Sunday, February 10, 2013

Please give a damn about foreign policy

It’s the economy, stupid.

James Carville’s catchphrase for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, meant to score a win in the US has since then become an excuse not to do things everywhere else.

In the global age, where the great ideological divide is no more, where people and goods flow from country to country without hindrance, it’s all about trade, jobs and the bottom-line.

While this is generally a good thing for democracy, for the well-being of people, for freedom, for growth, the great casualty of this age is a domain which has been practically relinquished to the department of afterthoughts in many Western states: foreign policy.

In electoral races, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, campaigning has been dumbed down to verbal jousting between parties bragging as to which political banner will create more jobs in a 4-year mandate, a catchphrase-hammering strategy that is presumptuous and will likely be erroneous when the end of the term comes 1460 days later.

We have not yet reached the end of History, yet many administrations act like we have. It is a depressing time for Political Science/International Relations majors, as nations recruit economic technocrats to lead their countries’ diplomatic services and to conduct foreign policy on the basis of what can be traded rather than who they are.

Don’t get me wrong. Without the economy going well, decent and influential foreign policy cannot happen. However, the point I am making is that economic benefits should not be the target of all foreign policy decisions, that the greater strategy should involve different values, morals, identities (isn’t that what political parties are supposed to be about anyway?). Perhaps Francis Underwood’s suggested term from the US remake of House of Cards can apply here: trickle-down diplomacy.

For instance, just imagine the economic benefits of peace between Israel and Palestine if the US was going for it full-throttle with partners. Political stability, economic growth, regional cooperation, diminishing foreign aid and military aid to refocus at home, loss of influence of terrorist networks, liberalization of the Middle East, new trade routes and tourism, just to name a few. There are massive economic incentives for a thought-through, strong, coherent, yet open-minded and empathic diplomacy.

In the past, I have worked with a political party in Canada, which I have since left, because they did not take foreign policy seriously. While Canada is not a great power, it can punch above its weight. It only needs to look at Sweden or Norway. It is a member of the G8, and is the founder of the G20 and until recently was a true, reliable ally of the United Nations. But under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, just like my former party, foreign policy is seen as icing on the cake, top-of-the-Maslow-pyramid, would-be-nice-but-we-are-not-important, it-does-not-win-votes concept, which is in fact fueling our “polite and unimportant” image abroad, when in fact, we would have a lot to say, and even more to do.

Having worked in international relations and international development before, I was arguing for the expansion of the G20 to include a foreign ministers’ branch dedicated to working on global security matters. While commuting to work I had often wondered if people knew the things that were going on in the world’s backstage. My answer was: probably not.

Not because they don’t care, but because information is everything, and what is not in front of your eyes does not exist. Foreign policy, conducting war and peace the oldest function of the state, is often guarded jealously by people who seem to stick around forever and are immune to calls for change or scrutiny. They decide how your tax dollars are spent, in foreign aid for economic kickbacks, to sign treaties which will affect how your small businesses work, in propping up governments overseas and conducting covert operations to make other regimes collapse, to equip the military with state-of-the-art tools, and decide who lives and who dies. All of this, millions and billions of dollars in spending, is on your tab. Don’t you think you have the right to have a say?

In order to do so, you have to start giving a damn.

Read. Investigate. Analyze. Organize. Gather the numbers. Petition your government. Demand answers. Hold your elected official’s feet to the flames.

Fascism has been defeated, communism has collapsed, and terrorists are on the run. Yet our world is going through uncharted waters, as East and West look each other in the eye, sometimes still itching to press the big red button. But if you do act, if you start giving a damn, then we might have foreign policies that truly reflect the nature of our world: that most people just want to go on with their lives and have a decent existence.

When you will decide to do so, when you will give a damn, we can let the end of History have its day.