The presidential elections and foreign policy

As the presidential election campaign in the United States begins to hit its stride, we need to be examining the positions and records of the candidates on both domestic and foreign policy.

Anybody who has been listening to and reading what most of the Republican candidates have been saying has got to be worried about what they would actually do in power, as they have reached a level of militaristic belligerence which goes beyond anything that we have recently seen. Most of them would erase the two most positive foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration, namely the effort to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, and Iran nuclear deal.  They also for the most part promote a more direct and extreme intervention by the United States in the Middle East, and are much more hawkishly pro Israel and anti-Palestine than the current administration.  There are exceptions and variations:  Ron Paul takes a more non-interventionist stance coming out of a sort of paleoconservative isolationist background, but he is horrible on other issues and at any rate seems to be unelectable at this point.  Donald Trump says he is OK with normalizing relations with Cuba but would practically start a war with Mexico, as well as calmly threatening to violate the Geneva Conventions by attacking the families of members of the Islamic State.    

All three surviving Democratic Party candidates – former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley-have firmly stated that they will continue the Obama administration’s initiative on opening up relations with Cuba as well as supporting the nuclear pact with Iran. 

But there are differences in terms of their records.  O’Malley, as former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, has not had much to do with or say about foreign policy.

Bernie Sanders was an active opponent of the Vietnam War, of the Contra Wars in Central America and of the Iraq War.  He did support the Kosovo intervention, having been convinced that a massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians was really taking place.  He is a supporter of a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, and refused to be present when Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu spoke to the U.S. Congress at the behest of the Republican Party leadership. Also, Sanders has been outstanding in his opposition to the Transpacific Partnership and other neoliberal trade pacts that hit workers and small farmers in poor countries even more than they harm workers and small farmers in the United States.

Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War (though she now says it was a mistake) and carried out an interventionist foreign policy when she was President Obama’s first secretary of state.  When the military, at the instigation of local oligarchs and abetted by U.S. political figures, overthrew progressive President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, President Obama initially denounced the action but his position was undercut by Clinton who worked to block the united efforts of the Latin American countries to reverse the coup and restore Zelaya to power.  The result has been very tragic for the Honduran people.  The intervention in Libya also happened on Clinton’s watch, and other things.  The impression is that as president, Clinton would continue an interventionist course, perhaps more so that the current president.  Her recent call for a no-fly zone in Syria, which Obama has rejected, is evidence of this.

So of the three surviving Democrats, Sanders appears to be the one who would have the most constructive and progressive stance on foreign policy overall, though one could hardly call him a consistent “anti-imperialist”. 

A final point that I think is very important:  The policies the new administration follows on domestic policy are not hermetically sealed from those it will follow on foreign policy. I will refer at this point to only one matter, namely the future of organized labor in this country.

During the repressive McCarthy period after the Second World War and during the Cold War, communists and other leftists were driven out of leadership positions in the great majority of labor unions in our country.  The vacuum was filled in some cases by corrupt pseudo-leaders, and even more often by anti-communists like George Meany and Lane Kirkland. Cooperative relationships of organized labor with progressive causes in the United States were affected, but any progressive role for unions in foreign policy even more so.  It got to the point that U.S. labor sometimes lent itself to projects to undermine left wing  labor leadership in other countries around the world, channeling government funds directed toward building up anti-communist labor leadership, especially in Latin America.

It has taken a long time, but U.S. organized labor has been moving away from this role in recent years. Positive developments include the help that SEIU and other provided in the struggle to free the Cuban 5, solidarity of our Steelworkers (USW) with progressive independent unions in Mexico, and the very useful stance that the AFL-CIO has taken toward Central America. As it becomes clearer that workers in other countries have the same enemies and interests as workers in the United States, this tendency is sure to continue to grow. 

But the whole lot of Republican candidates, not just Trump but all of them, and the Republican Party leadership at every level, are doing their best not just to weaken but to destroy organized labor.  If they succeed in this, they will destroy the best chance we have for giving a mass nature, and a mass base, to our international solidarity and anti-imperialist efforts.

This is one more reason why, despite the limitations of the Democratic candidates, a Republican victory in November of 2016 would be an unmitigated disaster not just for workers in the United States, but for humanity.

Photo: John Locher/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.