Internationalism: Urgent for the Moment and the Long Haul
The fight against U.S wars and for international solidarity is currently the weakest link in the opposition to the Trump administration’s program of racist, authoritarian rule.
If Trump loses in November and can be forced out of office, building opposition to U.S. militarism and the foreign policies of a Biden administration will likely be the social justice movement’s biggest challenge.
The time to address this problem is now. Doing so does not mean shifting energy away from the urgent battles against police murder of African Americans, the government’s criminally negligent response to the COVID-19 crisis, or the Trump administration’s drive to steal the November election. Rather, it mandates working to incorporate an internationalist vision within every progressive battle, electoral and non-electoral alike.
This will strengthen, not weaken, the fight against the racist right. It will put every movement for progressive change on a more durable foundation, indispensable for resisting the ‘rally-round-the-flag’ crusades that have been used by ruling classes to justify aggression and weaken opposition movements for millennia.
The more U.S. movements are infused with internationalism, the more we will be able to contribute to getting Washington’s bloody hands out of other countries affairs. That in turn bolsters the capacity of people in other lands to improve their lives and fight our common enemy.
AGGRESSION AND WAR INTEGRAL TO TRUMPISM
Trump talks a lot about ending America’s “endless wars.” But peace and the concerns of peoples outside the U.S are nowhere on his agenda. To the extent any idea beyond what benefits Trump personally is driving Trumpism’s foreign policy, it is the dogma of “America First”:
Strengthen U.S power to dominate the rest of the world. Forget diplomacy or alliances that require even a small measure of compromise. Act unilaterally and rely on sanctions, economic bullying, threats, and the use of military force to rule the roost. Extend the racist dehumanization that is central to Trumpism’s domestic narrative globally to prime white America for unlimited killing of darker skinned “enemies” anywhere on the planet.
Assassinate and kill from the skies to avoid getting U.S. troops “bogged down” in messy interventions where they sustain significant casualties. Don’t worry about people dying. Just do what those of us in the anti-Vietnam War Movement saw Nixon try: “change the color of the corpses.” “America First” means being willing to do what extreme hawks have long advocated: “Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age,” “Make the sand glow in the dark.”
DAMAGE ACROSS THE GLOBE
Trump’s “America First” approach has operated since his inauguration. Examples abound.
Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and substituted a policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran. He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and his “Deal of the Century” peace plan is a recipe for “annexation and apartheid” and permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people. The recent UAE-Israel normalization agreement is another step toward closing the door to Palestinian rights and preparing for a military strike against Iran.
Cozy with Saudi dictator and journalist-murderer MBS, the Trump administration sold arms to the Saudis that were used to massively increase civilian casualties in the Kingdom’s war in Yemen. In 2018 the President vetoed a rare bipartisan resolution calling for an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war.
White House Latin America policy includes a continuing push for regime change in Venezuela, the roll back the Obama-era opening to Cuba, backing for dictatorial right-wing regimes like Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, and racist scapegoating of immigrants from Central America and Mexico as responsible for crime and economic hardship in the U.S.
Consistent with Trump’s domestic anti-Blackness, the President’s outlook on what is happening in Africa is that the South African government is committing “white genocide.”
MAKE NUKES USABLE AGAIN
One of Trump’s key goals is to make nuclear weapons usable again. Toward that end his administration has shifted previous nuclear weapons doctrine toward a more “flexible” posture and called for a “top priority” increase in spending on the development of a new generation of smaller, more “usable” nukes.
Accompanying these moves, Trump either scrapped or is letting lapse the last remaining nuclear arms control treaties – “the end of arms control as we know it” – substantially heightening the danger of nuclear war.
The Trump administration and its defense industry backers are downright enthusiastic about spending billions on a new arms race. Trump’s special envoy for arms control (!) has bragged, “We have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”
Trump is equally enthusiastic about making war crimes heroic again. The
President doesn’t just excuse but encourages U.S. soldiers to massacre at will, pardoning and praising G.I.s who have murdered civilians in cold blood.
TARGET CHINA IN A NEW COLD WAR
The Trump administration has escalated every danger in the already perilous “pivot to Asia” inherited from the Obama administration. While deploying new advanced weaponry to the South China Sea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an alarming new U.S. position on China’s maritime claims in July. Shifting from previous U.S calls for a peaceful resolution of the disputes between China and its southern neighbors, Pompeo hinted that Washington was now ready to intervene with force if tensions rose.
These military moves coincide with the administration’s escalated anti-China rhetoric, terming COVID-29 the “China virus,” framing the pandemic as a Chinese attack on the U.S. and blaming the Chinese Communist Party for America’s problems. Last month Pompeo “called on allies to create a new NATO-like coalition to confront the People’s Republic and stopped just short of calling for regime change. Basically, he declared a new Cold War.”
Trump is friendly toward Russia, which in its previous Soviet incarnation was Washington’s Cold War enemy. Calls to “get tough on Russia” from Democratic leaders and “Never Trump” Republicans must absolutely be rejected by advocates of peace. Rather, we should remind the U.S people that the main cause of today’s U.S.-Russia hostility was Washington breaking its promise not to bring NATO right up to Russia’s borders.
But rejecting “back to the old Cold War” policies does not mean accepting the fantasy that Trump’s affinity for Putin has anything to do with preserving world peace. Rather, it is an integral part of Trumpism’s drive to forge an alignment of racist regimes and political parties to defend “white, Christian civilization” against the “darker nations” of the global South and the “liberal democracies” which are allegedly in league with them. Putin has become a hero on the global racist right for his embrace of that reactionary project. (Trump’s well-documented and longstanding ties to Russian oligarchs and crime syndicates – standard operating procedure in some of the most parasitic sectors of the U.S. real estate industry – are another ingredient in this toxic brew.)
AGAINST GLOBAL COOPERATION
All the above is on top of Trump’s contempt for international institutions, especially those designed to tackle humanity-threatening global problems. So we have climate change denialism and a pullout from the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently COVID-19 denialism and a threatened pullout from the Word Health Organization.
In sum, three and a half years of Trump in power has significantly increased death and destruction across the globe; increased the danger of bigger, including nuclear, wars; fanned racism and xenophobia to smooth the path for more aggression and war; and diminished U.S capacity to cooperate with the rest of the world in dealing with the actual threats to human health and survival.
Voices of opposition have been raised on every one of these backward and perilous moves. But on none has protest matched the level of the threat.
And a second Trump term would bring even worse.
NO COMPLACENCY IF BIDEN WINS
A Biden administration would likely provide some short-term relief on a few foreign policy battlefronts. Positive steps toward addressing climate change and public health in cooperation with other countries are probable. Rhetoric dehumanizing the majority of the world’s people would be qualitatively diminished. Biden has called for ending U.S backing for Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen and says he is opposed to “usable” nukes.
Most important, the broad social justice movement of which peace advocates and internationalists are part would gain some breathing room and a measure of power in a new governing bloc. We would be dealing with an administration susceptible rather than impervious to pressure from our direction. And a lot of pressure will be required.
Biden’s team has signaled that as President he would bring the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear agreement. But there are warnings the he will push to make it “stronger” and will be very reluctant to drop the economic sanctions whose elimination is the key reason Iran was willing to accept intrusive Western inspections.
Biden says he opposes Israeli annexation in the West Bank, but he supported moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem before Trump did and has expressed opposition to placing any conditions on U.S. aid to Israel.
Biden says he will return “for the most part” to Obama-era policies of engagement with Cuba and reverse the Trump administration’s sanctions. But he has used rhetoric almost as hawkish as Trump in regard to Venezuela and will almost certainly maintain the current harsh sanctions regime against that country.
A DIFFERENT WAY OF GUARDING THE EMPIRE
On nuclear weapons, Biden is on record as opposing Trump’s drive to produce “usable” low-yield nuclear weapons and is in favor of extending the arms control agreement that Trump would let lapse.
A Biden administration will probably put some distance between Washington and some of Trump’s favorite dictators (MBS, perhaps Bolsonaro and Duterte, definitely Putin). But he is very unlikely to replace this with a policy of seeking peaceful co-existence with other countries, respecting their sovereignty, and ending interference in their internal affairs. Biden and the “horror show” foreign policy team he has assembled have a long-established track record of using harsh sanctions (North Korea, Iran, Russia), refusing to withdraw from failed wars (Afghanistan), and deploying covert operations against other countries. Not to mention the fact that the bloated U.S. military budget is a thoroughly bipartisan product.
It’s a different policy mix than Trump’s, but one still aimed at preserving the empire. Several of the shifts will be welcomed by people in harm’s way. But it will require a massive and sustained push to end U.S. wars, prevent future ones, and push U.S. policy in a totally different direction.
PEACE AND SOLIDARITY HUBS
A key contribution to that push will come from organizations, coalitions, publications, and movements mainly focused on peace, disarmament, or solidarity with people in one country or region. Such formations (About Face, Code Pink, Mexico Solidarity Project, Mayors for Peace, Foreign Policy in Focus, Tricontinental and dozens more) are the consistent hubs that keep the entire progressive movement and broad layers of the population up-to-date, provide analysis and strategy, map out campaigns, provide spokespeople and op-ed writers.
But peace and solidarity groups can do only so much. How much clout internationalist politics can wield depends on how much more than passive support it can galvanize among organizations and sectors usually focused on other issues.
Today’s challenge is to make and sustain a breakthrough in that direction.
WHERE TO FIND MUSCLE
The potential to end U.S. wars and change U.S foreign policy lies with the organizations and constituencies now rising up for racial, economic and gender justice, a Green New Deal, universal health care and more; and with the new wave of groups and candidates bringing progressive politics into the electoral arena.
Most of the individuals in those movements already hold or are sympathetic to antiwar and internationalist perspectives. The trick is to find avenues to translate those into organizational programs and collective action.
There are some promising efforts in that direction underway.
The ways that militarism and the climate crisis are intertwined have been widely popularized among progressives, and reports such as this one from the Institute for Policy Studies list the growing number of organizations that organize on both of these issues.
Alliances and campaigns such as the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (60 member groups fighting for “peace, democracy and a sustainable world”) and the recently launched Justice is Global (working for a equitable and sustainable global economy) are reaching beyond traditional peace organizations to involve groups focused on economic, racial and/or gender justice in internationalist action.
Internationalism infuses the policy vision of the Movement for Black Lives, and there are clear linkages between the demand to Defund the Police and to Defund the U.S Military. The growing expressions of African American solidarity with Palestine indicate the potential for a broad-based and durable movement that spotlights the similarities between the forms of apartheid that have developed in two settler colonial states.
POWER IN ELECTIONS AND ELECTEDS
We are in a moment of rapidly shifting political opinion which opens new opportunities for internationalist ideas to gain ground among voters, within progressive election-focused groups, and with candidates and their staffs.
A new cohort of progressives are running for office and winning. Matching their big-change stances on domestic issues with antiwar, antimilitarist foreign policy positions will be a key component of exerting power. Proposed platforms are out there in the mix, and figures like Bernie Sanders and the Squad (See Ilhan Omar’s proposed Pathway to Peace package) have carried many of their ideas into the mainstream.
Voting in a way that could have meant political suicide a decade ago, 40% of House Democrats and 50% of Democratic Senators backed a 10% cut in the military budget in the fight over the National Defense Authorization Act in July. At a moment when funds are urgently needed to ensure the economic survival of a huge proportion of the population (even the $3 trillion HEROES Act is just a start), a campaign to cut a much higher percent of the military budget could get large-scale support.
For upping pressure further, there are new experiments to learn from in how to forge broad coalitions and movements that put heat on public officials: check out the open letter to Biden on his China-bashing initiated by Asian American activists; and it’s been the grassroots efforts of all who have fought for Palestinian rights against long odds that has produced a situation where “The Democratic Party’s Pyramid of Support for Israel Is Crumbling.”
If all current initiatives can be strengthened and additional ones created, a leap forward in the influence of peace, anti-militarist, and solidarity politics both within and beyond the progressive eco-system can be achieved.
It is an urgent task. An injury to one is an injury to all – globally.
Max Elbaum has been active in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since the 1960s. He is an editor of Organizing Upgrade and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018).