Diplomacy, the practice of managing relations between two or more sides, is a fancy way of describing normal human interactions between diverse participants. Whether you’re an international worker in Dubai delicately managing your tenuous position, a refugee in Berlin trying to present as a nonthreatening worker bee to suspicious citizens, or an American businessman in Bangkok patiently waiting as your Chinese partner haggles, diplomacy is actively engaged. Yet when we discuss diplomacy, we think of Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, and Albright. We think of elites talking to elites in opaque, high-level policy negotiations filled with massive egos, cinematic intrigue, and historical discussions. This view of diplomacy is outdated and dangerously misunderstands how cultures interact and shape one another in a hyper-connected world.
I’m not writing this or offering ideas out of moral righteousness. While I do believe there are both moral and righteous solutions to difficult problems facing our civilization, I am more concerned with my own personal happiness and safety, and the happiness and safety of my friends and family. My problem is, my friends and family live all over the globe, so when I hear violent rhetoric from my government threatening the people I love, my calculus for what safety and happiness means changes. I can’t just care about the people in my immediate surroundings or those I grew up with, because I’ve seen that the world itself is my neighborhood. The people living in the regions America stereotypes and dehumanizes are just like me. I know this because I’ve met them, practiced diplomacy with them, and found connections in the roots of our shared humanity.
Why is US Diplomacy broken?
If Americans were represented well, the world would be a much different place. However, during my time as an officer in the US Army, I saw where the rubber meets the road in our foreign policy, and the takeaway was disheartening.
In South Korea, I saw us pursue the lowest hanging fruit to find local partners, working with known human traffickers and gangsters, who we called “Good Neighbors,” and invited onto our bases to play golf. When major, horrific incidents involving violent US service members and Korean civilians occured, we used mass punishment on our 28,500 military personnel to virtue signal to the South Korean government. This didn’t change what our personnel did, however, and the more we hid behind our walls topped with concertina wire, the more of an unknown we became to the local people. When I asked friends, acquaintances, and random people from all walks of life in South Korea to do word association with “US Military” or “US Soldier,” invariably, nearly half would respond “rape,” “murder,” or “barbarians.”
One of my friends in South Korea at one of our favorite spots in Seoul, Strange Fruit, named after the Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol song. It was in this venue and venues like it that I heard music and met people that dramatically altered the way I see the world.
The Ville is the name given to the clusters of brothels and bars right outside US military bases in South Korea. It was at one of these bases, Camp Casey, where I spent the entirety of 2011-2013. And it was Camp Casey’s Ville, and the official support it received, that left me with a feeling of embarrassment for how my country was being represented. These were establishments that kidnapped and tricked women from the Philippines into coming to South Korea on the belief they’d be a singer. Once in country, they were trapped, stripped of their passports, and kept as sex slaves to service US military personnel and make money for local Korean businessmen. I regularly saw company and battalion commanders bring subordinates to these establishments for “morale building” parties.
In one sensing session with a representative from our higher headquarters, I brought up how harmful our activities were to the local population and to our own image, with our Soldiers spending an estimated $1 million in the Ville on payday weekends. In addition to the toxicity inherent in their situation, the exploited sex workers also served as intelligence gathering agents for our regional adversaries. Foreign agents cultivated relationships with the enslaved women, who would report on troop activities and training they overheard from compromised Soldiers..
During this session, it was explained to me that according to our own rules, any establishment we banned had to be reviewed every six months. If it passed the new review, it had to be taken off the banned list. This meant only the most egregious violations resulted in bans, followed by a quick rebranding of the club for reinspection, which it would invariably pass. Soon after, the club would return to its old practices, confident the US inspectors wouldn’t be back for years.
This was one the most frustrating moments of my career, particularly as this practice had been around our bases in South Korea for decades. Fortunately, however, thanks to concerted efforts from like-minded members of the military and quality leadership, a blanket ban on these establishments was instituted on behalf of the United States Forces Korea command a few years later.
In the Korean culture brief I gave to every Soldier inprocessing with the 2nd Infantry Division, I taught that we share 90-95% of what makes us human with every other human on the planet. It’s the 5-10%, the cosmetic differences, that cause disagreements, fights, conflicts, and wars. Rather than focus on the small percentage of another person or culture that separates them or it from you, I told my Soldiers to focus on their shared humanity and all the ways in which we’re the same.
My three principles for how to interact with any culture effectively were:
1. Try to be polite, but more importantly, be actively humble about the fact that maybe you don’t know what another person finds polite.
2. Hone your situational awareness to figure out how to act in most situations quickly, even if you don’t speak the language.
3. In complicated situations where accurate communication is vital, have a friend who can interpret what you’re trying to say.
This last step obviously requires making friends within the local population.
I taught a Korean culture class for Soldiers in-processing with the 2nd Infantry Division.
Diplomacy and increasing empathy between groups is my passion, so while I was in Korea I tried my hand at creating a new narrative for our local relationship. To this end I set up cultural exchanges between US Soldiers and Korean military personnel and hand-picked accurately diverse representatives within our service to interact with students at Korean universities. In my personal time I facilitated art projects and independent rock concerts to improve relations with the liberal-artist demographic, trend setters who were historically antagonistic towards the United States military.
The goal wasn’t to build rent-seeking relationships, like our Good Neighbor Program so often ended up doing. Rather my purpose was to make real connections and lasting friendships, a goal that’s difficult to capture in a way the metrics-obsessed military services understand. The result on the ground, however, was a community of individuals interacting outside national identity and finding common ground through shared passions and experiences. Witnessing human beings from different cultures connect with other humans beings from other cultures left a strong impression on my psyche.
Through my new friends, I learned about a local musician’s collective helping its members survive the conservative culture of South Korea, which told them they were crazy for expressing themselves. I learned that many of these musicians were also full-time activists fighting unfettered gentrification in the traditional arts district of Hongdae and elsewhere in their city. I learned that the rent for many small stores and venues had increased from $1,500 to $7,000 a month in only a few years. I learned about the harshness of South Korea’s National Security Law when my friends passed me a petition to protest the prosecution of their friend, Park Jong-kun. I saw Park Geun-hye get elected in 2012, which my friends called catastrophic as they accurately predicted her autocratic impulses. But most importantly, I learned I loved my friends in South Korea just as much as I loved anyone from my hometown.
Talking about independent art and music for a Korean documentary.
When I went to Afghanistan in 2014, I saw us ignore what I’d learned in Korea and instead throw money at individuals and organizations, perpetuating corruption and fueling cycles of violence. In a culture where life is cheap and violence ubiquitous, adding daily planeloads of ammunition and suitcases full of cash didn’t earn anyone’s respect. In using our typical strategies, we created dependencies and exploitative relationships.
The plethora of programs we’ve set up to increase the cultural fluency of our personnel have met with varying levels of failure. Most notable of these was the AFPAK hands program, built to add highly-trained, culturally fluent personnel to deployed formations. The program turned out to be a career killer for officers who signed up. AFPAK positions lacked Key Development qualifications, something promotion boards, who spend mere minutes on each officer’s file, look for when deciding who gets a green light. Many personnel within the program were passed over in favor of their colleagues, who’d remained on a standard career path. In addition to this program, we’ve tried MiTT teams, PRTs, and Special Operations Advisor Teams/Groups, among others. Our new initiative, the Security Force Assistance Brigade, looks as mismanaged, poorly implemented, and doomed to failure as the rest. With so much failure, it seemed to me it wasn’t our individual programs that were the problem, but rather our overall system.
My friend and interpreter in Afghanistan.
As my team leader explained to me at least ten times during our year together, the British military advisor model was vastly different from the US version due to budgetary concerns and constraints. Their strategy was to deliver small equipment upgrades to their partner units and wait until they demonstrated proficiency, the ability to maintain the equipment, and accountability before giving more. The US model, unconstrained by financial concerns, was to flood the country with weapons, money, and technology.
In my last few months in country, I came to see our initiatives as so backwards I intentionally slow-rolled our requisition request for night-vision capable sniper scopes and MK-19 weapons systems, which the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan was attempting to deliver to the Afghans in order to get an additional bullet for his Officer Evaluation Report. I could not, in good conscience, deliver night-vision capable sniper scopes and MK-19s to Afghan personnel who’d repeatedly failed to maintain accountability for basic items.
After privately consulting with the Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team on our camp, I decided giving our partner force these sniper scopes would most likely result in future US personnel being killed. So I did everything within my limited power to prevent this from occurring without going to jail in the process.
When the commander of our Joint Task Force, 3-10, became unhappy with the state of corruption within our Afghan partner unit and tried to shake up their command team, the Afghan officers patiently waited for that commander to go home, as they always did. Shortly after, we became embroiled in a toxic leadership issue that consumed a great deal of our bandwidth. Additional distractions included the fallout from our camp commander offering $500,000 for sex with one of our interpreters, and having multiple members of our ODA sent home for sleeping with members of our Cultural Support Team. With all this and much more occurring around our missions, by the time reports from the ground got back to DC, the information was filtered through so many career-oriented officials it was unrecognizable. This made orders coming back down nonsensical and divorced from the reality we were experiencing.
A graphic showing how information flows from people on the ground gathering information and executing orders, up to decision-makers, passing through filters that strip out bad news, then back to the people on the ground.
This is one of the many reasons experts and officials based in the US live in an alternate reality. It’s not their fault, it’s the information they’re fed. Garbage in, garbage out. Even when they flit around war zones as VIP tourists, the briefs they receive are specifically tailored to paint a rosy picture that confirms what we’re doing is right. This includes briefing our guests juked stats, which in the Afghan context meant naming every military-aged male we found during our night raids with target nomenclature after the fact and counting their kill or capture as a Jackpot, regardless of our intel or whether we had derogatory information about the individual beyond living in the same village as our original target. These men would be sent on to be processed at an Afghan prison, where they were then released due to lack of evidence supporting the charge and given cab fare home.
The clearest example of this performative behavior came during a live fire exercise put on for top Afghan and US military officials visiting our camp. During the exercise, when the Afghans were supposed to perform a dangerous call for fire, their radio wasn’t even plugged in. It was a show put on to make them look more capable than they actually were. In reality, while the Afghans yelled instructions into a dead radio, watched by our VIP guests from a distance, members of our ODA were secretly calling up on their own radio in another location on the Afghan’s behalf. The exercise was declared a major success by everyone and the illusion of progress was reported up the chain.
Eating our weekly Thursday evening feast of kebabs with our interpreters and Afghan brothers. Sharing food is my favorite form of diplomacy.
This isn’t the result of a few bad ideas, a few bad apples, or any one country with a difficult mission set. Our self-defeating, short-sighted policies are replicated again and again, with our initiatives often projecting our worst cultural impulses onto local populations as we attempt to maintain the perception of a positive narrative for western press and officials. These are not exceptions, but a rather too common result of our ham-fisted, militaristic diplomatic initiatives. Our relations are lost in bureaucratic mechanisms using poorly thought out quantitative metrics to measure an ill-defined version of success, leading to perverse incentives for career-minded officials at the tactical and operational levels.
While defenders of our State Department might object to this characterization of our foreign relations initiatives as a gross oversimplification, I respond by pointing to the State Department’s limited functionality, impact, and initiative prioritization, starkly observed when comparing the organization’s Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification of $37.8 Billion with the Department of Defense’s $686 billion slice. Any way you look at it, DoD, our sledgehammer, is having an outsized impact on America’s relations with the rest of the world.
The Worldview of the American Elite
At the core of our diplomatic incompetence is the hubris many American citizens, scholars, and officials unknowingly carry with them as a result of their socialization into popular American political culture. We assert we are a global hegemon, but do not match this narrative with measured and patient rhetoric. Representatives of the most powerful nation on earth must be humble, self-aware, and understanding when dealing with partners. American exceptionalism, an idea created by wealthy white men to justify the genocide of America’s native inhabitants and the manipulation of sovereign governments at the behest of corporate interests, is a self-defeating attitude when carried abroad. Unfortunately, understanding US relations outside this context is much to ask from a foreign policy elite weaned on the idea of US hegemony.
How did our elites reach the conclusion that overwhelming American dominance of global affairs was prudent, and why do these elites so heavily influence our foreign policy in the first place? For those answers, we have to go back to the genesis of the modern concept of national sovereignty in the west: The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.
Let’s examine a fundamental assumptions about this historical event, as espoused by an elite foreign policy luminary, major architect of our current foreign policy thinking, and war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger touts the vital importance of the national sovereignty system established by the Treaty, which attempted to end centuries of European religious jihad and barbarism through diplomatic tools and centralized control.
In practice this codified the territorial borders of whatever European warlords happened to be in power at the time into the legalistic notion of the nation-state and transferred religious authority to the head of state. This was a massive historical consolidation of power. Enter the age of nationalism, a religious belief that holds the territorial borders of warlords and kings are sacred markers of identity, character, value, and whether an individual is deserving of empathy.
This paved the way for delusional autocrats like Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, whose self-indulgence at the expense of those within his administrative territory is legendary. History is replete with examples of sovereigns like Louis who considered their own populations subhuman and unworthy of dignity. A human life is merely another statistic to be counted when tallying the resources of the state.
It makes sense that Kissinger and his followers look to Westphalia and the Sun Kings of the world for guidance. They believe a nation-state is best viewed from the top-down, with whatever elites were born or lucked into power serving as preferable representatives to the less-worthy non-elites living within that nation’s borders. Their professional worldview also has the benefit of being self-serving, speaking wealth to power on behalf of the already wealthy and powerful. When viewed from this perspective, invading, bombing, massacring, exploiting, and punishing the regular people living in an administered region due to the actions of their rulers seems reasonable.
The debatable notion of the state as the best representative of its citizenry to other populations is particularly problematic within highly-polarized democracies. The regional administrative authority is too simplistic and unwieldy a construct to accurately represent tens of millions of individuals. In the age of personal branding through social media, national governments are poor arbiters of a national ethos. Rather, individuals can represent themselves directly to other individuals all around the world. But this view of international relations is a threat to the state’s stranglehold on official diplomacy.
So it makes sense when the most influential scholars favored by current policymakers preach policy options that perpetuate white male corporate dominance of international affairs. They’re more shills than actual realists, and prattle on about how countering Violent Extremist Organizations, countering near-peer competitors, and maintaining America’s top position in the global balance of power is accomplished through top-down, elite-centric military and economic policies that coincidentally concentrate power and wealth into the hands of their class.
This reliance on violence to enforce the will of state elites brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction, both intentionally and by accident, multiple times a decade for multiple decades. And yet these experts posit that because there hasn’t yet been a nuclear war in the 70 years since nuclear weapons were invented, this short span of historic time stands as proof of their wisdom, rather than a warning about powerful, irresponsible, highly-neurotic men rolling the dice and coming up lucky.
Throughout the 20th century the USSR and US, despite all the talk of nuclear peace, transformed their ideological slap-fight into deadly civil conflicts using dysfunctional, abused populations left to boil by their former imperial occupiers. Democratically elected leaders were killed, organizations for workers were destroyed, and ideology trumped humanity. The “unsentimental analysis of underlying factors” of Kissinger’s realpolitik, is merely a disregard for psychology, sociology, spirituality, aesthetics, and anything not immediately of value to those with enough power to gaslight themselves into uncritically believing in their own righteousness. There is no cold, rational logic at play here, that’s an illusion peddled by the powerful to justify exploitative behavior. Even without the trappings of divine right, their inherent belief in their superior abilities, intellect, and the rightness of the power offered through privilege and position blinds them to reality.
Before they threatened every child in the world with nuclear apocalypse, the practitioners of this governing philosophy were using racist policies from American history, such as the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary, to justify the overthrow of self-determined governments, contributing to much of the instability used as justification for military interventions today. And now they’re at it again, letting fear and their carefully honed ivory tower disconnect from reality lead them down unwise and dangerous roads.
Typical practitioners of this amorphous ideology claim they use logic, but in reality their ideas are simply fear-mongering about a looming, supposedly competitive “other” dressed up with jargon and theory. Their worldview rests on the Hobbesian premise that life outside civilization, in the state of nature, is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But if this is the way of the world, and the point of civilization is to temper our primal competitive instincts, these deep-thinkers fail to offer a compelling vision for how their philosophy does anything but tread water.
Describing the international system as anarchic and dooming humans to repeating destructive cycles, despite making real, objective progress in lowering our intraspecies murder rates and food insecurity through the mitigating tools of civilization, undersells the capacity of both the individual and society to change in significant ways. When one of our vaunted foreign policy gurus proclaims, “We can have no better because of human nature,” I believe they fundamentally misunderstand one of our species’ greatest strengths: malleability.
Taking chances and increasing collaboration, not competing for an esoteric balance of power, is a superior goal for human civilization. Individuals can change and societies do change. Prescribing a single mode of existence for our species isn’t merely wrong-headed and ahistorical, it denies us hope of future progress. But the popular version of realism practiced by the already powerful uses fear and a national media they dominate to warn the masses away from needed systemic change. They’re on the side of the Sun King and the status quo.
Unfortunately, according to my direct observations while working for the US foreign policy establishment, this worldview is nearly ubiquitous. Exacerbating their myopia is the absence of self-reflection and personal accountability, a direct result of a field dominated by competition and sacrifice-obsessed wealthy, white male culture. Violence-forward, inherently exploitative diplomacy, with little-to-no regard for blowback and local self-determination, is what this viewpoint boils down to; with success measured in economic openness and regime malleability.
Not only are viewpoints outside the norm viewed with derision, most foreign policy elites I’ve encountered won’t take the time to use their heralded brainpower to stop to consider ideas they’ve never heard before. They don’t have to. Additionally, if something isn’t written using the language, grammar, and cultural signals of the white upper class, it’s considered poor scholarship and not worth anyone’s time. What results is insular, ivory-tower groupthink that usually ends in vulnerable people somewhere in the world getting killed or exploited either intentionally or on accident.
We now have a synthetic world order cobbled together under unstable and bipolar US leadership, the common argument being that US hegemony increases international stability. This specifically defined stability, created in the post-war system by realist scholars, was seemingly proof enough that chaos would rule if other organizing methods were attempted.
Now, with the rise of Trumpian foreign policy and nativist impulses, that argument is not only obviously mistaken, but the core of their beliefs, that we should consolidate authority and power into a single hegemonic nation, looks foolish and short-sighted. Pax Americana was a wildly narcissistic and unsustainable idea rooted in classic white paternalistic instincts. It’s also self-defeating. By setting yourself up as the world leader and fostering a competitive system, you’re creating a world of enemies for yourself.
Collaboration, while more difficult, reduces the frictions caused by competition and, in the present context of abundant resources, artificial scarcity, instant communication, and accessible international transportation, creates synergistic effects as cultures and ideas are absorbed into one another. It also helps get at humanity’s collective action problem, a devil of an issue we need to figure out if we’re to effectively address the major crisis of our era: our changing climate and the tens of millions of human refugees and countless displaced other species we must find a place for or fight in the coming decades. Instead of assuming the heavy, corrosive mantle of global leadership, we should be one among equals and treat our brothers and sisters around the world accordingly. On this front, our current policies are clearly not serving us well.
Real diplomacy is practiced on the ground, creating relationships between many individuals that interweave together, strengthening the bonds between cultures and national identities.
How do we improve?
It is beyond time our diplomacy was democratized. But what does this mean in practice? First, that we acknowledge and understand that diplomacy is not performed best by a highly-trained cadre of elites who all went to the same prep school. Rather it exists and is performed anywhere and everywhere two disparate individuals or organizations interact. It’s messy, and interactions don’t always leave positive impressions. But when practiced well on a large scale, the net benefit is increased understanding and empathy between populations, lowering the likelihood of, and therefore the need to prepare for, conflict. This circumvents the security dilemma by removing the national government as the focal point of international relations, which has plagued the minds of foreign policy thinkers seeking peace for decades.
With this in mind, we must set about expanding opportunities to strengthen, deepen, and systematically increase the frequency of these interactions. Getting from where we are now to a more peaceful, less caustic world is a multi-generational road, but the following first steps would serve as a strong start:
- Revamp, revitalize, and increase the visibility of the U.S. Peace Corps.
– The current state of this important institution is abysmal. Lack of funding, poor organization, archaic bureaucracy, and lack of vision outside well-intentioned post-imperial ideology stymy what could be a key tool in cultural diplomacy. The specifics of how we fix bureaucracy through cultural and structural change is a long discussion involving organizational psychologists, 360 assessments, flat hierarchies, and other best practice techniques that allow bureaucracies to scale while retaining quality. Suffice it to say the Peace Corps has much room for improvement and would greatly benefit from new ideas and new structure.
- Federal cultural exchange program
– Sending Americans abroad and accepting foreign nationals into the US is vital if we’re to increase international fluency, reduce cross-cultural tension, and equip the US electorate with important skills of the future. Right now the US population is dangerously disconnected from the rest of the world. With a well-funded, well-run federal program that trains Americans in cultural diplomacy and sends them abroad to trade lives with an international equivalent for a year or two, we address that problem head on. Reducing the likelihood of conflict between two nations is all about reducing the frequency and intensity of friction points. Building a large international alumni of exchangers with true personal connections serves as a useful mitigating factor for those frictions. In addition, the diversity this exposes Americans to, both exchangers who live within other cultures and residents who experience other cultures within their world, reduces fear-based voting patterns common within low-information demographics.
- America centers
– The State Department should have non-embassy American education centers in international cities that promote American culture. If we truly represent the diversity, creativity, and dynamism that encapsulates our national culture, the positive narratives write themselves. What this could look like is a welcoming entertainment, recreation, and discussion center where local nationals can stop in to experience US culture first hand. Soft power strategies, like the promotion and funding of local art, facilitation of cross-cultural discussions, hosting local thought leaders, and more can be used in a quasi-official capacity to take the stodginess out of official diplomacy and bring engagements to the average local citizen. This is how we “promote American values” in the world, from the ground up with positive interactions supporting diversity of thought and experience within nations in the same way we support it at home.
How is this paid for? By reducing funding to the number one impediment to diplomacy: our Department of Defense.
Reduce the military to increase peace
As many military professionals will tell you, if the nation continues to ask its military to do everything, we must continually grow funding for the organization. If, however, we were to close down our overseas bases, reduce operations in the blowback-ridden War on Terror to critical security assistance, and end the War on Drugs, we could scale down the organization and move money back into government functions that enable sustainable peace. The point of a military, after all, should be to work itself out of a job.
First, the US Army, my service, should be drastically scaled down. Our Marines should be our primary infantry force, with the US Army managing a small, Special Operations-centric force of under 100,000 personnel capable of rapid, precise deployments around the globe. Personnel cost are the service’s top expense, meaning reducing numbers leads to major cost savings. Our Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard are necessary to ensure the safety of global trade and travel, but our standing, active duty Army is a bloated mess. Each of its many functions, after winnowing down the extensive mission creep of the fear-based Global War on Terror and transferring equipment, could be better performed by the other services, leaving Army command free to specialize and hone a razor-sharp force of highly-trained professionals in a world where scalpels help and sledgehammers destroy.
As State Department funding is increased and Department of Defense funding scaled down, the services would return to their core function: fighting and winning America’s armed conflicts. For too long short-sighted policymakers have put our services in no-win situations on the ground, asking them to invade, secure, stabilize, teach, train, and build cultures and nations. This is not an armed service function and we should never have asked them to spend limited training resources and time adjusting to fit this idea.
To this end, our operations in the Middle East must be dramatically reimagined. Aerial bombings and drone strikes should cease as we refocus on building real, on the ground security. We’ve confused the ability to inflict damage and suffering on a population with progress. This is a false narrative. Throwing lives and dollars into a furnace and hailing the sacrifice as noble is foolish. Claiming that honoring the memory of these lives requires more sacrifices is how elites manipulate nationalism to perpetuate their own interests.
The savings we find as we reduce our wars and our preparation for wars would shift directly to fund the above programs, the diplomatic dividends of which will further reduce the need for a large standing force, freeing up even more funding. This is the opposite of our current model, which sees the military as a larger component of our policy initiatives and budget each year.
Objections of course would come from the scare-monger sector, the same crowd who talked about missile-gaps and mine-shaft gaps and drove the US to waste trillions of dollars creating 66,500 nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Are near-peer adversaries a threat? Yes, but not in the way these thinkers imagine in their balance of power fever-dreams, and not a threat throwing billions at dead-end military budgets will counter. To address Russia and China, the US must influence the world, including the domestic populations of our would-be adversaries, through inspiration, not as the least-bad hypocrite with nuclear weapons.
I’d be dishonest if I didn’t warn that scaling down operations against Violent Extremist Groups will allow breathing room for these organizations to recruit and train for attacks on western soil in the short term. But that’s how blowback works. We were in their countries, we killed their people, and we can never take back our many mistakes. We’ve been placed in this precarious position by self-interested corporate shills manipulating our fears to sell their products and attain lucrative, taxpayer funded contracts.
Either we choose the easy wrong by continuing to expand our military, militarize our diplomacy, and maintain violent status quos in vulnerable regions by keeping our boots on their necks until we bankrupt ourselves, or choose the hard right by accepting the short-term increased risk of terrorist attacks on US soil for the long-term sustainable rewards of a more peaceful, less competitive human population on this planet.
Hatred of the United States Government, not our freedom, not our way of life, not our average life expectancy, happiness index, infant mortality rate, or GDP per capita, but the real, horrible, violent, and dishonorable things the United States Government, and nearly all European governments. have actually done all over the world for centuries is why the west is the target of terrorist attacks. Our continued presence and determination to mold populations in our image will always serve as kerosene for the fires of their hatred. To reduce the flame, we must change the behavior of our government, not strangle populations into submission. Understanding the consequences of our government’s actions, taking power from those who have represented us poorly, and making this hard choice is how we redefine American Exceptionalism.
Leading from the front
As much as the United States likes to view itself as a shining city on a hill, our actions tell a different story. We can change this by leading by example on important changes in international policy. Three ways we could dramatically change the way the world functions would be to focus on ending tax havens, addressing the scourge of multinational corporations exploiting the lax labor laws of one nation to undercut competitors and create monopolies on products, and getting serious about international arms control.
Ending tax havens, which companies and individuals use to reduce the amount of money they contribute back to their societies while systematically underpaying their workers, which forces the state to supplement worker incomes with costly welfare programs, is easier than anyone who benefits wants us to believe. Sanctions on known tax havens, vigorous prosecution of individuals using real estate, art, and other assets to hide their money, changes in laws broadening the definition of tax evasion to include corporate inversions and other accounting tricks, and an international monitoring body created to identify and recommend action would address the trillions of sheltered dollars used to fund anything a small group of self-interested wealthy few choose. These activities range anywhere from donating to charities to funding corrupt regimes or militias.
Beyond tax havens, we can change how we talk about labor exploitation through domestic laws barring multinational corporations from accessing sovereign markets with labor standards the company does not adhere to throughout its entire enterprise. If a company wants access to the market of a developed nation like the United States, they must pay their employees, wherever they are, the wages and benefits of a developed nation. Anything else is exploitative, stifles domestic entrepreneurship, and facilitates too big to fail monopolies.
Our current international economic system exploits labor and developmental differences between nations, creating a false, unsustainable economy. Racing to the bottom by moving operations to the nation with the most favorably negotiated business environment only works in the short term. As convergence theory holds, nations use modern technology and techniques to skip steps of development and raise living standards. As this happens, the global economy, fueled by rich nations buying cheap goods produced by poorly paid workers in poor nations, will crash. It’s better to address this issue now rather than allow it to become a crisis.
Finally, the number of arms the developed world has sold or transferred to the developing world is unforgivable, resulting in 200,000 – 400,000 annual violent deaths on average. AK-47s don’t grow on trees in Africa or the Middle East, yet these regions are flooded with small arms and light weapons. A buyback program instituted by the United States through the United Nations to remove and destroy as much of this weaponry as possible would directly address the ability for groups to inflict and sustain violence. If a nation decides they want to try to game the system and run guns through a buyback country, that is when we stand up and target individuals and organizations breaking international law with sanctions and punishment.
Additionally, a ban on domestic arms manufacturers selling their weaponry to volatile regions and states with porous borders through which arms flow, in conjunction with a buyback, would drain the capacity for mass violence small arms and light weapons facilitate. Arms manufacturers should be held accountable for how their products are used if the organization demonstrates a consistent lack of diligence in their sales practices. If these manufacturers claim the right to create these powerful instruments, they must accept the responsibility that comes with that power. As part of the reparation package the developed world owes the developing world it exploited to acquire its current standard of living, trauma centers and psychological aid initiatives should be implemented to help local populations recover from the cycles of violence to which they’ve been subjected.
By going after tax havens, the global exploitation of labor by multinational corporations, and the proliferation and impact of small arms and light weapons, our foreign policy actions would truly match our values of equality, freedom, and justice for all.
Foreign policy for all
According to the foreign policy establishment, these ideas are unworkable. They might write op-eds decrying the naiveté of foreign policy amateurs who dare to step foot in their hallowed halls. They might pen long reads explaining why an incremental approach crafted by technocrats is the only way to properly interact with the international system. Or they might ignore these ideas, because why should they pay them any attention? But their arguments will fail because they do not respect diversity of thought enough to learn how to listen to people who are not of their class.
Their solutions are non-solutions that will be manipulated and subverted by members of their own group to perpetuate an actively disintegrating status quo, as they always have and always will. A true break from these old strategies is needed and is happening already, whether current elites are on board or not. The smoothness with which we transition depends a great deal on the severity of their recalcitrance.
I’ll end with something a Russian man wrote that changed my life. In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevski writes of a noblewoman visiting an Elder, a special position of respect in Russian monasteries during the 1870’s, when the story is set. The woman, Madame Khokhlakov, asks the Elder for his spiritual opinion on a personal problem. She explains in detail her feelings of loving humanity, but hating the individual. In her mind she would gladly sacrifice everything for the sake of humanity, but can’t bring herself to love individual humans. I believed I felt that way for a great deal of my life. But after finding peace with myself and coming to terms with all the things I’ve seen and done, I know it’s now the opposite for me. I love every individual I meet, but hate humanity for what it’s done to all of the individuals I love.
I’ve never met a bad person. Even when I looked a member of Daesh in the eyes when I was transporting him as a prisoner, I didn’t see evil. I saw a man who’d only known his own way to live. Feeling empathy as we were boarding the back of an airplane together, I asked my interpreter whether he thought this guy’d ever flown before. I was worried he might be very afraid as we lead him blindfolded up a ramp with a jet engine blasting us in the face.
My interpreter replied, “Probably not. Sometimes they get captured on purpose to sleep with a roof over their head and get a hot meal.”
We might have conscious life on this planet, but until we learn how to be humble about it and work together to increase overall well-being, it remains up for debate. A conscious species doesn’t bake the possibility of accidental self-annihilation into its administrative policies, drape it in colorful flags and primal chest-beating, and call it grand strategy. That’s the fatalistic self-destructive impulse of a species lacking perspective. Humanity, in all its highly adaptable glory, can do better. Democratized diplomacy and collaboration are how.