Putting Foreign Policy in a Domestic Focus

It is through the eyes of the very young that the rest of us, even the only slightly older, often get a glimpse of what is actually happening.

I was in the middle of completing the duties of a child, the routine telephone recap of the week’s happenings with my parents, an event occurring somewhere between 4 and 8pm every Sunday evening. During the conversation, my mother, an Episcopal priest, shared a fascinating exchange she had that day with a young teenage parishioner at her small, rural Midwestern church. The young man, not yet in high school, and his parish priest, frequently chatted about the activities in the young boy’s life. This included the latest news from his middle school classroom, his anticipation for and expectations of high school life, only one year away, and even the young boy’s hopes for leaving the mundane elements of his small town, yet trepidation about the long hours of real work that would soon follow.

On this day, the teenage interlocutor revealed that it looked like college was not going to be in his deck of cards, as he had, at the age of just 14, resigned himself to the fact that the traditional understanding of ‘further education’ was showing itself to be neither commensurate with his talents, interests, nor his family’s economic resources. And so, he revealed, military enlistment would certainly be his only exit strategy to a different world of new possibilities. My mother was a bit taken aback that a young boy, yet to even begin high school, already was gripped by the feeling of entrapment proffered by a real world of ‘no good options.’

How was the US foreign policy idea of democracy promotion, at the barrel of an American gun, affecting the social reality of this young man’s ability to make individual judgments and transcend his socioeconomic position? The idea, requiring a robust military force and military expenditures greater than the rest of the world’s combined, seems to have disregarded all together this second issue, that of the domestic social practice of an idea.

She pressed the boy further. “But, James, it frightens me to think about the danger you might face while serving in the military if we are still at war in Iraq.” As if playing the role of a top military general, young James reassuringly responded, “Well, we’ll be out of Iraq by then [when I enlist in four years].” And, then, with wisdom well beyond his years, James conceded that, ok – maybe his certainty was rather misleading. “You know, you are probably right [about the danger of military service at this moment in history],” he started, “because even if we are out of Iraq, we will probably be fighting another war, somewhere else in world, four years from now.”

Seeing Allows for Vision, Not the Other Way Around

I was in the formative stages of writing this piece when my mother relayed to me this story. I must admit that my thoughts on how to escape militarism in US foreign policymaking were taking me far away from the very real, individual effects of war making, and into that ‘out there’ universe of the theoretical, only accessible via the mind. The story, however, made me wonder: was it an escape to the mind, rather than a renewing of the connection with the actual world, that sustained both our war system and national warrior identity to begin with?

When the eyes of a young teenager provide the self-revelation that our present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, in all likelihood, be followed by, yes, that is right, more war, then why do so many others, with the wisdom that, in theory, accompanies age, still seem blind to this reality? No more exposés should be necessary to help us see things as they really are. That is not to say that further investigation and more critical reporting is not of use. It is simply to say that the evidence that we are entrapped in the state of permanent war already surrounds us. Each need only open his/her eyes to see that:

1) The US has maintained the stationing of its troops around the globe since the end of the Second World War, and

2) In this same period, for only two years, 1977 and 1979, were US troops not militarily engaged in ‘interventionist’ operations.

However, while seeing the larger condition should be as obvious to all of us as it was to a 14 year old, seeing the social processes that perpetuate this condition may be more difficult to pick out. And so, I am willing to admit that maybe this is where the real problem lies. Seeing militarist policy initiatives as simply an ill of elite-constructed US foreign policy does not seem to address any domestic link to popular social and economic policy failures. Arguably, the blindness to this link is exactly what militarist foreign policy managers exploit as recruitment offices swell with young men and women ready to ‘serve their country,’ often a code phrase for “the most accessible avenue to decent wages now and money for further schooling and a supplemental income afterwards.” Indeed, in a recent conversation with a former Army sergeant who had spent 12 months in Iraq, I was told that probably 95-98% of those serving in the Army had enlisted primarily for financial reasons.

For young persons who do not see themselves ‘fitting into’ the dominant logic of society, a logic that too often predicates knowledge and education on the numbers and letters of test scores and bank accounts, this is particular true. In this way, the lives of countless numbers of young individuals become linked to the military apparatus. Thus, the war system’s continuation becomes justified in the minds of the top brass of a foreign policy establishment, operating within a theoretical framework that, since the end of World War II, has been dominated by war and the continual preparation for war.

If this link between a militarized foreign policy and the domestic socioeconomic system could be seen, surely one would think grand changes would be on the horizon. I am of this opinion. So what is blocking our sight? Perhaps it is simply too much vision — that is, too many mental images of how the world ought to be without first understanding how the world really is. Too many values neatly separated out from too few facts. Too much theory and too little practice. And too much focus on good intentions within the mind and too little attention paid to the same-old indecent, palpable consequences that those intentions bring to the world. Therefore, it is the job of the activist and public scholar to do the reconnecting and reconstructing.

How Social Reconstructions Could Usher in a Non-Militarist Foreign Policy

Since the dawn of the Cold War, ordinary Americans have ceded their rights to engage on foreign policy and national security matters to the secretive agencies of the defense apparatus. Most notably, the National Security Act of 1947, under the pretext of foreign and defense policy streamlining surreptitiously linked domestic social policy to a militarist foreign policy system. Average Americans and even Congress, until the formation of the Church Committee in 1975, were made to believe that foreign policy issues were too complex for their understanding. Bureaucrats and managers, acting as trustees, would, therefore, make decisions on the behalf of the American people. This became a socially accepted truth.

As the United States finds itself in the midst of foreign policy failure in Iraq and at the precipice of another possible engagement in Iran, the manipulation of social policy by the national security state, from education to economics, must be exposed and social reconstruction must begin anew.

I return to the story of the teenager, James. Let us start from the assumption that James, like so many others, views military enlistment not as a chance to satisfy any sadistic pleasure for violence, nor the necessary end for deeply-held patriotic sentiments, but rather as simply the only opportunity for exit from the mundane to the exciting. It necessarily follows that we ought to rebuild institutions, both educational and economic, so that new paths for individual meaning become self-evident, outside of military structures. This will mean reconstructing the frame from which our educational system operates, allowing local flexibility for curriculum that propels students, in vastly different social environments, to harness their creative capacities, be they artistic, technical, or intellectual.

We must also rethink our economic structures to provide jobs that will transform varied skill sets, taught in a reconstructed educational system, into fulfilling work and humane outputs. A glance at the number of casualties of servicemen and women in Iraq reveals the disproportionate loss of human life suffered by relatively small communities around the country. A new face of economic marginalization and lack of opportunity can be seen, no longer restricted to traditionally impoverished urban centers alone. A national problem is clearly at hand. And perhaps as this new face of economic marginalization and an individually perceived lack of opportunity are exposed, the young, in particular, will again reach out to the hope of economic conversion–the transition from a warfare economy of weapons system production to weapons system dismantlement and a peace-time economy.

If James is representative of many who enter the military as the only possible escape from the ordinary, then such a transformation of our militarist foreign policy ideology may indeed come from first seeing how such policies are often unknowingly maintained by our very real social paradigm. From seeing, we must then move, acting to reconstruct those institutions that will give birth to a new social covenant.

Joshua F. String is a Research Associate for the Paths for the 21st Century project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes from Flickr.com