Affluence, violence and U.S. foreign policy

Economic policy as if people mattered

Robert Jensen, professor in the School of Journalism, is an expert on progressive politics, political dissidence and U.S. antiwar activism. He draws on a variety of critical approaches to media and power and addresses issues such as economy and war in ways that go beyond the campaign rhetoric. Most recently, Jensen is the author of "All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice" (Soft Skull Press 2009).

The United States is the most affluent nation in the history of the world.

The United States has the largest military in the history of the world.

Might those two facts be connected? Might that question be relevant in foreign policy debates?

Don't hold your breath waiting for such discussion in the campaigns. Conventional political wisdom says Americans won't reduce consumption and politicians can't challenge the military-industrial complex. Though not everyone shares in that material wealth, the U.S. public seems addicted to affluence or its promise, and discussions of the role of the military are clouded by national mythology about our alleged role as the world's defender of freedom. Business elites who profit handsomely from this arrangement, and fund election campaigns, are quite happy.

There's one word that sums this up: empire. Any meaningful discussion of U.S. foreign policy has to start with the recognition that we are an imperial society. We consume more than our fair share of the world's resources, made possible by global economic dominance backed by our guns.

Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet's largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her book "The Bases of Empire" that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That's in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East, home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.

Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.

In its global policy -- especially in the Middle East -- U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only through invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.

But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren't sustainable. Just as the age of affluence is coming to a close, so is the age of U.S. domination of the world.

That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.

More election posts from Robert Jensen:

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