A Kinder, Gentler Foreign Policy
by Marc Pilisuk
Dates: April 23,26,2021
Happily, in some measure, in his first three months in office, Joe Biden has shown a needed system change toward healing, sharing, caring, helping, and cooperation in his domestic policy achievements and goals.
Sadly, an equally urgent need for structural change is missing from his foreign policy agenda.
The progressive steps taken by the Biden administration so far are important and commendable. Reaffirmations of the steps needed for protection against the spread of the Covid virus have gone remarkably well. Provisions for an economic stimulus targeting the neediest of our society are welcome. In addition, there is much to admire in the goals on environmental sustainability, the new levels of visible concern over violent actions whether by police or civilians, and the appointment to cabinet positions of competent indigenous and union leaders are all signs that this administration may be leading an important historical change. Progressive critics are reluctant to declare this another FDR moment citing the depth of problems still remaining. Nevertheless the Biden overtures represent a dramatic opening for continued dialogue on needed policies.
But in foreign policy, the old games persist. Since 1947, the United States has been mired in a national defense policy, typically with bipartisan support, in which the world is seen as a battle ground for geopolitical and economic influence. We have been led by policy officials such as Henry Kissinger, Dean Rusk, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice. However bright they may be, they worked within an inadequate paradigm of thought.
In this world the players at the table of nations are not the needy individuals within countries but rather their sovereign leaders. Each nation is assumed to be participating for its own advantage. The guiding line has been, in words attributed to Henry Kissinger: “We do not have principles, we have interests.”
Given this assumption, we have formed a strange network of allies and adversaries. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the major adversaries were assumed to be trying to destroy us. National leaders who posed threats to American economic domination were met with specific strategic actions, even if those foreign national leaders were operating in the interests of their own people and posed no threat to the people of the US (e.g., Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran, Allende in Chile).
The U.S. response has too often been a demonization of their leaders, economic sanctions that punish their citizens, interference with their elections, military interventions, assassinations and a domination of media to assure us that we are the good guys and those challenging us are enemies.
We have nurtured a class of highly competent military leaders who move comfortably with the heads of major military production facilities. We have invested great resources in military intelligence and surveillance which have reaped an extensive dossier on the misdeeds of other nations and have used this information to keep legislators and the media “informed” about what the military establishment chooses to share. And if all public-facing information they can muster fails to make their case, they fall back on two basic lines: 1. national security, and 2. If you knew what we know, you would all agree with us. These veils permit misdirection and lies.
While we endlessly claim to be fighting for democracy, we have in truth overthrown democratically elected leaders when they are perceived as interfering with extracting profits—including Guatemala, Iran, Congo, and Chile.
The reason I term this an inadequate paradigm of thought is that it has inspired potential adversaries to operate in the same way, creating a toxic dynamic. It has also interfered with the development of international peacekeeping institutions. It has served to preserve the dominance of nations manipulated by transnational corporations and has led to obscene extremes of inequality.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the military and trade arrangements with El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Haiti, in which governments sustained by the U.S. appropriate once viable farmlands and distribute them to external mining and agribusiness interests. This displaces people and forces a massive flow of refugees and asylum seekers, virtually all to our southern border.
Appointments to key positions of officials like Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan reflect a continuation of the view that foreign policy is a game of military threats and economic bullying and blockades. Early practices of the Biden administration have so far pointed toward a continuity of this dangerous order of geopolitical manipulation.
Remarks by Biden publicly calling Putin a killer and leveling gross accusations against China reflect the least possible way for peaceful remediation of the underlying issues. The old policy is seen in the bombing of Syria and in continuing to supply weapons and training to oppressive authoritarian governments such as the Saudi monarchy and the UAE regardless of their record in human rights. Such policies remind us of how we were brought into economically and morally costly wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. These policies are used to justify more than half of the federal discretionary budget for military purposes.
U.S. government officials continue to promise technological advances in weaponry, claimed to be essential for security while not being able to make us safer against any of the major threats to human life.
In very different ways the isolationist popularity of Donald Trump and the humanist popular support for policies by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren reflect the dissatisfaction of many people with policies supporting an American empire.
It is time for the Biden administration to show the same courage in negotiating for peace with all countries that it has shown in domestic reform. The dangers posed by radioactive and chemical contaminants, like viral infections and the plight of displaced people, are not problems that can be solved by competitive pressures.
An environment with water and air safe to assure life requires cooperation beyond the actions of any particular country, while global climate chaos is accelerated by a massive military patrolling the planet and consuming more carbon fuels than any other sector.
Punishing and threatening some nations guilty of severe suppression of human rights while condoning and assisting similar outrages by strategic partners is bad policy. The world we need must replace national or corporate interests with human needs. Mutual aid is so much more adaptive than mutual threats.
In a world increasingly threatened by nuclear annihilation, there is need for a new vision in which adherence to the values of peace with justice and environmental sustainability are prominent. This goes with support for the international institutions supporting them like the World Health Organization, UNESCO and the International Criminal Court.
The outmoded world of aggressive gamesmanship will need dramatic U.S. reformist initiatives if it is ever to change.
Dr. Marc Pilisuk is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, a faculty member at Saybrook University, and the co-author of The Hidden Structure of Violence.