The peace movement in the United States is dying. Interest in anti-war actions and protests is vanishing, especially among young Americans. Peace movements used to have a special place in broader leftist movements that focus on life-affirming programs at home as well as abroad. However, since the Iraq War protests in the early- to mid-aughts and the subsequent election of Democratic president Barack Obama, anti-war activism has been steadily declining, even as more and more Americans and politicians openly identify as democratic socialists.
It feels obvious to activists like myself that a socialist movement that seeks to radically transform our political and economic system away from violence, domination, and exploitation should be concerned with American militarism and war, especially now that we are increasingly seeing their effects at home. Recently, our president sent over 5,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to combat a fabricated threat posed by migrants seeking asylum, far-right extremists have been incited to commit domestic terrorist attacks, and the extrajudicial murder of a Washington Post journalist and American resident has spurred necessary debates and critiques of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, notably the assault on Yemen. I believe that socialists do care about these issues, strongly in fact, but the avenues along which to pursue change are hazy and overgrown. We need and have to build new ones.
There are many campaigns that draw connections between international issues and domestic ones, even here in the Washington, DC area. The Occupation Free DC Campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace is a wonderful one that seeks to end counter-terrorism training and cooperation between Metropolitan DC Police and the occupying forces of Israel. The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which DSA officially endorses, draws parallels to the international community’s role in ending the apartheid regime of South Africa of the twentieth century to the cooperation needed to end the one that exists in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories today. These campaigns are necessary and good and help raise awareness of the connection between foreign and domestic militarism in progressive circles. But the left also needs strong platforms and positions for broader and less locally relevant foreign policy issues, such as intervention in humanitarian crises, the manufacturing and selling of weapons, military alliances, and economic warfare and sanction strategies.
The Democratic Party has utterly failed to offer a substantial change from the war and militarism propelled by Republicans. President Obama’s failure to fulfill peaceful campaign promises was met with a muted response by an immobilized anti-war movement that was not eager to speak out against his administration. He even managed to escalate and normalize many of the violent actions the Bush administration had taken in front of this mostly silent audience. As a result, today the pro-war position is a bipartisan one. Democrats may seem more willing to speak out against militarism and war, but the defense industry spends millions on campaigns for candidates on both sides of the aisle. The war on terror is a cause taken up by most politicians regardless of ideology. Democrats and Republicans alike are just as ardent as ever in their support for Israel and their silence on Palestinian rights. Even if Democrats manage to sweep up majorities in the midterms, it is highly doubtful that any fundamental foreign policy changes will take place.
Democratic socialists must be tasked with creating the infrastructure to carry out leftist foreign policy. Even if the anti-war movement found its place again in leftist organizing, in its current form it would be unable to provide a comprehensive plan for restructuring our relationships with the world. Simply resisting warmongering will not be sufficient when democratic socialists hold power. We must develop specific policy positions that not only apply socialist ideology to international issues but also allow us to engage in broad democratic debates about our role on the world stage. We must also completely shut down profit-seekers like the defense industry and conflict entrepreneurs who exploit vague fears of the foreign Other for political and electoral gain. Intersectionality must be strongly emphasized in international relations as well as domestic socioeconomic issues.
One of the debates the left should pick up again is the role of NATO in imperialist projects around the world. NATO might be a boring topic to those who do not have a fetish for model UN style debates, but its role in global brutality is impossible to ignore. The Western-initiated military alliance has never cared about human rights and democracy, as it claims, but rather has been an avenue for coalition-style imperialism since its creation during the height of Cold War fervor in 1949. Donald Trump cannot be the sole critic of NATO, but center-left punditry and elites have taken the reactionary position of defending the institution from his ire. Democratic socialists are much better positioned to dismantle imperialist alliances like NATO and push for diplomatic relations that do not hinge on military might.
Democratic socialism must also create ample space for a robust peace movement that can be launched into material policy platforms. Authoritarianism, war, climate change, economic sanctions, the United Nations, treaties, and so on cannot be ignored by the left or brushed off by simply calling for anti-imperialism. These are issues that need to be of similar priority to momentous campaigns such as Medicare for All, the fight for living wages, and prison and police abolition. Foreign policy should be pursued strongly and with conviction, or we will be ill-equipped to tackle these daunting global questions that affect both our local and international communities.