A Crossroads of Vision at the DNC

Joe Biden delivers his nomination acceptance speech at the socially distanced Democratic National Convention August 20, 2020 (NBC News)

By Solomon Bennett

The 2020 Democratic National Convention and the release of the 2020 Democratic Party Platform signify a number of critical steps that the United States can take to repair the damage wrought by the Trump Administration, but it doesn’t mark a significant enough shift toward the values of progressive internationalism and military restraint, increasingly driven by younger generations, which have begun to change the party from the bottom up.     

The convention offered a clear contrast in terms of rhetoric and priorities. On one hand, former Secretary of State John Kerry offered a familiar refrain: “Before Donald Trump we used to talk about American exceptionalism…Joe Biden knows we aren’t exceptional because we bluster that we are, we are exceptional because we do exceptional things…This moment is a fight for the security of America and the world.” Even Colin Powell, an architect of the Iraq War, was invited to speak at the convention. 

On the other, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered an alternative vision of American leadership, led by a “mass people’s movement to establish 21st century social, economic, and human rights…”. Rather than rely on notions of the liberal order and American exceptionalism, she described “a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”

This language marks a critical shift in Democratic party speech, but it shouldn’t be viewed as wholly new. Indeed, in his 1942 speech “The Century of the Common Man,” Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace uttered words that might appear alien to much of the rhetoric of the Democratic Party today: “No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.”

The 2020 Democratic Party Platform outlines revitalizing American diplomacy through fully supporting the State Department, repairing alliances, and bolstering international organizations including the WHO, the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, and the United Nations Population Fund which have been abandoned by the Trump Administration. The platform seeks to devote more resources to foreign assistance and development programs, rejecting a transactional approach to foreign aid, and prioritizing international preparedness for pandemics, fighting climate change, and strengthening nuclear nonproliferation. 

The platform also calls for bringing the past two decades of “forever war” conflict from West Africa to Southeast Asia to an end, through bringing about a political settlement in Afghanistan, ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, repealing “decades-old authorizations for the use of military force and replace them with a narrow and specific framework…”, and prioritizing diplomatic alternatives to military occupation and overthrow.

The Democratic platform will more likely be shaped by the actual actions of a Biden-Harris administration and its appointees, and less by the written platform. In a Foreign Affairs article outlining his approach to foreign policy from earlier this Spring, Biden falls seriously short of a more progressive and realistic vision for U.S. foreign policy and national interests. 

Biden claims that “For 70 years the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity — until Trump.”

Biden apparently chooses to ignore the litany of disastrous foreign policy actions taken in those 70 years which have undermined the very collective security and prosperity he describes, and of which President Trump is the next step. He fails to mention that, for example, the United States supported the overthrow of democratically-elected leaders in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, the entirety of the destructive war in Vietnam and bombing of Cambodia across several administrations, President Reagan’s role in illegally selling weapons to Iran and using the profits to fund far-right Contra rebels in Nicaragua and in supporting death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, President George H.W. Bush’s devastating sanction regime against the Iraqi people after the Gulf War, and President George W. Bush’s crime of the Iraq War, which Biden supported.

Given his record of positions on foreign policy and his deeply flawed analysis, one can reasonably be skeptical that his administration will do the right things, even if the Democratic Party Platform takes a number of important positions. 

As Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute Stephen Wertheim describes, Biden makes an important commitment to ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but he fails to acknowledge that it was his administration that got involved to begin with, making the conflict possible. He fails to fully acknowledge his administration’s role in seriously destabilizing Libya and prolonging its civil war after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and his administration’s expansion of the “war on terror,” which he now wants to bring to an end, except for those troops he won’t bring home.

Biden supports the successful Iran Nuclear Deal, but he makes his administration’s reentry contingent on Iran reentering the parameters of the deal, despite the fact that it was the United States under President Trump who breached the agreement first. He has also not committed to restricting military aid to Israel, making any commitment to a serious resolution of the occupation of Palestine flimsy.  

But there is an alternative in the tradition of Vice President Henry Wallace that a Biden-Harris Administration and the Democratic Party at large could embrace, championed by Senator Bernie Sanders as well as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and Congressman Ro Khanna among many others. New candidates for Congress reflect this bold change as well, from Jamaal Bowman to Cori Bush, recognizing that it is time to reassert Congressional war powers and the power of the purse in the name of a more responsible and humane approach to international relations.

The Director of the Program on Law and Government at Vanderbilt University Law School, Ganesh Sitaraman, outlines a robust manifesto for the future of progressive realist and left-wing foreign policy, roughly defined by five pillars. These include the reconciliation of domestic and foreign policy, the recognition of the threat of an international axis of nationalist oligarchy and authoritarian capitalism, the promotion of international diplomacy and alliances, aversion to military interventionism, and a reshaping of the military budget to invest in other priorities including green energy technology and high-speed public rail. 

A recent letter organized by Demand Progress and Win Without War and signed by more than 60 leading progressive organizations to Democratic leadership called for the next House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair to break from the Washington consensus on foreign policy and embrace ten basic principles.

These include generally:

  1. Ending our endless wars;
  2. Opposing militarization and surveillance at home;
  3. Putting diplomacy first;
  4. Opposing regime change and scrutinizing non-electoral transfers of power;
  5. Opposing broad-based sanctions that harm civilians;
  6. Supporting a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  7. Building a global economy that prioritizes people and planet over corporate profit;
  8. Ending the rubber stamp of arms sales;
  9. Independence from special interests; and
  10. Welcoming migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, and eliminating the root causes of forced displacement.

As Wertheim from the Quincy Institute and others will argue, this agenda may look toward a more concise series of military national interests, but it is not primarily negative: “…I think it’s more genuinely positive than the establishment stance of fetishizing military force as the essence of engagement in the world. Force isn’t engagement. It ends human life. It is the ultimate negative. Military restraint is the prerequisite of a genuinely positive vision.” 

Indeed, Wertheim notes that the threat of climate change and austerity- and privatization-based policy pose critical threats to the security and prosperity of ordinary people, and that U.S. foreign policy cannot fully reflect those priorities until the United States transcends military hegemony. 

Part of this process, as historian Adom Getachew describes, is building a more egalitarian internationalism which prioritizes the Global South and uplifts the voices of the oppressed, whose activism ultimately created modern democracy as it exists today. It also means ensuring that international institutions do not enforce existing disparities of the “color line” described by W.E.B. Du Bois or the legacy of colonization referenced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   

The Democratic Party is faced with a crossroads of vision and an opportunity to reinvent international engagement and U.S. leadership in the world in a responsible and comprehensive manner. The Democratic Party must fight for a century for the common person, led by a “21st Century mass people’s movement.”  

Solomon Bennett is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying political science and international relations.






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