If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it’s that America faces a historic moment of reckoning in its relations with the rest of the world. Two decades of war, an ongoing pandemic, an accelerating climate crisis, a deep economic recession, and the persistence of structural racism all threaten the safety and security of America and the world — and the future of democracy itself.
From the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that recent trends can’t all be laid at the feet of Donald Trump, even if he has eagerly and relentlessly poured gasoline on the fire. Forever wars, police violence, economic inequality, and an inadequate response to the existential threat posed by climate change all predated his rise to power. Until these intertwined challenges are fully addressed, America will remain divided, dysfunctional, and dangerous — to itself and to the rest of the world.
Let’s start with the wars. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, what was initially dubbed the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and later referred to as “Countering Violent Extremism” has cost over $6.4 trillion since 2001, enough to fund a shift towards a renewable energy-based economy that could have created millions of new, well-paying jobs while addressing both climate change and economic inequality.
The economic costs are just one negative aspect of a militarized foreign policy that has set back prospects for genuine global cooperation on issues of common concern and caused over 800,000 deaths, including more than 300,000 civilian deaths. In addition to the thousands who have died, hundreds of thousands of veterans of the post-9/11 wars have suffered severe physical damage, traumatic brain injuries, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The wars have come home in the form of military-grade weaponry transferred by the Pentagon to over 8,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, even as police departments in many jurisdictions have had no qualms—and little accountability—for violently attacking peaceful demonstrators fighting for racial justice. Ending the forever wars was a common rhetorical trope among candidates for the presidency, but concrete plans for doing so have not followed.
It has often and rightly been said that if you want to see what a society values, you should look at how it spends its money. For years the Pentagon and related military activities have accounted for more than half of the discretionary budget of the United States, which includes virtually everything the government does other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—environmental protection, transportation, job training, housing, alternative energy, infrastructure, education, and much more. As the National Priorities Project has noted, counting other activities like incarceration, immigration enforcement, and homeland security brings America’s “militarized budget” to nearly two-thirds of total discretionary spending. This misallocation of resources has undermined efforts to address the country’s most serious challenges and blocked any possibility of building a resilient, sustainable economy that serves the needs of all.
Although new leadership can accomplish a great deal, don’t expect politicians to take the lead in addressing the challenges to our safety, security, and freedom. All of the great shifts in American history—from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to civil rights, to the birth of the modern-day feminist and environmental movements—have been won through the efforts of ordinary people organizing for change on a mass scale. The solution to our most urgent problems will require action at a similar level over a prolonged period. If movements mobilize on a sufficient scale, political leaders will eventually follow. There are already promising building blocks in networks and organizations like the Movement for Black Lives; the Poor People’s Campaign; Color of Change; Dissenters (a diverse youth anti-militarism network); the Sunrise movement; Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, Giffords, the Brady Campaign, and other groups that are working to end gun violence; the Women’s March; immigration reform groups like United We Dream; peace and anti-war groups like Peace Action, Beyond the Bomb, Win Without War, Women’s Action for New Directions and the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and groups focused on political reform and increasing political participation like Indivisible and MoveOn.
The list above is by no means exhaustive, but it offers a cross-section of organizations that can and will be part of building a new, more tolerant and more just society and a more peaceful world. Organizations in the U.S. will need to enhance connections with organizations around the world to most effectively fend off the troubling trends towards autocracy and fascism that reach far beyond U.S. borders, as advocated by groups like MADRE, and by the Institute for Policy Studies as part of its projects like the “pandemic pivot.” One role of progressive think tanks like the one I work at — the Center for International Policy — will be to provide research, policy analysis and proposals, and public education in support of and in dialogue with these growing movements.
This is no time to be sitting on the fence or bemoaning the current state of affairs. It’s time to organize, and to join and support organizations already working to build a better world. That’s the only way to bring about the lasting change that is so desperately needed.