big picture, we have to work toward being held accountable to all of things that our government has been up to over the centuries and past decades and that it continues to be responsible for.
So, I want to get into talking more about this, but in my work specifically on resisting the U.S.’s role in Yemen, like Khury mentioned, this has been a war that’s now over five and a half years long. And war is not really the right word for it; it’s more like a unilateral attack on a country that can’t even defend itself because the Saudi-led coalition disabled the Yemeni Air Force within the first 24 hours, and then they went on to systematically target civilians wherever they were: in their homes and their hospitals and their schools, their funerals, their weddings. They’ve systematically targeted food production sites, water desalination plants. They have blockaded the entire country. Yemenis relied on importing 90 percent of their food and medicine, and now they’re completely blockaded, so they rely on aid (and even the aid has been cut in recent months).
So, you have a country where 80 percent of the population is starving and relying on humanitarian aid that may or may not show up. You have a country where 53 percent don’t have access to hospitals because half of them have been bombed and the other half are barely functioning at 10 percent capacity and are dealing with outbreaks because of the sanitation issues that have been the results of all the bombing and the blockading of the fuel as well. [That all has] led to the largest cholera outbreak in modern history, with over two million people infected. It has led to outbreaks like H1N1 and diphtheria and now COVID-19, where we’re seeing – even though it’s really hard to track and trace cases in Yemen – the cases that have been tracked and reported, the fatality rate is 30 percent, which is the highest in the world. This is what we’ve caused in Yemen. We are killing a child under the age of five every 10 minutes because that child has nothing to eat, that child has no medicine.
And yet we don’t think about the U.S. as being at war in Yemen because we no longer have “boots on the ground.” War looks very different now, so the hope that Americans might come out in droves like they did during the Vietnam War and oppose U.S. intervention in Yemen is likely not going to happen because American soldiers are not coming back in body bags, because American soldiers are not even in Yemen. Yet, the Saudi-led coalition cannot function in Yemen without the U.S.’ support. They don’t train their own soldiers. They don’t repair their own aircraft or vehicles. They don’t manufacture their own weapons. Saudi Arabia has become, in the last five years, the largest importer of arms – and the U.S. is the largest exporter of arms. They don’t train their own pilots. They don’t even select their own targets! They rely on U.S. commanders in the command room to select targets in Yemen, and most of the targets have been civilian targets.
Whose war is it anyway, then? Is it Saudi Arabia’s war? Is it the UAE’s? Or is it really driven by the U.S.? The announcement to invade Yemen was made by the Saudi foreign minister in 2015 from Washington DC, not in Arabic but in English. Not from Saudi Arabia, but from D.C. So, whose war is this? And if you ask Yemenis when they see bombs dropping on them and it says “Made in the U.S.A,” they know that this is America’s war, whether the average American knows that or not.
This has been ongoing for over five and a half years, which means Obama is complicit in war crimes just as Trump has been complicit in war crimes. It means that Biden is complicit in war crimes – since all this happened under his watch. And yet, after years and years of advocacy, we managed to get a war powers resolution through Congress in 2019, this was led by Ro Khanna in the house and Bernie Sanders in the Senate. U.S. presidents don’t actually have the authority to go to war – not since the 1973 War Powers Resolution passed. But since 1973, every U.S. president has violated that act, and yet no U.S. president has been challenged [directly] by Congress until 2019 when we got the War Powers Act passed in the Senate and the House. But Trump vetoed that bill, and that veto represents an outright commitment to genocide in Yemen and complete disregard to the U.S. Constitution (I don’t expect him to [have] regard [for] human lives, but he did swear to protect the Constitution).
What happened over the years is that Democrats began to see the war as Trump’s war in Yemen, and it took a long time to get all Democrats to support an end for the war. Even former Obama officials – they’ll never recognize their own complicity in it – but they’ve written to ask Trump to end the war in Yemen. We now have Biden, who, while complicit in this war, has vowed, has promised to end U.S. support for the war.
I wrote an article that just came out yesterday. I wanted to talk to different Yemenis about their perspectives. I have my own perspectives, but I’m not living in Yemen – I have family in Yemen, and this has affected me deeply, but nowhere as deeply as it has affected people in Yemen, of course. So, I talked to three people in Yemen who live in different parts [of the country], and I asked them what they thought about a Biden presidency. I’ll share two perspectives here. One of them was from Mohammed Bahjooj who lives in the Al-Jawf province that borders Saudi Arabia and has seen some of the worst bombardment over the last five years. He is an educator and a trainer of educators, and he has seven children. In the article, I write:
“As he watched Biden give his victory speech, Bahjooj noted, ‘Biden is now embracing his grandchildren. … We hope that he will remember the poor children of Yemen who are dying every day because of U.S. weapons and the oppressive blockade.’”
Ibrahim Abdulkareem, on the other hand, was not so optimistic:
“Biden… ‘is one of the architects of the war on Yemen during the time of Obama the Democrat. Therefore, I do not differentiate between Trump and Biden.’”
I have to say that I met Ibrahim on Twitter, I met both these men on Twitter. But Ibrahim came to my attention in 2015, when a picture of him holding the dead body of his child circulated on Twitter. His child was bombed as they slept in their home in the capital in 2015. Which makes this Obama’s responsibility as well as the Saudis. The third person I interviewed was much more hopeful about Biden’s presidency and was eagerly anticipating his victory so that he can end this war once and for all.
As you can see, all of these people recognize the incredible power the U.S. has in this, not out of benevolence – if Biden ends this, it’s not out of benevolence, it’s out of pressure that progressives have been putting on the last several years. It’s not out of moral responsibility, it’s just to try to get out of something that’s become much more unpredictable and much more destructive than they’d hoped.
Tobita Chow: I want to talk specifically about the work that we’ve done around the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship, but I want to start out by saying a bit about where I come from in this work and also some of the worldview shifts that I think are necessary for progressive foreign in general. But also maybe [issues] that are particularly challenging when it comes to U.S. foreign policy towards China.
I started taking an interest in the U.S.-China relationship, and could see it was on a dangerous trajectory, a few years back. It escalated when Trump launched the trade war, and then of course this year the rate at which it was deteriorating accelerated rapidly. A sort of turning point was when I arrived at some clarity that as the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates, that was going to bleed into increased anti-Chinese and, more generally, anti-Asian racism in the U.S. That’s played out pretty dramatically this year with a sharp rise in acts of harassment and even assault against people of Chinese descent in the U.S. and also people of a range of other Asian ethnicities that – you know, a lot of people in the U.S. can’t tell us apart.
The important point is that the way the U.S. treats me (and people who look like me) and the way the U.S. treats China are linked, in that more generally the fate of people who come from various diasporas are inextricably linked to U.S. foreign policy. And we’ve seen this over and over again in U.S. history.
More universally, whether or not you have some sort of tie to China or some other perceived enemy through your identity, a good place to ground ourselves is the quote from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are all caught up in an inescapable garment of mutuality. Whatever affects one of us directly affects all of us indirectly… injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We don’t all share the same fate in this world. Some of us are much more vulnerable than others. But our fates are all tied together, and I think there’s a really important shift in worldview that we need in progressive foreign policy where, either explicitly or implicitly, the rights and wellbeing of people in other countries, and in countries that are perceived to be enemies of the U.S., are seen as at odds with the flourishing of people in the United States – when we take a long-term view of things, that is false. That’s an incredible act of ideology and propaganda to set the wellbeing in the future of people in the United States as being somehow in tension with the future and wellbeing of people in other countries. That’s a major shift of values and worldview that we need in U.S. foreign policy.
Going beyond that, it’s important to, as Khury said, critique the idea of American leadership and start to build alternatives that are more cooperative and less based on domination. But at the same time, shifting things in the U.S. has a crucial role to play in creating a more just society. There was a slogan from the U.S. Social Forum that I like a lot: “Another world is possible. Another U.S. is necessary.” A more just, more environmentally sustainable world is possible, but changing the U.S. is absolutely crucial to that. A lot of the changes that we need to see around the world aren’t possible without some radical changes in the U.S. The work we do here in the U.S. has crucial global significance.
A bit about our work at Justice is Global. We’re a project at People’s Action, which is a national community organizing network. We were founded there [in June 2019], and we work in a few different dimensions. A big part of what we do is analysis of both the U.S.-China conflict specifically, but also the global economic system more generally. We see these things as crucially linked and we think this is a really important point. The worsening U.S.-China relationship is, in our view, part of a broader global trend that has deep causes within the global system. This dynamic of a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship is a product of increasing nationalism and a tendency towards authoritarianism in both countries.
But it is not just in the U.S. and China. We see a growing trend towards nationalist and authoritarian movements and political leaders in China and the U.S., but also in India, Brazil, the Philippines, Myanmar, Hungary, Poland – the list goes on. This has been a serious trend in global politics over the past decade and we need to see it as a single global trend with global causes. It is not a coincidence that we see these trends on all these continents in the same period. Our analysis of this is that it has to do with growing disfunction in the existing neoliberal global economic order. To state it briefly: the story is that we had the financial crisis in 2008. The Great Recession officially ended, but the global economy never fully returned to health (and I mean “health” by the standards of the capitalist system). A key indicator of economic health under capitalism is economic growth. A problem we have seen globally is that economic growth at the global level has been anemic, it’s been very weak, in a very poor quality. That’s created a sense of zero-sum competition between different national economies and zero-sum competition between the national governments that are responsible for managing those national economies. That sense of zero-sum competition, where all these different countries are competing for a share of this shrinking pie of global economic growth, feeds a mentality of competition between nations, feeds nationalism, and feeds authoritarian movements.
We see these worrying political trends, including in the U.S. and in China, and a result of that is the growing U.S.-China conflict. But that has deep causes in these disfunctions within the global economy. We think this analysis is important because we think that we go wrong if we say that the problem is just China. We go wrong if we say the problem is just Trump. The problem is systemic, and we need to understand the system, and we need our policy fights to work towards a horizon of transforming the global system to overcome these dysfunctions so that we can relieve the pressures that are pushing the U.S., China, and a whole range of other countries towards increasing nationalism and international conflict.
That’s our grounding analysis in a nutshell. Coming out of that, we’ve done a bunch of different kinds of work, particularly as the U.S.-China relationship has gotten way worse under the pandemic. Some of our work is around narrative and messaging and finding forms of narratives of international cooperation that we can use to counter this increasingly nationalistic dominant narrative. We’ve seen some very promising results from this work. We’ve convened groups from different sectors to talk about how the worsening U.S.-China relationship is impacting work on a whole range of issues, from public health to climate, of course foreign policy, we talk about the ways that it has translated to racism and policies of racial profiling here in the U.S. We work with community organizations and Chinese and Asian American groups to talk about how this dynamic is affecting the work that we all do, and shifting the terrain that we operate on across a wide range of issues. We also recently launched a campaign for global cooperation to end the pandemic. Lots of different aspects to this [project], but a couple of other things that I think we’re going to dig into more in the future are, first, the way that intellectual property rights and the global patent system are threatening to lock Global South countries out of access to vaccines and other medications. The second piece is looking at debt and financing, again, particularly for the Global South – the way that the economic fallout from the pandemic is threatening to destroy the finances of these countries.
More broadly, we’re working towards building a progressive alternative to this idea of Great Power Competition, or a new Cold War with China – but one that, importantly, doesn’t fall into this trap that we see all too frequently on the Left, where people, in the name of opposing U.S. aggression against China, make excuses for the Chinese state and Chinese capital. Trying to downplay, or make excuses for what’s happening in Xinjiang, the crackdown in Hong Kong, threats towards Taiwan, the bullying of countries in the South China Sea. We don’t make excuses for the Chinese state and Chinese capital, or let them of the hook for these abuses, while at the same time we are trying to counter these increasing anti-China policies within the U.S. So that’s a tricky needle to thread, but that’s the mission.
Looking at what sorts of policies we need: the horizon is to transform the global economy at a structural level – that’s what’s necessary to reverse this deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship. But, along the way, some immediate steps that we can take are, first, to fight for common sense forms of global cooperation, including between the U.S. and China, around the pandemic. The U.S. and China need to work together to make sure that vaccines and other medications are distributed fairly around the world. The U.S. and China need to work together to make sure that debt crises don’t destroy a whole range of Global South countries. Already, just last week, Zambia defaulted on a series of debts to private creditors from the West. A big problem there was that there was a conflict between Western and Chinese creditors, and Zambia was stuck in the middle, and that torpedoed the negotiations that the Zambian government was engaged in to try to get some debt relief. To resolve that problem, which is going to hit other countries too if we don’t do something about it, these two actors need to figure out something together.
Beyond that, we need to look at global cooperation around climate change. That’s going to be a major issue in the Biden administration, and I think there are some opportunities there as well as some threats depending on the direction the administration takes on this stuff. This is, again, a place where we need global cooperation, it’s also a place where we can start to make these sorts of structural changes to the global economy because the neoliberal status quo is not going to allow us to pursue the climate solutions that we really need at a global level. Moving new forms of global climate policy on the model of a Green New Deal at an international level, that’s both what we need in order to address climate and will be a major step along the way to the structural reform to the global economy that we really need.
JL: Thank you so much Tobita and thank you to all three of you for that rich and enlightening discussion. I want to open this up now to questions. We have one question from Morgan Pratt, who asks: “One of the consequences of this increased nationalism and zero-sum thought is manufactured consent/propaganda. Many of the students at HKS who study the U.S.-China relationship rely heavily on this type of media for information and, as a result, become very in-line with the dysfunctional U.S. strategy. Do you have any advice on how to reach these students while they are still reachable?” Maybe Tobita start us off with that one?
TC: [I’ll answer with an example from] our narrative work. Over the summer, we convened a team of volunteers and did phone banking to voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania, these two important swing states. And we engaged in these deep conversations about what they were hearing and feeling about the pandemic and China. We tested forms of narratives around global cooperation, and also around like the racist impacts that this was having on people of Chinese descent in the U.S. just to figure out ways to move people off of these anti-China narratives and start to reflect on them. We had a lot of success around that. One of my big takeaways there is this: we can see in polling that anti-China sentiment has expanded drastically this year, but what we found in this phone banking experiment is, you know, we encountered a lot of this anti-China sentiment, but it was quite shallow. Most people haven’t processed this stuff very deeply, so just bringing them through some counter-narratives within the space of a 15-20 minute conversation can move them significantly on this stuff. It can be as simple as “Chinese people are being targeted because Trump keeps saying ‘China virus,’ did you know that?” And they’ll say, “oh, no, actually, I’ve never actually talked to a Chinese-American person.” It’s just not part of their experience.
Anyways, that was successful. I wonder, though, if students at the Harvard Kennedy School might be a different kettle of fish and more difficult because they’ve reflected much more deeply about this stuff. They’re more informed in some ways, but there’s also going to be more ideological baggage that can come along with that. I wonder, though, if the same narrative and worldview levers are still a good place to start – like really emphasizing the importance of global cooperation around things like the pandemic, around climate change, around what I think has got to be a very deep economic crisis that we don’t totally recognize yet. These are shared global challenges – are we serious about actually coming up with solutions to them? Because if you are, there are some consequences for how you deal with this stuff.
In terms of critiquing some of the standard media narratives, that’s tricky. I can’t say that I’ve tested this a lot, but I think as a general approach, what’s important is to recognize that there are totally legitimate critiques that are the basis of these media narratives about China and the U.S.-China conflict. The problem is how one-sided they get. A kind of conversation to engage folks in is, [to say] “yeah, that is a problem that we see in China, but can you see how that is part of a global problem that, more often than not, the U.S. is also implicated in. [Take] the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang: part of the story there is U.S. cooperation with China in creating what the Chinese government itself calls “The People’s War on Terror.” This was part of the U.S. War on Terror. The U.S. played a role in feeding into this system of persecution in Xinjiang, and the Islamophobia in China, which legitimates this persecution – that’s not just a problem in China. That is a global problem, and the U.S.-led War on Terror has played a major role in feeding that. We see it in China, in India, in the Middle East – it’s all over. You can have a similar conversation around the abuses of the Chinese tech companies that violate people’s privacy. Yes. Guess who else does that? Facebook does that. Twitter does that. Can you reflect on how this is a global problem that U.S. actors and U.S. firms and the U.S. government are also complicit in. Expanding it to these global systems, getting people out of these one-sided, Orientalist critiques that these are problems that we only find in China, I think, is an important step.
JL: Shireen or Khury, is there anything you want to add?
SA: I think the same problem exists with following any U.S. narrative on any issue. I wasn’t involved in politics before 2015, and now I write quite extensively and give talks like this and presentations and whatnot on Yemen, even though I’m a teacher-educator, I teach teachers how to teach kids how to read and write. So, it’s not part of my day job, so to speak. But I think the importance here is creating those counter stories, those counter narratives, and for our us to tell our own stories so that they’re not co-opted by this certain dominant narrative.
Sometimes people ask me “what should I read?” and “what shouldn’t I read?” I tell them to read everything, but you just have to really be critical and ask questions about what you’re reading. You can’t read an article about Yemen, for example, without seeing the phrase “Iran-backed Houthis.” And yet, Iran is not involved in Yemen. But U.S.-backed, in fact, means this is a U.S.-led war. So those words aren’t even used the same way at all. But part of the reason Saudi Arabia gets to justify, at least to the U.S. and to its neighbors on the global stage, why it’s involved in Yemen is [that it wants] to counter perceived Iranian aggression. So read everything, but then ask yourself: where the evidence for this? Yemen is under total land, air, and sea blockade. Where are these mysterious Iranian weapons coming in from, when food and water and even the UN has to seek permission to enter Yemen? People are trapped in the country, so where are all of these Iranians coming and going from? Then you get to hear the preposterous theories and narratives out there, which is that they’re crossing through Oman, through Al-Qaeda land and ISIS land, which is controlled by the coalition and Al-Qaeda in the south, and then getting to northern Yemen with the Houthis. And then the idea starts to fall apart. So, just really critiquing the dominant narrative, no matter what it is, and being on your toes. Just because you read about it, just because it’s repeated so often, that doesn’t mean that it’s true.
KP: Yeah, not too much to add to that. I think that’s really useful. As both Tobita and Shireen have said, these stories are repeated so often that they take on – there’s a kind of echo chamber in Washington, and really throughout the U.S. media, particularly when we talk about places like China and Iran in the kind of dominant U.S. mind. This notion that “China doesn’t play by the rules” or “Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism” – okay, so what’s the evidence? As Shireen just said, it’s worth actually asking those questions. And if people can provide evidence and, as Tobita said, these are things are not specific to places like China and Iran. I think it’s part of the ideology of an enemy – that it’s not just that there’s some problem that China or Iran is carrying out, but that there’s something specific to China, specific to Islam, specific to Iran that makes it so that this problem can’t be dealt with other than through an aggressive confrontation.
The last thing I’ll say on that point: this whole notion of an enemy – and this goes to, like, a deeper critique… I challenge folks to think – particularly folks whose work is going to be the administration of U.S. power – I challenge folks to think about, like, has there been a time in the history of this country when there wasn’t some enemy? And if not, why is that so essential to the outlook of the United States? I mentioned Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech and this idea of creating a sort of shining example for the world to follow, and Winthrop presided, of course, over wars against the Native population here in what he and others called New England. Why has there always been an enemy, and what utility does that provide? And in what ways, Kennedy School graduate student, is your thinking falling into a construct, rather than looking at the world with more honesty and more nuance, and more critically, frankly?
JL: I think that transition us really well into the next audience question. They’re wondering if the group could discuss strategies for countering the outsized influence of the Department of Defense and the national security profession in our government; and they’re particularly interested to hear Tobita’s thoughts on this regarding the DoD’s cheerleading for great power competition as an inevitability [rather than recognizing it as] a self-fulfilling prophecy.
TC: I have a quick take on this. The problem in foreign policy and in national security discourse is that – it may be the most undemocratic part of U.S. policy. There’s just, you know, a small handful of people who get to dominate the conversation and everyone else in the country is disempowered. Then you get these ideas of the national interest that are totally disconnected from the interests of 99 percent of people who are, like, humans living in the U.S. We see this in – is this war on Yemen in the “national interest” of the United States? Well, that’s the dominant view. But try to spell out how this is benefiting any human being that lives in the U.S. – you can’t. You can’t.
I think the major step there is to build the power and capacity of ordinary people – and this is going to have to happen through grassroots people-powered organizations – to weigh in on these conversations, and to become a powerful voice of critique, and start to pick some fights with the dominant voices. I think we need to build more organized people power around this stuff, and that’s going to be a major part of how we start to shift this discourse.
SA: If I can add to that, the only people who benefit from this are Boeing and General Dynamics and Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. We really have to think about their influence on Congress as well. What does it mean that these companies have such influence and power over sitting Senators? It took us a while to get Rhode Island senators to agree to any anti-war thing related to Yemen because Textron is based in Rhode Island, and they were selling cluster bombs to the Saudis despite its illegality, and the Saudis were dropping them in Yemen. Once Textron stopped selling cluster bombs, those senators came on board. You have Raytheon in Massachusetts, you have all of these companies that are benefiting so much, and have specifically made tens of billions of dollars from the war in Yemen alone. And yet, they get to have so much sway, as though they are doing some kind of national service to the people of the United States, and they’re not.
KP: I can say one thing too. There’s so much to say structurally about how those relations are cultivated, which Shireen was just talking about, how it is that Boeing or Raytheon actually buy support and achieve influence in Washington. I think, too, that this outsized power is reflective of what has been tremendous unity in Washington on the notion of the War on Terror and national security as overarching frameworks for achieving any number of goals by/for the people who run this country. It’s worth saying… it’s not only this country, that [framework has] been a gift to many countries. Many states have declared a “War on Terror” because there’s something convenient about [being able] to identify whatever problem they want to target as “terrorism” or a “threat to national security.” That said, back to the U.S., which really led on it: any number of issues now have been recast as questions of homeland security. The question of immigration: prior to the September 11th attacks… of course there’s a long history of criminalization and racism directed toward populations of folks who migrate to the United States. But the notion that Central American migrants are not only threats to “our jobs” but also are potential vehicles for terrorism, or are a threat to homeland security, is part of a new recasting of all the problems that the American political class have identified as useful. When corporations decide that certain kinds of work is essential… in the weeks and months after 9/11, there were workers on docks who wanted to organize for labor rights, and that was considered a potential terror threat. Well, the problem of capital and labor precedes the War on Terror, but there became a useful heading to continue and enhance what those people were going to do anyways.
These notions of national security, homeland security, need to be ruthlessly critiqued. And we need to look at the kind of society that has been crafted under that heading: the surveillance, the violence, the repression – and it affects things domestically too. This is, of course, related to the uprisings that we saw against police violence earlier this year, as well as what the U.S. carries out around the world.
TC: If I could add another thought to that – I think I missed the question about countering the narrative that great power competition is inevitable. One tactic is to emphasize the need for global cooperation and to clarify that these things are in contradiction. There’s this idea in the Biden administration and the mainstream of the Democratic party that they agree with Republicans and Trump that we’re locked into this competition, but they’re going to [compete] in a moderate way where we can both compete [on some issues] and cooperate on other deep global challenges like the pandemic and climate change. This is not a sustainable strategy, especially given how deep cooperation will have to be to actually addresses these challenges. We need to expose that contradiction. We need to choose what our priorities are and do a better job of organizing the forces that have a stake in global cooperation, which is a lot of people in the United States, it’s a lot of organizations that work on public health, climate change – even economic justice, there’s a story there about how economic justice in the U.S. depends on global cooperation as well. We need to also draw upon people that are directly impacted by the growth of these national security narratives, particularly people in the Chinese diaspora, and organize those people so their voices can be heard in these DC circles where policy gets set. That’s the challenge. So, some of it comes down to figuring out the right narratives, but a lot of this is just an organizing challenge.
I’ll also drop a link in the chat, but Pew Research had some encouraging polling, and there’s a lot of support for global cooperation, but it’s not organized and not felt in DC enough.
JL: Thanks so much Tobita. I’ll ask a question of my own: all of you touched on this already – Khury, you mentioned this earlier, how discussions about the progressive agenda tend to end at the U.S. border. And you all, I believe, spoke to how the need for accountability in the U.S., and how U.S. atrocities play out in foreign policy. But I’m interested to hear you all speak to the inverse of that, how U.S. foreign policy also doesn’t stop at the U.S. border, but comes to infiltrate the United States itself. You all spoke on this a bit – Khury, I know you wrote recently about connecting the War on Terror to what we were seeing this Summer and Fall in Portland with federal agents using tactics from the War on Terror against anti-racist protestors. I’m curious to hear what you all think about how foreign policy influences the domestic sphere in the United States, and what we can to do address that.
KP: I so appreciate that question. When I think of U.S. violence, I think of it in terms of circuits. This place called the United States is an incubator for a kind of violence that then gets deployed elsewhere. I think about how the United States has invaded many nations around the world, and the first nations were the indigenous nations here. That’s not incidental; in fact, the military has any number of ways to remind us of that, from weapon systems with Indigenous names (Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters) to codenaming the Bin Laden raid “Geronimo” after the indigenous rebel freedom fighter. There’s violence directed at the Black population here in the U.S., which we also deployed abroad in numerous ways.
But exactly as you said, it’s also the case that the U.S. carries out violence abroad that then gets brought back here. There’s any number of long, historic examples of that before we get to Portland. I think about, for example, how in the 1980s and 1990s there was this horrific torture ring organized at a police precinct in Chicago on the South Side that tortured many dozens of Black people over the years before activist protest finally ended it. The police officers who carried out that violence learned those tactics as soldiers in the U.S. war in Vietnam, and then brought them back to Chicago to use against Black people as police officers. Those circuits are really important. The article Joseph referred to points to what happened in Portland this past year. Many people in the U.S. were, rightly, horrified by seeing unidentified federal agents disappear people in unmarked cars in Portland. That is horrifying and it absolutely should have garnered the response that it did, but those agents and the institutions that carried that out were not invented in that moment. It is precisely what ICE does in immigrant communities. Unmarked agents disappear people in those communities all the time, taking them to locations away from their families. And in the War on Terror, through the rendition programs and any number of other programs, the U.S. has perfected seizing people with no legal recourse.
This also gets at other questions people had about national security: one reason I think that elected officials use those headings and get away with assigning them to broad categories of activity by the state is that they also render the activities of the U.S. military, the CIA, other agencies – they render those activities invisible to us here in the U.S. The fact that the U.S. has been at war with multiple countries for two decades, for the most part, is not really discussed in the media or anywhere else. Thousands of U.S. personnel cycle through countries as soldiers and then return – there’s precious little conversation about that. I think one thing we need to do is to help reveal, when they say “security,” what that actually looks like. Part of it is it looks like militarized police in the streets of America – and, again, that’s long-standing, the policing of Black folks goes back to the enslavement of Black folks. Those histories rooted in this place combine with what the U.S. does abroad – and we have to reveal all of it in the various circuits and connections.
TC: The way that the bloated Pentagon budget acts as a force that undermines spending on domestic priorities – there’s this conversation around whether we need more industrial policy in the U.S., to which I say yes, that’s an important progressive priority. But we actually do have a very powerful form of industrial policy: the military-industrial complex. That is the premier form of industrial policy that the U.S. currently engages in with bipartisan support. And there’s this idea of shifting funding from the military to policies and systems that can meet human needs – that’s a really important fight. There’s a major implication for domestic policy there.
Militarism abroad feeds racism here, and violence abroad feeds violence here. Another big thing, though, is that 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. There is no border and no wall that can protect the United States from these global crises. If climate change continues to worsen, we don’t have a wall that stretches up to the stratosphere. If we do not create solutions for the whole world, including China and the Global South, while working together to solve these problems, we are going down with the rest of the ship. If we don’t get together with China and the rest of the world to solve this emerging global crisis that is coming with the pandemic, a global economic crash is going to take down the U.S. economy with it. The border, the wall – nothing’s going to keep that out. We’re part of a global system, and the future of that global system determines the future of the United States. And U.S. foreign policy has a huge impact on the future of that global system.
SA: What everyone has said is fantastic. I also wrote a piece this summer with Sarah Lazare for In These Times where we explore how the bloated U.S. military strengthens the police state. Everything from counterinsurgency – the manual that was written for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – those tactics get used here at home with the policing of Black and Muslim communities, unleashing the National Guard on protestors like we’ve seen this summer. Even the conversation of the $740 billion per year budget of the Pentagon – that has bipartisan support, as Tobita said. Even the suggestion to cut it by 10 percent, only 10 senators voted for that proposal! So, this is a bipartisan, entrenched dedication to militarism that ends up harming people here at home, and certainly abroad. But also there’s clear cooperation between police and the military in ways that are increasingly destructive.
JL: Thank you everyone. I’ll turn now to Frances’ question in the chat. First, there’s a quick note about our Textron discussion from earlier; she says the reason Textron stated they stopped the production of cluster bombs was because they saw growing Congressional opposition to the war in Yemen and were concerned about their future profitability. Frances also asks: what do folks think the order of issue priorities should be going into the next administration. I’d also like to add to that: what priorities and actions should there be for movements who want to influence the administration?
SA: I think we can walk and chew gum, as they say. I don’t know if it necessarily has to be one thing at a time. The more progressive policies we push through grassroots action – these have to be our causes. Like you said with climate change, we’re all in this together. Bombs dropping on people in our name should be something everybody is concerned about. We have to be pushing any number of these policies – all of them – as much as possible, and not making excuses for people. Like, they’re so busy with COVID-19 that they can’t think about war? Well, clearly, they’re still managing war just fine.
I think we have to stary treating our elected officials like our employees. We elect them and we should expect them to represent our views. If we abdicate that responsibility, then we’re allowing those things to happen in our name, and we become complicit. So, the more we can push, the earlier, the better.
KP: The question is daunting of course, because there’s so much to be done. But I do think the War on Terror just has to be – this just has to be the beginning of the end of the War on Terror. That means all of its overseas operations and domestic surveillance and Islamophobic restrictions at the border have to end. But, again, there’s not enough of a conversation about what the U.S. is doing abroad. People – or many people – have no idea what the U.S. is doing in Somalia, for example, where the number of civilian casualties has escalated due to U.S. so-called counterterrorism operations. That’s true of any number of countries in the world. So, I think it’s critical to have those conversations.
One hopeful and very interesting thing is that there’s a growing willingness in the government among elected officials – small, but significant – to challenge the bipartisan orthodoxy in terms of U.S. support for Israel and a growing recognition of the human rights of the Palestinians. That’s very significant, and I think that’s reflective of the incredible work of grassroots organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and many others. So, we need to expand that. I think there’s a good conversation reemerging around Yemen as well.
I am very worried about the U.S.-China rivalry, just because the level of unity in Washington is so high. There are elected officials who are willing to say that the U.S. should no longer be in Afghanistan or carrying out other operations in the War on Terror, even if there’s very little questioning of the War on Terror overall. But there is, from what I can see, virtually no dissent on the question of – precisely as somebody said – the self-fulfilling prophecy of a conflict with China because of the actions the U.S. is taking. So, I really think it’s important for those of us who see that to call attention to it right away.
TC: Let me go back to this question about the first hundred days. I think it’ll be important to get some quick action around the pandemic, that’s the pressing thing. And I think, on the side of executive action, I’m hoping to see some action on getting Special Drawing Rights at the IMF. This is a form of providing financial relief, especially to Global South countries that are being threatened by debt crises; and the U.S. government has been the major obstacle to this measure at the IMF. That opposition, incidentally, has been motivated by a fear that if we allow this increased financial space to Global South countries, somehow this money will make its way to Iran or China. Again, these boogeyman of Iran and China are a major force that has gotten the U.S. government to take this disastrous position for billions of people around the world.
There’s stuff we need to do to make sure a vaccine is globally accessible. There are some things around patent pools, and some measures at the WTO that could help. These don’t just address the immediate crisis – we can also use them to as an opportunity to ask deeper questions about the structure of the global system. We can address immediate issues while setting the stage for some further fights.
Apart from that, we need a lot more power and capacity around these questions, so I’ll just come back to something I said before. In part, this is a narrative question, in part a research question, but most fundamentally it’s an organizing question: how do we organize more people who understand their stake in these issues? Which can include politicizing people who are already engaged in progressive politics; but it can also include bringing in more people who are directly impacted, like members of various diasporas, and organizing them and increasing their power and capacity to raise these questions. Because they’re already clear about their stake in a lot of these issues.
But also, research and alternative narratives [are important], and just finding out more about these stories that are left out of mainstream media and getting more nuanced perspective is important.
JL: Thank you Tobita and thank all of you for those great answers. We’re coming up on time now, so I want to give you each a little bit of space to make some closing remarks.
SA: Thank you so much for hosting! I just want to leave people with the idea that there’s hope. Hope is certainly the only thing that keeps me going. I have family in Yemen who are deeply affected by this, and it’s not just Yemen. We can end the war in Yemen, we can end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and so on – these are all connected struggles. I hope that people will join us in thinking about each other as one connected global community, and if we recognize that our oppressors are the same, we will have much more power to dismantle these structures.
So I hope people don’t give up despite how difficult it is. I know certainly a lot of times I feel like giving up, but I remember that I have the privilege to even think that. And others don’t because they have to live under sanctions and war and bombs and blockades. Those are the people who keep me going, and I hope that people feel inspired. There is a lot of work to do, but it is doable.
KP: Thank you so much for this – I’m really grateful for all of this. One thing I wanted to shout out one thing that Frances said in the chat about sanctions relief. The U.S. sanctions that target people all around the world need to be lifted. In particular, I’d call attention to the sanctions on Iran, and all the activities done under the heading of “maximum pressure” – that should be one of the things we demand an immediate end to.
I’ll wrap up by pointing to something that Tobita said that I think is really important: there’s no wall that can address the problems brought by climate change, by public health crises like the COVID-19 crisis, and so on. That points to this whole question of national security, homeland security, and militarized solutions for the problems that people face. There is real anxiety across this country for any number of reasons – economic instability, social instability, the addiction crisis, the environmental catastrophes. There are real problems that exist in this country and all around the world, and thestory that there is a military solution to those things is not only oppressive, it’s not only horrendous what is done to children at the border in the name of security, and what is done to people in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan in the name of security – it’s also false. The idea that “America first,” or any version of that, will actually provide a future worth living in is simply not true. So, I think that we have to craft a different set of stories that not only are about addressing those injustices and undoing them, but also developing positive visions that point us to the future.
I’ll end on what I’m very inspired by, which are these incredible uprisings all around the world for justice over the past couple years. Whether it’s what’s happening in Nigeria at the moment, what happened last year and continues to happen in Puerto Rico, what happened in places like Chile and Ecuador and Peru and Hong Kong and Lebanon and Iraq. And the struggles and uprisings for racial justice in this country. These all target particular injustices, but within them, people are talking about the deep problems that are rooted in our societies and starting to imagine what things could look like instead. That’s the hope. So, with our social movements, how can we build those as we dismantle the harmful institutions, and develop some positive visions that are not only righteous but, frankly, honest and compelling? Climate change is a real problem. The displacement crisis is real. We have to step up to that, but that requires a more just worldview – and a hopeful one.
TC: I want to end on the point about how this is, in large part, an organizing task, but flipping that in a positive and hopeful way. National security debates have been so thoroughly insulated from anything like what the majority of people in this country think. I think there’s an enormous opportunity here to pick progressive foreign policy fights and bring them into the rarified air of DC foreign policy circles, backed by organized people power. The foreign policy establishment is not ready for that. If we build that, we will take them by surprise. When I listen to these people (and some of these people might be your professors, but whatever), they are so used stuck within their tiny worldview that they don’t even consider questions or critiques that come from outside their circles. They’re just not ready to deal with this stuff.
The foreign policy establishment is out of touch with popular sentiment in this country. People are out there that we can organize. And within more established progressive organizations, as progressive groups start to build power and feel like they have more of a say within policy debates, the implications of status quo foreign policy for the issues that everyone works on are starting to become clearer. Climate groups, for example, are realizing “oh, this international stuff matters a lot to us.” So, there are a lot of opportunities for us in the next two-to-four years to build a much more powerful front on progressive foreign policy and bring that to bear on the foreign policy establishment in DC. I think we can make some real gains there, and it could be a lot of fun to get into those fights.
Transcription by Billy Ostermeyer