Opinion

American national politics has recently become driven and dominated by foreign and military policy. At a time when the global economy so directly shapes the national economy, and when global issues such as climate change are changing the ways Americans think about their relationship to the rest of the world, it is only fitting that national politics be framed by global politics. The common wisdom of citizen activists – global is local, local is global – has, it seems, finally seeped into the national political arena.

September 11 and America’s post-trauma syndrome have done what foreign policy reformers have long sought – injected global affairs into America’s mainstream consciousness. Unfortunately, this new international consciousness has been shaped by the Bush administration’s largely military response to terrorism and is supported by a groundswell of public anger, fear and jingoism.

In less than six months, many of the modest foreign policy (and domestic) gains of the previous decade – liberalization of Mexico-U.S. migration, cuts in military spending, declassification of documents, limitations on U.S. involvement in Colombia, increased human rights and environmental conditionality to U.S. aid, negotiations with Iran and North Korea, progress on ending the embargo on Cuba – were rolled back.

For foreign policy reformers, the main obstacle to efforts to reshape Washington’s international relations has been the lack of broad public constituencies concerned about global affairs. Foreign policy has been the domain of a small elite that operates in isolation from the American mainstream. Active foreign policy constituencies have been limited largely to sectors of religious communities committed to international humanitarian values, ethnic and diaspora groups concerned with particular countries and regions, and solidarity groups also concerned with only select areas of the world where they have a political or personal interest.

As the effects of the global economy have reverberated through the domestic economy in recent years, there has been growing public interest in foreign economic policy. But concerns about foreign economic policy have for the most part not transferred into military and diplomatic affairs.

Foreign policy reform has also been the objective of mostly D.C.-based NGO advocacy groups and think tanks, the majority of the former being center-left while the latter are mostly center-right on the ideological spectrum. Since the 1960s, advocacy groups, particularly human rights and environmental NGOs, have made impressive advances in reforming U.S. foreign policy on its fringes – mostly through constructive communication with liberal congressional Democrats, backed at critical points by surges in public concern about such issues as apartheid and aid to the contras.

But the main thrust of U.S. foreign and military policy has largely followed the directions set forth by the center-right network of think tanks and scholars, primarily focusing on foreign economic policy – with U.S. support for the neoliberal ideology of global trade, production and financial affairs.

With the end of the cold war, the more traditional aspects of the grand strategy of U.S. foreign affairs – military and diplomatic relations – lost the focus they enjoyed when international relations were grounded in anticommunism. Without the framework of the cold war – the good fight against the evil empire of communism – politicians, scholars and think tank experts found it more difficult to sell military budgets and internationalist engagement.

Lacking an overarching vision of the U.S. role in global affairs – like anticommunism and the closely related commitment to the kind of liberal internationalism first articulated by Woodrow Wilson – U.S. foreign and military policy fell into disarray, outside the new focus on foreign economic policy. On both the left and the right, there was widespread concern about neoisolationism in America. For many, the election of Texas homeboy George W. Bush symbolized this turn away from any sense of U.S. responsibility and leadership in global affairs.

Ideologues and business-driven militarists are now disguising themselves as the new realists in global affairs: America must look after itself, and that means defending oil pipelines in Colombia, building missile shields, unleashing war on political Islamism, constructing alliances of convenience, and discarding all the liberal baggage of human rights, environmental protection, and humanitarianism that purportedly has burdened foreign policy and obstructed the U.S. from protecting its interests and asserting its power.

The new political conjuncture – driven by narrow and retrograde views of the U.S. as a global player – presents new obstacles, challenges, and opportunities in advancing a reform agenda that builds on progressive values of demilitarization, multilateralism, respect for human rights, and equitable and sustainable development.

At Foreign Policy in Focus, we see the new challenge as threefold:

• Defending core values of progressive internationalism against a conservative campaign to restructure foreign and military policy.

• Highlighting the weaknesses of the emerging agenda while prescribing alternatives to these new issues of concern that will resonate with the American public.

• Promoting the concept and practices of global citizen action as a counterweight to a right-wing, supremacist agenda and as an effective base of support for international cooperation and multilateralism.

Tom Barry is a senior analyst at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (www.irc-online.org) and codirector of Foreign Policy in Focus (www.fpif.org). This article is excerpted from a new FPIF Global Affairs Commentary and is reprinted with the permission of the author. He can be reached at tom@irc-online.org

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