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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Visions: America after Hegemony

March 29, 2013 ·

The peace movement needs to make it clear not only what we are against, but what we are for.

america-hegemony-empire-alternatives-democratic-foreign-policyWith the Iraq war fading into memory even as the country still simmers, the U.S. peace movement faces the need to reframe its message.

We have spent the last 10 years resisting the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – tragedies that have not only devastated those two countries and taken tens of thousands of lives, but have left thousands of returning veterans with lifelong disabilities and taken a huge toll on our national economy.

We’ve exposed nuclear weapons’ threat to human survival, organized against sanctions and war on Iran and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and built alliances with labor and community groups to cut the military budget.

We’ve opposed lawless torture and drone killings, cyber-warfare attacks, and the U.S. “pivot,” which seeks to encircle China with military bases.

These campaigns are important, but they primarily arouse internationals, longtime activists, and leftists, not the indignation of millions. To get out of the echo chamber, we need to present a vision of a democratic foreign and security policy that would tie our many campaigns together into a coherent whole, from the local to the global.

Such a platform would provide hope to the many who sense that something is wrong with corporate capitalism, with U.S. foreign policy, and with the military-industrial complex. It would set the basis for a principled alliance between the peace movement and the labor, immigrant rights, women’s, economic, social, and racial justice movements that are its natural allies. 

In short, the peace movement needs to make it clear not only what we are against, but what we are for.

A Hegemonic Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World 

The organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been to ensure that every nation in the world stays within a security structure managed and controlled by Washington. Nations, regardless of their ideological orientation, that refuse to follow U.S. wishes find themselves demonized and pressured to conform, while nations whose states are not centralized enough to control their territory are called “failed states” and are subjected to often counterproductive “nation building.”

In colloquial terms, Washington seeks to act as the world’s policeman. Defenders of U.S. hegemony often darkly warn of the disorder that might result if the United States did not shoulder this difficult task. They offer the 9/11 attacks as the ultimate darkness to spring from an unpoliced world, limiting the national security debate between Democrats and Republicans to what MIT scholar Barry Posen calls “the modalities of hegemony.”

But when it comes to any meaningful discussion of whether the United States has any business running the rest of the world, the silence is deafening. Congress and the mainstream media almost never discuss why the United States should maintain a global force structure, why it needs to station an estimated 1,000 bases in over 100 countries, why it requires exorbitantly expensive weapons systems, or why it has a “vital interest” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or in the region surrounding China. These questions are never asked because of the ruling elite’s consensus on the need for hegemony.

It is true that most Americans still fear terrorism and, more generally. foreign threats to their security.  Opinion makers have cultivated these fears in every possible way since 9/11, with terrorism replacing Communism as a bogey-man justifying the policy of hegemony, or what Stephen Walt calls “deep engagement.”

Yet polls also consistently show that majorities of Americans support cutting the military budget instead of Social Security, Medicare, or other essential programs. That tells us that while people think the military might keep them safe, they are absolutely sure that Social Security does.

In other words, support for the hegemonic foreign policy is soft. But to crack the hegemonic consensus, the peace movement must offer an alternative to hegemony that offers real security to the American people — a new democratic foreign policy that does a better job than hegemony of providing human security.

Hegemony and Empire

Hegemony is not just a transitory policy of U.S. elites trying to secure the homeland in the most effective way possible. On the contrary, the United States’ hegemonic foreign policy is tied to its leadership of the global economic system that has been in place since at least 1945. 

With the world as a single market, capitalist firms can reap profits from worldwide production. They can produce wherever the cost of production is least, paying workers in underdeveloped countries a pittance. They can build global production and distribution chains, integrating capitalist firms in various countries into a single network. They can sell their products to a market of at least 3 billion people throughout the world with disposable income, creating world-wide monopoly corporations of unprecedented scale. Monopoly, not the so-called “free market,” is the most advantageous arrangement for capital, because it allows for relatively stable, profitable production untroubled by competitors. 

U.S. hegemonic military power has provided the framework for that single market. As globalization enthusiast Tom Friedman explained in 1999, “[S]ustainable globalization still requires a stable, geopolitical power structure, which simply cannot be maintained without the active involvement of the United States. ...The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.” 

“Empire” is really a better name than “hegemony” for the current international system, because global U.S. control is not a political choice that can be changed by new domestic political alignments, but rather a system with deep economic roots that transcends partisan control of Washington. Indeed,  elite interest in a U.S. “empire” goes back long before the postwar period, back to the 1890s and to the framers of the Constitution. 

Yet the 2008 economic crash was an unmistakable reminder that worldwide monopoly production is no longer stable. Rivalry between banks and hedge funds over investment in the most profitable companies destabilized the financial system, as one bubble after another burst.  In the coming years, as Chinese economic growth and south-south economic ties begin to overtake U.S. leadership, the role of U.S. military might will also come into question internationally as an increasing number of countries and movements seek to arrange matters differently. 

The crash also raised questions in the minds of millions about the ability of the world capitalist economic system to deliver jobs, life, and prosperity to them. People are scrutinizing the desirability of capitalism and globalization as never before. Among the more than 99 percent of Americans who don’t own global companies, the question is there, waiting to be asked, of whether U.S. foreign policy actually serves their interests. The time is therefore ripe for the peace movement to offer a new foreign policy which serves the interests of the domestic and global 99 percent better than the hegemonic order.

Five proposals for a new foreign policy

Peace Action’s Kevin Martin has called for the peace movement to propose “a new vision for our country’s role in the world—to create a new foreign policy for the 99 percent.” Such a foreign policy, he says, should be based on the “widely shared ideals of democracy, justice, human rights, international cooperation, and sustainability.” 

I think Martin is absolutely right — but we still need to explain what that policy would be and how it would work, applying it to each region of the world and each type of international problem. We also have to identify the interests that would favor and those that would oppose the new policy. As such, Martin has pointed towards the policy that we need, but has not articulated it in detail.

So what would a foreign policy for the 99 percent actually look like?

The Coalition for a Strong United Nations, a Boston-based grassroots group, issued a “Peace Platform” in 2003 which, although a decade old, is consistent with Martin’s ideas. “[T]he world is no longer a collection of sovereign nations, but a single homeland, and each member of the human family is a citizen of that homeland,” it proclaimed. “No nation’s people can be secure when so many people around the world are denied a decent standard of living or deprived of basic rights. No peace can be achieved unless the society of nations begins to function more as a real community, with each nation abiding by a commonly accepted code of international law.”

The CSUN platform offers specific proposals in the areas of human rights, development, the environment, security, governance, education, and health. In the security arena it calls for the United States to “commit to a phased disarmament program,” “renounce universal military intervention,” “stop funding other nations’ military arsenals,” “strengthen the authority and resources of the UN,” “abide by the decisions of the World Court,” “support the development and training of a Non-Violent Peace Force,” and “create a Department of Peace.”

CSUN’s proposal outlines a better foreign and security policy, but it doesn’t explain how to implement it, or identify whose interests would be helped and hurt. Without an answer to that question, it is likely to remain on the shelf as an idealistic exercise.

At a Korean solidarity conference in November 2012, Joseph Gerson presented “common security” as a framework that, while not an ultimate foundation for human security, could meaningfully relieve international tensions. Common security, an idea first promulgated by the late Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, “recognizes that nations as well as individuals respond to fear, that when one side augments its military arsenal and actions to respond to perceived threats from the other, that this will be seen as a threat by the other side, resulting in the enemy augmenting its arsenal and actions in a defensive but frightening response. This leads to a mutually reinforcing and spiraling arms race, not unlike what we now have in Asia and the Pacific.” A response based on common security, said Gerson, would involve “hard-headed negotiations in which each side names its fears and arrives at diplomatic solutions which address the anxieties of all involved. ... Common security is inconsistent with the pursuit of empire, which ultimately can be overcome only by people's will and as a result of contradictions including, in the case of the United States' misplaced priorities, imperial over-reach.” 

Given its emphasis on established diplomatic and security structures, common security is a more modest and less idealistic proposal compared to the Martin and CSUN visions. But can a common security paradigm guide the U.S. peace movement in helping the United States move away from hegemony to a democratic foreign policy? Tyler Cullis of the Boston University Antiwar Coalition took such an approach recently when he addressed the Iran sanctions issue at a January debate, outlining a negotiating platform for the United States that addresses real fears on both sides and proposes constructive steps. Yet it remains unclear if “common security” can move from preventing catastrophic wars to serve as an intermediary step away from empire that movements for greater justice and peace can build upon. 

Speaking from a “realist” rather than a “peacemaking” perspective, Barry Posen made his own proposals for a change in foreign policy in a January 2013 article in Foreign Affairs. After a decade of war, he now says that hegemony is too expensive for the United States to sustain and that it “makes enemies almost as fast as it slays them.” Posen therefore proposes to end hegemony and adopt in its place a “strategy of restraint,” which means “removing large numbers of U.S. troops from forward bases” and “transforming the military into a smaller force that goes to war only when it truly must.”

Posen makes clear that the military budget cuts consistent with a “strategy of restraint” should release more funds to “preserve the country's prosperity and security over the long run.” These goals fit with much of President Obama’s early second-term rhetoric, though Obama has not at all embraced the strategy changes Posen calls for. And importantly, they draw a link from conflict resolution abroad to “nation-building at home.” 

Posen does not address the globalized commerce that has required the global security regime. He assumes that there is really no U.S. interest that requires the degree of “activism” that it has displayed in the past 20 years, nor does he propose any increase in international cooperation that might provide for stability in the absence of hegemonic power. His proposal therefore does not qualify as a new democratic foreign policy, but rather as a less imperial, less hegemonic policy, which if realized could create space for democratic interests to assert themselves in the future.

In a similar vein, Stephen Kinzer recently outlined a “Wacko Birds” manifesto for U.S. foreign policy, taking the name from an epithet hurled by the militarist John McCain. Like Posen, Kinzer emphasizes that the United States has overreached, but calls only for a more moderate pursuit of “U.S. vital interests.” Kinzer does not consider the possibility that the true interests of most Americans lie in cooperation with people in other countries rather than in solidarity with U.S. corporations.

Towards a Democratic and Peaceful Foreign Policy

Thus the problem remains ripe for more solutions. The peace movement needs a comprehensive, positive framework to present, one which is compelling enough to be taken up and implemented by a progressive majority consisting of an alliance of social movements. I thank the authors I have mentioned for their thought provoking contributions. Yet while each of the proposals examined has positive aspects, none seems to be adequate by itself to point the way forward. We have more work to do! 

As Martin writes, “It’s about the entrenched power of the U.S. war machine, and about how we the peoples of this country and around the world can work together to create more peaceful, just, and sustainable policies. We can do it; in fact we have no choice but to do it.” 

So, let us work to create those policies so that our movements can advocate for a positive vision of security and cooperation.

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