Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010
Obama and a Foreign Policy of Generosity
by Keith Ellison
Peace be unto you. Good morning, everyone. We have got to get some heart and some feeling into Washington, D.C., and that's one reason it's so important that you are holding the Network of Spiritual Progressives conference here. Our country badly needs your vision and your spiritual and moral energy to help us chart a path based on generosity, inclusion, and love.
The two things I want to talk to you about are where I think we are in our country and where I think we should go.
The Values in the 2008 Election
We are more than a year into the task of overcoming a presidency that was marked by an economic system that rewarded the rich and punished the poor and that took away the rules that were required to restrain runaway capitalism. Where we are is a year into overcoming a pugnacious, assertive, even imperialistic administration that believed that its ability to impose its will through military domination was its moral right. We are a year beyond a mindset that is characterized by fear, by acquisitiveness, and even greed. And we have a decade full of evidence of where those things will land us. Where we are is more than a year beyond a period of time in which Americans said, "You know, we've seen what military domination and the will to dominate will get you: countless Iraqis dead, five thousand Americans dead, billions of dollars of our American money spent, countless diplomatic bridges broken." We've seen deregulation of Wall Street; nonregulation of Wall Street landed us in a financial catastrophe in September 2008, which this country is still trying to inch its way back from. We've seen these things. Where we are is a year-plus beyond that, when Americans came together behind a set of ideas that were marked by diplomacy over military domination; economic responsibility; and environmental stewardship.
Regardless of how you think President Obama is doing, he was successful in his election because he set forth a set of ideas that were in stark rejection of what we saw before. So that's what happened. That's where I think we are. Where we are is more than a year beyond that.
The measuring stick of how we are doing or how this country is doing or how this world is doing is not how Obama is doing. The measuring stick is whether or not we have aligned our ideals of generosity, inclusion, and love with our actions. And the president is not on the top of that—he is a part of our struggle to align our conduct with these ideals. So he should not be the focus of our attention or the focus of our derision or the focus of our adulation. He should be one player on a team designed to create a society based on generosity, inclusion, and love.
Putting Pressure on Obama
So this is what we do: We do not spend all our time beating him up or beating him down, or clapping for him or clapping against him. We spend our time building grassroots solutions that push a way forward that he has to conform to, that he has to get in line with. But we never make it personally about him, because it's not basically up to him.
When we had a movement that was about civil and human rights and dignity, and that movement was strong and that movement was moving forward, even a Republican president, Richard Nixon, had to sign civil rights legislation, environmental protection legislation, and the like. He had to—he had to get up there and talk about empowerment—he had to. Did he believe it? Clearly not, but he had to do it.
What can you and I do with a president whose heart is in the right place but who feels so entangled by divergent forces pulling him in every direction, some of which we know are pernicious and bad. But what can we do if we've created this wave and we have a president who wants to do the right thing? Whose instincts are right but who has bonds on him from the Wall Street types and the militarist types and who isn't clear enough about his own governing philosophy?
Equity in Foreign Relations and Trade
Where I think we should go is to acknowledge, in our conventional conversation, that we depend too much on the military for foreign policy solutions, even though we know the merits and necessity of understanding that America has to be a country where security is important. None of us can say security is not important. We need to define what security is and how we actually secure our country. No security policy position can be premised on military might. It can't happen; it doesn't work like that.
The way it works is that we are a country guided by ideas of equity, generosity, and engagement in our relations with other nations. And those philosophical ideas create safe borders rather than armed ones. And, God willing, one day the border will become an irrelevancy.
It is time for us to answer a critical question: how are we going to shape a progressive foreign policy agenda that provides a framework for the U.S. government in the twenty-first century? It simply is not enough to critique what others have failed to do properly. We have to envision a progressive philosophy of interacting with the world. And I submit to you that we should envision a philosophy based on equity, generosity, and engagement.
Equity: our commitment to equity means that we as progressives have never accepted the notion that it is OK for the powerful to wield power without regard for the needs of other people. As progressives we acknowledge that we are stewards for each other and for future generations. This is why I have introduced and cosponsored legislation at both the micro and macro levels that underscores the need for environmental and social responsibility.
There is one bill that I need you to know that I have been fighting for—a bill for the Global Marshall Plan. A bill for a Global Marshall Plan is about equity. How So? Equity means that when we engage with another country or another portion of the world, we are not looking at how to get the most and give the least. We are not looking at how to get their sugar, how to get their oil, how to get their uranium, how to get their stuff and either give them nothing or give the elites of that country a little bit so they can keep the others in line.
For some of us in the progressive movement, the hair on the back of our neck bristles when we talk about trade. But you and I know that there is nothing wrong with trade in and of itself. Something is wrong when we have the attitude that "my oil is under your sand, so I'm going to get it from you and I'm willing to end your life and ruin your society to do it."
Equity: the idea that we should trade value, things we need for things they need. This the American people will benefit from. Halliburton may not benefit from it, its leaders may not like it, and British Petroleum may not like it. You know Lockheed Martin may not like it; a lot of people may not like it. But you will like it because you will get things you need and other people around the world will get things they need. So we insist in our interactions with other nations, particularly in the commercial area, that we give value for value. We want to drink coffee; we'll pay you for it—no problem. This is the kind of approach we need to infuse into our trade policies. Diplomatically we've got to understand that it is not about imposing our will on other countries through economic warfare, as in all these sanctions that we are so fond of.
Equity has to guide our interactions with the rest of the world. Many of the problems that we are facing today find their roots in colonial relationships that are fundamentally premised on inequity. And the reactions of people in what we used to refer to as "the third world" to the inequity the West tries to impose are sometimes life-enhancing and sometimes ugly and reactive and revenge-oriented. We don't operate on the basis of an illusion that everybody is going to react in the best possible way to the inequity the West tries to impose. What we are seeing in parts of the world that respond to us in a hostile way is a reaction to historical colonial relationships and neocolonial relationships.
When we discuss Iran, we should be discussing what happened in 1953 [when the United States overthrew the democratically elected government that threatened Western oil interests and imposed on Iran a tyrannical government by the Shah]. And that does not require us to say that the oppression of the Green movement in Iran is just fine. We can reject that abuse of human rights [by the current mullahs ruling Iran] as well. But we have to understand that we lit a fuse in 1953 that exploded in 1979 [during the Iranian revolution], and we are dealing with that problem right now. And we have got to set that relationship aright, and you can't tell me that thirty years of not talking and thirty years of sanctions and then a few months of dialogue are going to solve the problem. It is going to take a little longer than that to work out the problem, and we should not allow these neo-cons to abandon dialogue because it didn't work within a finger snap. We gave a long time to hostility and aggression. We didn't give much time to dialogue, and then we set time limits on it. We shouldn't set any time limits on it. And we shouldn't believe that somehow Ahmadinejad is a great moral force in the world. We don't have to say because we made mistakes in the past, that every reaction to them is a positive and good one. We can maintain a certain moral consistency.
The Global Marshall Plan
I need your help on H. Res. 1016, the Global Marshall Plan. The plain fact is that Americans won't feel secure until people in the rest of the world feel like they are getting a fair shake. And this is about equity again. The United States of America, we can do this.
Last year on my trip to the northern region of Kenya, I saw effective health interventions helping people in extremely vulnerable situations. I also found the incredible people of Kenya helping to reduce HIV transmission, improve nutrition, and train midwives. And in Africa I also saw great progress in reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. I visited a town of AIDS orphans and women struggling to care for them. Kenya is a great case study for a smart global health policy, which we need to be in the mix of guiding. Not as charity, but in a way to help elevate the bottom billion or more, so they can interact as peers on a commercial scale with the rest of the world.
This partnership is one example of how you and I can shape our nation's foreign policy. We need to be active and engaged, because the people who don't agree with us are active and engaged, trust me on that. There is no way to improve the life chances of our world's burgeoning youth population that is undereducated, underemployed, and unengaged, without a commitment to equity. So I urge you to help me advance this idea of equity within the context of the Global Marshall Plan.
A Strategy of Generosity and Justice
Second I want to talk to you about generosity. Generosity is an often underutilized concept that is incredibly important. Being generous does not mean you are a sucker, or a spendthrift, or not careful with your money. Being generous originates in the spirit. Generosity of spirit, faith, confidence that there's enough for everybody—we all can eat.
A strategy of generosity demands that we as Americans and as progressives need to be far more inclusive and diverse in our thinking about development. A strategy of generosity needs to be based on the idea that we as humans are part of a web of giving and learning relationships. Taking generosity and justice as guiding principles for our foreign policy means challenging the view that Americans are uniquely entitled to global opportunities and resources. For example, claiming that the oil under the sand that those people over there are sitting on belongs to us. We've got to stop that idea; it's an ugly one.
Why do we insist on believing that those living outside our borders are not OK, not entitled unless they profess the same worldview that we do?
How can we be generous as long as thirty-three cents of every dollar that we pay in federal income taxes goes to pay for war and only one penny is spent on diplomacy and the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are robbing the poor at the same time that we need every dollar just to sustain life and promote justice. A generous, progressive worldview promoting justice accepts that legitimate power and authority must be accountable to community, and the rule of law must matter to the powerful as well as everyone else.
Engagement for a Progressive Foreign Policy
Finally, let me talk about engagement. Progressive foreign policy means engaging with those with whom we disagree, sticking to the hard work at every policy level. President Obama's nuclear summit, I believe, is a symbol and an example of the United States trying to work together with other countries rather than dictating to them. Congress seems to be in a rut of passing resolutions of condemnation, as if the United States had the right to determine right and wrong for the rest of the world. President Obama's commitment to engage in discussions with other countries and pursue areas of concern is something that we as progressives, in my opinion, can and should support. Doing government right is hard work and requires time and commitment. We Americans have grown used to living in a culture where instant gratification comes at the push of a button. But real change, real politics, requires slow negotiation, compromise, grace under pressure, and some old-fashioned stick-to-it.
I look forward to working with you over the long haul to promote equity, generosity, engagement, and pursuit of a progressive foreign policy. But in the meantime I need you to make sure that your member of Congress is a signatory to the Global Marshall Plan. I need you to say that every single one of them needs to get their name on it so that we can really let our action align with our rhetoric.
And I want you to know that Rabbi Lerner, who basically wrote the Global Marshall Plan—all I did was put my name on it and introduce it as a bill—is a fellow who I believe has a lot to say to us, and so I'm very thankful to you, Rabbi. I also wanted to say before I give up the microphone—I'm a Muslim, but to borrow a phrase from the Christian community—that you, Rabbi Lerner, have had to bear the cross. So here's a Muslim telling a Jew he has to bear the cross. Bearing the cross means that because you are walking a righteous path of justice, love, and generosity, there are people who find that incredibly threatening, and along the way they will speak evil of you, they will threaten you, they will threaten your life, and they will make life hard for you. That has been happening to you, Rabbi Lerner. But faith will carry you through, my brother. And I want you to know that your courage and commitment encourage us. The fact is that if you will stand and brave these elements, we will stand with you. God bless you and thank you.
Representative Keith Ellison, (D-Minn.), is serving his second term representing the Fifth District of Minnesota, which consists of Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. He sits on the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees and is a vice chair of the Progressive Caucus.
To join in the campaign for the Global Marshall Plan, click here, download and read it, and then let us know where you live, who your representatives in Congress are, and whether you are willing to reach out to them. If you can't download it, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mailing address, and we will send you a copy.
Source Citation: Ellison, Keith. Obama and a Foreign Policy of Generosity. Tikkun 25(5): 50