Foreign Policy & National Security

December 12, 2023: Foreign Policy, Not Propaganda

Posted on December 19, 2023 at 12:00 AM

By Cynthia Efird, Member, Foreign Policy and National Security Task Force

As a long-time foreign policy practitioner and maven, I am saddened that our foreign policy stances are based to such a great extent on political slogans and not real-world facts. As a Democrat, I am particularly concerned that current media coverage is playing into the hands of opportunistic Republican propagandists. Still, I do not suggest that we attempt to match Republican fecklessness. Instead, let us consistently and honestly deal with complexities. Our national security depends on rallying the majority of American voters to reject nonsense and instead to focus on the ongoing U.S. leadership in key areas, which are not always covered in the depth they deserve.

Over the last couple of weeks, almost the only national security issues in the news have been the violence in Israel and Ukraine, Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s begrudging capitulation on releasing senior Defense Department promotions, and the seemingly endless debates on appropriate measures to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. These issues are crucial to our national security and strongly resonate in the U.S. domestic culture wars, which in large part fuel the incessant media coverage. Each political party seeks to benefit by presenting positions that will appeal to its base and (hopefully) create divisions in the other camp. In short, these issues are appealing for domestic political reasons, regardless of the fact that our political divisions ensure that solutions that will actually work in the real world will neither be found nor implemented.

Of course we should support Ukraine with weapons and funding and put Vladimir Putin back into compliance with post-World War II noninterventionist norms. A majority of Americans know that appeasing Putin will lead him to try to take more territory while emboldening China and other revanchist powers. Of course we must provide Israel the support to defend itself while also working to keep it from endangering its own security and the human rights of Palestinians by disproportionate military responses. A majority of Americans want peace in the Middle East, along the lines of a two-state solution. Of course the Pentagon budget must be passed and its leaders supported. A majority of American want reasonable planning and expenditures for security. And of course we must find a way to process legitimate refugees fleeing persecution, to bring in needed foreign workers, while creating and maintaining humane and effective border controls. A majority of Americans would welcome a comprehensive immigration deal.

The Biden administration has shown creativity in proposing next steps in each of these areas. But these reasonable steps have been derided by Republicans who prefer chaos and disruption to progress. To my mind, the calm Democratic response to Republican sloganeering has been the only possible response for a party that wants to achieve results in the real world. Being responsible, however, does not make good copy. Anger and disdain play better, getting more likes in social and other media. Donald Trump is basing his presidential campaign on a promise to act as “dictator for a day,” to build a wall, and to “drill, drill, drill.” His buffoonery evokes cheers from his fanboys.

The Biden administration’s values-based leadership continues to serve U.S. interests best. This December, the U.S. has seen results in its campaigns to strengthen democracy around the world, fight global warming in the face of fossil fuel producers’ opposition, and stand up against Putin’s aggression. The news media finds these positive steps less sensationalist and thus less newsworthy than Trump’s bluster, but Biden understands the need to focus on real next steps to prevent future disasters.

In Europe and elsewhere, right-wing nationalists, empowered in part by Trumpism in the U.S., have tried to disparage democracy and encourage authoritarian efforts to prop up radical populist exclusionary policies. Events during the close of 2023, however, indicate that the authoritarian efforts are stalling. In Poland, the right-wing extremists who tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power failed. On December 11, citizens rented cinemas to watch and cheer as the Polish parliament vote to install Donald Tusk as prime minister, ending eight years of creeping authoritarianism. Biden’s visit to Poland in February and the U.S. offer on September 25, of a rare $2 billion loan to modernize the military of our “stalwart ally” certainly played a role in this movement back to democracy.

Last January, after defeating the right-wing anti-environmentalist and Trump wannabe Jair Bolsonaro, the new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reinstated the Amazon Fund to provide international support for an effective deforestation control policy, with enforcement to preserve the Amazon rainforest. In April, President Biden convened leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate for the fourth time since taking office and announced that the U.S. would provide $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund and $500 million to the Amazon Fund. Since then, other countries have followed the U.S. lead. Switzerland provided $8.4 million and, at the December 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), Norway announced a $50 million donation. Norway said the contribution recognized the 50% drop in the area of the Amazon under deforestation alerts.

COP 28 in Dubai has advanced the international discussion on concrete efforts to stop climate change. For the first time, after three decades of meetings, all 200 nations present agreed to move away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner.” The media throughout the two-week summit had confidently predicted that the talks would fail. But on the day before COP28 was to end, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, and Australia put the summit participants on notice that the original draft statement was too wishy-washy—“a death certificate for small island states,” and one they could not co-sign. The summit went into overtime and, after all-night diplomatic wrangling, agreed on a statement that is far stronger than expected.

After the vote to approve, the U.S. lead negotiator John Kerry—who turned 80 years old during the summit and worked night after night for the deal—jumped to his feet and hugged his Danish colleague. “In a world of Ukraine and Middle East war and all the other challenges of a planet that is foundering, this is a moment where … people have taken individual interests and attempted to define the common good,” he said. “That is hard, it’s the hardest thing in diplomacy, it’s the hardest thing in politics.”

News reports pointed out that the summit resulted in at least $2.1 billion in new funding to reduce climate impacts, especially from agriculture, and to increase help for vulnerable communities. The Associated Press added that COP28 “featured numerous firsts, including forums on health, food production, and philanthropy.” In a significant new development, more than 100 world leaders promised to make their farm and food systems a key part of their plans to fight climate change.

Are these steps forward important? Does it matter that Ukraine is still able to fight for its survival, Poland has returned to democracy, Brazil is once again guarding the Amazon rainforest, and a concrete list of needed steps to stop global warming is now agreed upon? And is it important that in every instance it is

the U.S., under President Biden, that is pushing the democracy, anti-aggression, and global environmental goals forward? Or would it be better for the U.S. to return to a foreign policy that is nothing more than the vanity project of a would-be dictator, designed to do nothing more than generate likes on social media and cheers at rallies. I know where I come down.

It is accepted wisdom that foreign policy achievements do not win elections, while setbacks in the world arena can torpedo an incumbent’s chances of reelection. I hope that all of us who believe that the Democratic Party is the party of mature good governance will remind our friends and neighbors in this election-runup that Trump’s support for authoritarian rulers during his last presidential term led in a direct line to the emboldening of anti-democratic, anti-environmental, and rapacious world leaders. The Biden foreign policy has achieved success in returning the U.S. to its role as responsible leader and has turned the tide toward values-based governance in country after country. We can’t afford a return to a Trump administration. Let’s keep moving forward.

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