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A U.S. Foreign Policy Fit for the 21st Century

A new resolution aims to forge a foreign policy that works for everyday people.

By , the U.S. representative for Washington’s 7th Congressional District and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and , the U.S. representative for California’s 13th Congressional District and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
A U.S. flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol
A U.S. flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol
A U.S. flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 14. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Do Americans feel secure?

Across the country, Americans are mourning the losses of their loved ones to a pandemic that has taken more lives than the Civil War. Millions are struggling to make ends meet as they are burdened with debt, skyrocketing housing costs, and exploitative jobs. Others are enjoying a short reprieve between the hurricane and wildfire seasons that annually turn everyday life into a fight for survival.

Meanwhile, our fellow members of Congress finished the year by authorizing the largest war-making budget in U.S. history since World War II—and they did so in the name of security.

Do Americans feel secure?

Across the country, Americans are mourning the losses of their loved ones to a pandemic that has taken more lives than the Civil War. Millions are struggling to make ends meet as they are burdened with debt, skyrocketing housing costs, and exploitative jobs. Others are enjoying a short reprieve between the hurricane and wildfire seasons that annually turn everyday life into a fight for survival.

Meanwhile, our fellow members of Congress finished the year by authorizing the largest war-making budget in U.S. history since World War II—and they did so in the name of security.

But security for whom? For the past two decades, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has led the country down a path of militarism that has caused global devastation and left the nation woefully unprepared to confront the true security needs of the modern world, all while enriching a select few.

The greatest threats to America’s security—pandemics, climate change, economic inequality, authoritarianism—cannot be defeated at the barrel of a gun. It’s time to stop relying on the same old playbook and instead forge a foreign policy that works for everyday people.

That’s why we have introduced the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution.

The resolution sets out a new vision for the United States’ role in the world. It takes as its starting point a few simple truths. Today’s greatest security challenges cannot be solved through military adventurism. International cooperation, diplomacy, development, and peacebuilding—not bombs—must be the foreign-policy tools the country reaches for first. Global problems require global solutions. Justice and security go hand in hand. The United States cannot play by a different set of rules than it expects of the rest of the world. Foreign policy must be made not for the self-interest of the few but by and for the people, centering the working class and impacted and marginalized communities at home and abroad.

Endorsed by more than 30 organizations, including Win Without War, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sunrise Movement, and IfNotNow, the resolution identifies what is needed to right the wrongs of the old, failed strategy: slashing the bloated Pentagon budget; taking war-making powers out of the hands of the executive branch and giving them back to Congress; limiting arms sales and security assistance to human rights-abusing regimes; ending the collective punishment of entire nations through broad-based sanctions; and holding the United States accountable to international law—to name a few.

In place of this broken status quo, the resolution lays out key steps toward an alternative approach, including: investing deeply in nonmilitary tools of statecraft, such as diplomacy, development, and peacebuilding, to help address the root causes of violent conflict and prevent wars before they start; supporting the United Nations in building cooperative, global solutions to global problems such as pandemics, climate change, and mass displacement and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals; ensuring that the U.S. national security workforce represents and is responsive to marginalized and impacted communities; supporting the universal implementation of international conventions and human rights treaties; ensuring a place for women’s participation in U.S.-influenced peace processes and devoting increased resources to grassroots, women-led social justice organizations; rewriting the rules of international trade and the global economy to work for people and the planet, not corporate profit; and adopting an aggressive plan to transform the U.S. and global economies away from militarism and fossil fuel dependency in a manner that ensures global justice for workers everywhere.

This is a foreign policy that would actually work for the safety of everyday people.

More of the same is a recipe for failure. In the years after the tragic events of 9/11, the United States went to war not once, not twice, but many times, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Pakistan, and beyond. The price of this military adventurism has been unfathomable. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, the post-9/11 wars have cost $8 trillion, displaced 38 million people around the world, directly killed more than 900,000 people, and, through the inevitable reverberations of war, caused the suffering and deaths of many times more.

As the events of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan made all too clear, 20 years of military occupation were utterly incapable of meeting their stated aims. War was, in fact, not the answer—unless the question was how to turn a profit for the arms industry.

But while policymakers have increasingly recognized that full-scale invasions are too politically costly, many have deepened their reliance on alternative forms of warfare instead. Arms sales empower human rights abusers from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines. Broad-based sanctions suffocate entire populations while rallying support for the very governments they’re intended to punish. Drone strikes kill civilians with impunity while serving as recruitment propaganda for violent nonstate actors. Though less visible to the public eye, these alternative forms of warfare are equally ineffective and often just as destructive. Rather than assessing the failures of the endless war era and advancing a new approach, we’ve simply pushed warfare into the shadows.

While the status quo does little for the security of everyday people, it does wonders for elites and corporate interests. Nearly half of the $14 trillion spent on the Pentagon since 2001 went directly to private contractors—and about a third of all contracts to just five corporations. These corporations thrive on the idea that the world is littered with existential threats to the U.S. public that can only be solved with more violence. With an army of lobbyists, a war chest of political influence, and a revolving door between top military brass and corporate board seats, this industry maintains its stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy—and on Americans’ safety.

Add to this the fact that it is everyday people, not industry executives, who are sent off to wars; that it is working-class communities that bear the consequences when much-needed resources are siphoned into jet packs and planes that don’t fly; that special interest groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Saudi lobby wield enormous influence in Washington; that anti-democratic repression, conducted with U.S. backing, can be profitable for multinational corporations; that politicians can buy support by selling fear; and that persistent white supremacy and other forms of oppression lead to the treatment of foreign lives as expendable. U.S. foreign policy is the way it is not because it works for the many but because it works for the few.

This approach is ill-equipped to handle most any challenge, but it is particularly incapable of confronting the grave threats of the modern era. Pandemics will not be solved with Pentagon spending sprees or jingoist chest-thumping. The climate crisis cannot be addressed by a war machine that emits more greenhouse gases than most countries. Inequality, poverty, authoritarianism, white supremacy, nuclear weapons—these are the real threats facing everyday people in the United States and abroad and not one can be eradicated by cruise missile. It’s time for U.S. foreign policy to reflect that reality.

The Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution would do just that.

Critics will surely call us “soft” on national security. But to them, soft foreign policy is anything that’s soft on their wallets. The reality is exactly the reverse. Any clear-eyed analysis makes it obvious that the current foreign-policy approach fails to protect everyday people. The greatest threat to our security is the status quo.

Our vision may be bold, but the time for tinkering at the margins is over. Our resolution does not pretend to be the final word on improving U.S. foreign policy. It does, however, plant a flag in the ground and set us in the right direction toward a new horizon.

It’s time for a security policy that actually makes us secure.

Pramila Jayapal is the U.S. representative for Washington’s 7th Congressional District and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Twitter: @RepJayapal

Barbara Lee is the U.S. representative for California’s 13th Congressional District and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Twitter: @RepBarbaraLee

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