Aaron Hughes spent the spring of 2003 transporting supplies from Kuwait to Iraq as a soldier in the Army National Guard. Today, he is an outspoken anti-war activist.
“I didn’t have an epiphany,” Hughes says of his turnabout. “I just continually hoped that I could help the Iraqi people, that my fellow soldiers would be respected as human beings by the military. And after one year and three months over there, that hope was shattered.” He thought his gun could be used to defend democracy only to “awake to my weapon pointed at the hungry, and I am the oppressor.”
Hughes is now an artist who makes videos, performance art, and drawings that capture his experience in the Iraq War. In one particularly moving performance, he stopped traffic by drawing on the pavement of a busy intersection in Champaign, Illinois, with a sign reading “I am an Iraq War veteran. I am guilty. I am alone. I am drawing for peace.” He likens his artwork to a spark of light. “In a desert you can see a match lit from miles away,” Hughes says. “Although it’s just a little match, it’s still being seen, and it can empower a lot of people.”
Aaron Hughes’ journey from war to peace mirrors the larger shift in the United States since 2003. What had once been the opinion of a vocal minority—that the invasion of Iraq was wrong—has become the position of a no-longer-silent majority. There are now many points of light, many matches in the desert. The U.S. public rejects the centerpiece of the Bush foreign policy, namely its doctrine of attacking any country that poses even a hypothetical threat. Americans support across-the-board change in our relationships with other countries on issues from climate and trade to arms control to cooperation on ending wars in the Middle East and Africa. After years of standing out in the cold, U.S. citizens want to rejoin the family of nations.
True, Americans are fearful of terrorism. And both the Democratic and Republican parties share a blinkered consensus on national security. But the counter-narratives at the heart of Aaron Hughes’ art and in the programs of social movements throughout the country are becoming more prominent. The polls suggest an overwhelming desire for change, even if the pols are behind the times. Meanwhile, the world has undergone a profound transformation in the last few years. All of this means that a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, not seen since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, may be just around the corner.
A Changing World
The administration of George W. Bush may well go down in history as the straw that broke the U.S. empire’s back. The Bush administration replaced the Cold War with a “global war on terror” that dragged the country into an unlimited conflict with a dispersed adversary. The Bush team increased Pentagon spending by 70 percent and, along with generous tax giveaways to the wealthy, managed to erase all the deficit reductions of the Clinton era. In 2000, the United States recorded the largest budget surplus in its history: $230 billion. By 2002, even before the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration had taken the country $159 billion into the red. Goldman Sachs economists predict that the 2008 deficit will be $425 billion, which would be a new record.
All this money has not built the United States a strong economic foundation, nor has it bought Washington any new friends. The goodwill that flowed toward the United States from other nations after September 11—even from such unexpected quarters as North Korea, Iran, and Libya—quickly evaporated when their populations witnessed U.S. behavior in the “War on Terror.” It didn’t help that the United States rejected key international treaties such as the Kyoto protocol on global warming, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in order to pursue a costly and technically questionable missile defense system, and unsigned the accession agreement to the International Criminal Court.
By shifting the tax structure in favor of corporations and the wealthy and by tilting the international playing field in favor of the rich, the United States has further widened the global divide between haves and have-nots. Add the metastasized military budget to the ballooning federal debt, the mortgage crisis, and the eroding manufacturing base and the United States begins to resemble an empire stretched thin to the breaking point, like 4th-century Rome or Britain of the 1930s. If recent U.S. history were a Greek tragedy, the triumphalist rhetoric coming out of Washington would qualify as the hubris that audiences expect just before the tragic fall.
By no means does all the responsibility fall on the shoulders of the Bush administration. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had a unique opportunity to help move the world from the Cold War system into a new, equitable global arrangement. Instead of strengthening the United Nations and taking the lead in shifting resources from the military into a much-anticipated “peace dividend,” the Clinton administration tried to preserve the unipolar moment and the U.S. status as the largest military and economic power in the world.
In the 1990s, the United States maintained a sanctions regime against Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and conducted unilateral military actions against Serbia, Afghanistan, and Sudan. The Clinton administration failed to support a land mines treaty, pushed for a North American Free Trade Agreement that largely benefited big U.S. corporations, weakened the ABM treaty, and greatly expanded U.S. military exports. In the 1990s, Washington viewed international cooperation as a way to bolster the geo-economic power of the United States. By scorning international cooperation and relying instead on the unrestrained use of U.S. military power, the Bush administration went one step further in its attempt to remap the globe.
The next administration, Democratic or Republican, will face a world very different from that which confronted George W. Bush in 2000 or Bill Clinton in 1992. New centers of power are emerging in the form of China’s new global economic and diplomatic reach, Russia’s energy politics, India’s economic leverage, and a new generation of Latin American leadership. The euro has a good chance of replacing the dollar as the world’s currency, which would substantially undercut U.S. global power. Beyond governments, civil society has gained a new prominence as “the other superpower.” Civil movements have forced military base closures, succeeded in securing an international convention on land mines, pushed the international financial community into granting substantial debt relief to impoverished countries, and helped to block further rounds of multilateral trade negotiations.
Americans want their country to stop being the neighborhood bully and instead to be a good neighbor. The nation’s economy is flagging, our military is over-stretched, and our global legitimacy is exhausted. The public no longer wants to shoulder these costs of empire.
In deciding how to negotiate these demands for change and these changed realities, the United States faces a stark choice. In the next decade, we could try to maintain our grip on global power only to watch it slip through our fingers. Burdened by debt, armed to the teeth, and isolated from the world, the United States would become the “sick man” of North America, as the Ottomans were once labeled in Europe. Like many failing empires, we would be all the more dangerous the weaker we got.
Or the United States could try something unprecedented. We could turn our back on empire, much as Spain and Portugal did in the 1970s and the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s. But rather than waiting until the bitter end as these countries did, the United States could use its still considerable power to help create a more equitable world order that operates on a truly level playing field. Rome failed to pursue this option, and the Dark Ages ensued. The Ottomans, Romanovs, and Habsburgs likewise attempted to extend their imperial leases, and a barbarous world war was the result. By turning its back on global dominance, the United States can learn from the past and stop the Greek tragedy before its fatal denouement.
A Post-Superpower U.S.A.
How much difference will it make if a Republican or Democrat is elected president?
On some foreign policy issues, the Republican and Democratic candidates sound like they live on different planets. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq eventually, while John McCain is more supportive of Bush’s surge than Bush himself. The Democrats are more sensible than the Republicans on climate change, trade, and overall global cooperation.
But in other respects, the two parties are indistinguishable. For instance, no major presidential candidate has called for freezing the military budget much less reducing it. And terrorism remains a central preoccupation of both parties even though other threats—rising temperatures, nuclear apocalypse—challenge the very existence of humanity.
Although both Clinton and Obama have called for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo, neither has challenged the “global war on terror” framework. Nor have they called for closing the Guantanamo base or any of the other 700-plus U.S. military bases around the world. By failing to challenge the half-trillion dollar military budget, the Democratic candidates will be hard-pressed to find the funds to pay for their comprehensive health care and education plans.
The polling data suggest that Americans are eager to embrace a considerably more positive, more cooperative, and more optimistic approach to international relations. A majority of Americans believe their country should play an active part in world affairs and that the United States “should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries.” Most Americans prefer economic and diplomatic approaches to military action and believe that all countries should eliminate their nuclear weapons given a well-established international verification system. And Americans strongly believe that trade should help raise labor standards globally rather than precipitate a race to the bottom.
In other words, Americans want their country to stop being the neighborhood bully and instead act like a good neighbor. In this, Americans are not giving voice to utopian aspirations. The polls in fact reflect a new realism. The nation’s economy is flagging, our military is over-stretched, and our global legitimacy is exhausted. The public no longer wants to shoulder these various costs of empire.
Until now, Americans have not translated this realism into political expression. When this happens, regardless of who is president, the days of the American empire will truly be numbered.
From the One to the Many
Rejecting militarism and empire would not be entirely unprecedented for the United States. There have been moments in the past when the country turned decisively toward global cooperation. During the 1930s, the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt adopted a “good neighbor policy” toward Latin America that replaced militarism with cooperation in allowing countries in the region to pursue their own models of political and economic development. Other important, if imperfect, programs have included the distribution of Marshall Plan aid to Europe after World War II, the creation of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration, and the adoption of a new human rights policy in the early years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
To chart a new way in the world, we can look at these models from our own past. But we should also take a look around us.
The European Union is an example of what can happen when countries that once pursued global dominance and colonial empire decide instead to work together to solve common problems. The EU has been comparatively inclusive—expanding to embrace some countries from the former Soviet sphere and considering Turkey as well for membership. It has transferred income from the richer to the poorer parts of Europe, which has enabled countries like Ireland and Portugal to become prosperous. And with the principle of subsidiarity—the notion that authority should rest at the lowest possible level—the EU has attempted to preserve participatory democracy in what otherwise would be an all-encompassing bureaucracy. Through it all, the EU has generally favored cooperative diplomacy over military action. Although the EU is far from perfect, these initiatives still represent a distinct alternative to the U.S. go-it-alone ethos.
The United States should apply these approaches to the international system to make it similarly inclusive, economically equitable, and democratically rich. For this to happen, though, the United States must stop placing itself above the law. Only when we recognize the international rule of law will the specter of unilateralism fade away. The United States must acknowledge the higher power of international law in the same way that Germany and France accepted the sovereign power of European institutions.
European countries did not, of course, simply decide to create the European Union because their interests magically converged. Rather, the United States helped to push them together by amplifying the threat of the Soviet Union. This external threat helped to overwhelm the inevitable internal bickering among countries that imperiled European integration at several points after World War II.
The world today faces a similar cohesive threat. In place of the “red scare” there is the life-threatening “green scare” of climate change. All the countries of the world are affected by climate change, and this threat should convince them to redefine sovereignty in order to save the planet. The United States must show it can be part of the solution by once again taking the rule of law and international institutions seriously.
Through binding international mechanisms, the United States can help radically cut back on carbon emissions. It can achieve global security through agreements that shrink the arms trade and reduce nuclear arsenals eventually to zero. Other treaties could establish corporate codes of conduct and set a floor for labor and environmental standards in trade negotiations. The United Nations would need to be restructured to reflect post-Cold War realities and be given a financial shot in the arm to mount peacekeeping operations that can end simmering conflicts and prevent new ones.
The United States must lead by example, not by force. Our country is number one in several dubious categories—most powerful nuclear arsenal, largest greenhouse gas emitter, leading arms exporter, biggest military spender, greatest number of overseas military bases. So, if we want to change the world we have to start by changing ourselves.
Where Will Change Come From?
Politics is too important to be left to politicians. Hemmed in by powerful special interests, forced to devote an increasing amount of time to fundraising, and ever more beholden to focus groups and demographic calculations, politicians are less and less likely to come up with visionary plans or muster the courage to implement them.
Unless they are pushed to do so.
Social movements have in the past mobilized the American public behind dramatic shifts in U.S. policy. The civil rights movement and the women’s movement have both remade U.S. society. The successes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would have been inconceivable a mere generation ago. They are remarkable people, but they also stand on the shoulders of powerful social movements.
Today, we need a different kind of social movement—one that focuses on U.S. foreign policy. Such a movement, drawing heavily on the peace and global justice efforts, would aim for nothing less than a transformation of the U.S. role in the world. This would be no mere change of politicians or adjustments to a few policies. It would be a change of truly global proportions.
After all, the pursuit of empire is neither feasible nor desirable. At this pivotal moment, it’s time to strengthen the structures of international cooperation and consign empire once and for all to the dustbin of history.
What Americans Say…Rating U.S. Global Performance
84% are worried about the way things are going for the U.S. in world affairs
74% say the world is getting more dangerous for Americans
69% say the U.S. is not doing a good job as a leader in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world
64% believe the rest of the world sees the U.S. negatively
65% say U.S. relations with the rest of the world are on the wrong track
—From the Confidence in Foreign Policy Index, Spring 2008, by Public Agenda & Foreign Affairs