June 12, 2024

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Current U.S. foreign policy: Militarism unhinged

15 min read
Norman Solomon invited three insightful analysts of present-day U.S. foreign policy to share their thoughts in a roundtable discussion. Here are excerpts from Phyllis Bennis, Jackson Lears, and Jeffrey Sachs.

by Phyllis Bennis, Jackson Lears, and Jeffrey Sachs

How would you assess the most important aspects of current U.S. foreign policy?

Phyllis Bennis: I think the most important aspects are the most problematic ones. The focus on militarism that leads to a military budget this year of $921 billion, almost a trillion dollars, an unfathomable number translates to $0.53 out of every discretionary federal dollar going directly to the military. And if you add in the militarism side of things, the federal prison system, the militarization of the borders, ICE, deportations, all those things, you come up with $0.62 out of every discretionary federal dollar.

So the militarism is, I think, the single most important problem. The issue of unilateralism remains a huge problem when the rise of the so-called “global war on terror” essentially wiped out the possibility of a post-Cold-War peace dividend, which had currency for about a week, as I recall, and that unilateralism continues.

We’re seeing that kind of continuing problem of U.S. foreign policy, and then the rising competition at the major power level—U.S./Russia, U.S./China, all are shifting—all are moving in a greater way towards a military competition rather than the economic competition, because that’s where the U.S. is unchallengeable; U.S. military capacity. You know, the U.S. spends more than the top ten, the next ten countries on their military all together, including big spenders like China, like Russia, like Saudi Arabia, like India.

These are overall problematic aspects that are the most crucial at the moment. Of course, the critical moment right now has to do with Israel and U.S. support for Israel. It was always assumed in the U.S. that you could never lose votes by being too pro-Israeli. And what a surprise. Turns out you can and Biden is. But that doesn’t seem to be enough, at least so far, to create a change in real policy. So we’re seeing the U.S. playing this role as the sole power that is enabling and protecting Israeli genocide, Israeli apartheid, settler colonialism, as well as the destruction of and undermining of international law.

So this whole issue that is now causing sort of a split in the Democratic Party, but not yet a full-scale split. Too much focus on what Biden personally believes, as if that should have any bearing whatsoever on U.S. policy. But it clearly does. Not taking into account the massive shifts in the discourse, the shifts in Jewish public opinion regarding Israel, you know that less than two years ago, 25% of American Jewish voters said that they believe Israel is an apartheid state; 38% of young Jewish voters said the same thing. So we’re in this shifting position where there’s just not enough pressure yet to force a shift in the policy now.

I think the framework of diplomacy, not war, is fundamental. That’s been the demand of the broad sectors of the anti-militarism, anti-war movements of the last 20 years, going back to actually before that, to the first Gulf War, where the call was for diplomacy and not war. And right up to the present. I think that needs to be our continuing demand for what the government position should be. That doesn’t mean that’s enough for the position of our movement. There is a difference between what we demand of the government and what we demand of ourselves. But I think what we’re seeing right now in the hot wars is that the U.S. is fighting against the calls for an immediate cease-fire and negotiations, both in Gaza most urgently and in Ukraine and that’s incredibly dangerous.

Jackson Lears: I appreciated Phyllis’ starting emphasis on the diversion of necessary resources from urgent needs at home in the military budget. This enormous, bloated, almost unimaginable, huge military budget. We are looking at a progressive left that to me seems so fragmented and incoherent in many ways, and so unsure of itself, that its leaders can’t seem to make the connection between the military budget and the domestic problems that are being forced to go unaddressed. So it’s important to keep emphasizing that connection between domestic and foreign policy, and a U.S. peace movement would have to do that.

It would also have to be an anti-imperialist movement—and this to me, with the situation we’re in today, involves fundamentally the problems of a dying empire that refuses to face up to its decline. The need for international cooperation has never been more urgent with respect to climate change, but also to the renewed nuclear arms race.

And yet U.S. policymakers are still mired in imperial delusions, fueling fights to maintain and extend their hegemony in Ukraine, Palestine and even in the South China Sea, and refusing to recognize the emerging reality of a multipolar world which is expressed in so many ways economically in the rise of the BRICS countries but also simply in the refusal of other nations to go along with what the imperial hegemon expects them to do.

Multipolarity is a fact of life. It’s increasingly important in international affairs. It’s staring us in the face and it dictates the need to retreat gracefully and intelligently from empire, which is a tricky business, I realize. But I think it’s absolutely crucial for our own and indeed the planet’s survival. The other point I want to mention in connection with this, though, is the complicity of media stenographers in promoting what is essentially a very narrow range of opinion.

U.S. policymakers are increasingly out of step, not only with the younger portions of the population, but with the majority of the population on all of these issues of militarism and imperialism extending an already-overextended empire abroad, while neglecting crucial problems at home, and indeed crucial global problems such as climate change and nuclear war.

The mainstream media landscape is extraordinarily monochromatic and complicit in every way with government policies. And yet it doesn’t represent the popular point of view. Which is why the obsessive references by our policymakers to “protecting our democracy” ring so hollow, so hypocritical and unconvincing.

So it does seem to me there’s an opportunity here for a peace movement to address that gap, to speak to that disconnect between elite opinion and broad popular opinion. And it seems to me, as I said, any peace movement has to be an anti-imperialist movement. So there has to be a kind of realistic recognition of the actual power relations, the huge economic investment, but also the huge ideological and emotional investment, of powerful people in the existing order.

We have to acknowledge that obstacle and we have to figure out ways to address it. But we also have to figure out ways to broaden the appeal beyond a narrow ideological framework of anti-imperialism. And I have two words to suggest—not ways of depoliticizing, but of softening the political edge and broadening its appeal. And those words are veterans and churches. As I’m recalling from peace movements of the past, both of those groups played critical roles, and I think they’re both positioned to do so now more than ever. Veterans For Peace, for example, is an extraordinarily savvy and politically smart organization that is doing a lot of important work to change the conversation. And it’s an uphill slog. There’s no getting around it. The stenographers are always going to be at work protecting their access, making up stories, embracing Israeli, Ukrainian and U.S. government propaganda uncritically. But I do think we have a potential opening here if we could figure out ways to walk through it.

Jeffrey Sachs: U.S. foreign policy has one gear and one direction, which is war all the time, nonstop. There’s no diplomacy at all. They don’t understand diplomacy one bit. And most of the actual motives of the foreign policy are disguised, or let’s say falsified, in the official narratives. So we have three wars, two hot, one cold going on right now.

Ukraine and Gaza, the two hot wars, and very high tensions with China as a cold war in Asia. It’s just U.S. belligerence. Morning till night, till morning till night. The Ukraine war is a war of NATO’s enlargement, actually, pure and simple. It goes back 30 years. It was a strategy to weaken Russia after 1992, after the Soviet Union dissolved, they couldn’t take yes for an answer and make peace.

They wanted to fill in all of the space that the Soviet Union had left behind with American hegemony and military bases. So, NATO enlargement began. It kept pushing towards Russia’s borders. The Russian absolute red line was Ukraine, a point made repeatedly by the Russians, actually repeatedly, including by William Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2008 and now our CIA director, in a famous memo that we know of only because of Julian Assange, who made public what should have been absolutely public for the U.S. And that is that nyet means nyet when it comes to expanding NATO to Ukraine.

Well, long story short, we don’t have a reverse gear. We don’t have a diplomatic gear. They just kept trying until today.

There’s no pausing when it comes to Gaza. This is also a war that is caused by now 57 years of Israel’s determination to hold onto everything that it got in the 1967 war. And everything else has been delaying tactics. But from 1967 onward, the goal has been hold onto the territory, settle it, put in hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.

Now we have “facts on the ground” for 57 years of disaster and cruelty. And we have a genocide going on right now. I absolutely believe that Israel is violating the 1948 Genocide Convention and not even in subtle ways.

Then we have the tensions with China. This is blamed on China, but it’s actually an American policy that began under Obama because China’s success triggered every American hegemonic antibody that says China’s becoming too big and powerful. It’s now a threat because of its size, not because of its actions, but because of its size. China has not been involved in one war for more than 40 years, but we regard China as the belligerent.

And so we have surrounded China with our military. We’re building up new alliances in the Pacific Rim of China. We are trying to control choke points. And when China reacts, we say, you see there are a danger there. Want to take over the world.

So long and short of it, we have a foreign policy that is built by the military-industrial complex. It is not in the interests of the American people. It is maintained through lies and fear-mongering. It is leading to destruction, as it has been for decades in wars all over the world. And Biden—we don’t know about Biden’s capacities at this point, physically and mentally, but he has demonstrated no capacity for diplomacy at all.

The situation is absolutely dreadful. I think we all are saying strongly: diplomacy. What happened to it? Where did it go? We don’t even see a word of it. It’s unbelievable. And learning, again, to listen, to talk, to exchange, and the idea that actually peace is not a bad thing and we should try to do it.

Phyllis Bennis: I think what we need is both a strengthening of the specifically-focused movements—most particularly about Gaza, which I’ll get to in a few seconds—but we also need broad anti-militarism, anti-military-spending movements, particularly those that link to the other movements that are focusing on labor rights, on anti-racism, on environmental justice, on immigrant rights, on LGBTQ rights, on women’s rights. In all of those areas people are paying the price for the cost of the war focus of U.S. foreign policy.

In that context, we need much broader outreach from the Palestinian rights movement. There is a lot of focus on consolidation of the movement, on getting the strongest and the most powerful expressions. But in my view, what’s actually more powerful and more important than that right now is building on the breadth of that movement that we’re seeing rising spontaneously.

It was a thousand black ministers in The New York Times signing on to the demand for cease-fire. The rabbis for cease-fire occupying the Security Council chamber at the U.N. These things are hugely important in terms not just of being part of a movement, but of showing the world the breadth of this movement. So I think that broadening becomes much more important, grabbing the spontaneous opposition that’s out there and pulling that into the movement with less concern about the role of the left within that and the anti-imperialist component of it.

I think right now we need to talk about people’s lives, and that means a movement demanding an immediate and permanent cease-fire. Cease-fire isn’t the most left, the most anti-imperialist demand, whatever. It’s what we need to stop the killing, and that’s the movement that we need right now. We also need those broader anti-militarism movements. But right now we need a movement for a cease-fire.

Jackson Lears: I want to agree strongly with Phyllis that in the current emergency the absolutely urgent task is the cease-fire in Gaza. I have never felt the pain and sadness and anger that I’ve felt for the last few months— probably not since the Vietnam War—when I have known in such detail what was going on with my country’s avid assistance and complicity.

We are all endlessly confronted by day the number of lives that are being destroyed and families torn up out of their surroundings and deported shamelessly, children targeted, actually targeted by snipers. I mean, it goes on and on. If you pay any attention, if you refuse to look away, then you are outraged and appalled.

And what’s so striking to me about my colleagues in the academy—not all of them by any means, at Rutgers we have a chapter of the Faculty for Justice in Palestine, and I signed on to it, and we back up the students supporting Palestine, of whom there are many—but what I find so strange about what seem like a majority of my colleagues is that there’s a kind of business-as-usual approach to everyday life which I find very hard to emulate.

And I feel like we have to try to reorient the everyday discussion away from business as usual on social media. A recognition just in human terms of what’s happening. So, you know, it’s not as if I feel like you have to have a clearly worked-out vision of American empire to criticize what’s happening in Gaza. You just have to have a few shreds of human sympathy. And that’s what I think we need to try to address and work with as advocates for peace and opposition to a genocide. Think about the Air Force flier who immolated himself in front of the Israeli embassy with the words “Free Palestine” on his lips. He was yet another example of where we are now in this crisis.

What are the most important dangers of nuclear war?

Jackson Lears: I think one can start answering that question by simply saying that they’re the same dangers that have always been there—accidents, miscalculation, confrontation. All of these events could involve either human or algorithmic error. On one occasion 40 some years ago a mistaken computer very, very nearly got Russian missiles launched on the basis of the way the sun happened to be hitting the clouds—this is what the computer mistook for an incoming invasion. This was in the beginning of the Gorbachev era. A Russian colonel risked his career and his life probably, by calling off the launch because he sensed it was a mistake. And he was right. So that’s how close we came.

And I’m sure that incident influenced Gorbachev and his gestures toward Reagan. And Reagan himself was influenced not only by the people in the street demanding a nuclear freeze, he was also profoundly influenced by the movie “The Day After,” which he watched twice. I’m no fan of Reagan’s, believe me. I was I’m sure where my anti-war colleagues were with respect to almost everything he did. But on this question, he became a nuclear pacifist, though that didn’t survive the influence of his advisers, Richard Perle in particular.

All of this is history. Times have changed. We still have all the same dangers, all the same cataclysmic possibilities. But we have a different context now, which is again, to return to what seems like a leitmotif here: the refusal of diplomacy and the scrapping of any arms-control treaties that have resulted from previous diplomacy. Hence the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved their Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds, the closest it’s ever been.

We have no lines of connection open to other major nuclear powers, and especially Russia. We’re not in touch the way Cold War presidents were in touch, even in the worst days of the Cold War. And we don’t have the same popular sense of threat and urgency that I think existed during most of our lives from childhood on.

All of us lived under the shadow of nuclear war. All of us encountered those diagrams with concentric circles surrounding the cities where we happened to be growing up—charts and graphs that showed where a nuclear bomb’s impact would be the greatest and how it would continue for hundreds of miles outside that ground zero. We don’t have those kinds of things staring us in the face anymore. And it’s not part of our popular culture the way it was back in the sixties and seventies and earlier. We need to rekindle that sense of threat and urgency, along with reviving diplomacy.

That is where we are. And I would say the danger is particularly strong in the Middle East, given the nature of the current Israeli government, especially the fanaticism of the cabinet, along with Netanyahu himself. It’s possible that Israel’s government could turn to nuclear weapons if their ethnic cleansing project is thwarted. And in Europe we are in comparable danger, given the eagerness of blustering NATO leaders to provoke Putin, who responds in kind. We’re starting this dance of death again, the dance we thought had ended with the end of the Cold War. One of the partners has to step aside.

Phyllis Bennis: The only thing I would add, I think there is an escalated danger from accidental escalation towards a nuclear weapon. And that’s particularly in Ukraine, certainly possible in many places, but particularly in Ukraine. It’s different than in Syria, where the U.S. and Russia were faced off against each other, including troops as well as pilots and whatever on the ground, on opposite sides. But in Syria, they had a military-to-military hotline. There were some arms-control agreements still intact, and they provided at least the basis for a conversation between the two sides if things got even hotter. And now the possibility of an “accidental escalation,” which are never really accidental because the wars that create the circumstances in which they could occur are not accidents, but in the sense that it’s not the intention of the people at the top of the power pyramid on either side to launch a nuclear weapon.

And yet escalation happens. That’s the accidental nature of it. So I think that the lack of direct military-to-military contact, the lack of diplomatic contact, the lack of existing arms-control agreements, the virtual collapse of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I think it is a more dangerous moment.


Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (2018). Her other books include: Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terror (2003) and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power (2005).

T.J. Jackson Lears is the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review. Lears’s essays and reviews have appeared in The NationThe New RepublicThe London Review of Books, and The New York Review of Books. His books include Something for Nothing: Luck in AmericaFables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, which won the Los Angeles Times book prize for history; and most recently, Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He has been advisor to three United Nations Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary-General António Guterres. Sachs is the author, most recently, of A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism (2020). Other books include: Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable (2017) and The Age of Sustainable Development (2015) with Ban Ki-moon.

Image: With the U.S. Capitol as ground zero, the three-mile radius in which destruction caused by a 1954-era thermonuclear device would be complete. Federal Civil Defense Administration, National Archives at Boston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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