How the left can build a grassroots foreign policy coalition

It is a political truism, often asserted and rarely challenged, that the left has no power in foreign policy.

Left unsaid is that the left’s grassroots organizing is an untapped force, and recognizing this may be the key to creating not only a more just U.S. foreign policy, but to realizing a host of progressive domestic initiatives.

To build a grassroots foreign policy coalition, the left must first learn from the political success of the arena’s most powerful lobbyist: the arms industry.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks at a roll-out ceremony for the first two F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, July 24, 2014. Kendall said the aircraft represents an exponential leap in capability on the cutting edge of technology, and is an integral component of the ongoing U.S. and Australian commitment to stability in the Asia-Pacific region. (Department of Defense)

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks at a roll-out ceremony for the first two F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, July 24, 2014. Kendall said the aircraft represents an exponential leap in capability on the cutting edge of technology, and is an integral component of the ongoing U.S. and Australian commitment to stability in the Asia-Pacific region. (Department of Defense)

How arms contractors convince Congress to redistribute wealth into weapons projects

Lobbying by defense contractors totaled more than $94 million on the federal level in 2018, but the industry also applies pressure from below. While defense contractors employ 736 lobbyists in Washington, they also exert influence when Congress is out-of-session by virtue of their wide political footprint across electoral districts.

Defense contractors maximize their influence by intentionally distributing their assets to ‘touch’ as many congressional districts as possible. As a result, defense industry jobs exist in most political jurisdictions, where they are presented not as the material basis of future warmaking or forward deployments, but as a bread and butter constituent issue.

It is not uncommon to see districts with only a handful of these employees or subcontractors, yet even the smallest of defense-related jobs signal to members of Congress a connection to corporations that shape electoral outcomes by making significant campaign contributions.

Although the federal defense authorization and appropriation process is ostensibly a national policy-making issue with foreign implications, this localization signals that a member faces consequential repercussions for refusing to endorse any proposed increase in military spending. As a result, defense spending to support ‘national security’ is rendered both a national policy issue and a factor in local economic health and a candidate’s electoral vitality. 

Strategies for a progressive foreign policy coalition

Undoing this system may require the left to adopt its tactics. An obvious barrier is that organizations promoting a more progressive American foreign policy are located almost entirely in the District of Columbia and New York. Moreover, these organizations lack the resources to spread geographically to touch most congressional districts, or to offer campaign contribution to challenge defense contractors or pro-war candidates. 

That said, the central challenge for anti-militarists is not that we are unable to remedy the disparity in resources and the political influence of the militarists, it’s that we forget we’re leftists. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign demonstrates, the left is effective by courting the same people it aims to serve – not corporations, but actual people. Progressive power originates in these relationships regardless of whether the person ultimately chooses to express themselves politically by voting or by making a small donation.

Ocasio-Cortez’s primary challenger, Joe Crowley, relied on a rolodex of campaign financiers that featured most of the major defense contractors – and still lost.  Unlike defense contractors, the left is people-centric and organic, and its success does not depend upon the plunder of the United States Treasury by way of lobbying the Congress.

Undoing the defense industry’s grasp on the intersection of the foreign and domestic requires constructing and popularizing an alternate definition of security.  Policies enacted in the name of ‘national security’ are tacitly exempted from normal political considerations of cost, transparency, accountability, return on investment, and human rights. In order to build a grassroots coalition to challenge these faults, two points bear stress to reveal the stake that other progressive grassroots movements have in U.S. foreign and national security policy.

The first method is revealing that national security spending comes at the expense of social spending.  A plethora of grassroots movements and organizations operate in support of some version of universal health care, free education, or initiatives to combat climate change. In the most basic level, these projects are financially compromised given that military spending consumes more than half of U.S. taxpayer discretionary spending.

Furthermore, military spending contributes to the rising national debt, which provides rhetorical cover for challenges to social programs. The deficit is implicitly invoked any time the Left’s desired social projects are subjected to a “How will you pay for it?” line of questioning. National security spending is exempt from this consideration, despite the more real and urgent insecurity produced by lack of healthcare and climate change. Progressive actors must understand this connection. They need not change their organizational priorities, but they must recognize the barrier national security creates to realizing the more livable society they are seeking to create.

The second method is to demonstrate how projecting militarism abroad inevitably circles back to the homeland. This step is less obvious than the first, which was raised most famously in President Eisenhower’s farewell address, and in the “guns vs. butter” paradigm featured in most introductory economics textbooks.

While the trade-off involved in national security spending creates structural insecurity, circularity[1] in militarism produces a more direct threat. This occurs primarily through the militarization of police forces. Military equipment, but also military practices, circle back into local law enforcement agencies and directly endanger U.S. civilians, while such militarization provides no discernible benefit — if not outright institutional harm — to the police forces.

The task for the left, then, is to erase the foreign-domestic divide. Doing so will reveal connections between ostensibly unrelated policy priorities, creating buy-in among seemingly disparate progressive movements. It will also empower a value-based grassroots coalition to challenge the prevailing and flawed conception of national security to replace it with a more real understanding of what justice and equality in security should look like.


[1] The concept of circularity has deep theoretical roots. For example, in Jordan Branch’s historical sociology of the origins of modern statehood, he contests that, contrary to conventional belief, the modern state system was not developed within Europe and subsequently imposed or adopted during European colonialism. Rather, colonialism was part-and-parcel to the development of “exclusive, linearly defined territoriality” (2010, 278). Through a process that Branch labels colonial reflection, characteristics of the modern state system that were first used in colonial areas were then reflected back into European politics, namely territorial statehood and their linear boundaries. 

While “the negotiators at Westphalia felt the need to include a listing of every place, jurisdiction, and right to be granted to one party by the other” (2010, 288), colonial practices in the New World “created a strong impetus toward the use of cartographic territorial exclusivity:  space could only be claimed in such a manner, because there were no known political authorities that could be – and had to be – included in the treaty” (2010, 288).  The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht characterized territorial markings within Europe as just a list of places, “without linear boundaries or cartographic descriptions”, continuous with medieval times (2010, 288).  It wasn’t until a series of treaties later in the 18th century between France and its neighbors that the traditional style of identifying territorial ownership around specific places or centers was eschewed in favor of linear boundaries that France had already imposed on the New World (2010, 289).  In short, the demarcation of Europe along linear ideas of territoriality came to define legitimate political authority only after the practice had occurred during the colonization of the New World (2010, 292).  Anna Stavrianakis (2015) builds on this suggestion by applying it to her analysis of the global flow of military materiel and expertise.  Like Branch, she interprets historical and contemporary politics as a shared story between the Global North and South, thereby encouraging a perspective on militarism that speaks in terms of “feedback loops and mutual constitution” contrary to linear metaphors like ‘transmission’ or ‘diffusion’ that dominate liberal accounts of the spread of military technologies and tactics (2015).

The point of introducing the concept of colonial reflection for our purposes is to recognize that we should be cognizant of what militarized practices occur in purportedly marginal or peripheral regions of the world are circulating back into the jurisdictions of the major powers that initially authorize them.